AFTER more than a dozen years of political turmoil and racial strife, British Guiana will achieve independence on May 26 to become South America’s eleventh nation and its first new country in more than a century. But despite the fact that 1965 was a year of relative political quiet and mild economic advance, only rash observers would pretend that this British colony, the size of Minnesota, has smooth sailing ahead.
Even the most sanguine of those conversant with the political scene in Georgetown, British Guiana’s steamy capital, regard the future with optimism that is guarded. The pessimists maintain it will be only a matter of time before Guyana, as the country will style itself after independence, comes apart at its racial and ideological seams. Racism, Marxism, poverty, and a massive Venezuelan territorial claim are the problems which Prime Minister Forbes Burnham’s coalition government must face.
British Guiana, which has towns with nice names such as Paradise, Better Hope, and Bachelor’s Adventure, has a population of 658,000. Of these, 330,000 are East Indians (of whom 16 percent are Muslims), 205,000 are Negroes, 79,000 are “mixed,” and 30,000 are Amerindians. There are also 7000 Portuguese, whose home language now is English, 4500 Chinese, and 2500 Northern Europeans. All but 50,000 of the total population live within forty miles of the coast, leaving the forested interior virtually empty.
This ethnic mosaic is complemented by a social and economic stratification related to race. Although there are many exceptions, the Northern Europeans tend to be at the top of the social ladder and to enjoy the highest standard of living. They are followed in both categories by the Portuguese and the Chinese, who dominate the retail trade. The Negroes and people of mixed race tend to be urban and to hold down most of the minor white-collar jobs. The East Indians are primarily a rural people working on the sugar plantations, although many of their leaders have gravitated to the professions. Because of their numbers, the political scene is dominated by the Negroes and the East Indians.
Politics in recent years has tended to stratify along ethnic lines, much to the misfortune of British Guiana. First on the political scene were charismatic Cheddi Jagan, an East Indian dentist educated in the United States, and Janet Rosenberg, his Chicago-born wife. Both are Marxian socialists who profess to believe in parliamentary democracy. Both refuse to answer questions relative to Communist Party membership, although Janet, a highly efficient but now rather dowdy woman of forty-five, is reputed to have belonged to the Young Communist League.
The Jagans organized their People’s Progressive Party (PPP), with the help of Forbes Burnham, who served as its secretary-general, as a nonracial extreme left-wing socialist party which attracted many of the Negro urban poor. But the core of the party always was, as it is today, the East Indian community, which numbers just over half of the total population. And the East Indians vote for Jagan not because he is a Marxist — most of them are conservative peasants — but because he is an East Indian. The PPP’s campaign slogan in East Indian communities is “Vote for the race.”
In the colony’s first elections, in 1953, Jagan’s PPP swept to victory with 51 percent of the total vote and 18 of 24 seats in the legislature. The mercurial dentist then committed his first major mistake: Jagan’s government set out to wreck the constitution and thus prove it unworkable. Within six months the British had reasserted direct colonial rule and jailed Dr. and Mrs. Jagan.
To the left
Before the next elections were held in 1957, the Jagans’ Marxist leanings had become more pronounced and Forbes Burnham had broken away, taking most of Jagan’s Negro support with him, to form the People’s National Congress (PNC). But the PPP still got 47 percent of the vote.
In 1961, by which time politics had polarized on an ethnic basis, with the PNC becoming less socialist and almost entirely Negro, the PPP’s portion of the vote had dwindled to 43 percent while Burnham’s followers mustered 41 percent. But overweighting of rural constituencies combined with Negro clustering in urban areas assured jagan of continued control. There was a further irritation of racial animosities, and hundreds of lives were lost in communal violence between 1961 and 1964. Burnham and Peter D’Aguiar, leader of the right-of-center United Force (UF), demanded new elections before independence under a system of proportional representation. Jagan countered with a plea for a lowering of the voting age to eighteen, which would have enabled him to take advantage of the higher East Indian birthrate.
These questions proved insoluble when the territory’s political leaders met in London in 1962 and 1963. Finally, all three men requested Britain to make a decision and undertook to abide by it. By this time London and Washington, with one eye on Castro’s Cuba, were thoroughly disenchanted with the Jagans. The United States had cut off all aid to British Guiana and was doing everything it could to support Burnham. London’s decision: no lowering of the voting age, proportional representation, and elections in 1964. Jagan returned fuming to Georgetown, and in new racial violence more than 200 people lost their lives.
The system of proportional representation follows the Israeli pattern, with the entire country as one constituency, each voter casting a single ballot for a party list. With more than 96 percent of the electorate voting in December of 1964, the balloting almost exactly reflected the country’s ethnic divisions. Once again the PPP led the polling with 45.8 percent of the vote. But under the proportional system, this won Jagan only 24 seats. Burnham’s PNC polled 40.5 percent and won 22 seats. D’Aguiar’s UF, supported by the Amerindian, Portuguese, Chinese, and Northern European voters, picked up 12.4 percent of the vote and 7 seats in the assembly. Four minor parties got less than 2 percent and won no seats.
