Still beset by ethnic divisions 45 years after independence from Britain, the country’s labor movement is now offering ‘bold leadership,’ according to scholar Perry Mars.
Most Americans are unfamiliar with Guyana and its politics, despite the fact that the United States has been influencing events in the small South American nation for decades. Over the past half-century, both the United States and Britain repeatedly intervened in order to frustrate independence and anti-imperialist political movements, including undermining Cheddi Jagan and his Marxist-oriented People’s Progressive Party (PPP).
In recent years, Guyanese politics have become increasingly polarized and intertwined with ethnic divisions, with the country’s African-origin and East Indian-origin peoples at odds. Today, those differences are manifested in the two major political parties, with the PPP largely Indo-Guyanese-based and the People’s National Congress (PNC) largely Afro-Guyanese-based. But the ethnic differences also permeate other aspects of Guyana.
After Guyanese bauxite workers went on strike in November 2009 following failed negotiations over wage increases, I decided to give Professor Perry Mars a call to understand the conflict’s origins. (The conflict, between the Russian-owned Bauxite Company of Guyana Incorporated and the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union, remains unresolved.) In the course of our discussion, it became clear that the politics of the strike were directly related to Guyana’s struggle for independence from Britain and the post-colonial political environment. It also became clear that the masses never come out on top when political differences are expressed through ethnic strife.
Originally from Guyana, Mars is currently a professor in Wayne State University’s Department of Africana Studies, where he teaches his specialty, Caribbean politics and culture. He is the author of Ideology and Change: The Transformation of the Caribbean Left and co-author of Caribbean Labor and Politics: Legacies of Cheddi Jagan and Michael Manley.
Have Guyanese politics always been polarized on an ethnic basis?
The origins of ethnic divisiveness in Guyana could be traced to early colonialism with the importation of forced slave labor from Africa and, subsequently, cheap indentured labor from Portuguese Madeira, China, and finally India to work on white-owned sugar plantations. This divisiveness later became fundamental in several ways, including ethnic competition for work on plantations that drove down the price of labor to the great dissatisfaction of Afro-Guyanese workers following emancipation in 1838. Ethnic divisiveness became the fault lines for future political mobilization, competition and conflicts giving rise to serious ethnic-political polarization throughout the country.
How did this ethnic contradiction emerge in the political realm?
The source of ethnic-political polarization could be traced to the 1950s with the dawning of electoral democracy in the country. The debacle started when the British took umbrage at the Marxist PPP’s electoral victory notwithstanding the best efforts of the colonial authorities to upstage the party at the polls through massive financing and support of right wing, pro-British parties. Barely four months after the PPP victory in 1953, the British moved swiftly to suspend the democratic constitution, dismiss the party from office, incarcerate the key party leadership personnel, impose a hand-picked interim government on the people, and engineer a split in the party between what they discerned as “extremists” and “moderates,” which materialized in 1955.
Although the split was initially along ideological/factional lines (Marxists against so-called “moderates”), the ethnic fault lines soon kicked in such that subsequent democratic elections were polarized along strict ethnic lines, principally between East Indians in support of the Jaganite PPP and Afro-Guyanese in support of a break-away faction (which eventually became the PNC) led by Forbes Burnham. The most polarized of the subsequent elections were in 1961 and 1964 — a period which witnessed serious and deadly ethnic-political violence that further intensified with material support to opposition political forces coming from the British and the US via C.I.A. manipulations of labor and political forces in the country.
Subsequently, ethnic polarization spread from the polling booth to embrace the entire country when a variety of ethnically integrated villages in the countryside became emptied of one set of ethnic groups or the other, creating thereby mostly homogenous ethnic villages and communities throughout Guyana.
The 1964 national elections were eventually won by the opposition Burnhamist [PNC] forces, which received British and American material and political support. … Jagan and the PPP were returned to power in the 1992 elections after some 28 years in the political wilderness. But again, in 1992 and in all subsequent elections up to 2006 Guyana saw steep ethnic-polarized voting patterns.
What about Jagan’s role in the ethnicization of Guyanese politics?
