EARLIER THIS month, the PNC observed the 32nd death anniversary of its founder-leader, Forbes Burnham. Not unexpectedly, the party faithful were fulsome in their praise of the virtues of the man whose name has become synonymous with the party.
As someone who didn’t know Burnham personally, or did not grow up in a Burnham-loving household and who spent the early part of his activism as part of the anti-Burnham movement, I have never been hit by the “Burnham fever.” Yet, as I have moved through the African-Guyanese communities, I have become aware that Mr. Burnham meant a great deal to the earlier generations of African- Guyanese.
And as I have come to know PNC activists and members of my generation more closely, I have gained an appreciation of the enormous impact he has had in shaping the world-view of those whom he directly and indirectly mentored.
In the final analysis, Burnham is as complex as the Guyanese and Caribbean societies from which he emerged. Our islands (and here I include Guyana in the political and cultural family of islands) are a peculiar formation, a peculiar space with a peculiar history that defy settled theories of politics and society. And they have to be.
Here are nation-states whose histories have been shaped by bondage, the violence and authoritarianism that flow from that condition, the ethnic rivalry, suspicion and competition spawned by that experience and the anxieties which are a natural outgrowth of such experiences.
The Caribbean has been central to the growth of European wealth, yet our islands are economically poor and seem resigned to that condition. Resistance has been our birthright—from Haiti and Berbice to Cuba and Grenada — we have given birth to revolutions.
Yet we are among the societies that are most impatient with critique, protest and resistance. From the Middle Passage to Independence, our resistance leaders have been assassinated by the powers-that-be, yet our post-independence State and leaderships have not been able to disentangle themselves from that sordid praxis of persecution.
In our 50 years of independence, the freedom-spirit has been persistently assaulted by our State and the governments that manage them—and they do so in the name of law and order and nationalism. The political party has replaced the plantation as the sole giver of life. The poverty of the plantation has remained as widespread as in colonial times.
Back then, all manna came from Mother Europe and her local plantations and today all manna commeth from the maximum leader and his party. We cry out for ethnic unity, yet our very political acts are driven by an impulse of ethnic domination. We celebrate Emancipation and Indian Arrival and Amerindian Heritage with gusto, yet we want to banish African and Indian from our identity.
But we soldier on, always trying to do better. We have never given up the resistance spirit—we don’t reward resistance, but we own it when our backs are against the wall. APNU+AFC valued resistance when they wanted to replace the PPP, but now they are in power, they see that same resistance as wanting to bring back the PPP. The PPP assaulted every democratic norm when they held office, but today stand as the great defenders of democracy. Call us crazy or contradictory, but that’s the Guyana we have nurtured.
So, to understand Burnham, one must understand that complex Guyana. There are three narratives about Burnham, each of which is valid. First, there is the narrative of Burnham the visionary who used government to empower Guyanese, especially the poor and who lifted the image of Guyana globally through a most progressive foreign policy.
As a product of the anti-colonial struggle, progressive thinking was almost inevitable. One could not come out of that moment and not move in a progressive direction as far as the condition of the sufferers was concerned. The anti-colonial ideologies were pregnant with progressive and reformist tendencies and Burnham was a product of them. To argue against that narrative is to be dishonest, but to advance that as the sum-total of Burnham’s praxis is to be equally dishonest. And I daresay, many of Burnham’s admirers, particularly African-Guyanese, do exactly that.
The second narrative about Burnham is that of the dictator who was impatient with internal democracy and critics of his stewardship and who used the power of the institutions at his disposal to ruthlessly snuff out such dissent. This narrative, while correct, silences Burnham’s attempt at progressive policies and heaps every political sin at his doorstep.
The narrative of the dictator is spot on. Burnham’s rule reflected a deep authoritarian instinct in our political culture which was shaped on the very plantation we fought to overthrow. And, because he, Burnham, was not armed with enough of the democratic instinct in our culture which developed on that very plantation, he easily succumbed to the authoritarian instinct.
Burnham and many leaders of his generation never learned to resist the urge to use the enormous power at their disposal in personal and partisan ways. They became the party and the party became the State and they eventually became supreme. To ignore that about Burnham is to be dishonest, but to think that that was all that defined him is to be equally dishonest. And many in our midst, especially our Indian-Guyanese brethren and sisterin, are of that mindset.
The third narrative about Burnham, which is the least popular, is the one that seeks to take a critical stance by locating him within the problematics and complexity of Guyanese society. Unfortunately, our society is not hospitable to critical analysis. We function in a state of binaries—good vs evil. And our highly charged zero-sum ethno-politics encourages such a tendency. Burnham, like the Jagans, Rodney, Kwayana and the other major political leaders deserve more critical treatment.
The State of the African-Guyanese Forum
The Cuffy250 Committee would be holding its fifth annual “State of the African- Guyanese” Forum, today, August 20, 2017 at the Critchlow Labour College Auditorium. The Forum brings together activists, scholars, organisations and the general public to discuss the state of the African-Guyanese community and plan broad developmental strategies.
The theme for this year’s Forum is “Repositioning African-Guyanese for Recognition, Justice and Sustainable Development.” It is being held in collaboration with the International Decade of the People of African Descent Assembly-Guyana (IDPADA-G), a coalition of African-Guyanese organisations and individuals which, for the past year, has been working on an African-Guyanese “Action Plan.” The impetus for this initiative was a call by President Granger, when he delivered the keynote address at last year’s Forum, on the African- Guyanese leadership to honour the United Nations International Decade of the Peoples of African Descent with a plan of action for the community.
Towards this end, the highlight of this year’s Forum is the unveiling of the “African- Guyanese Action Plan” which lays out a strategy and agenda for African Guyanese Empowerment for the next decade. The keynote address would be delivered by President David Granger. Other speakers include Nigel Hughes, Marjorie Mc Caskey, Vincent Alexander, Comica Johnson, Eric Phillips, Esther Gittens, Dr. Norman Ng a Qui and Dr. Simpson da Silva.
The Forum starts at 9am. Registration is $300. For more information call 231 7888 or 614 9562
Cuffy250 was founded by a group of Guyanese in the USA and Guyana who came together in 2013 to observe the 250th anniversary of the Berbice Revolt, led by Cuffy, against the slave system. It is an organisation dedicated to encouraging socio-economic and cultural revitalisation within the African-Guyanese community and the fostering of ethnic and racial equality in Guyana.
In this regard, Cuffy250 is also committed to the reversal of ethnic domination of all kinds and from all quarters. Hence, part of its mission is to encourage self-empowerment and self-respect among African-Guyanese as a prerequisite for respecting all ethnic groups and as a defence against domination.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to email@example.com