Monday, July 22, 2013
Forbes Burnham - Guyana Under Siege, by Rakesh Rampertab
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See Image Pages (of Forbes Burnham) compiled by Guyanaundersiege.com
Forbes Burnham as Prime Minister of Guyana.
Some individuals make for difficult subjects to write on. Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham is such a person. He is either well admired or passionately despised. Either way, or altogether, he remains, unquestionably, one of the Caribbean’s most controversial personalities of the twentieth century. Forbes Burnham was born on February 20, 1923, in Kitty, Georgetown, one of three children born to poor but strict parents. He received his early education from his father who was the headmaster of a Methodist Primary school.
At eleven, young Burnham began his secondary education at Central High School, and remained there briefly before going to the colony’s elite Queen’s College (QC), where his academic brilliance earned him at least two internal scholarships with which he paid for the remaining years of secondary education, his family unable to afford the fees. Described in his school report as a “diligent and studious” student and a “natural leader,” Burnham wins the prestigious Guiana Scholarship in 1942, as the colony’s top student.
Delayed by World War II in Europe, he completed a Bachelor’s Degree externally, and taught both at a private secondary school and as an assistant master at his alma mater. Guyana’s premier poet-revolutionary, Martin Carter, a close friend of Burnham (QC days) under whom he served as a minister, wrote an impressive forward to Burnham’s collection of speeches, A Destiny to Mould (1970), noting that Burnham was “acceptably the most intellectually gifted of the masters at Queen’s College.” Burnham arrived in England in 1945 and attended London University where, as the best debater, he won the Best Speaker’s Cup of the Laws Faculty. Two years thereafter, he received an LL.B. (Hons.). In 1948 he was called to the Bar Gray’s Inn. In London, he became involved in students’ activities, a platform used then for colonials’ call for “self-rule,” and joined other activities such as those held by the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP). As the President of the West Indies Student’s Union in 1947, Burnham led its Delegation to the World Youth Festival in Czechoslovakia.
Back home in 1949, a qualified professional with some grass-root political exposure, he established a private practice and plunged into local politics, joining Dr. Jagan’s Political Affairs Committee (PAC), which became the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) shortly thereafter, due to Burnham’s suggestion. Burnham joined the British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU), the oldest union in the British Commonwealth which held considerable de facto power in the colony, and by 1952, his growing reputation made him the union’s president, a position he would not relinquished two decades later. “It is impossible,” he said in 1969, addressing the Fourth Caribbean Congress of Labour, “for a trade union to have any vitality and play its proper role in the scheme of things in the context of developing nations unless it takes an intelligent interest in politics.”
Burnham is one of those people who were fortunate to recognize a destiny. According to his sister Jesse Burnham who distributed a provocative pamphlet, warning against her brother, “Beware of my Brother Forbes,” young Burnham’s ambitious list of goals includes becoming mayor of Georgetown, chief justice, prime minister, and the non-existing position of prime minister of the West Indies, reflecting the canvassing nature of his political inclination. Busy with studies in London, Burnham maintains contact with home activities via letters to his mother, one that expresses his disapproval of the rise of Indians in commercial Georgetown; “I feel strongly about the Indian attitude but the time has not come for me to broadcast these feelings and muddy my waters after all…”
In 1952, as President of the BGLU and a senior member of the PPP, Burnham began his grapple for political leadership. Popular in Georgetown, he convinced Dr. Jagan that the PPP congress should be held in the city instead of Jagan’s stronghold Berbice, with a members’ instead of a delegates’ voting session. Although his supporters outnumbered the delegates, his intention to outvote Jagan failed when Sydney King (Eusi Kwayana), a senior and popular Black PPP member, realizing Burnham’s objective, objected strongly in a passionate speech against Burnham’s wishes. Protesting that he should be “leader or nothing,” Burnham settled for chairmanship in place of the previously favored Aston Chase, who was regarded as less “educated.” After the PPP won the general elections in 1953, Burnham became the minister of education. Jai Narine Singh is included on the legislative team in place of Janet Jagan who is dropped to accommodate Burnham’s request. When the PPP is removed from office after 133 days, and the constitution suspended by the British, and PPP officials (Jagan included but not Burnham) are jailed on technicalities, Burnham again seized the opportunity to become party head.
With many PPP officials still imprisoned in 1955, Burnham and others weary of Jagan’s communist leaning, jointly called for another congress in Georgetown. Upon his release, Jagan agreed to a meeting but one in which no motions were to be made. However, when one of Burnham’s supporters motioned that all rules be ignored, Burnham (chairman) recognized the motion. Consequently, the Jagans walked out denouncing the motion as a vote of no confidence. Nevertheless, Burnham assumed his victory and declared himself party leader. For the first and only time, the PPP headed into the general elections (1957) as two separate factions, each with a version of the Thunder, the PPP newspaper. The one headed by Burnham was called the PPP Burnham Faction.
Defeated in the elections, Burnham disappeared from public politics, appearing in court where he developed a formidable reputation between 1957 and 1959. In 1959, he was elected President of the British Guiana Bar Association and the following year, became a Queen’s Counsel. When Burnham returned to the political scene in 1958, his PPP was revitalized under its new name, the People National Congress (PNC). Dr. J.P. Latchmansingh and Jai Narine Singh as chairman and party secretary respectively, represented the crux of the PNC’s Indian minority. By 1960, the PNC had become essentially a “Black” organization with Latchmansingh dead, and Jai Narine Singh forced to resign after publishing a memorandum (against party rules) criticizing the PNC’s “Africanisation.” Burnham, Singh wrote, had become a man whose “head has grown too big for his hat.”