Neither Burnham nor Jagan could escape culpability in this ethnic degeneration of Guyana’s politics; Burnham’s collaboration with the British against Jagan at that critical historical point in time was very destructive to the national efforts. But at the same time Jagan’s equal obsession with his supposed right to power – a supposition born of what he regarded as his being “cheated” of electoral victory every time he lost an election – a supposition no doubt also based on his belief in having a legitimate right to the East Indian majority vote in the country—also explains his drift toward ethnic-based and polarized politics in the country. …
Jagan died in 1997, and the PPP and the government has since been dominated by an essentially ethnic dominated leadership that seemed to have totally distanced itself from Jagan’s pro-working class agenda. The productive bases in both the sugar and mining (particularly bauxite) industries, the main pillars of the Guyana economy, are being dismantled in favor of privatized or corporate interests. In the case of bauxite, foreign private corporations with the government’s backing have not only significantly downsized the work force, but have breached standard labor agreements, illegally fired striking workers and de-recognized workers’ unions.
How has this ethnic division played itself out within the working-class movement, specifically, within the union movement?
Much of Caribbean labor became highly politicized in the Cold War context of having to fight continually on two fronts: first to cut across ethnic and religious boundaries; and second, to risk the incarceration of leaders for the violation of laws against trespass and picketing, which prevented union leaders from going into workplaces to discuss workers grievances.
In colonial times, labor unions became closely allied with political parties, beginning around the 1940s when political parties first developed in the British Caribbean. It is within this background context that we begin to understand the potential for political and ethnic divisiveness within the trade union movement in Guyana today.
These ethnic contradictions escalated into violence, correct?
Yes, the political violence of the 1960s brought a dramatically new dimension to the degree of political-ethnic divisiveness in light of CIA Cold War interventions in Guyanese labor. The violence of the period took on a distinctively ethnic/racial character when groups of killers from both sides of the ethnic divide unleashed a near-civil war situation on the country. The CIA, with the help of the AFL-CIO in the U.S., financed Guyana labor leaders deliberately to foster and encourage this warfare with the objective of ousting the PPP from power. The Guyana trade union movement henceforth became split right down the middle along ethnic cum political lines.
In sum, the history of the Guyana labor movement reflects a parallel experience in relation to partisan political developments in the country. The identical experience with British colonial and U.S. interventionist pressures leading to both ideological and ethnic splits in the political and labor movements have seriously devastated the labor and political landscapes in Guyana today. In labor circles, some of the main charges against the government include the unfair treatment of bauxite workers; … the government’s approach to interventions in labor issues — particularly strikes and workers benefits — the government’s neglect of Afro-Guyanese communities, which remain among the poorest sections of the Guyanese society, and selective ethnic bias and profiling by the state and security forces in the fight against crime and civil/political protest.
What progressive efforts have been undertaken to bridge the ethnic divide between the Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese populations?
Multi-ethnic collaboration or alliances in political or labor movements in Guyana have been most difficult to realize. Yet it is one of those problems that ought to be resolved if Guyana is to get mileage out of political and economic development. The central difficulty resides in the fact that major political and social interests (particularly the two main political parties) derive material and tangible, though usually corrupt, benefits from ethnic divisiveness and conflicts in the society. At the same time, none of the culpable parties accept that they are part of this problem. They often deny that ethnic discrimination and friction applies to their party. Each of the major parties claims to have resolved ethnic conflicts and divisiveness in its midst, and in the society only whenever it is in power. Hence the problem is not seriously recognized by any government in Guyana; always only by the opposition outside government.
However, during their various stints in power both Jagan and Burnham worked seriously to demonstrate their interest in ethnic togetherness in the country. But these earlier approaches failed to successfully bridge the ethnic-political gap in Guyana because the Guyanese masses did not buy into them, and therefore remained divided. This political vacuum brought into play several third parties whose raison d’être became the realization of a more politically unified multi-racial Guyana.
The first of these parties was the United Force (UF), which emerged in the 1960s as a right-wing pro-British party led by a combination of Portuguese, Chinese, and mixed-race elite leadership. And in the 1970s there entered Walter Rodney and his party, the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), with a more determined objective to bridge the ethnic and racial gaps in the society, and in pursuit of a more humanistic socialist vision for Guyana. However, the WPA in practice, although represented by a multi-ethnic leadership cadre, was unable to penetrate the steep ethnic polarization that engulfed the country at the time. In 2006 a new party, the Alliance for Change has surfaced, but has so far failed to gain multi-racial support. Today, the idea of a multi-ethnic politics for Guyana is lying on the ropes and desperately needs revival.
So what is the current situation?
The current atmosphere is a highly tense conflict situation determined by frequent imbalances between levels of state control or repression on the one hand, and levels of opposition, political dissent and resistance on the other. The penchant for state repressive responses to mass protest and dissent is historically rooted in the very authoritarian forms of colonial control, as evidenced by the arbitrary and brutal interventions of colonial governors in the suppression of political conflicts.
