Paul N. Tennassee*



Ruling classes in every society and in every age conceive, develop and promote theories which they use to establish ideological and political hegemony. Given the fact that human beings, by nature, have the capacity to think, the ruling classes tend to develop arguments to explain and justify why one race or class of humans should rule over others. Even a fascist dictatorship has to defend itself at the level of ideas and arguments regardless of the extent to which the dictatorship relies on force. Hitler promoted the theory that the Aryan race was superior to other races. As such, the Germans believed they were entitled to rule over all humanity. A South African regime developed the theory and practice of apartheid to justify and perpetuate white rule over millions of Africans, East Indians and Coloreds. During the era of European colonialism, the British, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Belgians and others owned colonies, developed and embraced racist theories to justify their rule over local populations. The British, for example, cleverly ruled over 300 million Indians with a degree of force, but excelled in the manipulation of the population with concepts designed to “divide and rule”.

The uniqueness about ideological-political hegemony is that ruling classes do not only manufacture ideologies to defend and perpetuate their rule, but at the same time, indoctrinate the populations at a mass level to ensure that those who are dominated internalize the prevailing values and ideas. The process ensures the external appearances of mass “acceptance” of the existing order.

The Europeans have had a history of distinguishing various groups of human based on biological and cultural differences. During colonialism, the tradition was extended to Africa, Asia and the New World. Carlos Linnaeus, in a 1738 publication, classified humans into various categories with corresponding stereotypes:

“The Europeanus Albus was described as lively, light, inventive and ruling by rites; Americanus Regesceus as tenacious, contented, free and ruled by custom; Asiaticus Luridus as stern, haughty, stingy, and ruled by opinion; Afer Niger as cunning, slow, negligent and ruled by caprice” (Crawford Young: 1990). Darwin’s 1859 Origin of Species placed Europeans at the highest point of Evolution followed by some Asians and Indians then Africans (Philip Curtain: 1964).

The ruling classes in colonial Guyana were no exception. They developed ideologies based on racism to support conquest, slavery and neo-slavery (indentureship). These ideologies did not merely promote a contrived view about the ruling classes but also stereotypes about the various racial groups that occupied the lower strata of society. The internalization of the ruling classes world view and distorted perceptions of the various racial groups persisted into the 20th Century and the post-colonial period.

Guyana is a nation-state which has been politically independent since 1966. During the 1960’s inter-racial conflicts between mainly the Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese culminated in death and destruction. On achievement of political independence, a racially wounded and divided nation was born. At the independence talks in London, when Britain finally agreed to end its colonial rule, the predominately Indo-Guyanese political party (PPP) boycotted the event. Thus, almost half of the population was unrepresented at that critical and historic occasion. Subsequently, a coalition government made-up of the predominately Afro-Guyanese Peoples National Congress (PNC) and the predominately Iberio and Amerindo-Guyanese United Force (UF) publicly committed themselves to promoting racial equality and defending the vital interests of the new nation.

THAT PROMISE WAS NOT KEPT. A political dictatorship was established and racism was institutionalized. The majority of the population was alienated and economically the country moved from the second most developed among the former British West Indies to the poorest in the hemisphere.

After a long and arduous struggle between 1966-1992, the last of South America’s dictatorship was replaced by the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) in an election which was supervised by international observers and certified as free and fair.

There is no doubt that racism was effectively used to construct and sustain the PNC dictatorship for over twenty-four years and was one of the major factors which contributed to the economic impoverishment of Guyana.

There is a view that while the race problem has its genesis in colonial history, the politicians and decision-makers of the post-independence period are still trapped in it. Another view is that the race problem is a direct consequence of the contradictions of the three traditional political parties (PPP/PNC/UF). A third view is that the masses themselves should be held responsible because it is felt that although “race may not be an analytical tool, people perceive, think and act very often in a particular way because they belong to a particular race” (Premdas: 1994). Clearly, all the above are contributing factors. However, at different conjunctures, one factor may take precedence over others.

This paper will focus principally on the role of the Peoples National Congress (PNC) which ruled Guyana between 1965-1992. This period covered twenty-six of the first thirty-six years of political independence. There is a need to do an analysis of the PPP’s policy and practice on the race question between 1992-2003, in order to verify whether that party’s ascendancy to political office is an exchange rather than real change.

The Peoples National Congress (PNC) developed a set of propositions and a series of justifications regarding its right to rule. The leaders of the PNC advanced an unscientific interpretation of Guyanese history based on a distorted analysis of aspects of Afro-Guyanese racial history. They also embraced the struggles of South Africa and the Black Power Movement in the Caribbean and North America in order to obtain legitimacy as world class African leaders. In the process, an eclectic racial nationalist ideology was developed. However, the PNC attempted to camouflage its commitment to the institutionalization of racism by publicly embracing anti-Communism, Cooperativism and Marxism-Leninism.

In 1992, the PNC became the official opposition party, as such; it is possible that it may return to political office sometime in the future. It is, therefore, very important that this party reviews its theories and practices in order to reformulate its ideology which is more attune to the needs and aspirations of a multi-ethnic Guyana. Most importantly, the PNC leadership must ensure that in any future government in which they may participate history does not repeat itself. The fabric of the Guyanese nation-state would not be able to survive the consequences and impact of a repetition of policies emanating from the ideology of racism. Dr. James Rose, in an article on African Guyanese achievement, in 1993 was very insightful when he called for self-reflection and a new beginning within the Afro-Guyanese community, and implicitly among Guyanese as a whole. He reflected:

“Here in Guyana, as in the rest of the Third World, post-colonial hopes of greatness have been shattered by human frailties of black leadership, as yet too human to rise above the seductive inebriation of power. These wasted years and lost opportunities have taken their toll on a normally resilient African psyche. Given the paucity of creditable leadership within the Black Community, these recent reverses have savaged our confidence and threaten us with aggravated despair. This is therefore an important moment of reconstruction. It is a time to recognize our efforts, redefine our strategies, mobilize communal support and refashion a collective future. It is therefore an ideal opportunity to build bridges across the ethnic divide and continue the creative processes of social rehabilitation and nation-building…”

Dutch and British Colonialism
The Dutch were the first Europeans responsible for the conquest and colonization of the Guyana landspace. The Amerindians were the first to be enslaved. This was followed by Africans via the Atlantic Slave Trade. Subsequently, Chinese, Portuguese and East Indians were imported as indentured servants (neo-slavery).

Under British colonialization, the slave trade and slavery ended, indentureship (neo-slavery) was initiated and terminated. Universal adult suffrage and political independence was achieved. The seven racial groups which have emerged are Amerindians (Amerindo-Guyanese), Africans (Afro-Guyanese), Portuguese (Iberio-Guyanese), Chinese (Sino-Guyanese), East Indians (Indo-Guyanese), Mixed (Cosmic-Guyanese) and the British (Euro-Guyanese). The concept of “Cosmic” is borrowed from Mexico’s Vasconselos’ view that a new, universal, race of multi-racial origin is emerging in the Americas (Morner: 1967). The Indo-Guyanese are the largest racial group, followed by the Afro-Guyanese who are the second largest.

Dutch and British colonialism fostered, through circumstances and choice, a racial division of labor. By the Second World War, the Amerindians were pushed into reservations in the interior and survived on a subsistence economy. The Africans moved to the urban areas and became the wage workers in both the public and private sectors. (Some bought Villages.) They also joined the security forces. To a lesser extent, they remained and emerged as rural farmers and small traders. The Chinese and Portuguese went into commerce. The East Indians persisted in agriculture (sugar and rice) but also later extended into the commercial sector. The “mixed” race worked in banks, the civil service, and the private sector; many held management positions. All the racial groups penetrated the various professions at various points in time and in varying percentages.

The ideologues of colonialism imported the racist concepts from Europe and applied them to colonial British Guiana. Michael Swan, one of the ideologues of British Colonialism concluded: “The African is a natural town dweller, while the Indian prefer the country district working on the sugar estates tending their paddy fields.” Additionally, he argued that the East Indians were “economic men, seeking always to maximize their opportunities and that the Portuguese were natural entrepreneurs.” As for the Amerindians he held the view that they survived from day to day without any real drive or desire for self-perpetuation. The colonialists viewed the Africans as essentially “physical men” (Henriques: 1981).

The dominant ideology pervading the colonial era was racism. They upheld stereotypes and views about the local racial groups as “closed, fixed and uniform.” This ideology had a profound influence on policy and practice in the colony. In this respect, the ruling classes consciously encouraged a racial division of labor and disunity among the racial groups. One Caribbean economist underlined this when he wrote “…the racial fragmentation of the labor force into what economists call non-competing groups, each one of which played a specified role in the economy, was an essential characteristic of the process of economic development… And that racism therefore has an ideological function to play in the process of accumulation…” (Girvan: 1975). A manager of one of the colonial plantations in one of his entries wrote, “I think the safety of the whites depends very much upon the want of union in the different races of laborers…” (Mandle: 1973).

In the post-slavery and post-indentureship period, the various racial groups founded race based associations and trade unions which challenged the ideology and practices of the colonial ruling classes. The right to vote and participation in government was determined by ownership of property and sizable incomes. It was not until 1953 that universal adult suffrage was achieved and the various racial groups elected a government within an internal self-government system. The various racial groups, particularly the East Indians and Africans, founded trade unions and a major political party (People’s Progressive Party). The PPP was essentially anti-colonial, multi-racial. The high point of socio-political activities prior to 1953 was a march of sugar workers in 1948 when four Indo-Guianese workers were shot by the police (the Enmore Martyrs).

The PPP was led by Dr. Cheddi B. Jagan, an East Indian, and Forbes Burnham, an African, who was Chairman. Jagan and a group within the leadership defined themselves as Marxist-Leninist. Burnham as a student had defined himself in London as Marxist-Leninist, but inside Guiana, he postured as an anti-Communist and professed to be a nationalist. The very first election under adult suffrage was won by the PPP; however, within six months the British invaded and suspended the Constitution. This threw the PPP into a tailspin and finally culminated in 1955 into two PPP’s – one led by Jagan and the other by Burnham. Constitutional rights were restored by 1957 and, at the election, Jagan’s PPP won.

In the process, the East Indians and Africans were divided as they followed their respective ‘race’ leaders. Recognizing that Jagan held on to the Marxist ideology and was openly pro-Moscow, Burnham declared himself an anti-Communist and identified with the western world. Guiana was inserted into the Cold War by its race based political leaders. Burnham in the interim pursued an alliance with a conservative Afro-Guianese middle class political group and went to the elections of 1961 with a new party, the Peoples National Congress (PNC). Jagan’s PPP won again and racial and ideological differences deepened as race politics, communism and anti-communism conflated.

By 1960, another political party, the United Force emerged. The leader was Peter D’Aguiar, a Portuguese entrepreneur. This party galvanized the support of the Amerindians, Portuguese, Chinese, Europeans, a sprinkling of upper class Afros and Indos and the Mixed (cosmic) population. Increasingly, a united front between the PNC and the UF took shape, replacing the anti-colonial alliance with an anti-PPP,anti-Communist alliance. The new alliance of the PNC and UF embarked on militant activities to “expose, oppose and depose” the PPP government. The confrontation was officially articulated by both government and opposition in terms of communism versus anti-communism. However, in the towns, villages and plantations, it was inter-racial conflict, principally between Indo-Guianese and Afro-Guianese.

As the PPP government pressed the British for independence, the PNC and the UF became more militant and advocated a new constitutional arrangement, whereby the system of First Past the Post (direct representation) would be replaced by Proportional Representation (PR) (indirect representation). The East Indians then in the 1960’s were only about 46% of the electorate. Thus, the prospects of a united front of all other racial groups under the PNC and the UF had possibilities under PR. Confrontation between the opposition and the government led to riots in 1962.

At the constitutional conference of 1963, it was decided that independence would be postponed until after the 1964 elections. At that conference all three leaders signed a virtually blank document giving the colonial under-secretary, Duncan Sandys, the authority to introduce a new electoral system in Guiana. The British favored Proportional Representation (PR). This implicitly meant the demise of the PPP. The PNC-UF political fortunes were in ascension. A possible political change was compatible with Anglo-American ideological and geo-political interests in the hemisphere. This was confirmed by Arthur M. Schlesinger who wrote:

“Then in May 1962, Burnham came to Washington… Burnham’s visit left the feeling as I reported to the President, that an independent British Guiana under Burnham (If Burnham will commit himself to a multi-racial policy) could cause us many fewer problems than an independent British 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 vote. An obvious solution would be to establish a system of proportional representation. This after prolonged discussion, the British government firmly did in October 1963; and elections held finally at the end of 1964 produced a coalition government under Burnham.”

And also by the Sunday Times which reported on April 16, 1967, under the headlines, “How the CIA Got Rid of Jagan”: “Over five years, the CIA paid out something over 250,000 (Pounds Sterling). For the colony, British Guiana, the result was about 170 dead, untold hundreds wounded, roughly 10 million (Pounds Sterling) worth of damage to the economy and a legacy of racial bitterness.”

The leadership of the PPP erred in signing the blank document. The PPP subsequently embarked on militant activities to prevent the introduction of proportional representation (PR). Their slogan was “PR or Death.” The PPP supported trade union organized a strike on one of the sugar plantations. The majority of the workers were Indo-Guianese. The sugar company used Afro-Guianese scabs to break the strike. A tractor driven by an Afro-Guyanese man into a group of protesting Indo-Guyanese workers killed a woman (Kowsilla).

This incident incited an escalation in confrontation. In various parts of the country, East Indians and Africans attacked each other violently. “The toll for the 1964 disturbances were heavy. About 2,668 families involving approximately 5,000 persons were forced to move their homes and settle in communities of their own racial group. The large majority were Indo-Guianese. Over 1,400 homes were destroyed by fire. Damage to property was estimated at about $4.3 million and the number of displaced persons unemployed reached 1,342” (Jagan: 1967). It should be noted that in July 1964, there was a bomb explosion on a river launch owned by a PNC supporter. Forty persons of African descent were killed. It was perceived as a reprisal for rapes and murder of Indo-Guianese women and children in Wismar, the bauxite mining town.

This was the backdrop to the elections of 1964 and political independence in 1966. In spite of this background, some politicians argue that Guyana does not have a race problem.

1 2 3 4

©Copyright GuyanaJournal