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Political and Economic History of Guyana

Guyana is an interesting and significant case. It is interesting because of the unexpected ethnic mix of the the population. Slightly over 50 percent of the population is descended from East Indian migrants. About 40 percent are descendants of African slaves brought to work the sugar plantations. The rest is an odd assortment of Amerindians and Europeans. Guyana is a significant case because its socialist government destroyed the ecoomy with bad policies. That socialist government, led by Linden Forbes Burnham, was considered the lesser evil to the Marxist-Leninist party led by Cheddi Jagan and his wife Janet. After Burnham unexpectedly died while being operated on by Cuban surgeons the Jagans did come to power in Guyana but by that time even Marxist-Leninists were advocating an abandonment of socialism.

The History of Guyana

In prehistoric times the Arawak Amerindians migrated from what is now Brazil into what is Guyana and the north coast region of South America. They continued on into the islands of the Caribbean. The Arawak were relatively peaceful farmers who also fished and hunted. Not long before European contact another more warlike tribe from Brazil, the Caribs, invaded the area populated by the Arawaks, defeating and decimating them.

And then came another warlike people, the Europeans, who defeated the Caribs. The Spanish made early sightings of the north coast of South America but showed little interest in it because there was little indication of there being values there. The area later became known as the Guianas, an Amerindian word meaning the place of swamps.

When the Dutch gained their independence from Spain they went on a campaign of commercial expansion which culminated in the creation of an empire. The Dutch captured the north coast of South America, the Guianas, and also the northeast territories of Brazil, although the latter ultimately had to be surrendered back to the Portuguese.

In the Guianas the Dutch saw the commercial potential of using their polder-building skills to drain the swampy coastal and riverine areas for tropical plantations. This they did and began growing sugar cane. The governance of the territory was in the hands of the Dutch West India Company from 1621 to nearly 1800.

There was not enough labor available from the Amerindians and so the Dutch imported African slave labor. In the eighteenth century the Dutch encouraged English settlers to develop plantations in the western part of their Guianas territory and by the latter part of that century the English planters were virtually controlling the western part of the Dutch possessions. After the Napoleonic wars the British took possession of those western territories as British Guiana. The Dutch retained control to the east which became known as Dutch Guiana and later Surinam. The far eastern Guianas became French Guiana.

The British had prohibited the international slave trade in 1808 so no new slaves could be imported from Africa and in 1838 slavery was prohibited throughout the British Empire. The planters in British Guiana tried to cope with their labor shortage by bringing in indenture Portuguese workers from the Atlantic island of Madeira. When the Portuguese completed their labor contract they moved from the plantations to the towns and went into business. Later the planters brought 14 thousand Chinese contract workers from South China but they also left the plantations when their contract expired and moved to the towns to go into business.

The planters then sought plantation workers from British India and over the last decades of the nineteenth century 240,000 workers were brought from India. These workers tended to stay in the rural areas when their labor contracts were up and either worked on the plantations or developed farms of their own. These farms became the major supplier of rice.

The Black workers tended to work in the town and cities. Later bauxite deposits were discovered in the interior of the country and Black workers provided the labor force for this industry.

The People's Progressive Party (PPP)

The PPP was founded soon after the end of World War II. Two indiduals who were later the dominant political leaders in Guyana were involved in the founding of the PPP. Cheddi Jagan came from a poor rural background. His social background was lower middle class East Indian. His father was a driver, an occupation that did not pay very well, but nevertheless he sent his son Cheddi to school in Georgetown and later to the United States to study denistry at Northwestern University near Chicago. While at Northwestern Cheddi Jagan met and married Janet Rosenberg and the couple returned to British Guiana after the completion of Cheddi's training in denistry.

Cheddi Jagan was soon pursuing a career in politics as well as denistry. He formed a political discussion group called Political Affairs Committee (PAC) to promote a Marxist platform. The PAC ran several candidates in the 1937 general election and Cheddi Jagan won a seat in the legislature. He temporarily joined the Labour Party but left in objection to its center-right position. He actively participated in labor union actions and in 1950 founded the People's Progressive Party (PPP). Initially the PPP had support in both the Indian-descent and African-descent communities.

One of the supporters of the PPP within the African-descent community was Linden Forbes Burnham. Burnham came from a more middle class backgrouns than did Cheddi Jagan. Burnham was the son of school teacher and lived in the Georgetown area. He was able to go to London to acquire a degree in law. When Burnham joined the PPP he became the party organizational leader while Jagan devoted himself to activities concerning the parliament. In the 1950 election both Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham lost their races for seats in parliament but Cheddi's wife Janet did win a seat. So into the increditably complex ethnic and cultural melange of Guyanan politics a Jewish girl from Chicago was introduced.

The British government was concerned about the Marxist stance of the PPP and its call for an extensive role of the state in the economy. In the elections of 1953 the PPP won enough seats to be the party which ran the government. PPP's rule only lasted from May of 1953 to October of 1953, when the British Government suspended the Guyana constitution and sent troops to occupy the country. The British government appointed some Guyanese to run the country and their rule lasted until 1957. During this time a schism developed within the PPP. Burnham was demanding absolute leadership of the party which the Jagan's were unwilling to grant. Two factions of the PPP emerged behind Burnham and Jagan.

When elections were held in 1957 the Jagan faction of the PPP once again won political control of parliament. Burnham took his faction out of the PPP and formed the People's National Congress (PNC).

During the period from 1961 to 1964 there was social and political turmoil promoted by, among others, Burnham's PNC. In the 1964 elections Jagan's PPP lost out to Burnham's PNC.

The Rule of Forbes Burnham's Peoples National Congress Party

Although Burnham was perceived to be less radical than Jagan, Burnham did clearly state that he intended to create socialism. In the 1964 election the PNC received about 40 percent of the vote and had to govern in coalition with a political party called the United Force (UF) which represented conservative elements of Guyanese society such as business and the Catholic Church. Burnham not only was a socialist but he was also quite authoritarian. Under his leadership the government was turned into an organization for promoting the PNC. In the election of 1968 the PNC, amidst charges of election manipulation and coercian, claimed a clear majority of seats in the parliament and was able to govern without the support of the conservative UF. A third party called the Working People's Alliance (WPA) developed as an alternative to the PPP and the PNC.

Burnham and the PNC were claiming higher and higher proportions of the vote. In the 1980 election the PNC claimed 77 percent of the voted and 41 seats in parliament to 10 for PPP and 2 for the UF. The WPA refused to participate in what it considered rigged elections. The socialist economy that Burnham sought was on the verge of collapse in the early 1980's with chronic failures of public services, electrical power and shortages of rice and sugar, the country's primary agricultural products. In 1985 while undergoing surgery in Cuba Forbes Burnham died. (So much for Cuba's supposedly superior medical establishment!) Desmond Hoyte. the Guyanese Vice President, took over the presidency. Hoyte followed Burnham's practices in terms of the 1985 election in which the PNC claimed 79 percent of the vote and 42 of the 53 contested seats. But in the matter of economic policy Hoyte started to move away from a socialist economy.

(To be continued.)

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