Under Burnham, the PNC entered its first general elections in 1961, as did the United Force, led by the colony’s leading entrepreneur, Peter D’Aguiar. This third consecutive elections victory for the PPP convinced Burnham that the PPP was unbeatable unless his strategies changed. He appealed to his constituents intensely, suggesting that a PPP government meant an “Indian” government (and “Indian racial victory”) and the destined subjugation of Blacks. He intensified his campaign to change the voting system. Desperate to remove the “communist” Jagan from power, the British acquiesced, replacing the “first-past-the-post” method with proportional representations (PR) for the 1964 elections. Under PR, despite increasing its share of total vote cast, the PPP won fewer seats than it had previously. Thus, Burnham became prime minister in 1964 through the PNC/UF coalition which resulted in more seats than the PPP’s 24.
The period of 1961 to 1964 is extremely critical because it involved the orchestration of the demise of the PPP by Burnham. He led the public servants in crippling strikes against the government (1962 Kalder Budget and 1963 Labour Relations Bill). Instead of exhausting the parliamentary process, Burnham took central issues to the streets, making it difficult for Jagan to rule via parliamentary democracy. As president of the Guyana Labour Union, Burnham did not object to CIA involvement in local union activities (financing strikes and striking workers’ wages), which helped deteriorate PPP’s image in London and Washington. The violence culminated in the racial and communal violence of 1964 between Indians and Blacks, leaving at least 170 dead, thousands injured, and more than 1,000 homes destroyed. Dispossession of thousands led to the establishment of today’s “squatting areas,” as people moved to neighborhood dominated by their own race.
Leading from the streets, Burnham challenged his supporters through racial fears, reinforcing their sense of “power,” saying, “In fact, comrades, you do not realise your power, but I do not want you to use your power recklessly.” By mid-year of 1963, PNC’s campaign of violence reached government officials (Senator Christian Ramjattan was attacked and hospitalized) and buildings. Some foreign ships (Cuban tanker, m.v. Cuba) also became targets for sabotage. Horrified with his party’s campaign, Dr. D.J. Taitt, a founding member of the PNC, accused Burnham of leading its members into a “blind alley of improvised tribalism at variance with the economic and social realities of the two major ethic groups of our country…”
At Bourda Green, in May, 1963, Burnham suggests that the PPP plans to form “an authoritarian regime” in the Legislature, and if such occurs, then “there would have to be a shifting of the scene of agitation and opposition from the Legislature to the places where they grow rice.” A message loaded with racial overtones, “rice,” of course, symbolizes Indian-populated districts. Despite the discovery by the police of plan X13, an insurrectionary plot to overthrow the PPP by force and national instability, as well as arms, ammunition, chemicals for bomb making, etc. at Congress Place, the PNC headquarters, Burnham’s rhetoric about violence intensifies, suggesting that the “PPP plan violence and propose to execute violence,” and thus, his supporters “must be in a position to apply the remedy.” Thus, when asked why he refused to travel in Georgetown and assist in the arrest of the disturbances (asked by Governor), his response was that “we were very short on petrol and we felt that if we went around Georgetown using up this petrol…we would have no petrol for the vehicles to carry out Party work.”
He aligned with leaders he once regarded as “traitors”(e.g., Lionel Luckhoo and businessman John Fernandes who supported the suspension of the constitution), in their anti-PPP attacks. Regarding the racial zeitgeist, the Commonwealth Commission of 1962 (reviewed role of CIA), noted that the “political professions of the PNC were somewhat vague and amorphous. There was a tendency to give a racial tinge to its policy. Mr. Burnham expressed the opinion that it was Dr. Jagan who was responsible for this unfortunate development. We do not, however, think that there is much substance in the contention of Mr. Burnham and it seems to us that whatever racial differences existed were brought about by political propaganda.” And “political propaganda” became instrumental in Burnham’s campaign theme for the 1964 elections, called the “New Road.”
It is not surprising that a few months after the Wismar massacre, in which a majority Black population engaged in an orgy of violence, including rape and murder, against the small Indian community there, Burnham appealed to Indians in his first radio broadcast after assuming office; “We wish to let our Indian citizens know therefore that they can depend on this government as they could not upon the previous administration for justice and fairplay, peace and security, ordered progress and economic advance.” However, whatever confidence existed amongst Indians for Burnham from the early days of the PPP had been dissolved entirely by this tragedy.
On one critical issue, the right to self-rule—Forbes Burnham must be credited for his continual and emphatic efforts toward this end. Despite advocating that the PPP and PNC can never form a coalition government, Burnham announced that he would have supported whichever party won the 1964 elections, in the fight for independence. Some PNC members protested, particularly Sydney King (by now a PNC member), who resigned the day before the elections. A Guyana under Jagan, arguably, was an easier target to usurp than one governed from London. In 1966, the year that Burnham eventually received the instruments of independence, he created the National Security Act, giving the police sweeping powers to search, seize, and arrest at its will. For the 1968 general elections, he introduced the “overseas vote” which was used heavily to rig the elections. By the end of the sixties, he turned opinions in the West by establishing ties with China and the Eastern Bloc, essentially communist and socialist nations.
The 1970s belonged essentially to Forbes Burnham. It is in this era, the most important in the history of Independence Guyana, that Burnham became transformed from the “intellectually gifted” and cunning politician into the pragmatic but overtly vainglory national leader. No English-speaking Caribbean personality wielded more power over a section of the region, as nationalization of assets, extensive electoral fraud, political repression, party paramountcy, cult activities, IMF/World Bank intervention, mass migration, and Burnham’s own “cooperative socialism” all became tenets of a political landscape substantially reflecting the leader’s dreams.
