Notes From the Margins…

Guyana’s New Beginning

  • May 16, 2015
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Divide-and-rule was always the special hallmark of British imperialism.     It’s a technique that worked well for Britain in its imperial heyday, and which was also brought into play during the ‘end of empire’ twilight,   when successive British governments sought to shape the political arrangments in their colonies in favour of their own geopolitical priorities.

These intentions left a trail of political disasters in their wake, many of which lasted long after the Union Jack had ceased to flutter.     Northern Ireland; the India-Pakistan partition; Kashmir; the Malaysian and Kenyan ’emergencies’; Israel-Palestine: these are just a few of the some of the conflicts and crisies that had their origins in political arrangements designed to suit the colonial power rather than the interests of the people that came under its jurisdiction.

The tiny Caribbean nation of Guyana, formerly British Guiana,   is a lesser-known variant on this less-than-glorious imperial legacy. In the nineteenth century, Britain began shipping large numbers of mostly Indian indentured labourers or ‘coolies’ to take the place of freed African slaves.   Economic competition between these two groups subsequently resulted the political division of the country along racial lines in the runup to independence.

This division was not inevitable. In 1953   the leftist People’s Progressive Party (PPP), under Cheddi Jagan,   won the colony’s first national elections. Unwilling to permit the formation of a ‘communist’ government in the Commonwealth, Britain suspended the Guyanese constitution and sent troops to restore ‘order’ in a typical ’emergency’ response of the period.

Two years later, Britain encouraged Jagan’s former colleague Forbes Burnham to form a new party called the People’s National Congress (PNC), whose membership was mostly Afro-Guyanese.   In doing so, Britain helped exacerbate and formalize Guyana’s racial divisions – the better to manage its post-imperial transition.   In 1961 Cheddi Jagan became chief minister once again, and the following year the CIA, with the collusion of the British,   funded a prolonged national strike which descended into vicious racial clashes.

These manouevres destabilised Jagan’s administration and paved the way for the rise of Forbes Burnham, who was invited by the British to form a government in 1964. In 1966 Guyana became independent.   For the best part of three decades, Burnham used a combination of violence, intimidation, demagogic Third Worldism and rigged elections to neutralise the Indo-Guyanese demographic advantage and keep the PPP excluded from power.

As a result of Burnham’s catastrophic misrule, Guyana experienced a long-drawn-out economic collapse that eventually caused more than half the population to abandon the country. It wasn’t until after Burnham’s death that Cheddi Jagan returned to power in 1992 and inherited a ruined country.

This history is little known; internationally Guyana is generally associated with the Jonestown massacre, insofar as it is known at all.   It’s a country that   nevertheless had a graet personal significance for me.   My family lived there for nine traumatic months between 1966 and 67.     When my mother returned to England with four children, my father remained in Guyana until his death in 1992.     Three years later I returned to Guyana to find out what had happened to him, a journey that became the subject of my book My Father’s House.

My father was a member of the PPP throughout its years of political exile, and he died only months before its electoral victory in 1992.       When I was in Guyana I was conscious that the racial division in Guyanese politics was still very much alive.   The PPP remained the party of the Indo-Guyanese, and the declining PNC had little to offer beyond the posturing racial populism of Burnham’s former sidekick Hamilton Green.

It was obvious, even in 1995, that these divisions was an enormous impediment to national reconstruction, and many Guyanese believed that they still had the potential to turn violent. Since then I have rather fallen out of touch with Guyanese politics beyond the BBC 4 series Trouble in Paradise (2005) which followed Cheddi’s engaging successor Bharat Jagdeo.   The snippets of information that I did come across did not sound good.     The PPP was accused of corruption and nepotism, involvement in organized crime and even running death squads to assassinate its political opponents.

I had no idea how how much of this was true, and a part of me perhaps didn’t want to believe that my father’s old party had undergone such a disastrous moral decline. But then the PPP is a party that demographically speaking, cannot lose elections, and such a position does not necessarily make for honest government.

Shallow students of history, or those who still cling onto the notion that colonialism was essentially a civilising project, will attribute the failure to achieve a post-racial politics to the Guyanese themselves.   But there are innumerable examples of how difficult it is to overcome political and economic divisions that become entrenched on ethnic or racial lines.   As the history of Ireland has shown, such divisions can last not just for decades, but for centuries.

Last week however, Guyana took a historic step towards a different kind of future, when the multi-racial Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change coalition, under the leadership of the former army brigadier and publisher David Granger, defeated the PPP in national elections. by a narrow margin of 206,817 versus 201,457 votes.

The coalition includes former members of Walter Rodney’s Working People Alliance (WPA), which tried to develop a multi-racial opposition to Burnham back in the 1970s, before Rodney’s assassination in 1980.     It also includes the PPP’s former Minister of Information Moses Nagamootoo, a former friend of my father’s with whom I had a boozy run-in back in 1995, who is now the vice-chairman of the coalition.

PPP president Donald Ramotar is contesting the electoral result, for no obvious reason except that he lost, because outside observers, including Jimmy Carter, have insisted that the elections were free and fair.     Ramotar should back off.     His party has been in power for 23 years. That is way too long.   And if I had a bottle of rum in the house, I would raise a toast to Moses and his new party, because this victory may not mean much to the wider world but it is a huge breakthrough for a country so rich in unfulfilled potential,   whose progress has been consistently undermined by the racial divisions that were so cynically manipulated by the former colonial master.

Now Guyana has a chance to overcome these divisions and build a country in which all Guyanese can have the future they deserve, and even though my father was a member of the PPP, that was an outcome that he always wanted, and I suspect that if he was alive he would probably raise a glass in celebration.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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