Voters in Guyana to choose president
By BERT WILKINSON, Associated Press Writer 37 minutes ago
GEORGETOWN, Guyana – Critics accuse Guyana’s government of turning a blind eye to the cocaine flowing through this South American nation to the United States and Europe. But those allegations seemed unlikely to hurt President Bharrat Jagdeo’s chances for re-election Monday.Pre-election surveys showed Jagdeo leading a three-way race for the presidency. Preliminary results were expected Wednesday night, with final results Thursday.
Jagdeo faces a total of nine challengers, and opposition candidates tried to gain mileage during the campaign with allegations that Jagdeo has coddled drug traffickers.
"It has now been firmly established that the legitimate economy is being increasingly displaced by drug money, while the Jagdeo government sits idly by, reaping their own rewards from narco-criminality," said Robert Corbin, Jagdeo’s top challenger, of the People’s National Congress party.
Jagdeo’s government denies the allegations and has appealed for more U.S. help to pinch the flow of drugs coming through Guyana, an Idaho-sized nation surrounded by the Caribbean, Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname.
The State Department, though, says the government of Guyana, a former Dutch and British colony, has granted timber concessions to drug traffickers, allowing them to build outposts and airstrips in the country’s interior.
The U.S. Embassy estimated that narcotics traffickers earn at least $150 million annually, equaling at least 20 percent of Guyana’s gross domestic product.
Meanwhile, Guyana’s legitimate industries such as sugar, bauxite and rice are struggling amid falling world market prices, providing fertile ground for drug trafficking in the nation of 730,000.
There is no evidence that drugs are being produced in Guyana, but it has become a transshipment point, especially for Colombian cocaine bound for the United States and Europe. The drugs are often dropped by air to people on the ground in the jungle-covered interior, where there is no radar and scant police presence.
Former U.S. Ambassador Roland Bullen said shortly before leaving his post in July that Guyanese authorities must show progress before Washington accedes to Jagdeo’s pleas for more aid.
"Resources are success-driven," Bullen said. "And it is demoralizing to see … narco-criminals roam freely."
The U.S. government recently revoked the travel and diplomatic visas of acting national Police Chief Henry Greene, claiming he was profiting from the drug trade. Greene has denied the allegations.
Nearly half a million people were eligible to vote Monday for president and 65 parliament seats.
Polls closed Monday evening, and preliminary results were expected Wednesday night with final results on Thursday. Voter turnout appeared to be above 65 percent based on projections from a small number of districts, said Vishnu Persaud, a spokesman for the elections commission.
The People’s National Congress, with its power base in Guyana’s Afro-Caribbean population, has surged into second place in recent polls, and Jagdeo could lose his parliamentary majority.
Monday was a national holiday to boost voter turnout and reduce the number of people on the streets.
Joyce Wade, 81, said she supports the president and his People’s Progressive Party because she feels they’ll improve Guyana’s economy.
"I want Guyana to be as beautiful as all the other Caribbean countries," Wade said. "I want development."
But Anthony Mason, a 46-year-old accountant, said he was tired of rising crime and corruption and supported the People’s National Congress. "I voted for change," he said.
Fearing a repeat of violence that has accompanied previous elections, shop owners put steel plates on store fronts in Georgetown, the capital. Helmeted police in armored cars patrolled the capital and coastal areas.
Observers reported no major election day problems.
"Everything looks good except for a few kinks that they are working on," said Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary general of the Organization of American States, who was leading the OAS’s observer mission.
Jagdeo’s party is seeking its fourth consecutive term in the presidency. Jagdeo himself served part of one term when President Janet Jagan stepped down for health reasons, then won the 2001 election.
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