Burnham was not disillusioned, nor was his plans altogether impractical. In 1970, Guyana became the world’s first Cooperative Republic by ceasing ties with Britain, thus, replacing the Governor General with an Executive President. The Guyana National Cooperative Bank was opened to help finance “cooperative” ventures in particular, such as the Sanata Textile Mill, the hydroelectric plant on the Mazaruni River, and the Yarokabra Glass Factory at Timehri. The “cooperative” Burnham tells us, is to be the “principal instrument for achieving socialism…making the small man the real man.” Under this theory, the “cooperative sector” is to be the “dominant sector.” He imported a successful economic model of production used in Puerto Rico, and began nationalizing companies with heavy foreign interest, such as the Demerara Bauxite Company (DEMBA), a subsidiary of the Canadian bauxite company, ALCAN. The massive sugar industry was nationalized in 1975. An External Trade Bureau (ETB) was established to monitor imports and exports. All seemed well for the citizens.
Under Burnham, Guyana’s status in international affairs even elevated. World recognized leaders such as Indira Gandhi and Fidel Castro visited Guyana. Burnham hosted the first Caribbean Festival of the Arts (CARIFESTA) (1970), importing fleets of luxurious cars as part of the grand arrangement for the historic occasion (“Festival City”). A key person behind the formation of CARICOM in 1973 is Burnham, who had also played host to the Conference of Foreign Ministers of Nonaligned Countries in 1972. That same year, relationship with Cuba was reinstated. Later in the decade, Burnham allowed the Cuban Army to use Guyana as a transit point on its way to Angola, a polemic move since Barbados had withdrawn its support (due to US protest), and Trinidad announced that it would not honor such a request if it were made. Unquestionably, Burnham’s image was greatly improved, especially in Cuba, Eastern Europe, and in the West Indies.
Setting out to realize his “co-operative” socialist revolution, Burnham gathered technocrats and skilled intellectuals par excellence to his ranks. Vincent Teekah, former senior PPP member, defected to become a minister under Burnham (Teekah was mysteriously murdered in his car). Another Indian intellectual, Shridath Ramphal, was attorney general before becoming General Secretariat for the Commonwealth, a position used to cushioned Burnham’s messages. The military expanded as defense allocation increased from $8.76 million in 1973 to $48.72 million in 1976 (500% increase). The Guyana National Service (GNS) (1974) and the Guyana People’s Militia (1976) began. Having established the 1763 Monument, a key national symbol with which primarily Blacks align, Burnham ordered and partook in the supervision of the construction of the Enmore Martyrs Monument in 1976. Long told by Burnham that this progressive “cooperative socialism” would “feed, house and clothe” Guyana by that same year, Guyanese, it seemed, had good hopes.
But Burnham’s agenda was, from the inception, overloaded with much of his own will, and by the end of the seventies; his dream had became a colossal nightmare. His 1973 elections campaign began unofficially with the seizing of paper stock from the PPP organ, Mirror. Days before the July elections, the government announced that ballots will be transported for their “protection,” by the armed forces and government bodies to army headquarters at Thomas Lands, Georgetown. They remained there for more than twenty-four hours. Two PPP supporters, Jagat Ramesar (17) and Jack Parmanand (35), in an attempt to prevent the seizure of ballot boxes, are shot and killed in Corentyne. While the police harassed and intimidated Indian voters outside, PNC party members and government officials at the polling stations employed technicalities to curtail the PPP vote.
Despite the rigging, Burnham declared 1973 as the “year of the breakthrough,” claiming that the PNC won the “Indian” vote in Berbice. He also proclaimed the birth of the New Guyana Man. Back in office, the “Founder Leader” crystallized his paramount presence in his “Declaration of Sophia” (1974) speech, in which he declared that the PNC “party should assume apologetically its paramountcy over the government which is merely one of its executive arms.” Consequently, the government created the Office of the General Secretary of the PNC and the Ministry of National Development (OGSMND) (1975), which, as the name suggests, became a conduit between the PNC party and the PNC government, making government business and resources those of the PNC party. A party card became essential for access to social benefits, civil service positions, contracts, and such things as business permits. By the mid seventies, an estimated 80% of the economy fell under the eyes of the PNC government whose workforce more than doubled since 1964, becoming replete with PNC party members (replacing the “old guard”).
Burnham (third from left) as part of the PPP cabinet in 1953. Third from right is Jagan.
by Rakesh Rampertab
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THE judicial system also became replete with PNC sympathizers and members and as early as 1968, those who did not approve of Burnham were quietly forced to practice the legal professions in other countries. One such person was J.A. Luckhoo Jr. (the first Guyanese to hold the post of Chief Justice, 1960). It was also necessary for the head of the judicial system, or attorney general, to favor Burnham’s opinions. The PNC presence in the judicial system was confirmed by the flying of the party flag on the Court of Appeals building. This presence also stretched itself over to the media and unions. The Guyana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) and the Daily Chrocicle, Guyana’s primary newspaper, fell under the direct governance of the PNC. Newsprint for other papers, primarily for the PPP, was seized, especially at elections. Two Trade Orders (no. 86 of 1971 and no. 86 of 1972) infringed the freedom of expression once guaranteed under the Article 12(1) of the constitution. Although cost for damages was awarded to the New Guyana Company (publisher or the Mirror), in 1998-79, the court found that the fundamental right to import newsprint was not an essential part of the right to free expression.
