Guyanese women in politics/power and decision making: Valerie Hart and the Rupununi Uprising
History This Week
By Cecilia McAlmont
March 24, 2005
Last year while conducting research at the American Ar-chives, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) listing and summarising documents pertaining to Guyanese women, I was intrigued when I realised that I had recorded more 'hits' on the name Valerie Hart than all but two of the nearly hundred women's names I had encountered in the thousands of pages of documents. I was intrigued because although I was already an adult when the Rupununi Uprising occurred on January 2, 1969 and could remember the names Melville and Hart, the name Valerie Hart did not ring a bell. Curiously, I deliberately mentioned the name to several of my colleagues and all but two of them could not recall the name either. The documents on Valerie Hart revealed an articulate and forthright woman who had defied convention and, however briefly and disastrously as it turned out, dared to step out of the constricting box of the private domain - to which tradition had sought to confine her - into the public world of politics, power and decision making which men arrogantly claim as their own.
This article is not about the pros and cons of the Rupununi Uprising or an assessment of the role of those involved including that of Valerie Hart. It is hoped that task would eventually be undertaken by our indigenous brothers and sisters themselves, on whose behalf the uprising was ostensibly fought. Thirty- six years after the uprising and as we continue to reflect on the theme of this year's International Women's Day which urges governments to put Gender Equality on the top of the international peace and development agenda, this article will examine the way in which the Rupununi Uprising provided the circumstances which made it possible for one woman to step out of the box and defy conventional wisdom as to what should be a woman's place in the realm of politics/power and decision making.
Women in politics/power and decision making
The minuscule participation of women in politics/ power and decision making has always been an issue and manifested itself in the 1952 UN declaration on the Political Rights of Women. It was an integral part of the deliberations since the launching of the UN Decade for Women (1975) and was discussed at length and recommendations made both at the Fourth World Conference for Women (1995) where the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted and the Beijing + 5 Political Declaration and Outcome Document which reaffirmed and strengthened the language of the platform. The section of the Platform for Action on Women in Power and Decision Making states, among other things, "Women's equal participation in political life plays a pivotal role in the general process of the advancement of women: women's equal participation in decision making is not only a demand for simple justice or democracy but can also be seen as a necessary condition for women's interest to be taken into account. Without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women's perspectives at all levels of decision making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved."
Among the issues which hamper women's meaningful participation are lack of education and training, the acquisition of which help to equip women with the self esteem and self confidence to challenge the male bastion of politics/power and decision making; the lack of a reliable support network to provide a number of social services to relieve women of some of their responsibilities for caring and nurturing; poverty which leaves many women locked in a day-to-day struggle for survival little time to engage in political activities while others are discouraged by the lack of funds for financing electoral campaigns; their limited access to adequate resources. More importantly, however, is the definition of spheres as being private and public and women are traditionally relegated to the former with little possibility of intruding in the latter male preserve. The above is reinforced by the socialisation process which institutionalises the notion of male superiority and female inferiority. These ideas are pertinent in respect of the women, internationally, regionally and nationally.
Nationally, these constraints are further exacerbated by specific ethnic dimensions. In the case of indigenous women, they have been additionally hampered by geographical location, overall marginalisation in the society and practices among certain tribes which excluded the involvement of women in political activity. In the case of Afro and Indo Guyanese women, vestiges of patriarchy and other religious and cultural practices have hampered their participation. Therefore, despite Article 29 (1) of Guyana's 1980 Constitution which sought to end all kinds of discrimination against women (it took more then a decade to put in place the necessary mechanisms to enforce it) and the fact that Guyana is party to all of the international conventions already mentioned, Guyanese women's participation remains a minor one.
Consequently, shut out of meaningful participation in power and decision making, women, including Guyanese women, have found other methods of political participation mainly through their leadership roles in NGOs and the work of civil society. Guyanese women became involved in these organisations since the end of the 19th century. In the more recent past they have been the place where Guyanese women have honed the skills needed for participation in more conventional politics. With reference to the above discussion on other methods of political participation and with specific reference to the Rupununi Uprising one can add the comment of Queen's Counsel, Fred Wills, during the Rupununi murder trial. While urging the jury to find that there was overwhelming evidence to support the crown's case that there was concerted action and a conspiracy to take over the Rupununi, he stated "all wars and all rebellions are the continuation of politics by other means and it was clear that those who tried the ballot box in December 1968 and failed had decided to try bullets". It is against this background that Valerie Hart's participation in the Rupununi Uprising will be examined.
