Rigged elections ruined Burnham's legacy

Stabroek News
July 12, 2001

Dear Editor,

The belief that Forbes Burnham's initiatives failed because "many of us could not appreciate the depth of his vision" may rest comfortably with some who 'grew on' the late PNC Founder-Leader, but others have a different view and belief concerning Guyana's economic failure at the time of Burnham's death.

Burnham may have been a visionary, given the direction in which he wanted to take the country after Guyana attained Independence in 1966 and Republican status in 1970. However, after he allowed the election process to be manipulated again in 1973 to keep his party and, ultimately, himself in power, the vision was exposed to be self-centered and it took away from whatever 'majesty' he had or legacy of excellence people may now feel he left behind.

Until all his ardent admirers and supporters can see the devasting impact that denying Guyanese the right to vote has had on Guyana, there always will be an illusion of the man's majesty and legacy. Take away my right to vote and you have access to all my other rights. Misuse the security forces to keep me in line. Control the labour movement to pay me what you want. Favor party loyalty over my professional experience. Tell me what you want me to know.

Burnham's failure hinges on two unrelated factors that most world leaders today would do well not to get swept away by: (a) a level of personal pride that elevates one to a position where it is difficult to acknowledge leadership failure with the concomitant steps to make an about face, and to do both in a timely fashion, and (b) an underestimation of the dynamics of superpower politics on the world market viz a viz setting market prices and the unchallenged manipulation of the demand side of economics.

Assured of a permanent position as Executive President based on the manipulation of the 1980 Constitution authored by Dr. Mohammed Shahabudeen, while skillfully engineering the outcome of national elections, and overseeing the State's control of the commanding heights of the economy, Burnham's personal status was supremely elevated throughout the land.

They had developed a fear and a sense of awe among many people. Some people still claim he had a 'presence', whatever that means. But it was the apparent high, worshipful esteem, he harbored from people that made him feel it was okay to push ahead with his initiatives knowing, if he failed, he was answerable to no one, and could readily blame others.

Conflicting word came out after his death that in the preceeding weeks, he was considering a form of PNC/PPP merger, or that he was considering an alternative to the failed socialist approach. If he was trying to change, it was way too late because the ship of state had taken in too much water and was sinking fast. Earlier advice to change course was ignored, so what good was any advice after the fact?

On the international market where Guyana had to sell its products, the more developed Western nations fixed the market prices and determined demand side economics to favour them. When Guyana's President got up and ideologically villified the West on many occassions, both in Guyana and abroad, he was not helping Guyana's cause in the international market place.

In addition, financial lending institutions and foreign investors took note and refused to look at Guyana. Symbolic economic assistance from the Socialist bloc and economic agreements with other struggling or emerging Third World countries did not change our socio-economic situation.

The projects successfully executed in Guyana during his era may be hailed as outstanding acvhievements, but were those not the very projects Guyana badly needed as a newly independent nation? A newly constructed hydro?power system, a newly constructed road to Lethem, and gradual development of Guyana's hinterland for occupation by Guyanese would be considered outstanding. But foreign assistance was needed, not cutlasses and garden hoes.

What it all boils down to is, what did the state of the economy say of Burnham's vision and leadership at the time of his demise? He lacked a political perspective on how the role of international relations in a changing global economy, over which he had no control, directly affected Guyana's socio-economic growth. And he developed such a tunneled-vision leadership mentality which affected his ability to see that outside his power base there were resourceful people (not yes-men) who really cared and could have helped.

Yours faithfully,
Emile Mervin
Brooklyn, New York