Trade unionism in independent Guyana has always been, for the most part, divided like the politics along race and party affiliation, with the PNC garnishing the supports of industrial organs representing the civil service or public sector and Bauxite industry, and unions for the rice (e.g., Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union [GAWU] and sugar industry aligned with the PPP. However, under Burnham’s tenure, trade union activity became heavy suppressed, eventually forcing most unions to move in favor of the PNC. This included the body that headed the umbrella of unions, the Trade Union Congress (TUC), and the massive Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU). Where the PNC could not impose its influence in union activities, it infiltrated the industry itself via other methods. This was particularly true in the rice and sugar industries, areas traditionally dominated by Indians. Both received less minimal financial support from the PNC; with time, the government replaced competent people at the Guyana Rice Board with its own supports. The previously profitable rice industry began to crumble due to a reduction in paddy prices paid to farmers, unavailability of machinery parts and foreign exchange to make these purchases, and the break from lucrative markets like Cuba. By the eighties, average acreage under cultivation plummeted from 250,000 to 90,000.
Burnham, for more than a decade, refused to recognize GAWU as the union of sugar workers, but in 1975, to win support in his aim to nationalize the industry, acquiesced a poll calling for this recognition. Yet, it did not prevent the police, army troops, and members of House of Israel from breaking up strikes, the suppression of trade union activities, and the PNC’s own attempt to form a new union for the sugar workers. In some cases, wages were not only frozen; anti-labor legislations (e.g., Labor [Amendment] Act of 1984 [No. 9 of 1984]) were implemented to make judicial decisions favoring workers nugatory or void. When an increase in sugar demand due to the 1973 Middle East war resulted in an increase in profits for sugarcane farmer, Burnham implemented the sugar levy, a tax placed on farmers to divert part of this profit to the government.
It is ironic considering that Burnham had accused the PPP of providing civil service jobs to the “blue-eyed boys of the [PPP] Party.” Loyalty to the PNC became of paramount importance; criticism meant possible dismissal or harassment, and workers were strongly encouraged to attend PNC rallies, as reflected in this memorandum by the personnel director of GEC, Mr. W.N. James, to all staff (October, 1980), urging an attendance of a PNC rally to be addressed by Burnham; “The importance of the attendance of this historic rally cannot be under-estimated. Your future and indeed the future of your children will be discussed and therefore you must attend.” By 1979, Martin Carter who had now become a fierce critic of the Burnham regime, who would be beaten up by PNC’s loyal thus, wrote in the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) paper, Dayclean, 1979; “The PNC’s method of ensuring self-perpetuation consists of indulging in a deliberate policy of degrading people.” Under Burnham’s PNC, corruption, he noted, had become “a way of life, in which people were made to accept that stealing, cheating, lying, bearing false witness…was a positive sign of loyalty to the regime…”
By 1976, the socialist revolutionary plan to “feed, house and clothe” Guyana began its final plummet. The ETB became a channel that stifled trade due to party favoritism, and the imported economic model faltered due to a lack of international investors (unlike in the US territory). Millions spent in nationalization resulted in staggering losses as most projects failed. The hydroelectric dam in Mazaruni amounted to a US$100 million loss. Ineptitude, corruption, and willful mismanagement (yearly audits neglected etc.) resulted in little production, forcing the government to turn to the IMF/World Bank by 1978. By the time of Burnham’s death, Guyana was some US$2 billion in arrears (US$150 million to Trinidad and US$100 million to Barbados). In addition, despite the lavish foreign tours Burnham undertook with enormous entourages and social projects that failed, millions remained unaccounted for by the PNC.
To have unfettered access to private lands for "public" purposes, Burnham had the constitution amended. The new Acquisition of Land for Public Purposes Act allowed free access to lands with compensation to be provided bases on his economists' dictates, as opposed to current market value. Burnham’s sprawling but extravagant Hope Estate (Hope, ECD), which included such things as a helipad, and where public servants (primarily weeders and cleaners) were brought to work, was once such acquisition. While Burnham had been able to win US support by claiming to be an anti-communist government, by 1976, US-Guyana relationship became strained when a Cubana airliner exploded over Barbados, killing 11 Guyanese of the 76 dead. Burnham, shockingly, accused the CIA, to which the US State Department in turn called Burnham a "bald-faced liar."
Throughout his political reign, Burnham had maneuvered as necessity dictated. Or, as Mr. Partrick Walker (head of a British parliamentary delegation to Guiana in 1953 after the constitution is suspended) noted, Forbes Burnham would "tact and turns, as advantages seem to dictate," and that "his whole political approach is opportunistic.” In the West Indies and Africa (Burnham, Nkrumah, and some West Indian leaders had met secretly in 1957 [despite Jagan's initial request to such a meeting, he is ignored], during the independence celebration for a new Ghana), he convinced Black leaders that a PPP government meant an “Indian” state. In Washington and London he criticized the PPP as communist and in Havana and Moscow, Burnham announced himself as an anti-imperialist. He benefited from critical US support while having ties with Cuba. Burnham was, in essence, a politician.
It explained why, despite setbacks, the appetite of Burnham the man remained undaunted. His face became synonymous with national colors for national celebrations. He started Mass Games, based on Korean mass dramatization that bordered on propaganda, in which thousands of youths are used to praise their leader and the revolution in splendid costumes, colors, and patriotic fervor. For this, Korean technicians were imported as our students are trained to depict Burnham’s image in revolutionary motifs. Burnham’s interest in diamonds and precious metals that became obvious as early as 1965 when, on a trip to an Amerindian village, he said to the locals, “I know of those who come with the Bible and leave with the diamonds,” grew. Rumors of his massive personal wealth became confirmed when he is listed in international magazines as one of the world’s richest Black men. While he is lauded for replacing the “imperialist” tie and jacket with the shirt jack, as an official formal wear, his reputation of being an unscrupulous individual who enjoyed imposing his will on others magnified. A former University of Guyana (UG) lecturer, Mr. Colin Cholmondeley, noted that Burnham “derived a kind of sadistic pleasure in making people be at his beck and call. He would call ministers, bureaucrats and treat them with such abandon…He dedicated himself to subordination.”
