More than 70 days have passed since Guyana’s 2020 elections and there has yet to be a free, fair, and transparent outcome. The tabulation of the initial electoral votes has come under scrutiny by local and international observer missions, leading to a national recount brokered by a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) high-level delegation composed of prime ministers from the region. With a CARICOM team to lead the observation, the recount is now under way. In addition to local observers and political party agents, the Organization of American States (OAS) has a two-person delegation accompanying the process.
Unlike the March 2 elections, the recount began without the presence of observers from The Carter Center (TCC) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), whose application to return to Guyana has thus far been denied due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The pandemic has not stopped U.S. Senators, Congressmen, and the Department of State from not only maintaining pressure on the Guyanese government to conduct a transparent recount but to also allow U.S. actors to re-enter Guyana to observe the process.
While a U.S. presence, in the form of TCC and IRI observers, would probably be welcomed by many in and out of Guyana, there should be no suggestion that CARICOM and OAS officials are not up to the task. The recount process has left Guyana in a fragile state, and the U.S. needs to be aware that given the circumstances, to ensure the preservation of democracy in the country, they must take a backseat to CARICOM and tread the fine line of observation versus interference.
A complicated and drawn-out recount process
Allegations of irregularities in the recount process made by the participating political parties has resulted in lengthy delays in the daily proceedings. For example, on multiple occasions, political party representatives have alleged that persons who had died prior to the March 2 election had been found to have cast a ballot. In other instances, Guyana’s Elections Commission (GECOM) officials have expressed that ballot boxes should not be opened after 5:30 pm, fearing that the ballots would not be counted before the 7:00 pm cutoff time.
Beyond these tactics, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a genuine cause for delay as well as another obstacle in the recount process. Enforced social distancing has caused complications at workstations, such as the removal of observers and GECOM officials if they show any symptoms of COVID-19, and it has limited the number of people who can partake in the recount. At the same time, GECOM has deferred to the recently created National COVID-19 Task Force on matters related to working hours and conditions, which has only served to delay the process even more.
Patience is key for U.S. officials
As Guyana continues its recount process, U.S. officials have increased their focus on the country’s political situation. The U.S. Department of State has affirmed that it will not accept a Guyanese government that is sworn-in based on an illegitimate election victory. This has been followed by written statements from U.S. Congressmen, urging President David Granger to accept the recount’s results once finalized and to allow the re-entry of officials from TCC and IRI. Further, the State Department’s Director for Caribbean Affairs, Katherine Dueholm, and the U.S. Ambassador to Guyana, Sarah-Ann Lynch, have reiterated the official U.S. position that any Guyanese political leader or electoral official involved in a fraudulent electoral process will be subjected to sanctions.
It is in this space that U.S. officials must tread carefully between interference and observation. Premature pressure and involvement from the United States will provide the losing Guyanese political party an opportunity to petition the recount’s outcome and stretch this crisis further. U.S. officials must understand that mentions of sanctions do little to speed up or ensure a transparent recount. Instead, their words might be interpreted as not only U.S. coercion and interference, but that the U.S. government is in favor of a specific political party.
While the United States has made no overt indication that it favors a specific party, the idea of U.S. interference is a burden it bears given its history of intervention. Instead, the United States needs to remain supportive of the CARICOM team and Guyana’s local observers while at the same time continue to lobby for the involvement of TCC. U.S. officials should remain confident that there are accredited local observers that will hold all political parties accountable to guarantee a transparent recount.
This does not mean TCC and IRI have no place in Guyana, as they both contribute useful expertise toward a democratic electoral process. However, if they are allowed re-entry, their presence must take a backseat to Guyanese local observers and the CARICOM team.
As for Guyana, it will be a grave mistake for the government to not allow, at minimum, TCC officials to re-enter the country. In the eyes of the international community, TCC, as an organization of the United States, provides legitimacy to the electoral process in Guyana. This legitimacy is needed for the future of Guyana’s foreign relations once the recount ends and the COVID-19 pandemic dies down.
Follow CARICOM’s lead
For these reasons, the United States should support CARICOM as the leader of the international observers mission. Not only is the CARICOM team Guyana’s most legitimate international observer but it is also its most invested. CARICOM, as a regional body, binds the Guyanese government and its people to its Caribbean neighbors based on shared histories, values, and culture. While other international observers will leave Guyana once a decision is reached, CARICOM governments will remain observant as they are directly impacted by the actions of Guyana’s future leaders.
In the words of the Barbados Ambassador to the United States and Permanent Representative to the OAS, Noel Lynch, “If democracy fails in any CARICOM country, it fails in the larger Community.” It is for this reason that CARICOM was invited by all participating political parties and was integral to the agreement of the recount.
CARICOM understands that democracy must prevail based on the will of the Guyanese people, and to a larger extent, for the sake of the Community. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic and Guyana’s political situation, there is still optimism about the country’s potential. However, to ensure there is a democratic and transparent national recount, Guyana’s best possible outcome includes a patient United States that will not become too involved too quickly.
Wazim Mowla is a Guyanese American graduate student at American University, a researcher for the African & African Diaspora Studies program at Florida International University, and an intern for the Permanent Mission of Antigua & Barbuda to the United States and the OAS.