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I was recently berated by an old comrade for what he referred to as my sanitizing of Forbes Burnham. I sought to explain that over time, I have come to realize that there is no line between our critique of leaders and our demonization of them, We often treat leaders we disagree with as the “other.” Yet, closer examination would reveal that these leaders come from the very bowels of our society—they are our own. In many respects they reflect much about our Caribbean complexity.
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 worldview of those whom he directly and indirectly mentored.
In the final analysis, Burnham is as complex as the Guyanese and Caribbean society 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 defies 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 fifty five 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 cometh 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 PPP, but when they attained it in 2015, they saw that same resistance as wanting to bring back the PPP. The PPP assaulted every democratic norm when they held office for those 23 years, but during their five years in opposition, they tried 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 were 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 sistren, 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, deserves more critical treatment.