This is one reason for Black supporters referring to Burnham as the “Kabaka” (from Ugandan Baganda tribe, a kingly title), when he began making public appearance in flowing, white robes usually worn by African tribal leaders. The Comrade-Leader also wore dashikis. His strong affinity for Africa, his ancestral homeland, had long been in existence but it is as national leader that Burnham increased his interest in the freedom movements in the oppressed continent. Speaking of Rhodesia, he invoked the image of a universal suffering Black man, noting that in “two world wars, in the War of American Independence, the black man gave his life in the cause of freedom. But today the giants stand still, shackled by technicalities and ‘impotent’ in Rhodesia…This day, however, cannot last for eternity.” After Patrice Lumumba’s murder, Burnham spoke of a connection from the slain leader to himself and his struggles; “He was a man who stood for the right of a people to run their own affairs. He was a man who stood for a strong Congo, and those things for which he stood are sufficient to recommend him to people like me.”
By the seventies, he monitored the action of the UNITA forces fighting in Angola, and also Nkomo's ZAPU in Zimbabwe. He offered Guyana as a refuge for all African freedom fighters (and Black militants), and also made financial contributions. In his book, Journey to Nowhere—A New World Tragedy, Shiva Naipaul notes that Burnham, on his way to a Conference of Nonaligned Nations held in Lusaka (1970), writes a check for $50,000 that is handed over to President Nyerere of Tanzania, for African freedom fighters. In the Caribbean, the People Revolutionary Government of Grenada was offered both money and Guyana army's training facilities. Not to be ignored, he welcomed cult leader Jim Jones (paid US$2 million to the government) and Black militant, David Hill (Rabbi Washington), despite the latter having a criminal record in the US, to have residence in Guyana. Jim Jone's People's Temple that offered a program of socialist self-sufficiency was filled overwhelmingly with Blacks.
Andrew Salkey, in his Georgetown Journal, (1972), writes, "Everybody knows Cheddie…People say he is too far behind to catch up with Burnham…Burnham is a better politician…Burnham is the sort of politician that leaves you guessing….American really doesn't understand him the way they think they understand Cheddi." Salkey goes on to note that "Burnham is the sort of man who sells the Party paper in Bourda Market on Sunday morning," that he "understand power…I think that Burnham understand the Indian majority, Black minority think better than most people believed." But as Guyana approached the end of the seventies, Guyanese understanding of Burnham the man and the politician was clear—he had become an erroneously idealistic and ruthless leader taking Guyana deep into a territory of immense economic stagnation.
Despite his military expansionism and party policies to elevate the country's Blacks, such as the building of housing schemes, many at critical points in being near Indian-populated villages (e.g., Samantha Point near Grove, EBD), hardship prevailed. In 1977, the PPP was able to call a strike along the sugar belt, and another massive strike even began in Linden (names after Burnham), a PNC stronghold. Dissension began to pervade the society as food shortages became commonplace. Burnham called upon Guyanese to consume what is produced locally; the ranks within the party are made to recite lines advocating national self-sufficiency by poet, Kahlil Gibran; "Pity a nation that wears a cloth it does not weave…" The early eighties brought an official ban on numerous imported items like wheaten flour, which Burnham replaced by rice-flour (milled rice). Bread was interpreted as an "imperialist" food. Traditional food outlets (shops) were barred from selling food items and instead, the government established a series of food distribution centers called Knowledge Sharing Institute (KSI).
As anti-government criticism reached the doorsteps of the government and the army from within their own ranks of supporters/members, Burnham the ingenious politician became intensely selective in choosing loyalists (e.g., Cecil "Skip" Roberts). To prevent any government or military figure from becoming overtly popular, he exercised a policy of reshuffling, which included the appointing of such individuals to foreign posts. As people anticipated the 1978 general elections amidst a renewed wind of opposition, Burnham arrested their expectation with the Referendum Bill (1978), which gave the PNC 2 more years in office. It passed in parliament because the PNC held the required two-thirds majority (37 of 53 seats, gained in the 1973 elections).
Repression of political activity always existed under Burnham, but it became an unofficial government policy in the seventies, beginning with the attempted murder of UG lecturer, Dr. Joshua Ramsammy (PPP) in 1971. In 1972, Dr. Walter Rodney was refused a teaching post at UG. The Registrar noted that there was "no suitable vacancy in the Department of History for someone with your qualification and experience." On a second attempt, the academic appointment committee considered him, but according to Rupert Charles Lewis in his Walter Rodney's Intellectual and Political Thought, the "Burnhamites on the Board of Governors" at UG "overturned the decision." PPP activist, Arnold Rampersaud, is framed by the PNC for a shooting. He is freed after a third trial in a case that became internationally known. By the end of the decade, tens of opposition activists, primarily from the WPA, are arrested, jailed on false grounds, and beaten. Members of the Ratoon group (UG academics and intellectuals for democracy), are also targeted (e.g., a kidnapping attempt is made on Dr. Clive Thomas). Shortly before Rodney is assassinated in 1980, Edward Dublin and Ohene Koama, men closely associated with Rodney, are murdered.
In 1978, leading members of the WPA, including Drs. Rodney and Roopnarine are falsely accused and tried on arson charges for burning down the OGSMND building. They are eventually found innocent in another internationally known political trial, which included Maurice Bishop as part of the defense team. Unfortunately, Father Bernard Darke (Jesuit priest and photographer for the Catholic Standard) is stabbed to death (1979) in police presence during this trial. Responsible were members of Rabbi Washington's House of Israel. The House had become a "military organization" with its members being used by the PNC as scab labor and to break up opposition rallies. At one such rally in Kitty, Dr. Rodney is forced to flee the scene by running as House members in police clothing converged. According to Eusi Kwayana, Burnham soon thereafter "commented on Rodney's prowess as an athlete and promised to send him to the Olympics" to represent Guyana.
