Guyanese MP flees to Toronto after receiving death threats for voting against his own government
Guyanese-Canadian Charrandas Persaud says he was threatened with death after no-confidence vote
Charrandas Persaud has been trying to keep a low profile in Toronto. But it's tough.
Everywhere he goes, folks in the Guyanese community either want to shake his hand and take a photo with him, or tell him he's a traitor to his country.
In fact, Persaud may very well be the most recognized and talked about man among Guyanese everywhere right now.
The Canadian was serving as a member of parliament in Guyana, an English-speaking country just east of Venezuela, until shortly before Christmas.
On Dec. 21, the MP set off a political firestorm when he made the unprecedented move of voting against his own government in a no-confidence motion tabled by the opposition, effectively triggering an early election.
The reaction that ensued speaks for itself:
After the confusion died down, the vote was conducted again. Persaud's response: "Yes. Yes. Yes."
The 66-year-old said he made the move because he believes the government hasn't been focusing on developing the country or creating jobs.
But because the government — a coalition between A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance for Change (AFC) — won the 2015 election by just one seat, Persaud's vote in the no-confidence motion tabled by the opposing People's Progressive Party (PPP) passed by a margin of 33-32.
"I was not very calm," said Persaud, who was elected as an AFC MP. "I was frozen."
'It was not an idle threat'
Persaud, who was expelled from his party over his vote, said he was terrified for his own safety because of Guyana's history of political assassinations. Because of that, he said the only person he talked to about his intention was the man he asked to provide some security for him in the gallery in case he was "jumped."
"I cried all night [the night before the vote]," he said, thinking he would die.
That feeling only got stronger after the vote when he said another MP told him he would be dead that night.
"It was not an idle threat I entertained."
Persaud said he was even prepared to use his water carafe as a weapon should he be attacked. He said he was lucky nothing happened, adding that modern technology probably saved him.
"Thank God for the advent of cellphones. Too many people were watching internationally and locally."
He didn't take any chances, though. After the sitting, Persaud went directly to the Canadian High Commission in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana.
The next morning, he flew to Barbados and then on to Toronto.
'Everyone knows me'
Persaud is no stranger to Canada's largest city. He moved to Canada from Guyana in the late 1970s and studied at the University of Toronto, eventually getting his real estate licence. He went back Guyana in 1999 to practise law and eventually got into politics.
He's now returning to Canada, not as a political backbencher, but as the most talked-about politician of the day. Guyanese Canadians all know him, whether they like him or not.
"My face is something I cannot hide anymore," he said. "Everyone knows me."
In fact, Persaud's actions that day in Parliament sparked a fierce debate in Toronto's Guyanese community, and ignited political tension steeped in longstanding racial divisions.
Many Indo-Guyanese, who form the majority of MPs in the opposition PPP, support Persaud's vote, while many of the Afro-Guyanese population condemn it. That conversation is buzzing through the Guyanese-Canadian community.
"The diaspora is as divided as the country, as the folks in Guyana, in terms of race, in terms of politics," said Derick Ackloo, a friend and supporter of Persaud.
"But, I believe what he did was from the heart."
Others, including Carwyn Holland, a former Guyanese mayor and current president of the Guyana Association of Municipalities, have major concerns.
He likened the vote to a "bloodless coup."
"I believe the party leaders were betrayed, the Parliament was betrayed and I believe that the people of Guyana were betrayed," he said.
Persaud said he's disappointed in the performance of his government but Holland argues the APNU-AFC has been effectively delivering services across the country.
Holland said there are international ramifications if other countries see political tension as a way to capitalize on oil reserves that Exxon Mobil started finding there in 2015. Those reserves have been making headlines around the world in recent months as oil giant Exxon increased estimates around the size and potential value of the find.
"Many persons want to get their hands on it, and I believe this is an opportune time for them to get involved," he said.
Persaud, meanwhile, is waiting for the election and the subsequent results to map out his next steps. There's no timeline because the government filed a court action challenging the no-confidence vote count.
He's not ruling out making a return trip, and possibly forming his own political party once the heat dies down a bit.
As he waits in Toronto, he said he doesn't regret what he did.
"I had to speak out."