Jagan refused to vacate the Prime Minister’s office, and it took an order-in-council from London to get him out to make way for a PNC-UF coalition led by Burnham, a lawyer and a former mayor of Georgetown. In pique, Jagan boycotted last year’s London constitutional Conference which set terms for independence.
The PPP, largely financed by GIMPEX, the party-owned exportimport firm which sells Eastern European goods here, has used the filibuster and the boycott in an attempt to wreck Burnham’s government. Jagan, who in January traveled to Havana for the AfroAsian—Latin-American “anti-imperialist conference,” is an angry and embittered man who keeps to his Freedom House office and refuses to see Western journalists. His party is in considerable disarray, although control is still firmly in the hands of the Jagans and the extreme left.
Burnham, whose behavior as Leader of the Opposition certainly was not above reproach, has done his best to demonstrate to the East Indian Communists that he is the Prime Minister of all the people of British Guiana, not just the Negroes. He has made many goodwill trips to East Indian communities, appointed committees designed to redress the imbalance of race in government departments where Negroes predominate, and raised the minimum wage. Three East Indians serve in his fourteen-man cabinet.
In an effort to bolster Burnham’s pro-Western government, a Western consortium of nations, led by the United States and Britain and supported by funds raised locally, poured more than $24 million in aid into British Guiana in 1965. Much of this money has been spent in rural areas where East Indians predominate.
However, while the East Indian community unquestionably is grateful for Burnham’s moderation, an end to the killing, and increased economic opportunities, it is doubtful if these factors have weaned away from Jagan any significant percentage of his support.
Given the greater fecundity of the East Indian community (the population as a whole is growing at a rate of more than 3 percent annually; the East Indian rate may be as high as 4 percent), Jagan is likely to come to power again within ten years despite proportional representation, assuming he can maintain control of his ethnic group.
There are three possible ways by which Burnham might be tempted to prevent this. The most obvious is by detention of the Jagans — about twenty PPP activists are now in jail. But this could well lead to terrible racial rioting. A solution favored by Ptolemy Alexander Reid, Burnham’s tough-talking Minister of Home Affairs, is to open the country to mass immigration from the overcrowded English-speaking West Indian islands. But as Finance Minister D’Aguiar points out, “immigration can hardly be attractive when the host country is poor and already has a 14 percent unemployment rate.”
The third solution, and the one apparently most favored by Burnham, is the creation of some form of political ties with the smaller West Indian islands whose populations are predominately Negro. The Prime Minister took a small step in this direction in December when he announced the formation of a free-trade area with Barbados and possibly Antigua and Grenada. This plan, however, could be scuttled by a British proposal announced December 30 which would give six West Indian islands, including Antigua and Grenada, the status of “states in association with Great Britain,” with complete responsibility for their own internal affairs. In any case, these measures skirt the real issue, which is: Will Burnham (and Washington) allow a lawfully elected Marxist government to take office if the situation arises?
Man behind M
The economic picture is little more encouraging than the long-term political prospect. The economy of “B.G.,” as the territory is called locally, is dominated by a corporation chaired by Sir Jock Campbell, known jocularly in British financial circles as “the man behind ‘M’.” “M,” as any red-blooded American youth knows, is the boss of James Bond, Agent 007. Campbell, who was named a life peer in this year’s New Year Honors List, is the chairman of the Bookers Group, which in 1964, partially to diversify its holdings in the face of increasing violence in British Guiana, acquired a 51 percent interest in the late Ian Fleming’s copyright.
Bookers is an international corporation employing more than 36,000 people in eleven countries (the company sells carpets in London, automobile parts in Canada). By British or American standards, it is not a huge concern: in 1960, ranked by their net assets, Bookers stood 118th among British companies.
But within the context of British Guiana (1965 government budget: $64 million), Bookers is enormous. The company, with a total investment in Guiana of $124 million, is the territory’s largest employer and biggest taxpayer. Last year Bookers’ production of sugar, rum, and molasses accounted for nearly half of British Guiana’s $94.5 million worth of exports. In addition to sugar planting, the firm has interests in foundries, gin, shrimping, storekeeping, drug manufacture, printing, stock feed, balata collection (used in golf ball cores), petroleum marketing, insurance, road transport, and shipping. So complete is Bookers’ domination of the economy that many Guianese half-jokingly refer to their country as “Bookers’ Guiana.”
Campbell, an enthusiastic socialist and a member of Britain’s Labor Party, has carefully kept Bookers out of British Guiana’s turbulent politics and avoided identification with right-wing groups. Bookers pays among the highest wages in British Guiana; 75 percent of its upperand middle-echelon executive posts are held by Guianese. Economic Affairs Minister Henry Thomas and Home Affairs Minister Ptolemy Reid are Bookers products, and the company recently agreed in principle to a scheme whereby the government of British Guiana will acquire a minority shareholding position in the sugar industry. But, although sugar is a labor-intensive crop, Bookers provides employment for less than 25,000 Guianese.