Rodney's presence marked the single most potent threat that Burnham faced as ruler. Rodney was Black and therefore capable of drawing the "Black" vote. Secondly, he too was an intellectual though unlike Burnham. As an expert on African history (Burnham's history) who was extremely recognized in the Caribbean and Africa, and untainted by the vicious politics of the sixties, he interpreted Black history from a perspective free of political motives. Guyana's situation became so intolerable that Rodney described it in his pamphlet, "People's Power, No Dictator," "in terms befitting filth, pollution and excrement…This is why the WPA repeats the legend of King Midas who was said to have been able to touch anything and turn it into gold. That was called the 'Midas Touch.' Now Guyana has seen the 'Burnham Touch'—anything he touches turns to shit."
Yet, Rodney's statement of the “Burnham Touch” is not all encompassing, although it summed up the general feeling of the times. By the end of the seventies, non-Christian holidays such as Phagwah and Youman Nabi were made into national events, both the Canji and Demerara Rivers had bridges, free education existed "from nursery to university," and major roadways such as the Linden Highway, became realities. One should note, however, that some of these accomplishments were not originally the ideas of Burnham, but were carried across from the pre-Burnham era of rule. Indian Leaders like J.B. Singh long called for Indian holy days to become days of national celebration. The blueprint for the Linden Highway and the beginning of "free" education, including the birth of the UG originated during the Jagan administration. Some "national" symbols and institutions including the National Cultural Centre (NCS) were not without their controversies.
The NCS was Burnham's idea. He used money from the Indian Immigration Fund (belonging to and for indentured servants) for this construction. Initially, a committee was established to determine what should be done with this money; its proposal to built three Indian cultural centers in the three counties were discarded by Burnham who, to appease the Indian community, awarded the construction contract to an Indian firm and had Indian religious groups (e.g., Guyana Pandit's Council) bless the project. The Golden Arrowhead has been criticizes as being a flag that does not truly symbolize the makeup or cultural presence of all six racial groups in Guyana, but is a pseudo-replica of flags to be found in Africa and the flag of a Black power movement headed by Marcus Garvey. Burnham, however, survived because, as he once declared in an interview with the New York Times, he was "all things to all men" in Guyana.
One of those “things” was the brute in the political animal, or, the practical will to eliminate critical opposition figures. The assassination of Dr. Rodney in June 1980 (which the PNC regarded as a “misadventure”) marks the end of any threat to Burnham. One month after, with magnanimous support in the legislative and judicial systems, the government passes a referendum requiring a heavy revision of the Guyana Constitution. The new (1980) constitution gave Burnham unprecedented sweeping authority that could not be challenged in court without his approval (the right to redress in the privy counsel in London was abolished). He became Guyana’s Executive President for Life and Commander-in-Chief of the Army. With these new credentials, he contested the 1980 elections that were, according to the Report of the International Team of Observers at the Elections in Guyana, “rigged massively and flagrantly.” The PNC claimed that it received 77% of the votes; including 34, 784 overseas votes as opposed to the PPP’s 741. Of the 205 regional seats nationwide, the PNC garnished 169. By the year’s end, Burnham single threat was the failure of the meeting in Venezuela over the border issue, which pointed to a possible invasion, prompting the government to issue Defense Bonds in order to boost the military.
Burnham reached his sixtieth birthday in 1983, 20 of those in power. As his role as a politician became less “public,” his legacy is nevertheless exercised through PNC activities. His cabinet grew even larger, twice as large as his first, including his wife and a son-in-law. Despite the economic crisis, the government refused to make foreign exchange available for the purchasing of food or drugs. Instead, the police began a crackdown on the illegal importation of “contraband” goods. Mass exodus of citizens skyrocketed. Meanwhile, a small PNC elite thrived through shareholding, contracts, and ownership of local businesses financed by the party/government. The foreign airline, GUYAMERICA, was allowed to compete with the locally owned Guyana Airways, primarily because government officials held shares. According to the Latin America Bureau, the PNC even ventured into the cinema business briefly, purchasing the film rights of Gandhi, for an estimated US$50,000.
It is interesting that the PNC purchased this particular film right, for although Ghandi was shown in Guyana to mammoth crowds, as expected, and was very appealing to the psychological image of the Indian, the Indian psyche was experiencing severe social and psychological repercussions. It became commonplace to find Indians being bullied by their Black counterparts in any social arena; school, the car park, or at the work place. This was the direct result of PNC policies that advocated that Guyana belonged to Blacks. In no other avenue was this most dramatized than in the culture of crime that proliferated under Burnham’s tenure. Indians became targeted for both the daytime “choke-and-rob” crimes, while at nights, the more violent “kick-down-the-door" robberies during which where people of Indian descent are brutalized, shot, and women raped. If one is to truly acknowledge the legacy of Burnham, one cannot possibly ignore this atmosphere created by Burnham and the PNC under which the Indian had become a demonized being.
As the mid-eighties approached, Burnham made fewer speeches. One reason was a failure in his voice. In August 1985, after importing all the required machinery and an entire Cuban team of specialists, he underwent surgery to his throat. The operation failed. He died on August 6, with the operation at the Georgetown Hospital, still an obscure affair. No Guyanese doctor was allowed to operate on him, and it is alleged that only his son-in-law (a doctor) was present. The Trinidadian Guardian, on August 11, 1985, in a special article read: "There is always sorrow in death and its uncertainties, and it is traditional and correct to hope that one will be kind to the dead. Forbes deserves no less. His methods and systems, however, deserve no sympathy or support…”
Somewhere between the politician and the man, one realizes that Burnham not only was capacitated with immense practicality and intellectual foresight, but held views that were supposed to mature into panoramic, national visions. But somewhere between the man and the politician, the distinction became blurred, and the man became too much a politician instead of the politician becoming essentially a man. Thus, for a moment, the Guyanese community was offered a glimpse into what could have been, but were then radically urged back to what really was. Martin Carter once noted that Burnham’s pragmatism was “political and not philosophical,” meaning that “a man, like Burnham, who finds himself engaged in the heart-fracturing task of transforming an underdeveloped country, soon isolates what he knew all along—the fact of difference between theory and practice, between what is desirable and what is possible. And becomes impatient."
