Spring 2002

ISSN 1473-219X





Guyana: a visitor’s up-date

Andrew Graham-Yooll


Guyana´s place in South America offers a potential Latin American experience combined and in contrast with its English-speaking Caribbean existence. This apparently dual status is exaggerated when the country’s colonial heritage is considered; where a mix of Dutch, French and British has to be taken into account. And that can be taken further when Guyana’s history of African, Indian and Portuguese indentured labour, and Chinese immigration, are set against the social and historic backdrop. That is where the original native Guyanese should be considered in the first place: the Makushi people, and the Wapishana, natives to regions inland, the original Caribs and Arawaks, belonging to the coast. Many of these ancestral factors are reflected in the national Cabinet. But now, that racial mix has become a danger to itself: the most obvious evidence being the race riots of April 2001, in Georgetown, the capital, and elsewhere. They left a postcolonial society fuming over its own failures and conflicts.

Probably because of its ancestry, or perhaps even in spite of it, Guyana produced some of the best postcolonial English fiction in the seventies and eighties. At that time, Guyanese diplomacy gave the north-south links, and the Non-Aligned Movement, some of the world’s leading diplomats, mainly in the abundant shape of the former foreign minister and later Commonwealth Secretary, Sir Shridath Surrendranath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal, and Lloyd Searwar, former head of the Guyana Foreign Service. And yet at home, Guyana has witnessed decline almost as a way of life.

This article is not an academic exploration of these issues. Rather, it is a journalistic observation, based on visits and other contacts with a friendly country that always made the author welcome. And it is intended to draw academic attention to an area of study. Hence, these are notes, in no way an analysis of the evolution of a society.

Guyana was the ‘Cooperative Republic’ until 2000, when a constitutional reform dropped the denomination. On 26 May 2001, the country celebrated 35 years as an independent republic. Guyana, in some ways, has become a forgotten nation, not that any state is ever fully neglected, given the proliferation of journalists in search of a good feature, and academics in search of an essay. But in many ways it has been sidelined by international events. This is a sorry situation for what was once the ‘Garden of the Caribbean’ and the cradle of important personalities who took part in the struggle against colonialism. It is now seen as a poor country by its smaller neighbours, such as Trinidad and Tobago. Further, racism, which Guyanese played down as non-existent or very rare in their nation, has burst out in the most ugly fashion. This weighs as heavily as does the poverty, and even more than the perennial frontier dispute with Venezuela, which claims two thirds of Guyana as part of its Essequibo province.

There was a time when Spaniards and Portuguese sought this land as a source of gold, but did not find it. The low-lying land, the great rivers (Orinoco and Essequibo), attracted the Dutch who tried to apply their experience of canals and dams to the new territory. Their first, seventeenth century (ca. 1616), capital was established at the meeting of three rivers, the mighty Essequibo, the Cuyuni and Mazaruni, on a small island. Of that first capital, Kyk-Over-Al (‘Look Over All’), there are remains of the original fort, a small arch, but no more. The Dutch thought this would be the appropriate place to develop food supplies for the more extended expeditions and for the invasion of northern Brazil (which was defeated by the slave army of the Portuguese). The Dutch found that the jungle soil was not much use for cultivation after deforestation, a thing that the Brazilian settlers of the hinterland are still trying to come to terms with four centuries later. The Dutch moved the capital in 1625 to the mouth of the Demerara river.

Charles Waterton, an English traveller, remarked in his Wanderings in South America (1825), after journeys in the region in 1812 and 1824, that:

Stabroek, the capital of Demerara, has been rapidly increasing for some years back; and if prosperity go hand in hand with the present enterprising spirit, Stabroek, ere long, will be of the first colonial consideration. It stands on the eastern bank at the mouth of the Demerara, and enjoys all the advantages of the refreshing sea-breeze; the streets are spacious, well bricked, and elevated, the trenches clean, the bridges excellent, and the houses handsome. Almost every commodity and luxury of London may be bought in the shops at Stabroek; its market wants better regulations. The hotels are commodious, clean, and well attended. Demerara boasts as fine and well-disciplined militia as any colony in the western world.

