Burnham left a record of failure

Stabroek News
August 14, 2001

Dear Editor,

Sixteen years after Burnham's demise, many voices have been raised to have his portrait hung in the National Cultural Centre.

When wheat flour and a wide range of food items were banned in 1979 Guyana became a nation of criminals simply because to partake in eating these food items one was breaking the law. A huge exodus, of predominantly Indo-Guyanese, resulted with people fleeing from any departure port--Timehri, Springlands and others still unknown.

In the early 80's children went to school poorly fed and clothed - there was no milk or baby food available. They stood hours in sun and rain performing mass games. Of course PNC members were given chits to obtain items like oil, milk, soap etc.

Those who seek to glorify Burnham today are doing so simply because they were the recipients of the spoils of office, at the expense of the taxpayers.

Guyana remains as perhaps the only country in the world to punish its inhabitants for possessing food. In 1982 I was arrested at Albion, during a police stop and search exercise, for having two loaves of bread which were taken away and eaten by the very 'officers'. Anyone consuming, selling or transporting such items faced the full force of the Kabaka's self-construed law. Long lines became the order of the day. Schoolchildren, at their parents' behest, skipped school and lined up for hours at Knowledge Sharing Institutes- what a name for a place to obtain salt and soap! The end result was that a number of Indians became rich through smuggling and farming, though not at the expense of their Black counterparts. An underground economy flourished with Black people garnering their (parallel) dollars through bribery and coercion - ask any policeman. For a birth certificate or any licence huge sums had to be forked over - ask any public servant.

Burnham's Glass factory was shattered, his textile mill project went naked, his brainchild the National Service, designed to Feed, Clothe and House the nation, had to be subsidized by the state. The main opposition party continued with its clamour for Socialism while giving the dictatorship 'Critical Support'. What about his multi-million dollar Mazaruni hydro project?

The state, by 1978, owned some 70% of the economy. (In this regard Burnham was guilty of erecting unsound economic structures, however, the architect was none other than Cheddi Jagan). The bauxite industry crumbled as did sugar, fisheries and rice. In fact, the entire agricultural sector virtually collapsed - except for ganja production. Meanwhile, with the economy in tatters and his grip on power loosening, Burnham created the National Guard Service, People's Militia, Tactical Services Unit, Quick Reaction Squad, Impact...etc.-a para-military phenomenon no different from the dictatorships of the sub-Saharan African dictators.

Real wages dropped, the local currency devalued by 100% (when Burnham died in 1985 the exchange rate was 8.5 to US$1), the national debt stood at US$ 2.0 Billion, kick- down-door bandits were having a field day, with Indians invariably the main victims, and a fugitive from the US, David Hill, who somersaulted into a newborn Christian, Rabbi Washington, was enjoying newfound freedom in Georgetown. Alongside such religious fervour, cult leader Jim Jones, not to be outdone, was busy ministering to fellow Americans in the interior. Amid these disasters the self- anointed emperor-- without an empire-- and executive lord of the land was touring the world, attending summits, (76 persons accompanied him to Melbourne for two weeks in 1978).

At this juncture (1980) well enshrined party paramountcy was the de facto law of the land, policemen were selling New Nation in the streets, the Floating Bridge continued to float away, teachers were forced to peel coconuts at Hope Estate, University graduates could not receive their degrees if they did not perform National Service, (the entry requirement having been lowered to facilitate admission) some trade unions came under Burnham's control and a silent, acquiescing Caricom did nothing. Alternatively the West was fed the line 'Do you want a Communist (PPP) gov't or me.

Great leaders accomplish great things while, at the same time, allowing their subjects to make great achievements and progress. Burnham did neither.

Yours faithfully,
Leland Chitlall Roopnarine