GUYANA
THE RACE PROBLEM
1965-1992
Part II

THE POST INDEPENDENCE ERA
Alienation and Insurrection

Paul N. Tennassee*


The Peoples National Congress (PNC) and the United Force (UF) formed a coalition government after the 1964 elections. Under Proportional Representation, the Indo-Guyanese supported PPP were effectively outnumbered by the combination of all other racial groups which supported the PNC and UF. Under the leadership of Forbes Burnham and Peter D’Aguiar, Guyana became an independent nation-state in 1966. The coalition represented Afro-Guyanese who voted for the PNC, and Amerindo, Iberio, Sino and Euro-Guyanese who voted for the United Force.

The PNC-UF Coalition disintegrated within three years. No clear-cut policy was developed nor implemented to dismantle institutional racism which was prevalent during colonialism. No systematic effort was made to heal the wounds which were caused by inter-racial conflicts which preceded political independence. The PNC and UF carried out an additional modification of the electoral system by giving Guyanese overseas the right to vote, allowing proxy voting and the padding of voters’ lists.

The 1968 election was fraudulent and in effect was a civilian coup. The PNC declared itself the winner. This set the basis for the establishment of a political dictatorship. By 1969, the PNC had singular control of the government representing mainly Afro-Guyanese. The alienation of all non-Afro-Guyanese racial groups became pronounced and insurrection surfaced among the most discriminated and marginalized of all the racial groups. Andrew Saunders in an article entitled, “Amerindians in Guyana. A minority group in a multi-ethnic society,” summarized the insurrection.

“…On January 2, 1969, an insurrection was attempted in the northern area of the Rupunnuni Savannahs. The Rupununi lies some 250 miles from Georgetown … communication is by air and the area is economically and socially very different from the coast. The majority industry is cattle ranching, carried on in the south by the Rupununi Development Company and in the north by two families of private ranchers, most of whom were white with some Amerindian ancestry. There are approximately 10,000 Amerindians living in scattered villages, their children attending mission schools. Many own a few cattle. Some Amerindians work as ranch hands, while the rest obtain some cash from balata collecting.

The insurrection was organized by a number of private ranchers who believe that Burnham’s government would refuse to renew their grazing rights and they were actively aided by a small number of Amerindians. The rebels killed six persons including five policemen, but failed to prevent news of the insurrection being radioed to Georgetown. A contingent of the Guyana Defense Force was flown to the area and put down the rebellion within two days. Some seventy Amerindians were rumored to have been killed in the suppression… There has been some movement of Guyanese Amerindians into adjacent territories following the suppression of the rebellion and the general behavior of the Guyana Defense Force has further increased bitterness and resentment among the Amerindians population.

The ringleaders of the insurrection fled across the border into Brazil and Venezuela, where they claimed that they had intended to set up an independent Rupununi Republic… The Guyana Government declared the Rupununi restricted and murder charges were brought against fifty-seven persons, twenty-nine of whom obtained asylum in Venezuela or Brazil. The remaining twenty-eight were taken to Georgetown. Charges were withdrawn against eighteen and the remaining ten, who were mostly Amerindians, were later either released or acquitted. In his statement on the revolt, Mr. Burnham accused Venezuela of arming and training the rebels.

The rise of social and political protest and the exposure of fraudulent elections in the international community was an embarrassment for the pro-western Burnham. His “safety valve” was the fact that in the said year 1969, Jagan’s PPP officially joined the international of pro-Moscow Communist Parties. Internationally, this meant that Burnham, even though was described by President Kennedy’s advisor as a “racist, opportunist and demagogue” might have been described as a “son of a bitch”, but he was the “Anglo-American son of a bitch”. He continued to receive heavy doses of western aid. But external support was not enough. Burnham’s PNC had to consolidate its race base and militarize the country in order to hold on to political office. The PNC leadership embarked on a new enterprise in 1970 when they declared the Guyana nation-state the first Cooperative Republic in the world. It was theatrical, but sinister, as consciously, racism was deepened as the dominant ideology. Racism, “an old wine” was put into a “new bottle” and called “new wine”. Cooperativism was a camouflage for racism. In reality, it was an experiment in self destruction not only of Afro-Guyanese, but all Guyanese and Guyana.