The second prop of the territory’s fragile economy is bauxite and alumina, exports of which in 1964 were worth $34.8 million, about a third of the country’s total. Dominating this industry is the Demerara Bauxite Company, a subsidiary of the Aluminium Company of Canada, which has $72.5 million invested here, accounts for 80 percent of British Guiana’s exports of bauxite and alumina (the territory ranks behind only Jamaica, Russia, and Surinam as a world producer), but employs only 3500 men. Reynolds Metals, a U.S. firm, accounts for the remaining production.
Rice is British Guiana’s only other significant export. In 1964, 156,000 tons were produced on 278,000 acres from East-Indian-owned farms averaging 12 acres in size, most of them on polders, tracts of land reclaimed from the sea — a relic of the days of the Dutch occupation. The rice is of low quality. About 45,000 tons are consumed annually, and another 60,000 tons go to the British West Indian islands, leaving a surplus of 50,000 tons for which a market must be found.
Jagan’s pro-Communist government was able in 1964 to sell 18,000 tons of rice at an artificially high price to Castro’s Cuba while smaller amounts went to Russia and East Germany. These markets now are closed to British Guiana’s pro-Western government.
Despite the Communist purchases, when Burnham came to power he found the country’s warehouses bulging with 50,000 tons of unsold rice, some of it from the 1963 crop. This he managed to dispose of at a loss of $1.7 million, a considerable blow to this territory’s limited economy. For political reasons, the loss was not passed on to the East Indian growers. Agriculture Minister Llewellyn John asserts that the only hope for the rice industry is “to cut production and increase quality,” a task easier said than done.
“The short-term economic problem,” explains American A.I.D. director Harry Yoe, “is to reduce unemployment as quickly as possible and get the economy moving again.” To this end, most of the U.S. assistance of $13 million last year went into labor-intensive public works projects. For the long term, a Seven-Year Development Plan drawn up by Jamaican economist Sir Arthur Lewis, who teaches at Princeton, will be presented to the legislature this year. The plan calls for expenditure of $174 million, nearly two thirds of which will be in foreign aid. Guyana may, in fact, have difficulty spending the money.
Burnham admits that between 500 and 700 technical posts in the civil service are vacant because there are no Guianese in the country qualified to fill them. The Prime Minister has launched a drive to lure back the hundreds of professional people who emigrated rather than live in a Jagan-ruled British Guiana. But many of them are doing well in their new homes, and it remains to be seen how many will want to return to the narrower horizons of their homeland. British Guiana remains short of capital and skills, is endowed with few exploitable resources, and offers only a restricted domestic market.
A final cloud on the horizon is a Venezuelan claim to nearly two thirds of the colony. The Dutch held parts of the coast from 1648 until 1814. Most of their settlements were to the east of the Essequibo River, far removed from the Spanish settlements west of the Orinoco. Nevertheless, on the basis of discovery and exploration, Spain claimed the lands to the west bank of the Essequibo.
The British replaced the Dutch in 1814, and by 1840 had pushed their outposts all the way to the eastern mouth of the Orinoco. In 1887, following the discovery of gold in the area, Britain refused to submit the dispute to arbitration, and Caracas severed diplomatic relations with London.
Eight years later, Venezuelan border guards arrested two British police officers in the disputed area and charged them with violation of Venezuelan territory. Britain, engaged at the time with France in a scramble for spheres of influence in Africa and the Middle East, backed off and agreed to arbitration. An international tribunal awarded 90 percent of the disputed area to Britain but gave Venezuela control of both banks of the mighty Orinoco. Both Britain and Venezuela signed the arbitration award in 1897 and later ratified it. Nevertheless, Venezuela always has felt cheated by the award, primarily because the republic was not represented on the tribunal.
The position is even more adamant than that of the British. Burnham, in December of last year, stated that the claim was “impossible” and that Guiana had “no desire to engage in endless, disgusting, tiresome and long drawn-out litigation.” Britain, however, which has extensive economic investments in Venezuela running into many millions of dollars, agreed to hold talks with the republic on the question. These began in 1963. Additional sessions, with Burnham participating, have been held in December, 1965, and in February of this year.
The paradox of the situation is that Venezuela has a Communist guerrilla problem of its own; President Raul Leoni is favorably disposed toward Burnham, whom he has no desire to embarrass politically; and Caracas realizes that it would be the loser if the dispute paved the way for a return to power of Marxist Cheddi Jagan.
On the eve of independence, then, British Guiana has more than its share of problems. The biggest thing Burnham has going for him at present is that Washington, determined that Guyana will never become a Cuba on the Latin-American mainland, is intent on making his government a success. He will need all the help he can get.