Burnham, for his part, took this repressive state approach to further extremes by creating a new military apparatus and army which was nonexistent in colonial times and cultivating a thuggish paramilitary death squad manned by the so-called “religious” grouping, the “House of Israel.” …
In the new millennium, however, things changed. A prison breakout involving violent criminals in 2002 led to the entrenchment of armed criminal gangs who declared themselves “freedom fighters” for the black cause in an Afro-Guyanese village called Buxton. A variety of maneuvers by the new leaders of the post-Jagan PPP government saw some of the most repressive forms of state interventions in Guyana’s history, including the use of torture and the use of the military alongside police forces.
These measures facilitated the emergence of a death squad led by a drug lord to eliminate rival criminal gangs in Buxton, contributing to a broader cycle of violence. Within this repressive context, or perhaps in response to it, a high volume of execution-styled murders and massacres took place, some involving the highest extremes of brutality.
So the situation as of 2010 could be described as a tense stalemate with significant contentious rumblings residing below the surface. The labor movement is again experiencing much turmoil with several major strikes and protests in both the mining (both gold and bauxite) and sugar industries, as the economic hardships of globalization take a toll on the workers.
The leadership structures within both major parties are experiencing much division, discontent and disarray over issues of policy direction. Among the native Amerindians there are divisions over the potential impact of government policies on their communities, particularly involving the issues of climate change and land distribution. Among government leadership circles there are serious pressures to respond to public and international charges of corruption and collusion with the drug barons.
Media stories I have seen seem to imply that the Guyanese state is unraveling.
The country has not reached the stage of being either a fascist or a failed state. Rather, Guyana could best be defined as a fragile state that is very nervous about its own survival and sovereignty in a hostile and hazardous domestic and international terrain. At the same time, it is a situation whereby the political legitimacy of the state and regime is seriously challenged or called into question.
What do you see as possibilities for the future?
The continuous and often violent political and ethnic conflict over the years since the 1960s, particularly since the post-Burnham/Jagan era, has already spawned a crisis of democratic politics and so-called “good governance” in the country. Yet more troubling for the country in the post-Buxton era is the continuing anarchistic-criminalized armed violence among youths in a multiplicity of poor communities, in confrontation with the military impunity (and shoot-to-kill-suspects mentality) cultivated by the armed forces and the state.
Equally disturbing is the emergence of what could be described as a conflict economy in which both criminal and legitimate commercial and business interests emerge and coalesce, and which benefit from the deadly conflicts that feed into the drug trade, money laundering, gun-running, and smuggling including trafficking in people.
Is there any light at the end of this bleak tunnel? A few possible optimistic scenarios seem to be unfolding. The first glimpse of hope resides within the very bosom of both major parties. The existing leadership challenges and dissent within both PPP and PNC camps threw up some very capable individuals who would seem to be outside the corruption net, tend to be relatively independent and universal in outlook, and seem to be seriously interested in bridging the ethnic divide, favoring collaboration across ethnic lines for the good of the country as a whole.
But perhaps the most encouraging development, in terms of lifting Guyana out of its leadership doldrums, is what has been happening within the Guyana labor movement. Here we see stirrings of visionary and bold leadership. The PPP-affiliated sugar workers union (GAWU), which is fighting for better wages and working conditions against the PPP-controlled sugar company, came out in April 2010 in open support for the Afro-Guyanese bauxite workers in their strike and struggle against a foreign union-busting corporation which is apparently protected by the PPP government.
Here we see a ray of hope for the future, particularly if inter-ethnic collaboration and cooperation is realized at the working-class organizational levels as a precursor to stimulating similar developments at the political party and government levels, and eventually reaching all sections of the Guyanese society. In this respect, GAWU would seem to be upholding Jagan’s strong pro-working class objectives as against both state and global interventionist policies, which work against workers’ interests, rights and solidarity.
But whatever future group or party emerges as the popularly and democratically accepted group to govern Guyana, a totally new political and social agenda focusing on shared development needs to be pursued. Official statistics indicate that the poverty rate varies along ethnic lines, with 87 percent and 43 percent of Amerindians and Afro-Guyanese, respectively, as compared with 33 percent of East Indians, living below the poverty line. Shared development — by which I mean the crafting of deliberate policy to [help] poorer communities and disadvantaged groups — will mean the definitive corrective to this imbalance.