Valerie Hart and the Rupununi Uprising
At 8 am January 3, 1969, Valerie Hart, wife of a Rupununi Rancher, contacted a US ham radio operator and made an appeal for help on behalf of Guyanese rebels. In a phone conversation with a reporter from the Washington Star, Jerimiah O'Leary she identified herself as President of the Association of Proce-dures and Representative of Free Peoples and the Free State of Essequibo, in revolt against the government of Guyana and the government of Burnham. She claimed that the Amerindians and ranchers were fighting together against the dictatorship of Burnham and appealed for weapons, medical supplies and moral support. When she was asked if the rebels were supporting Jagan she vehemently denied it and declared that they wanted to be free, have a free democratic government and to rule themselves. She queried as to how they could then support a Marxist, socialist Jagan. Several other broadcasts were made the same morning reiterating the appeal for US or any other foreign assistance.
The choice of Valerie Hart, a woman, to be spokesperson to the world for a revolt most of whose active participants were men turned on its head the then conventional wisdom of the place and role of women in the context of power and decision making, gender organisation and sex role assignments but at the same time paradoxically reinforced it. In the first place, the men must have had confidence in her intelligence, resourcefulness, self confidence and the ability to adequately plead their cause before foreign governments and diplomats almost all of whom were aggressively male. This hardly bespoke the personality of a woman who exuded an acceptance of inherent male superiority and female inferiority or a passive acceptance of a woman's place in the private non political sphere of home and the family, one who would not dare to intrude in the man's aggressive, competitive, public, political sphere. On the other hand, precisely because of the traditionally accepted role and place of women, it was hoped that a woman messenger would cause the message to be received more sympathetically and rejection dealt with more sensitively. Valerie Hart's performance in her role of "Rebel Envoy" supported the above conclusion.
In the next article, Valerie Hart's performance in her role of "Rebel Envoy" in the light of the analytical framework stated above will continue to be examined.
In the previous article, the past and present notions and conventions defining a woman's place in politics/power and decision making were discussed. Additionally, the Rupununi Uprising was discussed as the background against which Valerie Hart was given the opportunity to both defy and reinforce conventional wisdom as to the place and role of women in the context of power and decision making, gender organisation and sex role assignments when she acted as spokesperson for the mainly male participants in the uprising. In this article her performance in her role, as "Rebel Envoy" will continue to be examined. The article will conclude with some questions to ponder.
Valerie Hart: "Rebel Envoy"
Valerie Paul became Valerie Hart when she married into the Hart clan, one of the prominent Rupununi ranching families or so called "Savannah Aristocrats". She was not an indigenous woman but a coastlander of Chinese extraction. She grew up in a village on the West Bank of Demerara with her parents and several siblings, one of whom, Mrs. Wong and her six children were visiting her when the uprising began. In recent discussions on the situation of indigenous women, one of the many constraints identified which they faced in their quest for meaningful political participation was their lack of access to post primary education. This seemingly was not the case with Valerie Hart. As a coastlander she would have had access to post primary education and the self-assurance and self-confidence and clarity with which she delivered her message especially to the foreign press supports the contention. That she was a woman of some educational achievement is also attested to by the fact that she was one of three women of the fifty-three candidates named by the United Force to contest the December 12, 1968 general elections. However, five days after the uprising she was expelled from that party for her involvement in the disturbances and "for acting in a manner inimical to the territorial integrity of Guyana and the aims and objectives of the United Force."
Much of what took place before, during and after the uprising came out in the form of statements given to the police by family members of the Harts, Melvilles and other Amerindians arrested by, or who surrendered to the GDF or through testimony of witnesses during the trial. According to statements made at the trial, Valerie Hart was very much a part of the decision making structure which planned and executed the uprising. It was clear that the part she was to play was well planned. She was flown to Venezuela prior to the outbreak of hostilities with clear instructions as to when to begin her broadcasts as "President of the Essequibo Free State."
She proved to be an articulate and aggressive advocate for the rebels' cause. According to a dispatch from the American Ambassador to Caracas, the day after she made her first broadcasts, she called on the Venezuelan Foreign Minister requesting to see President Leoni, but she was granted an audience with him instead. She described herself as one of the heads of the government, which had been established in the Essequibo area as an independent entity. She claimed that the inhabitants of the region had been attacked without provocation and that the government was treating them in the most barbaric fashion. She appealed to the Venezuelan government for assistance in the name of humanity and as an act of justice.
