By Dr. DHANPAUL NARINE
Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine is a founding member of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). It is a party that included the distinguished Guyanese historian Dr. Walter Rodney, and others.
Dr. Roopnaraine is an eminent scholar and also a keen cricketer. He once took eight wickets in a County game in England where his captain was Mike Brearley. Dr. Roopnaraine stands tall in the world of gourmet cooking. He is known to impress his guests with mouth-watering dishes!
Dr. Roopnaraine was appointed as the Minister of Education, in 2015, in Guyana’s Coalition Government. In this exclusive interview with Dr. Dhanpaul Narine of ‘The West Indian’ Dr. Roopnaraine talks about his resignation from the government and his subsequent change of heart. He also discusses issues that are pertinent to Guyana, including his relationship with Dr. Rodney, Guyana’s state of education, and his vision for the country.
Q: Dr. Roopnaraine, welcome. Why did you resign from the government?
A: I resigned for health reasons.
Q: How did the resignation happen?
A: I wrote to the President asking to be relieved of the Cabinet responsibility for health reasons.
Q: Was it a stressful job?
A: Yes, it was very stressful. Education is one of the most visible Ministries in the country. The eyes of the public are always on it. You had to deal with the students, the condition of the schools, and the administration, among other things. It is one of the biggest Ministries and it has to work and people expect it to work. I devoted a lot of my energy to it.
Q: What are some things that you are happy about?
A: I am pleased that we got rid of corporal punishment. I took it out of the law. This means that we had to strengthen other aspects of the system, like counseling.
Q: What are other aspects that have to be addressed?
A: We have to look at the training of teachers, and the establishing of a counseling secretariat, among others.
Q: You have moved to another Ministry. What will be your new role?
A: I am not sure as yet. My preference would have been to be appointed as the Presidential advisor on Education. But what I would like to do as the Minister of Public Service is to get things moving on some of the reports that have been published on education.
Q: Do you miss being Minister of Education?
A: Yes, I miss it because education is an area in which I have genuine expertise. The first requirement is to understand what is needed in the curriculum and syllabus, among other things.
Q: Since you are no longer the Minister of Education do you still have a handle on what is happening in education?
A: Yes, I am a member of the Cabinet. I am familiar with what is happening in the field.
Q: Let us go back to your resignation. When President Granger called you did he say he was relieving you of the position? Did he give a specific reason?
A: Let us say that the President was concerned about my workload, the amount of work I was carrying. He looked at my health report and he was concerned. We agreed that I needed to find things to do that were less stressful. The President and I go back a long way. We were in the same House in school.
Q: You resigned. The President said that he was not accepting it. Then you withdrew your resignation. What prompted you to withdraw it?
A: The President wanted me to reconsider. I have an appointment to see him to discuss the matter. There is a lot of work to do. The task is great. What we inherited from the PPP was a mess. We have to do a lot of reconstruction in the country.
Q: What do you think the President is looking for you to do?
A: The President wants me to rescind my resignation and to discuss with him how we should proceed.
Q: Let’s say you were to resign, do you foresee complications within the WPA?
A: No, I don’t see any complications. The WPA should be at least responsible, as the President, to my health condition.
Q: Dr. David Hinds, and others, have been saying that this is a demotion for you. How do you respond?
A: I don’t respond to that. David, and the others, are not as attentive to my needs as the President. I have done my work, made my contribution and now I need time for myself. My health comes first. They can call it a demotion if they wish.
Q: Do you see yourself as having a role in government in the future or do you want to quit the whole thing?
A: It’s impossible to quit the whole thing. I do see myself as having a role. I could be a Presidential advisor on education or something similar.
Q: If you had to name three things that you are proud of as Minister of Education, what would they be?
A: Getting rid of corporal punishment is obviously one of them. We made great strides in curriculum development. Pedagogy, and content of courses, have improved. I dealt with the morale of teachers and tried to make the workplace better, especially in the hinterland.
Q: Let’s talk about politics. You have given the most impassioned and articulate speeches about Dr. Walter Rodney. We had the Rodney Commission in Georgetown and you didn’t testify. What was the reason?
A: Well, partly because I felt too close to the events. It was not something I wanted to speak on; I had spoken outside of the Commission about it. I have not emotionally or intellectually come to terms with Rodney’s passing to date. Walter was my friend and June 13th will always be a traumatic date for me.
Q: Was it because you were in the government that prevented you from testifying?
A: Well, that is partly true. I think that the work of the Rodney Commission got done; there were other ways that I contributed to it rather than testifying.
Q: How would you describe the support of the WPA in Guyana?
A: What I think needs to happen is a program of reconnection. We need to hold bottom house meetings from one end of the country to the other, and reconnect with people. We should engage them and get to find out their problems and issues.
Q: How do you see the 2020 elections playing out?
A: The old parties will dominate the scene. They are institutions in the country. I am a strong believer in national unity. All parties will have to work together to bring about this unity. The WPA was supposed to be the third force but it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Q: Is Guyana more polarized now than before?
A: I don’t think so. We have problems but we need to bring all peoples together. Instead of going to Buxton or Annandale separately we need to go to Buxton/Annandale sideline and have both races together, and explain the issues to them. We need to confront the divisions and find a way to bring our country together.
Q: Let us turn to PGO’s, or Persons of Guyanese Origin, what is the government doing to attract the skills that are abroad?
A: The Diaspora, or PGO’s, is an extraordinary source of ideas and talent and we have to arrive at a policy or we would squander the talents of a generation that could be of benefit to Guyana. It’s too important a resource not to exploit.
Q: What advice do you have for the up and coming politicians in Guyana?
A: They have to be attentive to the needs of the people through active engagement. I would like to see more attention being paid to sports and music in schools.
Q: Finally, what would you like your legacy to be?
A: I would like to be remembered as one that made a difference in the lives of children.
By Dr. DHANPAUL NARINE