Latin America & Caribbean

Guyana deals with aftermath of deadly protests

Burnt out Government Buildings in Linden.
Image caption Several buildings were destroyed during the electricity protests

The fatal shooting by police of three people at a protest over electricity prices in Guyana has reopened historical divisions in the South American nation, reports the BBC's Nick Davis in Georgetown.

James Rutherford holds up an X-ray of the shotgun pellet that is still in his body.

"If they [the police] or the government had talked to people, it wouldn't have happened; it wasn't called for," he says.

An aluminium mine in the town of Linden was at the heart of the protest that ended in tragedy on 18 July.

Image caption Injuries from the July shooting are still being dealt with

There is still plenty of the aluminium ore but with low global demand, the role of mining in the community has declined massively and unemployment is rife.

In the past, the mining operation had its own generators producing surplus energy and a deal was made to sell electricity to locals.

It was supplied at a reduced rate for most and given free to pensioners, as compensation to the community for having a mine on its doorstep.

Over the years, the plant has gone from private ownership to being government-controlled, back to being privately run and has changed hands a number of times - but electricity remained cheap as prices across the country in other poor communities rose.

When the government announced earlier this year that it was scrapping the electricity subsidy, it alarmed everyone in the community.

The national motto of Guyana is One People, One Nation, One Destiny, but this is clearly a nation divided.

The two largest ethnic groups are of South Asian and African descent. The country's politics are split along racial lines with many Indo-Guyanese supporting the governing People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C), the black community supporting the coalition opposition - A Partnership for Local Unity (APNU) - and the Amerindians holding the balance of power.

'People's parliament'

Christopher Ram, an accountant and newspaper columnist with the Stabroek News who looked into the price rises, said scrapping the electricity subsidy would have meant price hikes of between 300% and 800%.

The average residential bill in Guyana is around $40 (£24) a month but with more than 70% of Lindeners out of work and those employed making an average of about $200 a month, people in the town said they couldn't pay and took to the streets.

Linden, with its population mostly from the black community, is the gateway to Guyana's vast and resource-rich interior. When demonstrators blocked the bridge that connects it to the capital Georgetown, that - they say - is when police fired tear gas and shotgun pellets into the crowd.

Image caption People are submitting written evidence at the "people's parliament"

"I'm going to be a pensioner soon, that's why we protested because we can't afford it. I'd be dead if I had to pay that," said one woman.

At a store in town known as the "people's parliament", people were rowdy as they recollected the events back in July.

The shop is more like a community centre, as they waited to give written evidence to the Commission of Inquiry into the killings.

Despite having an office in town, people have been coming to have their testimony written down by APNU supporters, because they say they trust them more.

Jahmake Brummell says he was having a drink when a round hit him.

"We heard the sound and then saw the tear gas so we started running," he said.

"I felt my leg go numb; it felt like it was burning. People were trying to help and the police were shouting: 'Let him die there.'"

Local people angered by the deaths blockaded the town in further protests that lasted a month, almost completely cutting off the south of the country. Vital supplies were unable to get to some Amerindian communities and mining camps in the rainforests.

Nation divided

"The government should have come and sat with people before they made decisions which impacted them politically, economically and socially, that's what led to this situation," said Sharma Solomon, chairman of the regional government.

A team including legal experts from across the Caribbean is part of the Commission of Inquiry looking into the deaths. The electricity price rises and the economic situation in Linden will also be investigated.

Image caption The Commission of Inquiry is looking into all aspects of the case

There are allegations that the situation was whipped up by political parties with the blockades designed to force the government to cut electricity prices and the violence a warning against voting for the opposition.

"There was a frightening of the Indian population over the lawlessness in Linden," said Dr Rupert Roopnaraine, deputy chairman of the APNU.

"They also told the Amerindians that the reason they didn't have gasoline and food was because these people in Linden - read black people - were in effect making their lives miserable."

But the government is adamant that there was no discrimination at the heart of anything it has done.

"We have other parts of the country that are asking us 'why should Linden pay a different rate of electricity to us when the state guarantees equal treatment to all'," said the country's Attorney General Anil Nandlall.

"It's a fallacy that Linden has been discriminated against."

The official inquiry is set to last six weeks. At the Supreme Court in Georgetown, the jurists have started looking over the evidence.

Some people believe the investigation will have lasting benefits.

"The people of Linden entered into negotiations with the government; they got a negotiated settlement to some of their main concerns," said Nigel Hughes from the opposition Alliance for Change (AFC).

"I think in terms of independence and autonomy it's a significant step forward for the region. I'm hopeful this will blossom into an example for the rest of the country to follow."

In Linden the sound of the streets reflected its Caribbean links as reggae could be heard up and down the main street.

There were lots of people on the street, clearly with not much to do.

"It's not that we don't want to pay our bills; we just don't know where we'll get the money," said a female security guard as she kept an eye on the people milling around.

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