In 1786, Britain had taken over two Dutch provinces, Berbice and Demerara (the river’s muddy brown colour named the sugar that made fortunes for distant colonial merchants), to form British Guiana. Twenty-one years later, with Britain still stuck in the Napoleonic wars, slavery was abolished in the colony, but slaves abounded, freed or otherwise, as cheap labour, and were available up to 1838. Charles Waterton reported that in 1815, there were 72,999 slaves, who had produced 44 million pounds of sugar, two million gallons of rum, 3.8 million pounds of cotton, for which the public chest had received 553,956 Dutch guilders, and the country’s accounts were favourable. (In 1982, Guyana had produced 287,000 tons of sugar, which had fallen to 167,000 tons in 1988, rice production had fallen dramatically). However, the slave workforce was bound to dwindle. The planters and traders of British Guiana sought cheap labour in Portugal, mainly Madeira, and later in India, and China.

May of each year marks the anniversaries of the arrival of the groups of indentured labour, as they were incorporated into their new South American society. On May 3, 1836, the first Portuguese arrived. On May 5, 1838, the first Indians from the sub-continent, and on May 24, 1842, the first Africans contracted to work in the plantations. The other significant date in May is the 26th – Independence Day.

Guyana offers a feeling of living colonial history about it , from the twentieth century and before. The Indo-Caribbean writer, now a British subject, V S Naipaul, originally from the house in back of the two stone lions outside his father’s store in front in Chaguanas, Trinidad, enshrined Guyana as a place of passage in The Middle Passage (1962). Janet Jagan, the US-born wife of Cheddi Berrat Jagan (1918-1997), told Naipaul that he had been unfair in his criticism of Guyana and of her husband, whom she had once described as ‘the most handsome man in the world’. (Naipaul later regretted some of his remarks during a return visit to Guyana in December 1990). The country had already made its way into literature, however, in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934).

This list of names and events is given here, and in the same style will be given throughout these notes, in a very un-academic fashion, because knowledge about Guyana is tenuous in the international community beyond the expatriate Guyanese nationals.

Hence, mention Guyana anywhere and the country is best remembered for one event only, the Jonestown massacre. In 1978, on 18 November, 914 people committed ritual suicide or were murdered in a farming settlement in the Guyanese hinterland. All were members of a sect led by a messianic Californian named Jim Jones.

Other people, with a wider view and some recollection of the Cold War, may remember when the United States feared that Guyana might become ‘another Cuba’ on the shoulder of mainland South America. The ‘Cooperative Republic’ in the seventies and eighties was given monster ratings for supporting Fidel Castro and his troops transshipment to Angola, in the war against South Africa. (a time which links up with a multitude of other events of the Cold War).

Today, President Bharrat Jagdeo, a 38 year old protegé of the Jagans, an Indo-Guyanese, who was re-elected on 19 March 2001, speaks of more immediate problems, such as trying to build better links with Brazil and the rest of Spanish-speaking South America through a Memorandum of Agreement with the MERCOSUR common market (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay), even if trade relies on the CARICOM agreements outside of the region. Guyana’s economy is still heavily dependent on British foreign aid and expatriate family remittances. Brazil is a growing link, with a road through the country’s north intended to cross Guyana to the Caribbean coast. The veteran foreign service chief, Lloyd Searwar, now 77, echoed this requirement in an interview: ‘We have to be able to negotiate with the United States to arrange some sort of autonomy [he carefully does not say independence]. Our Asian and African links do not matter any more: trade and markets have overtaken the solidarity of nations.’

Jagdeo, a market-oriented leader with a training in economics in Moscow, won the elections with the vote of the largely Indo-Guyanese People’s Progressive Party (PPP), defeating the rival People’s National Congress (PNC), which collects a majority of Afro-Guyanese. This has changed a political balance that existed since independence, whereby the Asian sector held the economic power, and the African community held government. Now the Asians hold both. That switch has nurtured resentment, and a certain hopelessness in those who trusted the government to give them jobs, and perks. The end of the balance has burst into racial violence. Jagdeo denied that there was a racial conflict in Guyana. But some of his critics, even with his own Asian ancestry, think different.

