The divisiveness in Guyana’s politics commenced in the years leading up to the 1964 general elections with the machinations to prevent Cheddi Jagan from leading the country into independence. At the time, U.S. and British officials foresaw the long term consequences of their decision on the race problem in the country but were more concerned about what the U.S. felt was in its best interest – “Guiana under Forbes Burnham would cause fewer problems to the United States administration than an independent British Guiana under Cheddi Jagan”, Schlesinger advised U.S. President Kennedy. The twenty-eight years of PNC rule from 1964 to 1992 then exacerbated the situation. With no acknowledgement ever by the PNC leadership of the consequences of four consecutive rigged national elections that silenced the collective voice of the largest segment of the population, violation of the basic human rights of opponents, and making the country the second poorest in the hemisphere, yet demonstrating belligerence after each election win by the PPP since 1992, the divisiveness has only widened.
In his letter captioned `Consultation by our Government has become a farce’ (Stabroek News December 31, 2023), Elder Hamilton Green lists a number of elements of a democracy and offers the view that the current PPP government has violated these principles, and its action is undemocratic and even dictatorial. Now, in all his letters in the press that I have seen over the years, despite insurmountable evidence that all the general elections in Guyana during the twenty-eight years of PNC rule when Elder Hamilton Green held positions of Senior Minister, Vice President, and Prime Minister were rigged, there was never any mention of the PNC violation of the most fundamental tenet of a democracy, i.e. the holding of free and fair elections, nor of violation of its opponents’ basic human rights. In this piece I look at the principles of democracy stated by Mr Green to determine how they were observed during his years in Government.
In his letter he writes, “A viable democracy ensures, by mechanisms provided, that the views and voices of all citizens are neither ignored nor trivialized”. I agree with this principle and now let us review what the PNC did when Mr Green was in in office. Documentation locally and internationally have confirmed that general elections in 1968, 1973, 1980 and 1985 were rigged in favour of the PNC. Consequently, the voices of citizens in electing the government of their choice were ignored. And in relation to the media, under the caption “Guyana’s Officials Trying to Curb Catholic Paper”, the U.S. Washington Post newspaper of May 8, 1981 reports “The Catholic Standard of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Georgetown, Guyana, is a Catholic paper unlike any other…The Catholic Church in Guyana views this unusual style of religious journalism as a needed ministry in a country where the daily press and radio stations — there is no television — are government-owned and ‘serve as organs of the ruling party’ of Prime Minister Linden Forbes Burnham, according to a February human rights report from the U.S. State Department…Three years ago, the government-owned printing plant refused to print the Standard any longer. More recently, Morrison (priest and editor of the Catholic Standard) said, in a charge corroborated by the U.S. State Department report, the government cut off the paper’s legal access to newsprint.” Like the Catholic Standard, the Mirror newspaper published by the PPP and the Dayclean news-sheet published by the WPA were also deprived legal access to newsprint.
Elder Green’s letter continues “Our Constitution refers to the importance of local democracy and the role that Trade Unions must play. Yet, wherever local authorities or Trade Unions have members that are not perceived to be PPP supporters, they are marginalised, pulverised and punished”. In a 1982 article titled “The Current Crisis in Guyana” in the UCLA Journal of African Studies (escholarship.com), Dr Clive Thomas gives a comprehensive report on the PNC rule in the late 1970s. In a section of the article, he discusses “Attack on Industrial Relations Systems”, noting “workers discontent and rebellion are everywhere” over “retrenchment, subsidies removal, tax increases, shortages and discriminatory distribution of commodities”. In addition, he states that government manipulates and controls the executives of various unions and the Guyana Trade Union Council, and use the doctrine of “political strike” against workers. He states “once a strike is deemed political, it becomes subversive and the full use of the state’s repressive apparatus is justified in order to crush such strikes, including use of military personnel to physically restrain strikers, with tear-gassing and violence being routine repressive measures”.