Perhaps this is the least polemic but most impartial a conclusion one can arrive at in assessing the legacy of Forbes Burnham, the consummate politician, and Forbes Burnham, the pragmatic opportunist. In the vein of what he represented to both his admirers and those he has suffered, it is not ironic that Forbes Burnham is the only Caribbean leader embalmed for posterity—at the Seven Ponds in the Guyana Botanical Gardens, Georgetown, two blocks away from Cuffy, Guyana's first national her
House of Israel
by Rakesh Rampertab
The House of Israel is a “pseudoreligious cult that has little to do with religions.
It’s merely a pseudomilitary arm of the ruling party.”
—Eusi Kwayana, The New York Times, October 21, 1979
October 21, 1979, New York Times, page A7, Black Supremacist Heads Guyana Cult; Opposition Groups Say Followers of Self-Styled American Rabbi Agitate for Ruling Party, by Joseph B. Treaster,
PNC Leader and ex-president of Guyana,
Hugh Hoyte and Rabbi Washington, 70s
Sometime in the mid-60s, amidst all the Civil Rights protest in the United States, one David Hill formed the House of Israel in Cleveland, Ohio, where, by then, he already had a criminal record that started decades before. Well known in the Black community there as "Bishop," Hill teamed up with the Reverend Earnest Hilliard (known locally as the radio personality, "Prophet" Frank Thomas), and became very active in the local business sector of Cleveland. Shocked that whites owned most of these businesses including McDonalds, they started the Black Unity Campaign against McDonalds, and convinced the locals to boycott the fast-food giant, as well as supply the revenue to start the first black-owned fast food enterprise. Locals signed off cheques for $5,000 and signed franchise application forms.
In 1969, Hilliard was found in his garage, shot in his head. Although Hill was questioned as a suspect, nothing came out of the investigation. Hill became suspect to some of the locals who eventually discovered that the duo's plan was a scam. Hill was found guilty for blackmail and sentenced to serve a 4-25 years term. Within weeks after the conviction, Rabbi was granted appeal bond. In another trial, a Chicago grand jury found him guilty of grand theft felony charges. Bail, which was originally set at $150,000, was eventually reduced substantially. A bondsman affordably posted it, and thus, Rabbi was released…only to jump bail thereafter. By late 1971, he failed to appear in court…suddenly convincing people that Rabbi had left the country, via the assistance of government officials (which he had bragged about). He would later be convicted in absentia on two counts of larceny.
After arriving in Guyana sometime in 1972, he announced himself as Rabbi Edward Washington, in an attempt to cover his true identity, and began the House of Israel (again), which would become a thug ally of the ruling PNC government, it’s headquartered being the Central Synagogue. The US Government's refusal to extradite Rabbi is still murky territory, and many still believe that justifies the claim that Rabbi was part of the CIA/ US Government aid to keep Burnham in power.
The House of Israel: This name, as I understand it, is the name that the Falasha people, an Ethiopian Jewish tribe which called themselves the House of Israel and claimed lineage to Menelik I, traditionally the son of the Queen of Sheba (Makeda) and King Solomon. Despite its name, the House of Israel had no ties with traditional Jewish theology, biblical lineage, or for that matter, any connection with the Ethiopians. It was simply and essentially a Black supremacist movement.
Unlike the People's Temple (Jim Jones) that started in the US but had primarily US-born Black members, members of the House of Israel were primarily Black Guyanese. Through its daily program that aired on the state-owned radio free of government criticism, it preached that Africans were the original Hebrews and needed to prepare for a racial war. This racial war was in Rabbi's words, the "battle of Armageddon" between Blacks and Indians. Rabbi even boasted that his organization was a "military operation" which "need to be prepared" for this eventful day. In February 1980, the WPA, using government documents, made public headlines showing that arms flowed from the Guyana Defense Force to Rabbi's organization.
House Rule: The House of Israel (like PNC party and government) was ruled by one man only, in Rabbi. Only Burnham stood above Rabbi in mere theological terms; the Guyanese leader being "Moses" and Rabbi "Aaron." In this, "Burnham's church," all members relinquished personal possessions to the organization and pledged allegiance to Rabbi, who espoused a kind of messianic control. He had numerous bedmates and was the primary owner of all assets (including two farms received from patrons). Members were encouraged not to date, seek employment, or marry outside of the group, and when such was desired, the permission of Rabbi was needed for validation. Like Burnham, Rabbi left no room for betrayals or competition for power. While his "seven ministers of state" made decisions, it was Rabbi himself who noted in The New York Times, October 21, 1979 issue, that "it is safe to say that I am the first and last word."
Scab Labor and Terrorism: The hymen-like association between the House of Israel and the Guyana Government (and PNC party), was symbolized by the colors that the members wore, which were, incidentally, the same colors of the PNC party and the Guyana Government (Guyana's national colors). But a greater connection can be made through the terrorist nature of House members in favor of the Burnham government, beating up on opposition political activists and providing scab labor. While Father Darke's murder is the most famous of the crimes committed by House members, there were other cases. Mike James (also from Catholic Standard) and Gordon Yearwood, who was a fierce, well-known critic of Burnham were also beaten and stabbed respectively that fateful day. The police, instead of seeking to apprehend those responsible, set up guard at the House of Israel premise to prevent angry members of the public from retaliating.
