Oc­to­ber: the month that shaped Guyana

Stabroek News Sunday - - REGIONAL NEWS -

The first elec­tion un­der uni­ver­sal adult suf­frage was held in Bri­tish Guiana on April 27, 1953. It was won by the Peo­ples’ Pro­gres­sive Party which had been formed in 1950 dur­ing an era of anti-colo­nial up­surge in the Bri­tish Em­pire, par­tic­u­larly in South Africa, Malaya and Kenya. Cheddi Ja­gan had ex­pressed sol­i­dar­ity with the anti-colo­nial strug­gles in these coun­tries in his speech at the open­ing of the Leg­isla­tive Assem­bly on June 17, 1953. Many at that time, and for the rest of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, would have pre­ferred that he re­main silent about the for­eign dom­i­na­tion and op­pressed.

The gov­ern­ment lasted un­til Oc­to­ber 9, 1953, when the con­sti­tu­tion was sus­pended and the gov­ern­ment re­moved from of­fice. The his­tor­i­cal back­ground and se­cret com­mu­ni­ca­tions sur­round­ing this trau­matic event have been well re­searched and pub­li­cised. The gov­ern­ment held of­fice at the suf­fer­ance of the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment whose lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives were merely watch­ful and cau­tious. But anti-com­mu­nist ag­i­ta­tion by lead­ers wed­ded to colo­nial priv­i­leges, per­fid­i­ously ex­ploit­ing the hys­ter­i­cal at­mos­phere cre­ated by the Cold War, one of whose ar­chi­tects, Win­ston Churchill, was the Prime Min­is­ter, re­sulted in the sus­pen­sion of the Con­sti­tu­tion. His­tory has al­ready de­liv­ered its judg­ment on the events of 1953 and the lead­ers of the PPP, but pro­found and rel­e­vant lessons re­main for the Guyanese peo­ple.

The lead­ers of 1953 were all young men and women who had ei­ther formed the PPP in 1950 or joined it shortly af­ter. But they al­ready knew, be­cause the so­cial and cul­tural his­tory of Bri­tish Guiana had al­ready taught them, that only a na­tional move­ment con­sist­ing of eth­nic and class unity would bring suc­cess in the strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence and so­cial jus­tice. The 1953 move­ment rep­re­sented that ideal and achieved it for a short while. The united PPP was the first po­lit­i­cal party which mo­bilised work­ing peo­ple to strug­gle in unity for their free­dom.

For rea­sons that are well known, the unity did not last, and the divi­sion led inevitably to se­vere ethno-po­lit­i­cal dis­cord there­after. The po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions and dis­cord which were a di­rect con­se­quence of the sus­pen­sion in 1953 has cre­ated a per­ma­nent scar of ethno-po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity which has dom­i­nated po­lit­i­cal de­bate since then. Shortly af­ter the split in the PPP in 1955, voices be­gan to be heard, and ef­forts be­gan to be made to re­trieve some sort of po­lit­i­cal unity. Most were aware then, and it has been proven by events since, that Guyana will not re­alise its full po­ten­tial un­til the eth­nop­o­lit­i­cal divi­sion is mod­er­ated, which is pos­si­ble with­out there be­ing any losers. Un­less this hap­pens, our oil wealth will be­come a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball.

On Oc­to­ber 5, 1992, free and fair elec­tions were re­stored to Guyana af­ter 24 years of hard po­lit­i­cal strug­gle. Many suf­fered, some lost their lives and the coun­try has yet to re­cover. But 1992 re­stored a sem­blance of demo­cratic norms and al­lowed Guyana to re­sume its re­spectabil­ity among the com­mu­nity of na­tions as a coun­try where the will of the peo­ple is re­spected. The years since then have proved be­yond any doubt that progress can only be made in Guyana if democ­racy is sus­tained and nur­tured. They have also proved that although it takes time, and will take some more, eth­nop­o­lit­i­cal dom­i­na­tion will not al­ways win out. PNC sup­port­ers ex­pressed their dis­ap­proval of their party in 2006 with sig­nif­i­cant num­bers sup­port­ing the AFC. Sup­port­ers of the PPP ex­pressed their dis­ap­proval of their party in 2011, and to a lesser ex­tent in 2015, with sig­nif­i­cant num­bers sup­port­ing the AFC. The PNCR proved in 2015 that a cre­ative coali­tion in the right po­lit­i­cal con­di­tions can negate ethno-po­lit­i­cal rigidi­ties. Only a demo­cratic cul­ture will per­mit such new for­ma­tions and en­cour­age in­no­va­tive de­bate.

Oc­to­ber 1992 was not pos­si­ble with­out the ac­tive and pas­sive sup­port of the ma­jor­ity of the Guyanese peo­ple, in and out of Guyana, to­gether with in­ter­na­tional sol­i­dar­ity. The PPP strug­gled alone from 1968 to 1973. In 1975 the WPA en­er­gised the strug­gle and mo­bi­lized and in­spired ad­di­tional forces. Trade union unity, es­pe­cially be­tween baux­ite and su­gar work­ers be­came a ma­jor fac­tor. To­wards the end of the 1970s civil so­ci­ety groups

be­came vo­cal and in the fight against the 1978 ref­er­en­dum, or­ga­ni­za­tional unity in civil so­ci­ety and among po­lit­i­cal groups made an enor­mous im­pact on the strug­gle against au­thor­i­tar­ian rule. It was so se­verely wounded that it never re­cov­ered.

There is no doubt that the end of the Cold War played an im­por­tant role in dis­man­tling the nar­ra­tive that kept in place the West’s ra­tio­nale for sup­port­ing rigged elec­tions and keep­ing the PPP out of of­fice. But Guyanese at home and abroad were well aware that only hard, con­tin­u­ous and un­re­lent­ing ef­forts and na­tional and in­ter­na­tional pres­sure would end au­thor­i­tar­ian rule. It was not go­ing to be a gift from the West and the PNC was not go­ing to give up power un­less forced to do so.

The les­son of Oc­to­ber 1992 is that Guyana must never al­low the re­turn of au­thor­i­tar­ian rule. Many ar­gue that Hoyte made a mis­take by con­ced­ing free and fair elec­tions. Oth­ers whis­per that ‘we must never al­low what hap­pened in Oc­to­ber 1992 to hap­pen again.’ We must stand guard at the gates of free­dom to en­sure that such forces do not gain en­try.

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