THE PNC THESIS
Berbice Rebellion and Coop-Republic
In 1763 at Magdelenburg, African slaves rose up against Dutch imperial rule and successfully established control over Berbice which was a large part of the Dutch colony. Berbice is adjacent to Suriname. Owing to a number of factors, the rebellion was crushed after eleven months of negotiations and battles. The event could be described as a successful slave rebellion. It is one of the most important milestones in Guyanese historical experience. Some academics have highlighted the fact that the event preceded the Haitian revolution and as such, its unique historical importance. For the PNC, in particular, the Berbice rebellion has special significance. P.H. Daly, in a book entitled Revolution to Republic argued that there is a connection between the Berbice rebellion political independence and the Co-op Republic.

P.H. Daly wrote that in order to understand Guyana, one had to come to terms with the historical and psychological facts of the Berbice rebellion. According to Daly, on February 23, 1763 in Berbice, the slaves under the leadership of Cuffy, Akara, Atta and Accabre organized a rebellion and physically overthrew the Dutch-Imperial rule. For 10 months, they held political and military control of Berbice. Owing to conflicts which emerged among the leadership, a military campaign failed and consequently led to the collapse of the rule of ex-slaves and the recapture of Berbice by the Dutch. Daly placed special emphasis on the personality and role of Cuffy whom he described as a warrior-statesman and a psychological strategist. He highlighted Cuffy as a house slave who was submissive for a while, since the latter was influenced and conditioned by an ideological-cultural environment which was patently different from that of a field slave. Cuffy, he summarized, was in the profoundest sense, a Guyanese who had conceived, organized and led a successful struggle, “which today is accepted as the ideological powerhouse of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana.”

Cuffy, the hero was hailed as a man with a sense of compromise, who was resolute and diplomatic. Daly, however, was perturbed by the fact that the rebel leader, in addressing the expelled Dutch Governor Hoogenheim, signed as “Captain Cuffy of Minister Barkey,” and on one occasion, persisted in addressing Hoogenheim as “Your Excellency”. He implicitly recognized that the house-slave mentality still resided in Cuffy’s psyche and personality. Nevertheless, he concluded that Cuffy’s submissiveness was a weapon against the slave masters. Martin Carter, Guyana’s renowned national poet, who joined forces with Burnham in 1966, agreed with Daly in pointing out that in contemporary terms Cuffy’s practice would make him a revolutionary.

In the struggle between the rebels and the Dutch, Cuffy had sought a compromise and proposed that he would lead the free Africans into the jungle should the Dutch allow them to occupy and control part of Berbice. Daly considered such a move by Cuffy as an indication that he had not abandoned all the objectives of the “revolution”. Daly argued that compromise is the essence of statesmanship. Blame for the failure of the rebellion was placed on the laps of the other more militant leaders among the field slaves. Daly insisted that if Cuffy had absolute control at all times, then victory would have been guaranteed. Atta’s, Akara’s and Accabre’s disagreement over Cuffy’s compromising attitude towards the Dutch and their challenge of his leadership was viewed as divisive and lacking in vision. Even though Atta and Accabre met their deaths in open, heroic confrontation with Dutch, Daly was extremely critical of them. All glory and praise were reserved for Cuffy.

Under the theme of “sex in the revolution”, Daly quoted a passage from one of Guyana’s renowned novelist, Edgar Mittleholzer who wrote that Cuffy was guilty of rape. The rebel leader forcefully took one of the white women as his concubine. In Cuffy’s defense, the PNC ideologue argued that rape was used as a means of vengeance and punishment and should be viewed as a “derogatory weapon of the triumphant underdog”. As such, according to Daly, rape was essentially a revolutionary act! (Daly: 1966)

