For healing and national reconciliation to occur and to eradicate racism in Guyana, all sides must let go of their prejudice concerning the past

Dear Editor,

The assertion by the PPP/C at Babu Jaan, namely that Cheddi Jagan alone is the father of this nation, simply served to reinforce the perception that the PPP Government’s call for ‘One Guyana’ remains a hollow one. Aside from the divisive nature of this false narrative, it constitutes a puerile journey into historical absurdity. Anyone studying Guyana’s history through a lens untainted by the prejudice and vindictive tit-for-tat mentality clung to by leading politicians from both major parties, would agree with OVP’s position that inarguably, both Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan are ‘fathers’ of this nation. Having studied the writings and political lives of both men in-depth, and having been politically active during their tenures, I can safely say that they would have agreed with OVP’s position, and that neither would have wanted to exclude the other. In fact, history tells us that rather than being at loggerheads, they respected each other and made significant efforts to unite and move toward shared governance.

At a time when the PPP Government is talking about eradicating the scourge of racism from this land, it was most unfortunate that in his speech at Babu Jaan, Vice- President Jagdeo did not miss an opportunity to denigrate Forbes Burnham, an African-Guyanese leader revered and cherished by the African-Guyanese masses. Leader of the Opposition, Aubrey Norton, took to the airwaves following the Babu Jaan gathering to chastise what he called the Vice-President’s cheap political shot, when he drew attention to the fact that an alleged relative of Norton’s was at the event.

Ata press conference following the gathering, the Vice President chose to once again mock Mr. Norton, pointing out that in his opinion, Mr. Norton was not “cut from leadership cloth” illustrated by the fact that his comments were limited to what Mr. Jagdeo claimed was a “passing remark” regarding his relative, rather than offering an alternative to the policies and economic agenda he outlined in his speech. I was lost. Why would Mr. Norton speak about an alternative vision when both parties adhere to the same neo-liberal capitalist path of development that continues to widen the gap between rich and poor in Guyana and wherever it is applied worldwide. There are so many examples, too numerous to detail here, where the masses of people in resource rich nations, including oil rich nations, remain languished in poverty because of the application of this mal-development model. Oil could flow; however nothing will change for the poverty-stricken masses of Guyanese unless we have a government with the courage and foresight to move from this economic model. Unfortunately, both the PNCR and the PPP/C have chosen to fully submit to a neo-colonial arrangement that dictates the political and economic arrangement that Guyana must implement. An arrangement that has for decades allowed the plunder of our resources and arrested our development.

I therefore cannot imagine why Mr. Jagdeo would think that Mr. Norton would have an alternative to put forward. The only difference between the two parties is how they manage the neo-colonial and neo-liberal arrangement in place, how they tweak its mechanisms and operate within its parameters. If Mr. Jagdeo wants a debate on alternatives to the present arrangement, then he should have that debate with the only political formation in Guyana offering an alternative and that is OVP. I would welcome a public debate on alternatives whenever the politicians from the PNCR or PPP are ready, but I doubt that will be anytime soon, since the model they adhere to is so flawed and defunct that they dare not debate its lack of merit.

The real “cheap shot” contained in VP Bharrat Jagdeo’s speech was in reference to Forbes Burnham, who he said was on the payroll of the CIA for 4 years. Shame on you Mr. Jagdeo. As leaders and elders we have an obligation to the younger generations to ensure that we provide them with a contextualized history that offers the whole story, the truth. If Mr. Jagdeo and the PPP Government is indeed sincere about eradicating racism then they would want to promote inclusiveness and ensure that leaders of all races are honoured and their contributions acknowledged. Since VP Jagdeo chose to throw in this piece of information without context, thereby demonising a great African-Guyanese leader, it is incumbent upon us to provide that context.

At a press conference following the Babu Jaan gathering to address some criticisms of his speech, the VP made some further spurious remarks, attributing the division and racism foisted on the people of Guyana to the PNC alone. According to Mr. Jagdeo the PNC single-handedly “engineered the division”. He then went on to add that the PPP has “a proud record of having at every single moment from its formation been on the side of the people and struggling in the cause for freedom and unity in Guyana”. This he said “is substantiated in the written history of this country by facts.” This type of historical revisionism is not only irresponsible, but it is also disrespectful of African-Guyanese and in fact of all Guyanese, since it assumes we are stupid enough to accept this worn-out narrative of PPP as angels and PNC as demons. Of course, such remarks cannot be taken seriously and simply serve to prove that any notion of ‘One Guyana’ remains elusive. At the same press conference, the VP exclaimed that “the PPP has a history of confronting the most troublesome issues head on and we will do so now.”

He should therefore have no trouble with my comments here and in fact if he is genuine about his desire to “eradicate racism” and “confront issues head on” he should welcome them. Let us first revisit the period in which Burnham received funds from the CIA. It was at the height of the Cold War and the US was firmly against Dr. Cheddi Jagan and Mrs. Janet Jagan who were at that time self-proclaimed communists and avid supporters of the Soviet Union. Burnham’s politics and approach was different Looking back we can see that he was a man before his time, when he proclaimed, “we reject the orthodox communist dogma and system as being irrelevant and unsuited to our aspirations and needs. On the other hand, we do not see our solutions in terms of unrestricted and uninhibited free enterprise…we are not imprisoned by rigid and unrealistic dogma. Our only dogma is that Guyanese must maintain independent control of their destinies and be masters in their own country.”This position attracted the CIA, who at that time was waging a war on communism and for that reason alone favoured Burnham over Jagan.

