Today is the death anniversary of Dr Walter Rodney, whose political activism can be summed up by the slogan “Power to the People”. On Thursday, Enmore Martyrs Day, on which Dr Cheddi Jagan gave a commitment to struggle for the poor, will be commemorated. What bound up the lives of these two great Guyanese, then, is a dedication to the empowerment of the Guyanese poor. Yet 50 years after this country achieved Independence, the masses of Guyanese remain poor – both relatively (only Haiti is poorer in this Hemisphere) and absolutely (43 per cent of the population live in officially defined “poverty”). What can we learn from their history – why their dream was never fulfilled, to change our trajectory today?
One singular lesson from Jagan’s experience is his quixotic jousting with the US when that nation was embroiled in a “Cold War” with the USSR for sole superpower status. Early on, Jagan chose to cut fine distinctions with John F Kennedy about whether we were a “communist” “fellow traveller” of Moscow. He did not appreciate, in the penumbra of the US President’s humiliation over his failed Bay of Pigs invasion, he could not risk “another Cuba in this Hemisphere”.
Unlike those who were in charge of both the US and USSR’s foreign policy, Jagan appeared to be an “idealist” rather than a “realist”. While both schools accepted states will always act to further their national interest by increasing their power, realism has the following characterises which are quoted in full because it is still applicable to our situation in the world.
“The world is a harsh and dangerous place. The only certainty in the world is power. A powerful state will always be able to outdo –and outlast –weaker competitors. The most important and reliable form of power is military power. A state’s primary interest is self-preservation. Therefore, the state must seek power and must always protect itself. Moral behaviour is very risky because it can undermine a state’s ability to protect itself. The international system itself drives states to use military force and to war. Leaders may be moral, but they must not let moral concerns guide foreign policy.” Using that realist logic, the US ousted the PPP Government of Dr Jagan in 1964 and installed and maintained the PNC of Forbes Burnham as the Government of Guyana for 28 years. Unlike Jagan, Rodney was not so much a “communist” as a “Marxist” who used the philosophy of Marx to analyse the situation of the newly “decolonised” countries in Africa and the Caribbean. In Guyana, he factored in the problematic of race/ethnicity into the Marxian class focus and in this way his approach resonated much widely at the grassroots.
As one of the founders of the “dependency school” of economic development, he emphasised the global structural relations into which a small economy on the periphery like Guyana’s are embedded. While he understood the role of the US in protecting and projecting its interests might have negative consequences for Guyana, he was pragmatic enough not to advocate any jettisoning of all linkages with the West. In the present circumstances, when the US is asserting its presence in the Region with the not-coincidental gradual diminution of “the left” in the Caribbean and Latin America, a Rodneyite approach rather than a Jaganite one might be advisable.
Domestically, both Jagan and Rodney articulated the need for Guyana to be governed by coalitions to address the extant racial/ethnic fissures. In the wake of his 1976 “critical support” for the PNC Government, Jagan called for a “National Front Government” in 1977 that would include “all progressive forces”. Walter Rodney and the WPA rejected Jagan’s inclusion of the PNC under that rubric in 1979. In the present circumstances, with the demonstration since 1992 that Guyanese in “free and fair” elections still “vote race/ethnicity”, and parties having no ideological difference, an-all inclusive “Government of National Unity” is suggested.