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Friday, May 26, 2006
Observe 40 th Anniversary by reflecting on struggle for Independence

Observe 40 th Anniversary by

reflecting on struggle for Independence

Dear Editor,

Guyana will this year observe its 40th year as an independent country. It is probably an opportune time to reflect on the historical antecedents to the granting of political independence by Great Britain which ruled this country for some 150 years.

The dream of an independent Guyana existed for a long time, but it was not until the 1940s that real efforts were made to articulate in any organised and coherent way independence for the colony of British Guiana . This organised effort came about mainly with the formation of the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) which had as its founding members Dr. Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, Ashton Chase and HJM Hubbard.

One of the main platforms of the PAC and its successor, the PPP, was internal self-government and ultimately political independence for the country. The records will show that it was the PPP that led the struggle for independence with its then leader, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, playing a pivotal role in raising the political awareness of the Guyanese people and externalising the case for independence.

It would not be possible in this letter to trace the several processes and intrigues that characterised the independence struggle. Suffice it to say that the fundamentals of our independence infrastructure were firmly laid by the PPP. The only reason why independence was not granted to the country under a PPP administration was because of Cold War politics and a predominant fear by the United States that British Guiana would go “communist” unless something was done to remove the PPP from government and have it replaced by someone perceived to be less problematic to the United States .

Thus began what could be called a manipulation of the local political situation by the western powers, in particular the United States and Britain . It must be remembered that British Guiana was at that time the only country in the western hemisphere where a leftist government had gained political power through democratic means.

The seizure of political power by Fidel Castro in 1959 in what was perceived to be a “ US backyard” heightened US sensitivity and tension in the region. It also rendered the United States even more responsive to, and nip in the bud, any attempts at setting up communist regimes in the region.

Of significance to note also was that the early 1990's coincided with the decolonisation wave which at the time was sweeping the continents of Asia, Latin America and Africa . Britain had already signalled its intention to grant political independence to the country. At the 1960 Constitutional Conference, the British Government accepted in principle the idea of independence for British Guiana . The understanding was to grant political independence after the elections of 1961 so that the winning party would be mandated to take the country to independence.

That was not to be. Although winning the 1961 elections by a comfortable margin (20 out of 35 seats), the PPP was denied the opportunity of taking the country into independence on the grounds of political instability and violence.

Space would not permit a full recount of the painful experiences of this period. Suffice it to say that the 1961 riots, instigated by the PNC, left in its wake scores of individuals dead or severely injured, not to mention the numerous buildings lost to fire or otherwise damaged as a consequence of looting and other acts of vandalism.

The disturbances and violence failed to bring down the PPP government, but it succeeded in forestalling independence and providing the basis for the imposition of a constitutional and electoral formula designed to bring the opposition in power which, it has to be said, fitted smugly into an Anglo-American game plan to prevent the PPP from continuing into office. This was corroborated by US columnist Drew Pearson when he wrote:

“The United States permitted Cuba to go communist through default and diplomatic bungling. The problem now is to look ahead and make sure that we don't make the same mistake again. We are already on the way to making it in Haiti . But in British Guiana, President Kennedy, having been badly burnt in the Bay of Pigs operation, did look ahead.”

According to Pearson, President Kennedy was to visit only Rome and Bonn in the summer of 1963, but London was added to the itinerary because of Kennedy's haunting worry that British Guiana would get its independence from England in July 1963 and set up another communist government in the region. It wasn't in the communiqué issued by the United States and England after the Kennedy-Macmillian meeting, but the main thing they agreed upon was that the British would refuse to grant independence to British Guiana because of the political instability in the colony.

It is now common knowledge that the disturbances were secretly inspired by a combination of US Central Intelligence and British intelligence in active collaboration with the local opposition to forestall independence for the country.

Actually, Britain was caught in a dilemma. As mentioned before, it had agreed in principle to grant independence to the colony at the 1960 Constitutional Conference within two years of the holding of General elections. Not wishing to appear dishonourable, it teamed up with the CIA to foment strikes and disturbances in order to create the impression that Guiana , torn by racial strife, was not ready for independence.

There can be no denying the fact that Britain and the United States displayed a preference for the opposition PNC to take the colony to independence. This was spelt out by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Presidential Advisor to President Kennedy, in his book “A Thousand Days” when he wrote:

“Then in May 1962 Burnham came to Washington …..Burnham's visit left the feelings as I reported to the President than an independent British Guiana under Burnham would cause us many fewer problems than an independent Guiana under Jagan.

And the way was open to bring it about because Jagan's parliamentary strength was larger than his popular strength; he had won 57% of the seats on the basis of 42.7% of the votes. An obvious solution would be to establish a system of proportional representation.”

The rest is now history. The PPP was removed from office by what had been described by Harold Wilson as “a fiddled constitutional arrangement”, one in the words of Arthur Bottomley, Shadow Commonwealth and Colonial Secretary “riddled with disadvantages which are quite unknown in any other Commonwealth country.”

Schlesinger was to later make a public apology for the wrong he had done to the country during one of Dr. Jagan's visits to the USA after he was elected President following the PPP's victory at the elections in October 1992 after 28 years of PNC minority and authoritarian rule The damage, however, was already done. The country experienced nearly three decades of dictatorial rule and an economy on the brink of collapse.

The best that can be done for the country today by those responsible for the tragedy we experienced is to heed the lessons of the past and do not allow for a situation in which the same mistakes could be repeated.

Hydar Ally

Kaieteur News