In fact, Burnham commented on more than one occasion that he thought it less than tactical for Dr. Jagan to continually make the point that he was a communist and a supporter of Soviet communism, given that the US was in the grips of anti-communist hysteria. Another important factor that the VP omitted from his speech, is that Burnham, along with Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, Ashton Chase and others was a founding member of the PPP, which was launched in 1950. In fact, Burnham was elected the first Chairman of the PPP, and Cheddi Jagan was elected Leader of the Legislature Group and Vice-Chairman. In 1955 Burnham split with Jagan and the party he had helped to launch due to irreconcilable ideological and tactical differences, including the PPP’s rigid pro-Moscow line. Burnham favoured a non-aligned, independent approach, neither Moscow nor Washington, and it was for that reason that he established the PNC.

It is recorded in the public domain that due to the Jagan’s championing of Soviet style communism they received large amounts of funding from the Soviet Union. Burnham on the other hand, being non-aligned did not have support from any quarter and did not have the finance he needed to build the PNC. The CIA offered him funds in a bid to assist him to political victory over Moscow-aligned Jagan and he took the funds and used them to build the party. No honest historian can rob Burnham of his clear anti-imperialist and socialist credentials. A leading proponent of decolonization, his government’s policies were clearly designed to ensure that Guyana was truly independent, self-reliant and a pawn of no foreign power.

Everywhere you looked, Forbes Burnham was dismantling the colonial structures, attitudes and ideas. It was an exhilarating time that propelled Guyana onto the world stage. Burnham was seen as an important international statesman, part of that inspiring group of Global South leaders who at the time were at the forefront of the shift away from the Empire and neo-colonialism. He supported liberation struggles in the region, in Africa and other parts of the Global South. He was engaged in struggle on every front – internally and externally – and he needed funds to build the party so he shrewdly took the money offered him by the CIA while actually charting a non-aligned, anti-imperialist, socialist course of development. When confronted about these funds he famously exclaimed, “find tek”. There is no doubt that without these funds he could not have built the PNC into the mass party it became.

There can also be no doubt that both Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan understood that racial reconciliation and national unity were vital if Guyana was to move forward. In 1984 Burnham initiated high level discussions with Cheddi Jagan and the opposition PPP. The aim of these talks was to establish a power sharing arrangement. Both men understood that this was the only way to achieve national reconciliation and unity among the two main contending ethnic groups, and bring peace, stability and prosperity to Guyana.

In his book ‘Forbes Burnham: National Reconciliation and National Unity 1984-1985’, Halim Majeed recounts that on the evening before President Burnham was admitted to hospital for that fateful operation that would end his life, he met with Halim and another of his top aides, Elvin McDavid.  As if he knew that he may not survive the operation, he instructed them to be patient and spare no effort in ensuring that the unity talks were successful, since he said the very future of Guyana depended on their positive outcome.

As usual, the Vice-President, as so many other PPP stalwarts have in the past, managed to completely extricate himself and the PPP from any complicity in the racial animosity and entrenched racial divide that continues to tear this nation apart and arrest our development. He should know better, since he himself stands accused of constructing an enthnocratic state during his presidency which was marred by hundreds of extra-judicial killings of African Guyanese males and the politically motivated assassination of Ronald Waddell.

The emergence of a genuine ‘One Guyana’ would require politicians on both sides of the divide to acknowledge the great contribution of both African and Indian leaders and people to this country. Furthermore, they would have to honour the Indigenous peoples, not simply seeing them as pawns in their political games, but as the Nation’s First People. Indeed, we are all living on stolen land and like the rest of the world, it is time for us to acknowledge the travesty committed against our indigenous brothers and sisters .For healing and national reconciliation to occur and to eradicate racism in Guyana, all sides must let go of their prejudice concerning the past. We must agree to bury it and for the sake of all our children move forward to a new day.

However, it can only be buried if politicians like Mr. Jagdeo are willing to acknowledge and atone for the terrible mistakes made and atrocities and injustices committed. It requires us to understand and hold multiple perspectives in order to reach a point of critical consciousness. It cannot be achieved with this endless tit-for-tat, disrespect for each other and petty bickering that consumes us as a nation. Critical consciousness cannot be achieved in an environment polluted with false narratives and historical revisionism. It can only be achieved when people are willing to genuinely engage with, explore and challenge injustice andinequality.

If Mr. Jagdeo means what he said, that the PPP is not afraid to confront issues, including racism, head on, then let him be the first to confront these issues in a genuine manner. The idea of critical consciousness emerged from the work of Paulo Freire (1968) and details a process that enablespeople to build their capacity to create change through reflection and action. Critical consciousness entails three key aspects: (1) deep reflection on existing power structures and dynamics, (2) a sense of agency to seek and enact change in inequitable systems, and, (3) intensive action in working both individually and collaboratively to pursue emancipation from these oppressive systems and structures.
The people are ready, the question is, are those in positions of leadership ready, able and willing?

Gerald A. Perreira
Organization for the Victory of the People (OVP)

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