Back in the sixties, the contest was simple. A dentist with a Marxist view of politics, Cheddi Jagan, represented the Asian community. Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham (1923-85) was seen as a nationalist leader who aspired to take the country out of colonialism. Both were viewed in London as a small postcolonial extension of the Cold War. It should be remembered that Jagan was at one time, in the run-up to independence, ranked among the leading anti-colonialist activists of the world, including Patrice Lumumba (1925-61), Ernesto Guevara (1928-67), and Franz Omar Fanon (1925-61). Another, younger, Guyanese who entered that league of internationalists was Dr Walter Rodney (1942-80), founder of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), Guyana’s third party. A historian by training, Rodney had started out with Jagan’s PPP, and was a follower of the discussion groups led by C L R James (1901-89) in London.

Washington, in the wisdom of Dean Rusk, and Whitehall, in the conservative concern of Alexander Douglas Home, fearing that Jagan would create ‘another Cuba’ on the South American mainland, favoured the installation of Forbes Burnham, who introduced electoral fraud as a form of government, proclaimed the Cooperative Republic. Burnham started a regime that was to last over two decades which was to inspire the fury, first, of Washington, which forced near isolation. He nationalised the sugar, the bauxite and the timber industries, restricted press freedom and used methods best known as state terror to enforce his rule. Thus, it was not enough that his parliamentary majority imposed his will. His agents gunned down the university biology lecturer and editor of the radical monthly paper Ratoon, Dr Joshua Ramsammy, in broad daylight, on 4 October 1971. They mysteriously murdered the Minister of Education, Vincent Teekah, on the night of 24 October 1979, and the killing was covered up. And they murdered Father Bernard Darke, on 14 July 1979, probably mistaking him for Father Andrew Morrison, editor of the Catholic Standard, and the real target of the hitmen. And Walter Rodney was murdered by a bomb in his car on 22 June 1980.

Guyana, at the same time, managed to build a strong foreign service that ably negotiated a prominent position in the Non-Aligned Movement, which gave Forbes Burnham international support in the territorial dispute with Venezuela, a conflict that dated back to the nineteenth century and in which, at one time, the US unsuccessfully tried to mediate between Caracas and London.

But at home the decline was out of control. One indicator is in the population level. The 1980 census pegged the figure at 756,000, but a survey in October 1993 put the population at 717,458. Not much has changed in the ensuing decade. Guyana saw its emigration rate grow faster than its birth rate. For years, young Guyanese thought only of securing an education certificate, or teacher’s training, to apply for a visa to Canada, or the United States. The queues outside the consulates in Georgetown were part of the urban scenery. In some villages of the interior, the visitor could find one aged couple in residence, looking after up to a dozen houses whose owners had gone abroad, a small sum of money sent sporadically to care for the caretakers. The remittances from abroad, and the Christmas ‘barrels’ with gifts (for resale and profit), were an essential part of the economy. The 2001 electoral role recorded 412,000 voters. That included the vast number of emigrés who enrolled overseas.

While the ethnic balance was maintained, the one area of conflict appears to have been Guyana’s busy press. Guyana’s press has a rich history, since colonial times. However, freedom of expression had been hindered almost without interruption since independence, and the installation of the parliamentary dictatorship which had rigged elections (December 1968, 1973, referendum in 1978, 1980, and, less fraudulently, 1985). All that time there was a tacit control of public opinion by way of the Guyana Broadcasting Corporation, and the government’s unilateral access to newsprint and printing. When Forbes Burnham took over, the last private newspaper was the Graphic, owned by the Thompson group. When Thompson decided to pull out of Guyana, the shares were offered for sale to the public by prospectus. At the eleventh hour, Forbes Burnham introduced legislation, the Capital Issues Control Act, which imposed state permission as a requisite for the sale of company shares. Burnham refused permission, and Thompson sold to the government in 1973. The Graphic became the government’s paper, along with the surviving Guyana Chronicle. The government party, PNC, also published a paper called New Nation. The only remaining opposition paper was the Jesuit Catholic Standard. This had been founded in the fifties as a fortnightly, and in January 1962, became a weekly, when a Jesuit ordained in 1957, Father Andrew Morrison, became editor.

