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Ronnie Sookhdeo

Murder, violence and corruption

The Burnham road

(March 1981)

From Militant, No. 542, 6 March 1981, p. 10.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the first of two articles, Ronnie Sookhdeo looks at developments in the Caribbean state of Guyana.

“They have lived for these many years by putting on a certain mask, by trying to fool the outside world and even some Guyanese who live right here, with the mask of democratic government, because they have a joke institution called a ‘Parliament’.”

This was the characterisation of Forbes Burnham’s regime in Guyana, a former British colony in South America, made by Doctor Walter Rodney a few months before his brutal murder.

Dr Rodney, a historian of international renown, was the leader of the newly formed radical Working Peoples Alliance (WPA).

The WPA was only formed in 1979 from an amalgam of trade union and oppositional groups but it succeeded in uniting the black and Indian masses against the dictatorial Burnham regime.

It is the fulcrum for all opposition to the Burnham government. The existence of massive corruption, the rigging of the recent December Presidential election and intimidation of all opposition has been confirmed by the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group in a recent report published following a visit to Guyana.

The report points out that some people were declared ineligible to vote “because they were dead”! In previous elections hanged criminals, deceased citizens, children and even horses were counted as valid voters.

This has been accompanied by violence and murder on an unprecedented scale. Burnham has used crazed religious groups like the deceased Jim Jones’ ‘Peoples Temple’ and David Hill’s ‘House of Israel’ to act as strike breakers, to intimidate and to assassinate oppositional figures.

But how is it that Burnham, who declares that his regime is ‘socialist’ and that he is a ‘Marxist-Leninist’, has resorted to such methods to maintain himself in power?

He even describes his position as ‘Burnhamism-Leninism’, and advance on Marxism-Leninism.

Burnham’s People’s National Congress (PNC) was created as a direct result of the aim of imperialism to set the Indian and the black workers and peasants at each others throats as a means of maintaining its hold on Guyana.

Burnham was a leader, together with Cheddi Jagan of the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) until 1961. He split away from the PP because of his own personal ambitions to be top dog.

He was also tempted to take this path by massive financial inducements from imperialism.

The CIA supplied Burnham with a minimum of 250 thousand dollars in 1966 in order to organise a so-called ‘general strike’. This caused over £10 million worth of damage, left 171 dead and hundreds injured, embittered relations between the black and Asian masses and brought down the PPP government.

Capitalist crisis

Burnham, with the help of imperialism and a rigged constitution, was able to ‘win’ subsequent elections and to maintain his position ever since by massive intimidation.

Guyana is a tiny country of no more than ¾ million people, but has huge mineral resources which imperialism relies on. Guyana and Jamaica between them supply 42% of the world’s bauxite, and 90% of the bauxite requirements of the US economy.

Burnham, in the aftermath of his election victory offered imperialism free reign to exploit the resources of Guyana.

However, the crisis of 1973/74, had a devastating effect on the Caribbean and particularly Guyana. Burnham’s reliance on imperialism foundered.

Bauxite companies cut back their production and Burnham imposed higher taxes. The bauxite monopolies countered this by stepping up production in Brazil and Australia in order to undercut the Burnham government’s plans.

The Guyanese government in turn retaliated by nationalising the bauxite companies in August 1974. A year later the sugar industry was nationalised, thus putting 80% of the economy in the hands of the state.

It looked as though Guyana was going to be the first workers’ state on the South American mainland.

However this development was cut across by a number of factors. In the eyes of the Indian masses who form the majority in Guyana, Burnham was associated with discrimination and racial oppression, of corruption, etc. Burnham was therefore incapable of bridging the racial divide.

It is also probable that the Russian bureaucracy; already compelled to pay a heavy price in subsidising Cuba and particularly its sugar industry at a time when sugar prices have collapsed, was none too eager to take on the extra burden of supporting Guyana.

In all probability they were reinforced in their attitude by the Cuban bureaucracy which had traditionally looked towards Cheddi Jagan as a supporter of their policies in Guyana and on the South American mainland.

On the other hand, the PPP of Jagan was incapable of mobilising the black workers who came increasingly into opposition to the Burnham regime.

Burnham turns back to imperialism for support

The collapse of the PPP-inspired sugar strikes in 1977, the feeble and mainly parliamentary opposition to the Burnham regime gradually undermined the support of the PPP not only amongst the black population but increasingly amongst the Indian workers and peasants as well.

In this vacuum we have seen the emergence of the WPA. Its support has grown as the increased mass discontent with the Burnham regime has mushroomed. Because Burnham did not complete the process and establish a workers’ state his regime has been in a cul-de-sac.

He stopped three-quarters of the way towards establishing a workers’ state and, as in Portugal, chaos, mismanagement and enormous social strife resulted.

He therefore turned back to imperialism for support. Between 1976 and 1978 US aid increased from a mere £2 million to £24 million.

Faced with a bankrupt economy, Burnham appealed to the IMP, the world bank, the West German government, etc., to bail him out. This aid was given but of course at a big price to the Guyanese workers and peasants.

The repayment of interest on old loans is higher than the total amount of new loans! Moreover, the IMF demanded a ruthless programme of austerity, which has included a savage wage freeze.

And unlike Jamaica, where the Manley government resisted the pressures of the IMF, Burnham completely capitulated to these demands.

This in turn provoked an enormous wave of strikes, which rocked the Burnham regime.

This meanwhile provoked splits in the PNC and even in the government itself which began to divide into different factions. Divisions also began to appear in the army. Thus, when the army was called on to act as strike breakers in the sugar strike in 1977 the chief of the army vetoed this.

Therefore, Burnham was forced to call on the remnants of Jim Jones’ ‘People’s Temple’ and the ‘House of Israel’ zealots to act as strike breakers.

Increasingly desperate, Burnham resorted to a policy of outright terror against all opposition. This laid the basis for the growth in the support of the WPA.

(Continued next week)

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