In her appeal to the Venezuelan government Valerie Hart proved herself to be a shrewd political strategist. She was aware of the tense relationship between the two governments so she emphasised the concerns of the Amerindians. She must have realised that her statements were bound to stir up the Venezuelan public and so create demands for a helping hand to be extended to the voiceless and unrepresented victims of oppression. In his report on his conversation with the Venezuelan Foreign Minister on Mrs. Hart's version of what occurred, the American Ambassador stated that he found it difficult to reconcile Mrs. Hart's allegations of an unprovoked attack by the Guyana Government with the testimony of missionaries and the representatives of the United Force who indicated a plot with overtones of violence. The missionaries had clearly indicated that the rebels had attacked the town and apparently killed some of those in authority. He therefore cautioned that Mrs. Hart's statements of an unprovoked attack should be taken with a grain of salt.
In addition to this caution, the Venezuelan government knew of the accusation levelled against it by the Government of Guyana of complicity in the uprising. In fact, the Venezuelan government had returned the Government of Guyana's note on the subject on the grounds that it had not been couched in proper diplomatic language. But Venezuela was also sensitive about its image in international fora where the Government of Guyana was aggressively lobbying for international support. Valerie Hart was refused an audience with the Venezuelan president. She subsequently held several press conferences, which showed her to be what in today's parlance would be described as a clever spin artist.
While her request for an interview with the Venezuelan president was turned down she was more readily accepted by other groups in Venezuela. No doubt her spin on the treatment of the Amerindians was responsible for the creation of several committees in Venezuela for the protection of the Amerindians. She later announced at another press conference that she was able to acquire political asylum and Venezuelan citizenship for members of her family and later for fifty of the other rebels.
Valerie Hart proved to be an aggressive and shrewd lobbyist prepared to do or say whatever was necessary to achieve her ends namely more tangible involvement and support of the Venezuelan authorities. When her pleadings on the grounds of humanity and justice fell on deaf ears, she threw caution to the winds and made a second call to the Venezuelans to intervene militarily to help the rebels and take over the region. In a clearly treasonable statement, she urged the Venezuelans to assert their rightful claim not only to the Rupununi but all the 50,000 square miles of territory of the Essequibo region at the centre of a border controversy. While one can certainly question her loyalty to her country, there is no denying that in the context of the times in which she operated, she showed tremendous courage and determination. More than two weeks after it was clear that the uprising was unsuccessful, that dozens of persons including members of her family and that of the Melvilles would be tried for murder and that there was little of support regionally and internationally for her cause, she still declared her intention to petition the UN, the OAS and US President-elect Richard Nixon.
These were not the utterances or actions of a tentative, gentlewoman who needed protection from the harsh, brutal world of power and politics, rather she showed her capacity to handle and manipulate them. Not surprisingly, she was second on the list of thirteen persons including one other woman whom the Government of Guyana wanted to try for murder. During the trial, the defence for the ten murder accused stated that it was a murder rather than a treason trial because the ringleaders Valerie Hart, Dick Hart and Neville Junor were absent. The Government of Guyana even went so far as to request that she be extradited to Guyana for trial when they became aware that she planned to visit the United States. That request was refused and the matter was quietly dropped.
Some thoughts and questions to ponder
The Rupununi Uprising was a failure and whatever the judgment of Valerie Hart's involvement might be, the uprising gave her the opportunity to demonstrate an undoubted capacity for leadership and decision making, which she normally would not have had. She lived in a society, nay a country, where custom, tradition and practice defined female behaviour. Nonetheless, she was able, albeit under questionable circumstances, to break through the confinement of "the circumscribed and narrowly defined gender role" that was the lot of the average woman in Guyana and elsewhere.
If the now almost seventy-one-year-old Valerie Hart were to come out of exile from Brazil where she is reported to be living and return to the country of her birth, how would she be viewed by the different stakeholders? Given the unequivocal condemnation of the rebellion by the then main opposition party now the government in power (although they had asserted that the government almost brought it on themselves because of their disregard for Amerindian concerns), would she be hauled before the court for treason or participating in the uprising, or granted a pardon? Would the leaders of our indigenous population now waging a relentless battle to have a more meaningful say in the framing of any laws to deal with Amerindian land rights embrace her as someone whose action helped to bring their concerns to the front burner or, reject her as part of the reason why their just demands were dealt with only peripherally for several decades? Would she be embraced by the occasionally very articulate local women's organisations as a woman who dared to defy conventional wisdom and intruded, albeit briefly, in the political space our men saw and still see as their personal preserve, or will she be quietly ignored?
Alas, we may never know.