Daly’s interpretation of the Berbice Rebellion was extensively used by the PNC leadership to consolidate politically their racial base and to justify the “making” of a dictatorship. In a speech entitled, “Symbol of Freedom”, delivered at Cuffy’s monument, Forbes Burnham espoused his views on the 1763 rebellion. For him, it was not an “uprising merely, it was not a rebellion, it was the beginning of a revolution which ultimately terminated so far as political independence is concerned on the 26th of May 1966, in our time and age.” He contended that the revolution which was initiated in 1763 was merely checked, when the ex-slaves were defeated by the Dutch. As far as he was concerned, he and the PNC gave continuity to a popular mass struggle of Afro-Guyanese slaves. In the said speech, he touched on several aspects of the rebellion which he found useful and relevant for his “reign over the Guyanese people”. Among the causes of the failure of the rebellion were military and leadership issues, division among Africans and the lack of work discipline.

Burnham, in keeping with Daly’s thesis, attached tremendous importance to the physical aspect of the revolution when he exhorted “for us, I think a number of lessons we may learn from the failure in physical terms of the 1763 revolution.” He blamed the field slaves and focused on one rebel, “Akara who thought he knew more than Cuffy and should be the leader…survived for several months and was the architect, along with his Dutch bosses of the physical defeat of our forefathers in their struggles…he started the division in the ranks; and looking at it from this perspective, was the architect of the physical failure…” In emphasizing the latter point, he argued, “…physical failure was due chiefly to disunity; to those who thought they knew better, to Akara who may be compared with some of our ultra leftist today.”

Burnham used the occasion to swipe also at his middle class supporters and leading advisors whom he referred to as house slaves. In reality, Cuffy was a house slave and Akara, Atta and Accabre were the field slaves. This fact did not detain Burnham as he continued, “then there was the difficulty, as I said the house-slaves who may be compared to our rightists in these days, our so-called middle class whom we have taken out of a colony, but one of whom we have not been able to take the colony… Cuffy…had problems with some of his followers, some of them wanted to spend their time dressed in the fineries in which they had seen their mistresses dressed; and some of them complained that Cuffy made them work harder than the white man made them work…”

In the same speech, he focused on South Africa in an attempt to establish a historical and biological link with the black liberation movement. “The lineal descendants of the Dutch brutes of 1763 against whom the Guyanese slaves had rebelled are today the ones who are oppressing the non-white peoples of Southern Africa...” On the said occasion when Burnham made the speech, a Zimbabwean of moderate leanings shared his platform, and so in supporting another African freedom struggle, he concluded, “think of our comrades in Zimbabwe, whence comes our comrade Sithole, given the worst lands, slaughter, spat upon, the friendless of the earth in their own country…”

Shirley Field-Ridley, a former Minister of Education and wife of a former Vice President Hamilton Green further developed the PNC line on the Berbice Rebellion. In a book entitled Co-op Republic she wrote that in every nation each generation look certainly at its past to identify what is relevant to the future it has planned for itself…in this process, so well begun, we have identified Cuffy, whose memory was almost obliterated as our national hero…he, in fact, was concerned with ending a system which had been dehumanizing his followers and replacing it with what he saw to be disciplined freedom…” Thus, another leading member of the PNC reaffirmed the Daly-Burnham thesis and developed the line of “disciplined freedom”. Field-Ridley’s interpretation of the rebellion was that the masses of ex-slaves misused their freedom. They were not willing to work as strenuously for the “new masters.”

Victim Concept
The PNC leadership misused Guyanese history in another context to deepen the ideology of racism. A victim concept was developed based on a narrow racial perception and interpretation. Viola Burnham, wife of Forbes Burnham and maximum leader of the WRSM (women’s arm of the PNC), on the WRSM anniversary in 1978 delivered a speech in which she emphasized that the PNC intends to “reverse history” by “turning it upside down”. Quite bluntly she informed her followers the “Amerindians used to catch runaway slaves, East Indians came to Guyana and took away the ex-slaves jobs and the Portuguese and Chinese prospered in commerce by robbing and exploiting the Africans.” Afro-Guyanese were therefore a victim of all the racial communities. This victim concept was used overtly and covertly to mobilize political support on a race basis. The Afro-Guyanese community was constantly instilled with the fear that should another racial group succeed in replacing the PNC leaders in government then “we pon top” would be reversed to “them pon top”.

