RODNEY’S DEATH: AN ENIGMA BEING ANSWERED

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Late historian Dr Walter Rodney
Special Report on the Rodney Commission of Inquiry by Shaun Michael Samaroo

At Rodney COI…
Gopaul, Williams ‘brawl’ in dramatic face-off

WORKERS struggling for livable wages under the repressive People’s National Congress (PNC) administration engaged in industrial action and not political activism, Labour Minister, Dr. Nanda Kishore Gopaul said yesterday in a dramatic showdown with PNC Counsel, Mr. Basil Williams at the Rodney Commission.

Under heated cross-examination from Williams, at the Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry now going on at the High Court in Georgetown, Dr. Gopaul insisted that crippling labour strikes in Guyana in 1977 and 1979 stemmed from the resentment and hardships of workers against the harsh economic policies of the PNC Government.

Williams sought to suggest that the two strikes paved the way for the tense social atmosphere that resulted in Dr. Rodney’s demise, and kept insisting that the unions engaged in political action, thus creating the platform for country-wide instability.
But Dr. Gopaul rejected this, claiming that the unions only focused on industrial action.
Testimonies at the Commission continue to accumulate to showcase the history of Guyana that led to the 1978 to 1980 period, when several political leaders died while engaged in political struggle, including several WPA members, Dr. Rodney, and Father Darke, a Catholic Priest and Journalist.
The Commission is seeking to establish why and how Guyana got to the point of assassinating the world-recognized scholar and social justice leader, Dr. Rodney.

Williams sought to put it to Dr. Gopaul that the devastating strikes of 1977 and 1979 had more to do with unions’ attempts to engage in political action to unseat the PNC Government.

Dr Nanda Gopaul
Dr Nanda Gopaul

Dr. Gopaul vehemently denied Williams’ suggestion, noting that the unions only focused on industrial action as a strategy to mobilise workers to protest against the PNC Government’s economic policy of freezing wages of workers in the sugar, bauxite and other PNC State-controlled sectors.

Basil Williams
Basil Williams

Under the PNC Government, the State practised paramountcy of the PNC Party over the Government, and also absolute State control of the national economy.
With the bulk of the nation’s workers beholden to the political diktat of the PNC State machinery and its draconian economic policies, labour unions played a crucial role in advocating for, and representing and organising workers. Unions also negotiated with the PNC Government for workers’ rights, including wages and working conditions.
At the period in question, Dr. Gopaul was head of the militant union, the National Agricultural and Allied Commercial Industrial Employees (NAACIE), and became a constant thorn in the side of the PNC Government for its shabby treatment of Guyanese workers.
For several decades, he mobilised, organised and agitated for workers’ rights, plunging the nation into a deep struggle for democracy.
He joined political leaders the likes of Dr. Clive Thomas, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, Dr. Walter Rodney, Mr. Ashton Chase, and many others in mobilising political, civic and labour organisations into a national coalition that fought the PNC Government tooth and nail to end its authoritarian rule and flagrant rigging of local and national elections.
The effort took more than two decades, but resulted in victory, when Guyanese of all walks of life united under a movement called Guyana Action for Reform and Democracy (GUARD) that current Prime Minister, Mr. Samuel Hinds and Dr. Gopaul headed, working along with Dr. Cheddi Jagan and Mr. Clement Rohee of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) to win free and fair elections in Guyana, after 28 years of PNC rule.
Also playing a major role in the restoration of free and fair elections here was former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
In the background of this history of Dr. Gopaul in Guyana’s struggle for democracy, Williams sought to downplay the PNC Government’s repression of Guyanese workers, and referred to a book that Dr. Rupert Roopnarine authored to back up his thesis. However, Dr. Gopaul disagreed with most of the texts Williams chose to put to him from the book.
Dr. Roopnarine is now deputy leader in the political party, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), and remains a co-leader of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), the Party that Dr. Rodney led before his demise on the night of Friday, June 13, 1980, a night that will forever remain etched in the minds of Guyanese of that era, and forever transformed Guyana’s history, as Dr. Rodney’s assassination ranks as the worst political assassination in the history of the Commonwealth Caribbean.
The case languished in dark secrecy and tragic mystery for 34 years before President Donald Ramotar convened the distinguished Presidential Commission this year to probe how and why Dr. Rodney was assassinated.
Dr. Gopaul’s testimony sought to establish the conditions, political climate and circumstances in Guyana that caused such a horrifying act to occur in Guyana, and he vowed that the nation must “never ever again” commit such a dastardly act against any of its leaders.
Dr. Rodney, a world-famous scholar and historian, and strong opponent of the PNC Government dictatorship, worked closely with Dr. Gopaul at NAACIE’s headquarters on upper High Street, Kingston in the struggle for democracy.
Dr. Gopaul said the PNC Government controlled the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the umbrella body of all the unions, but four unions maintained their independence and fought the dictatorship.
These four — NAACIE, the General Agricultural Workers’ Union (GAWU), the Clerical and Commercial Workers’ Union (CCWU) and the University of Guyana Workers’ Union (UGWU) — banded together and cooperated to struggle for workers’ rights.
These four caused the 1977 and 1979 strikes. The 1977 strike lasted for 135 days, and was called off after the workers “were brutally beaten into submission,” Dr. Gopaul said.
Williams sought to suggest that the two strikes paved the way for the tense social atmosphere that resulted in Dr. Rodney’s demise, and kept insisting that the unions engaged in political action, thus creating the platform for countrywide instability.
But Dr. Gopaul rejected this, claiming that the unions only focused on industrial action.
Testimonies at the Commission continue to accumulate to showcase the history of Guyana that led to the 1978 to 1980 period, when several political leaders died while engaged in political struggle, including several WPA members, including Dr. Rodney, and Father Darke, a Catholic Priest and Journalist.
The Commission is seeking to establish why and how Guyana got to the point of assassinating the world-recognised scholar and social justice leader, