Hugh Desmond Hoyte
Despite concerns that the country was about to fall into a period of political instability, the transfer of power went smoothly. Vice President Desmond Hoyte became the new executive president and leader of the PNC. Hoyte had served in various government positions after his first election to Parliament in 1968. Following the 1980 election, Hoyte became one of five vice-presidents and a close confidant of President Forbes Burnham. He served as first-vice president and prime minister until becoming president upon the sudden death of Burnham on August 6, 1985. His presidency was marred by disagreement over solving the country's economic problems. Hoyte attempted to restore the country to a path of sustainable economic growth and through policies and measures sought to enhance the lives of the Guyanese nation. Hoyte’s tenure as President was fraught with challenges. He assumed the Presidency in 1985 amidst intense national and global social and economic upheavals. Guyana was reeling from the impact of the global oil crisis and constrained by a crippling external debt burden; internally, there was an acute shortage of foreign exchange; restrictions on importation of food items and a collapse in infrastructure, social services and public utilities. His initial tasks were threefold: to secure authority within the PNC and national government, to take the PNC through the December 1985 elections, and to revitalize the stagnant economy.
Hoyte's first two goals were easily accomplished. The new leader took advantage of factionalism within the PNC to quietly consolidate his authority. The December 1985 elections gave the PNC 79 percent of the vote and forty-two of the fifty-three directly elected seats. Eight of the remaining eleven seats went to the PPP, two went to the UF, and one to the WPA. Charging fraud, the opposition boycotted the December 1986 municipal elections. With no opponents, the PNC won all ninety-one seats in local government.
Revitalizing the economy proved more difficult. As a first step, Hoyte gradually moved to embrace the private sector, recognizing that state control of the economy had failed. Hoyte's administration lifted all curbs on foreign activity and ownership in 1988.
Although the Hoyte government did not completely abandon the authoritarianism of the Burnham regime, it did make certain political reforms. Hoyte abolished overseas voting and the provisions for widespread proxy and postal voting. Independent newspapers were given greater freedom, and political harassment abated considerably. In September 1988, Hoyte visited the United States and became the first Guyanese head of state to meet with his United States counterpart.
As a consequence of intense criticisms which followed the 1985 general elections, the PNC Government led by President Desmond Hoyte instituted reform of the electoral process and relinquished control of the electoral machinery.
By October 1988, Hoyte felt strong enough to make public his break with the policies of the Burnham administration. In a nationally televised address on October 11, he focused Guyana's economic and foreign policies on the West, linking Guyana's future economic development to regional economies and noting that the strengthening of Guyana's relations with the United States was "imperative." While these objectives were in contrast to the policies of the past two decades, it was unclear what the long-term political and economic results would be.
Hoyte accepted the mantle, and given the urgency attached to reactivating the productive sectors and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, he committed to a market-oriented development strategy and deliberately chose the neo-liberalism route crafting a new development thrust called the Economic Recovery Program (ERP), a comprehensive matrix of policies and measures officially initiated in 1989, designed to restore the economic viability of the country; a program which those who would harvest its bumper crops maliciously dubbed Empty Rice Pot. Hoyte layed the foundation of the ERP that propelled Guyana to several years of continuous growth afterwards unmatched by its beneficiaries while in government.
Under the structural adjustment implemented in Guyana, the main measures included devaluation of the exchange rate, price deregulation, wage control in the public sector, increased bank rate and privatization. Undoubtedly, this led to social repercussions in the public sector, and Hoyte mediated a number of initiatives and incentives aimed at reducing the adverse effects of the adjustment measures on vulnerable groups.
In the words of the Executive Director to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the ERP “was radical in its objectives, comprehensive in its scope and courageous in its implementation”. Described by the World Bank as a movement to economic liberalization, the ERP is said to have realized benefits immediately. “Up to 1997, Guyana’s economy grew at an average rate of 7.1 percent and fiscal and external deficits were reduced. State-owned enterprises were privatized, import substitution policies were abolished, and the government increased spending for poverty reduction.”
Hoyte sought to build on the People’s National Congress’ social welfare thrust of the early 1970s to Feed, Clothe and House everyone and to intensify the free education policy from nursery to tertiary in the latter part of that decade, which saw spending in relation to the Gross Domestic Product comparing favorably with its Caricom sisters. (Guyana 5.5%, Barbados 6%; Jamaica 5.4% and Trinidad 5%.
The ERP led Guyana away from a closed society of socialism to that of an open one influenced by the neo-liberal model. Transparency and accountability improved and Guyana welcomed an expansion of its media landscape with the introduction of the Stabroek News and television stations such as (Anthony) Vieira’s, Rex McKay’s and (CN) Sharma’s.
Desmond Hoyte was there to bridge the Presidencies of Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan. Hoyte was in effect a judicious leader, an unsung hero, whose shrewdness, astute political insight and profound concern for the people charted a resolute course to forge a united people with a firm resolve to achieve national development.
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