Caribbean/Black Power/Pan Africanism
The PNC leaders reinforced their racist ideology by embracing African causes specifically related to people of African descent. Britain was an important center for West Indian middle class nationalism. Many West Indians who graduated from British universities on return to the Caribbean were enthused with the prospects of a West Indian Federation. The PNC leader who studied in London had a vested interest in seeing Guyana integrated into the English-speaking Caribbean. The Afro-Guyanese are a minority within Guyana, but people of African origin are a majority in the English-speaking Caribbean. The PNC, therefore, supported the West Indian Federation because they assumed that through such a framework, they would be able to acquire more political influence. In fact, one of Burnham’s ambitions was precisely to become the head of such a federation. It should be noted that Guyana did not join the federation in 1958 because Jagan’s PPP viewed the then West Indian leaders as anti-Communist, and the East Indian leaders in the PPP felt that they would loose political office in Guyana if they were part of an Afro-dominated West Indian federation. Burnham’s PNC supported the West Indian Federation and when it failed, Burnham, Barrow and Bird (Guyana/ Barbados/ Antigua) reinitiated the unity process by launching Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA). Burnham’s influence was evident since he succeeded later in obtaining support for Guyana to be the location for CARICOM headquarters. This was promoted as another variable in strengthening the PNC base on race.

The sixties and seventies saw the growth of Pan Africanism and the emergence of the Black Power Movement in North America and the Caribbean. Pan Africanism was a response to what was perceived as the historical underdevelopment of Africa by Europe and the enslavement segregation and discrimination against Africans in the USA. One objective was to establish an independent Africa as a united, economic and political power within the world system. These ideas and dreams were advanced and articulated by fractions of the middle class African nationalists, like Nkrumah and others. The movement since its inception captured the imagination and enlisted recruits among the leadership of African origin in North America and the Caribbean. Over time, the movement was divided along ideological lines between traditionalists and Marxists. The split had repercussions in the Caribbean and North America. The PNC established ties with both the liberation fighters and the traditionalists.

The Black Power Movement in the USA was in response to the racism perpetuated against African Americans and their denial of civil rights in the USA. It was also born out of dissatisfaction with a moderate but progressive leadership inspired fundamentally by Christianity and music of resistance with deep roots in the African culture. Religious radicalism reached its high point in the lives and work of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The PNC had no formal ties with the Black Power Movement in the USA. However, Burnham in speeches often referred to the movement but paid public tribute to Martin Luther King.

Closer at home, the Black Power Movement reached the Caribbean. In 1970, the Ratoon Group, a radical new left organization emerged in Guyana and adopted Black Power as its slogan. The group invited Stokely Carmichael to visit Guyana. At Carmichael’s first public meeting, he defined Black Power as excluding Indo-Guyanese and other oppressed racial groups and classes. As a matter of fact, at one meeting, he casually dismissed the Indo-Guyanese and challenged them to fight for their “own” power. The meeting ended with a walkout of Indo-Guyanese students and the Ratoon Group publicly disassociated itself from Carmichael. I (Paul Tennassee) led that walkout. The Ratoon Group had upheld the definition of Black power which included all oppressed racial groups as was defined by Walter Rodney in Groundings with My Brother. To get Carmichael out of Guyana became a problem. Eric Williams (former Prime Minister) of Trinidad and Tobago had slapped a ban on him in Trinidad. This made it difficult for him to exit from Guyana via Trinidad. The PNC seized the opportunity and embraced Carmichael. They literally became Carmichael’s host and organized various events for him. At one public meeting in Georgetown, while Carmichael was urging his predominantly Afro-Guyanese PNC supporters to fight for Black Power, he was frequently interrupted by the crowds who told him “we pon top”. The PNC used the opportunity to deepen its racist ideology and, in the process, the Caribbean Black Power Movement was distorted in Guyana. Walter Rodney, in Grounding with My Brothers defined Black Power in the Caribbean as embracing all non-whites oppressed racial groups.

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