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Guyana’s Sugar Strike Shows

Capitalism has nothing to offer

(December 1977)

From Militant, No. 385, 9 December 1977, p. 8.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“South America’s only socialist state is tearing itself apart under the strain of severe economic crisis.” This was the recent comment of The Guardian concerning the tumultuous events which have surrounded the strike of 20,000 sugar workers in Guyana.

It is a measure of the changes which have been wrought in this tiny country of only three quarters of a million population that the capitalist press can refer to it as the “only socialist state” on the continent.

Most of industry – approximately 80% of the economy – has been taken out of the hands of the giant monopolies which once had a stranglehold on the economy and is now in the hands of the state. This is bad enough for British and American imperialism, but to rub salt in the wounds it is Forbes Burnham – their former stooge – who has presided over the expropriation of their assets! How did this situation come about?

Burnham’s Turn

The CIA-backed ‘People’s National Congress’ (PNC) led by Burnham, drawing most of its support from the Negro minority, had come to power in 1964 in a coalition with the reactionary United Force Party. Farcical proportional representation proposals were imposed by the British ruling class, specifically to keep the Moscow-back People’s Progressive Party (PPP) led by Cheddi Jagan from coming to power. The PPP had been victorious in every general election since 1953.

The CIA had also been instrumental in toppling Jagan from power by asserting he was receiving arms from Cuba. They back Burnham to the hilt and supplied the financial backing for a “general strike” which led to rioting and the fall of Jagan.

It is a well documented fact that Burnham maintained his minority government by all manner of electoral frauds – destruction of votes, the use of a huge number of overseas votes including children and nationals from other parts of the West Indies, as well as the “graveyard vote” i.e. individuals who had died but mysteriously still managed to vote! Burnham opened the country to even greater imperialist exploitation with the promise of a chain of foreign owned manufacturing industries and the opening up of the country’s vast mineral and timber resources. The bauxite and sugar monopolies which dominated the country and provided between them most of the government’s revenue promised to embark on a modernisation programme which of course did not materialise.

But the five fold increase in oil prices in 1973 and the economic recession of 1974–75 shook the Burnham government to its foundations. The giant US Reynolds bauxite monopoly reduced production in its Guyanese mines as the market dwindled. They were now in a position to dictate to the government the price of bauxite. Moreover the bauxite industry of Guyana and Jamaica, which accounts for 42% of total world supplies and 90% of US needs, was undermined by the attempts of the mining Corporations to undercut Caribbean prices by buying from Australia and encouraging Brazil to step up production.

Under pressure from the masses and the desperate situation Burnham imposed higher taxes on the bauxite company which responded by withdrawing senior personnel and threatened to cease production. A process similar to the earlier events in Cuba then unfolded. Burnham countered these threats by nationalising the bauxite monopoly in November 1974.

Meanwhile the price of sugar, which had risen spectacularly in 1974, fell dramatically in 1975 as the US and the EEC imposed a 10% sugar levy. Sugar production in Guyana was concentrated in the hands of Booker McConnel, the country’s largest employer and whose interests accounted for 40% of the Gross National Product. With the rocketing of sugar prices Burnham imposed a substantial sugar export levy which netted £21 million in 1974 out of a total company revenue of £48 million.

But severe drought and exceptionally heavy rainfall followed, plunging the country into deeper crisis. Booker’s profits also dropped and thereby the government’s revenue. Burnham stepped in and nationalised the company – with generous compensation – in May 1976. Alarm bells then began to ring in Washington and London not to say in the neighbouring capitalist regimes, in particular of Brazil and Venezuela. The panic rose to new heights with the granting of refuelling rights for Cuban troops on their way to Angola.

CIA “destabilising” methods were then stepped up against Burnham – their former client! Embassies in Trinidad and Barbados were bombed and timber mills and rice factories were set ablaze. The ruthless lengths to which capitalists are prepared to go in order to defend their profits and privileges – including intimidation and mass murder – were starkly revealed in all their horror last year when a Cuban airliner carrying 73 people – 11 of them Guyanese – was blown up in flight by the CIA. Encouraged by a smear campaign – that 2,000 Cuban and Chinese troops were running the paramilitary training camps – Venezuela and Brazil launched a series of provocative border incidents and were toying with the idea of action to crush the Guyanese regime.

Threat of Reaction

Undoubtedly most of the assets of imperialism and native capitalism have been nationalised in Guyana. Even the Guardian reporter comments on the absence of “capitalist forces” within the country capable of organising a counter-revolution.

But the racial divisions and the absence of a clear Marxist leadership capable of cementing unity amongst the Negro and Indian masses, together with the absence of workers’ democracy and a plan of production has resulted in chaos in the country. The example of Portugal has shown that even where the bulk of the economy has been taken over by the State without democratic control and a socialist plan of production the establishment of a workers’ state cannot be assured. On the contrary counter-revolution is provided with fertile ground on which to grow.

The sugar workers’ strike highlights the dangers. The strike, which is now in its 14th week, began after the government’s rejection of a £50 million profit sharing scheme which had been approved earlier. The pay of the sugar workers – mostly of Indian origin – is only half that of their counterparts in the rest of the Caribbean. Their discontent is indicated by the figures of strikes between 1973 and 1976: 416 strikes with the loss of 1,424,000 man days!

The government reacted viciously to the strike drafting in 6,000 strike breakers. This in turn led to sympathy strikes of the bauxite workers and, more importantly, the powerful and radical Trinidad oil workers who have imposed a ban on fuel shipments to the country.

These events demonstrate on the one side that capitalism is incapable of showing a way forward in a backward country like Guyana. The pressure of the situation compelled Burnham to expropriate imperialist concerns and declare himself a “Marxist”. But without a programme capable of uniting the masses turmoil and enormous instability is inevitable.

American imperialism is trying to tempt Burnham to abandon its move towards a planned economy and open up the country to capitalism. Yet concessions to capitalist firms would do nothing to solve the colossal problems of Guyana. Even if a planned economy is consolidated, without the check of workers’ democracy the growth of a bureaucratic elite with power concentrated in its hands is inevitable. Only a genuine democratic workers’ state with complete nationalisation of the remaining big firms can eliminate the wanton bureaucracy and chaos that is presently stultifying the economy.

A plan of production and the introduction of workers’ and small farmers’ councils, management of the economy with democratic election of all officials, right of recall with regular rotation and controlled wage differentials will not only abolish the racial divisions but set the basis for a driver for better living standards in the area and give a push to the establishment of a Socialist Federation of the West Indies.

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