A history of the Guyanese press would include publishing since the beginning of British colonial rule. Titles such as The Argosy, and Daily Argosy, Berbice Gazette & British Guiana Advertiser, The Colonist, The Creole, Daily Chronicle, Demerara Daily Chronicle, Guiana Chronicle, Demerara Gazette, Guiana Graphic (later the Guyana Graphic) and several others, which included private and government ownership, are part of the press heritage. By the time that Linden Forbes Burnham died while undergoing minor surgery, in August 1985, the Cooperative Republic was a backwater. The succession was led by President Hugh Desmond Hoyte, who immediately hinted at an opening up of Guyana, and, to a lesser degree, by the Prime Minister Hamilton Green, who doubled as economy minister. Elections were promised as from 1985, but delayed repeatedly.

A Catholic lawyer educated in England, David de Caires, whose law practice partner had taken an active interest in protecting the Catholic Standard against government libel and other forms of harassment, went to see Hoyte with the idea of starting a new paper. The President said there was no law to stop De Caires, but he would get no help, no newsprint and no foreign currency. On Friday, 21 November 1986, the first 20,000 copies of De Caires’s 16-page weekly, Stabroek News, rolled off the presses of the Trinidad Express Newspapers, in Port of Spain.

Stabroek News grew rapidly, and was instrumental in giving Guyana a sense of political recovery and participation, mainly through the paper’s pages of readers’ letters, which De Caires was very proud of. The paper accompanied the process through to elections on 5 October 1992. That was when Cheddi Jagan was elected President, returned to government for the first time since his brief prime ministership before independence. Perhaps inevitably, the paper fell out with Cheddi Jagan, in July 1993, when accused of destabilisation, an accusation which the former president, Desmond Hoyte, and the People’s National Congress had also leveled at the paper. These ups and downs seemed inevitable, but De Caires was most distressed in 2001, when his paper, which had encouraged democratic participation and freedom of expression, found itself accused, sometimes in its own letters pages, by PNC hotheads who said Stabroek News was guilty of racism and of favouring the Indo-Guyanese community. This was just after the elections and the riots, when arsonists gutted a large section of central Georgetown. During the riots, De Caires found himself ordering his Indo-Guyanese reporters not to leave the newspaper building for fear that they would come to harm. Another aspect of Stabroek News was that it encouraged some of the country’s leading literary figures, who seldom had any other place to publish.

One of Stabroek News’s voices of moderation and wisdom was that of Ian McDonald, a weekly columnist, but also one of Guyana’s and the Caribbean’s leading writers, and now chief executive officer of the Sugar Association of the Caribbean Inc. He was once a manager at the Guyana Sugar Corporation, which he had joined when it was still run by Booker’s before nationalization by Forbes Burnham: ‘I have no harbouring place but this. I have no other homeland and want no other. I speak of the English-speaking West Indies where I hope to see deeper integration taking place even while closer cooperation with the wider Caribbean proceeds. My children may help to build a great pan-Caribbean nation but that is for later in the 21st century.’ This paragraph is from No other home, an article in Enterprise of the Indies, a volume compiled and edited by author George Lamming, published by The Trinidad and Tobago Institute of the West Indies.

McDonald, Trinidad-born of parents with St Kitts and Antigua backgrounds, and Cambridge University educated, at one time captain of the Caribbean Davis Cup team, is a survivor. He has lived in Guyana for 45 years. He is also the surviving editor of the magazine Kyk-Over-Al (which takes the name of the first Dutch capital), an amazingly rich and carefully produced occasional literary journal. This literary journal was founded by Arthur J. Seymour (1914-1989) and even in his lifetime, became the most prominent symbol of Guyanese and Caribbean literature published in Georgetown. Its last issue (49/50), edited and funded with help by McDonald, is devoted to the great poet Martin Carter (1927-97), writer, independentist, government minister, and talented poet.

Guyana nurtured some of the best writers of the English language in the postcolonial years. To reward them the Hoyte government created the Guyana literary prize, an annual event which now goes largely to expatriate Guyanese. Wilson Harris, Roy Heath, John Agard, Marc Matthews, Beryl Gilroy (1924-2001), Fred D’Aguiar, David Dabydeen, Sasenarine Persaud, the poet Grace Nichols, are all Guyana-born British or Canadian citizens nowadays, living far away from Georgetown. The 2001 winner of the Guyana prize, Raywat Deonandan, whom the press reported as Canadian, had left Guyana 20 years before.

