Last week everyone was in nostalgic mode: there was the 60th anniversary of the PNC engaging the attention of the one side, with the twentyfifth anniversary of the 1992 general and regional elections being the focus of the other. Reams of paper have been expended on the latter topic, in addition, no doubt, to quadrillions of words in virtual space. It did, of course, mark the end of the 24 years during which the PNC rigged elections in order to stay in power, and for that reason a certain mythology has grown up around it.
Those who were part of the PPP diaspora during some of those years have tended to emphasise the role played by themselves through demonstrations in New York and Washington, and the lobbying of important figures in the US government, in bringing about free and fair elections in Guyana. In their opinion it was the international pressure which followed these efforts that was instrumental in forcing then President Desmond Hoyte to hold open elections.
Led by one particularly prolific letter writer, this version downplays the role played by an unrelated event – the fall of the Berlin Wall – which became the symbol of the collapse of communism itself. More measured writers, however, such as Ralph Ramkarran (see page 7) acknowledge that this was a factor in the sequence of events, because the West no longer saw the need to keep the “communist” Cheddi Jagan out of office here by tolerating fraudulent elections. As a consequence, they were more susceptible to democracy arguments.
The ‘diaspora lobbyist’ chroniclers also miniaturise the part played by Guyanese Action for Reform and Democracy (Guard) ‒ the negotiations aside ‒ in the early 1990s which held public platforms on which members of civil society who had never spoken on politics before, did so. Some Guard members who spoke out were leading figures in their fields. It might be observed that had there been no significant local movement, the United States government in particular would have felt under no particular constraint to apply pressure; a widespread movement locally was critical in these circumstances. In addition, it could be argued that even without international pressure, the local movement given sufficient time, would have achieved the same result.
There can be debate about which of these causes should take precedence, or how they interacted with one another, but satisfactory answers also must include motive: ie what was in Hoyte’s mind when he agreed both to free and fair elections, as well as to the changes which were necessary to achieve these, including the presence of international observers. Was it just that he felt he could not hold out against US pressure in particular?
Where that is concerned the role of Caricom in the story is generally ignored altogether by commentators. Following Forbes Burnham’s death, an election was held on December 9, 1985, that was heavily rigged. According to former Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Sir James Mitchell, his Dominican counterpart Eugenia Charles was so incensed that she wanted Guyana thrown out of Caricom. She eventually agreed that prior discussion was the way to go initially, and Sir James then convened a meeting in Mustique, where six Caricom heads of government gathered, in addition to Hoyte. (Not all of them could go, because the notice was too short.)
St Vincent’s former prime minister has related that he and the other heads emphasised the importance of free and fair elections, as well as need for observers so the poll could be seen to be free and fair. For his part, Sir John Compton, the former Prime Minister of St Lucia, recalled that Hoyte was told he should not continue the legacy of Burnham, and that in order for free and fair elections to be held, there would need to be a free press and a level playing field for all the political parties, since the former were not possible without the two latter. Hoyte assured his fellow heads that opening up the press and giving space to political parties to function was part of his goal, and as an example he said the House of Israel would not be allowed to operate.
Former Prime Minister Mitchell subsequently relayed that in 1990, he wrote Hoyte and reminded him of the Mustique meeting, and in particular what had been agreed to in respect of observers. The Guyanese President then sent “someone” to St Vincent to be briefed in this connection.
Most of this is contained in James Mitchell’s autobiography, while both he and the late John Compton spoke to Stabroek News on the subject some years ago, not for the newspaper, per se, but for background to an account of the origins of this paper. At that time, all those who had attended the meeting were dead, save for three, one of whom was unable to contact.
So was Hoyte genuine in his commitment from 1986? The only thing that it is known he said publicly about it, was his response some years later to former Ambassador Ronald Austin when he asked about what had transpired on Mustique. Hoyte replied that the six heads wanted him to give opposition parties more political space to function, to allow a free press and to hold free elections, and that he had assented to all of it.
This accords with both Mitchell and Compton’s accounts, and in his favour it has to be acknowledged that he did allow a free press and he did give opposition parties more political space, otherwise Guard would have been unable to function. And as he told the prime ministers, he did too bring an end to the thuggery of the House of Israel. Furthermore, Hoyte had reason to believe he might be ejected from Caricom, since a meeting of the organisation’s Council of Ministers due to be held in Georgetown was boycotted (although it wasn’t expressed in those terms) by several states at the beginning of 1986. After Mustique it was rescheduled.
But what the Guyanese President was thinking at any given stage in the six-and-a-half years following Mustique is not really known, and would require some research among the records of his statements to heads of mission meetings and various party and government groups. That he seemed to want to open up the society was apparent even before the meeting with the heads, but whether that preference extended to eventually conceding a democratic framework cannot be said, any more than it can be said that he recognized he would eventually have to hold free and fair elections if he opened up the society.
At this stage we still don’t know what pressures the late President Hoyte was responding to ‒ regional, international or local, or a combination of all three at different stages ‒ or whether he was operating with his own timetable in order to give his economic reforms in particular time to work. In this way he might have thought he could win an open election which he knew must come, independent of what outside and local forces wanted.
Sometimes what seems an obvious explanation for a historical event is not always so.