In a climate that saw the rise and demise of Jim Jones, the arrival of the Black Power advocate from the US, Stokely Carmichael, who preached that Blacks should do whatever was necessary to have absolute power, the emergence of Burnham's socialism, the economic restrictions and reduced standard of living due to IMF loans, and immense anti-government sentiments, the arrival of Dr. Walter Rodney not only breathed new and energetic fuel into the Opposition’s turbine, it brought the single most dangerous threat to Burnham. The WPA became the chief target for the House of Israel.
Below is Eusi Kwayana’s account of one such WPA rally that was broken up by Rabbi’s men at Delph Street and Campbell Avenue in Georgetown on August 22, 1979.
"After being dispersed, Moses Bhagwan who hid among some livestock in a nearby yard was found, dragged out, beaten, and left with a broken arm, while Rodney who ran and was able to escape uninjured, became the subject of a Burnham joke. Burnham said that he would send Rodney to the Olympics because of Rodney's athletic prowess. Below is an account of the meeting by Eusi Kwayana (see Walter Rodney. Kwayana E, Georgetown: Working People’s Alliance, 1988, 15);
"A Squad of uniformed policemen, including Rabbi Washington's men dressed in police uniform and carrying no regulation numbers, attacked the meeting which they claimed was illegal. It was a total assault with batons on the crowd of peaceful citizens by a crowd of well armed policemen of the Tactical Service Unit (Riot Squad)…Scores of people were beaten by the police. They were on fire with venom not noticed before. This was due to the House of Israel."
One month earlier, in July of 1979, the building, which housed the office of the General Secretary of the PNC and the Ministry of National Development, was burned down. Despite eyewitnesses' claims of seeing men in army uniforms, leading WPA leaders/political activists including Drs. Rodney, Roopnarine, and Omawale were arrested. While thousands protested at their trial outside the court house, news photographer for the Catholic Standard, Father Bernard Darke was stabbed to death in the presence of onlookers (police included). Those who did the stabbing were members of the House of Israel. Despite all of this, chief PNC member Kit Nacimento, one week after the crime, referred to the House of Israel as a "religious group that lives in a cloistered, communal atmosphere. The members have declared their support for the government and they haven't committed any crimes. There is no reason why we should be concerned" (Toronto Star, July 22, 1979).
The ordinary layman Guyanese may never know the true nature of the House of Israel. Was it a criminal organization? Was it only a Black power movement that opened its doors to no one who was not Black? Were the people who disrupted and prevented delegates from attending the annual general meeting of the Guyana Council of Churches in Georgetown in 1985 from House of Israel? Was David Hill, a.k.a. Rabbi Washington an instrument of the CIA/ US Government in their assistance to Forbes Burnham, in what was an exchange of prison time in the US for terrorism in Guyana?
In a country like ours where history was rarely recorded, and when it was, it was done in accordance with the whims of the ruling government, it is difficult to discredit people or organization correctly for regional and national failures. People can only assume what they have heard, and may only be convinced themselves of what they may have seen. Thus, with rare police, court, or national archival records of many of the notorious activities of the past, one is forced to fit rumors and assumptions into perspective of their national history. While the criminal role of the House of Israel was rarely a question, the extent of this role is what remains, still, a subject of debate. In the end, one can only feel somewhat justified that where the US Government failed to keep it’s convict in prison, Burnham’s successor, Hugh Hoyte, made sure that Rabbi Washington and key associates were charged and imprisoned on a long-standing manslaughter charge.
The Guyana Police Force has, since the early 1970s, been regarded as a state organization with police officers who have breached the law in the gravest of ways possible. They have killed either civilian or alleged criminal under very questionable circumstances; they have, to state it precisely, engaged in extra-judicial killings. Despite the administration in the office of government, despite the decade, these have continued. In the mid-to-late 1990s, certain police members from the elite Target Special Squad (“Black Clothes” police), became enforcers for a US Immigration officer stationed at the US Embassy in Guyana, who engaged in the corruption of granting US visas in exchange for money.
Thereafter, the denouncement of police extra-judicial killings (especially of primarily Black or Afro-Guyanese men), has only increased. In fact, one of the complaints given by those who support the merge of essentially Black-directed criminal violence and pseudo-politics emanating from a section of besieged Buxton, is that this “resistance” is partially fueled in opposition to police extra-judicial killings. Whether this is right or not, what is unquestionably right is that everyone regardless of race should oppose all forms of extra-judicial killings. For those who wish to get more information on police killings, please contact the Guyana Human Rights Association for some of its reports such as "Ambivalent About Violence: A report of fatal shootings by the police in Guyana."
In this page herein, there are links and sub-pages regarding the issue of questionable police killings. We begin with a listing done by the Guyana Human Rights Association of people who died in questionable circumstances at the hands of the police since 1980. We have added three more names; Yohance Douglas, 17, a student of the University of Guyana, was shot and killed by police on March 1st, 2003, while travelling with friends to a basketball game; Kellawan Etwaroo, who was killed by police on or about July 5, 2004, at the La Grange Police Station, West Bank Demerara, and Carl Abrams, who was killed by a constable in Nabacalis on November 13, 2005. Others who have died included Mohammed Shafeek (who died at Brickdam police station) , Nandkumar Latchman ( who died in the police lock-up at Whim, Berbice). and Rocky Anthony Brunoanish who died on June 8, 2001 while in the Aurora Police Station lockup. He died of a fractured skull and hemorrhaging from a severe beating. Prior to his death, Brunoanish reportedly asked for medical attention to no avail.