Guyana and the cold war
December 16, 2000
Mr Tony Vieira noted, in a letter yesterday, that the West, in particular the United States of America, backed Mr Forbes Burnham in the sixties because they saw him as the alternative to communism in Guyana. The thesis is, of course, not a new one and is in outline well established and accepted. President John F. Kennedy, nervous after the Cuban revolution, decided with the assistance of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to destabilise the Jagan government and persuaded the Macmillan government in Britain to change the electoral system to proportional representation, aware, based on the election results in l957 and l96l, that the People's Progressive Party (PPP) could not secure an overall majority of the vote. The story is told in Dr Jagan's well known book, The West on Trial.
The overall priority, in the sixties, seventies and eighties, dictated by the perceived strategic requirements of the cold war, was to keep the PPP out of power. With this in mind, when the coalition with the United Force broke down in l967, the CIA participated through Shoup Registration Systems International in the rigging of the l968 elections. The mechanics of the rigging were well known, the largely fictitious overseas voters, the bypassing of the Elections Commission in the registration of voters, the amendment of the elections regulations to facilitate widespread proxy voting and so on. The evidence of fraud was overwhelming.
But Mr Vieira's analysis may be flawed in one respect. First, there was substantial backing locally, though it was somewhat shamefaced in the light of the appalling reality of a rigged election, for what had been done, as part of the fight to keep communism out. The argument was indeed put to Mr Peter d'Aguiar, by a senior representative of the Burnham government after the l968 debacle that in the broader interest of keeping Jagan out he should not rock the boat by challenging the elections. The breakdown of democracy was seen by some as a necessary part of the price to be paid.
It is also not true to say that Mr Burnham did not claim that Guyana was a democracy. Despite the increasingly clear evidence that it was not possible to change the government through the voting process (l973, l980) the fiction or fig leaf of democracy was maintained in the interest of maintaining some degree of plausibility, both internally and externally.
Guyana was a victim of the cold war. Its internal politics got caught up in the superpower game. The price paid was enormous, the gradual destruction of democracy and the resulting hypocrisy and cynicism that accompanied it. With the end of the cold war electoral democracy has returned. But the unravelling of that whole process of the whittling away of the normal safeguards of constitutional government takes time and many old attitudes remain. The stigma attached to elections, for example, is still strong though the context is now entirely different and an independent Elections Commission is in full control. In principle, our elections could now be as straightforward as they are in Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. At the end of the day the legacy needs to be confronted on all sides. The nation needs to come to terms with its history and to transcend it. The PPP has never come to terms with the reality of ethnic politics, clearly visible from l957. The PNC remains in a state of denial about its past. The younger generation, though aware of the weight of the past, can't see its way beyond it. The damage to various institutions remains though through it all a deep respect for the rule of law and constitutional democracy has somehow survived. The present era can be understood as an attempt to come to terms with this, despite the problems of division that remain.
Follow the goings-on in Guyana
in Guyana Today