The plight of workers was noted also in a U.S. document (nrachives.gwu.ca (Approved For Release 2010 06 09 CIA-RDP90-00845R000100190003-4 Guyana) that implicates Mr Green in anti-union activity. It reports “On the labour front the Afro-Guyanese bauxite workers rallied trade union solidarity such as had not been seen since the pre-1964 era when the largely East Indian sugar workers and their union the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union joined the walkout. By the end of August trade union solidarity was capped by the addition of support from the Clerical and Commercial Workers Union, the National Association of Agricultural Commercial Industrial Employees, and the University of Guyana Staff Association. All of these events occurred amid increasing violence and stepped up beatings by police openly operating with House of Israel elements. In one of the most vicious attacks on CCWU strikers Hamilton Green personally led the fray”.
Further, Mr Green writes “A democracy ensures the clear separation of powers between the Judiciary, the Parliament and the Executive”. In 1973 government declared the doctrine of “paramountcy” of the party (PNC). In an article titled “Political change, democracy, and human rights in Guyana (Third World Quarterly, Vol 18, No 2, 1997), Professor Ivelaw Griffith who was appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana after the APNU+AFC coalition came into Government in 2015, writes “This was a principle introduced by Burnham in 1973, whereby the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the government and all organisations and institutions in the country were made subordinate to the PNC.” Also, it included merger of the General Secretary of the PNC with the Ministry of National Development thereby allowing for direct access of the ruling party to government funds. And, in the earlier mentioned article by Dr Clive Thomas, he reports on “Flying of the PNC flag over the Court of Appeal in order to assert its ‘paramountcy’ over all state institutions”.
In addition, excerpts from the book, “A Brief History of the Guyana Defence Force 1965-2005” by former President David Granger (published in Chapter 6 of the Report of the Rodney Commission of Inquiry) are informative: “The increasing involvement of the Defence Force in party politics, a marked departure from the apparent non-partisan stance taken in the immediate post-Independence period, raised public concern about the direction being taken by civil-military relations”. After the Sophia Declaration came into effect in 1974, “political participation was positively promoted and many officers and soldiers were encouraged to become members of the PNC in the ensuing period… and in 1977, the Chief of Staff, Clarence (Price), appeared in military uniform before the PNC’s 2nd Biennial Congress and pledged publicly `…our loyalty and dedication to the Comrade Leader of the People’s National Congress and Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham… It was not felt that there was need to install civilian political agents in military units as it was thought that there was already significant support for the PNC party in the Force. This interest was fostered by the attitude of the Prime Minister who, as Minister responsible for defence, started to appear regularly at official military functions, dressed in uniform…The significance of this symbolism was not lost on the public or the troops.”
The letter continues “A democracy ensures that our Police and Law Enforcement Agencies are outside the direct control and interference of the political management of the State. Anyone living in Guyana must know that we have fallen short of this ideal of democracy”. After Guyana’s independence in 1966, a number of senior police officers were sidelined for promotion or forced to resign. Increasingly, loyalty to the governing party, the PNC, was a requirement for advancement. For a number of reasons, documentation of this is sparse or buried in old newspapers in Guyana that are not easily accessible. However anecdotal evidence exists. It is not surprising that senior police officers at the time Dr Walter Rodney was assassinated in June 1980 claimed memory failure in response to critical questions by the Commissioners at the Rodney Commission of Inquiry in 2014. Interestingly, in a June 4, 1999 Stabroek News article titled “Pity the poor police”, then weekly columnist A.A. Fenty, a self-acknowledged PNC activist from the Burnham years in government, writes in his inimitable fashion “Remember past President Desmond Hoyte boldly referring to the police force as ‘kith and kin’?. Well sure, don’t dis Dessie for what is, generally, a truth”.
In my view, failure to acknowledge the past objectively and truthfully will not aid in promoting national unity and a near perfect democracy in Guyana is likely to remain a distant dream.