As McDonald lamented: ‘Why did they leave? Why does any writer leave a very small and limited society like this one? Because elsewhere they can get their work published, and they can become part of a bigger literary world... It is a great sadness that young people have little idea of what is their own literature. The lack of books in schools is a national emergency. No books come in, and the teachers are leaving. If the children are taught to read, they graduate and emigrate. If they want books, they must find them abroad’.

McDonald has stayed on. Apart from the magazine, he is best known for his novel The Humming Bird Tree (1969), which the BBC made into a film in 1992. But some of his greatest work is in poetry: eg, Peterloo Poets. Peepal Tree Press, the British publishers of poetry, also produced Mercy Ward (1988), Essequibo (1988), and Jaffo, The Calypsonian (1994), which are powerful statements that speak for lost voices, and are beautifully written.

The good news is that there is a younger generation of writers coming up, and some of the work shows enormous promise. Ruel Johnson, in his twenties, and Kojo McPherson, about the same age, started Janus, an association of young writers in 2000. It has some 15 members and all are actively writing and promoting literature. The early signals from the group are good: Johnson was awarded a place in the Caribbean Writers’ Workshop in Trinidad. McPherson has won prizes. The Janus group was awarded most of the top awards for the Guyana Christmas Annual, and they were called to produce the 2001 annual, which McDonald hailed as a ‘welcome addition to a sparsely populated literary scene.’ Cheddi Jagan died in 1997, and Martin Carter died that same year. Both lie in the pantheon of national heroes, in the Botanical Gardens, close to Forbes Burnham’s tomb.

Another country, with a 38-years old president, is trying to get on its feet. But the most disturbing issue is the racial one, which the Guyanese didn’t believe existed. President Bharrat Jagdeo has promised to work for racial unity and has called on Guyanese to work together. In a recent interview, in Georgetown, he said that:

The riots were caused by an opposition realizing it has to be in opposition for another five years, having been so since 1992. The current leaders of the PNC grew up in power, and held it for 28 years with rigged elections. They did not have to account to the people because elections were fraudulent. The riots were not a race issue. In 1992, when my party won and Dr Cheddi Jagan became president, Afro-Guyanese realized that under the black government they were worse off than they are today. So the riots did not help ordinary people of any race. They were managed by a small elite. That is why I do not see it as an ethnic issue.

Rupert Roopnaraine, 59, of Indian origin, an associate of the late Walter Rodney, an Oxford educated writer and art critic, and a leader of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), refutes Jagdeo:

The insurgency of the impoverished with no horizon makes disruption a sport, not a plot as claimed by the PPP. If the government does not recognize that there is a racial issue, we are in trouble. If you have one race as a majority and always winning the elections, the other will stop playing in a democratic process.

In fact a political balance since independence, and up to 1992, had existed. The Africans held government, and the Indian community owned 60 percent of the economy. Now the Indo-Guyanese ran the government and the economy. However, until 2001, severe outbursts of violence had been avoided. The problem is one of economic planning and democratic exercise. That problem needs to be solved if this beautiful country is to recover.


Graham-Yooll, Andrew (1994) ‘Guyana: The Newspaper Stabroek News’. The Round Table, Institute of Commonwealth Studies: London, 447-454.
Graham-Yooll, Andrew (1995) Committed Observer: Memoirs of a Journalist, John Libbey / University of Luton Press: Luton.
Lamming, George (1999) Enterprise of the Indies, The Trinidad and Tobago Institute of the West Indies.
Morrison, Andrew (1992) Justice, The Struggle for Democracy in Guyana, 1952-1992, Red Thread Women’s Press: Georgetown, Guyana.
Searwar, Lloyd; McDonald, Ian, et al (1998) They Came in Ships: An Anthology of Indo-Guyanese Prose and Poetry (The Indian Commemoration Trust), Peepal Tree Press: Leeds.

home | archive | contribute | subscribe | articles | reviews | letters | contact us

hosted by:

designed by:

supported by: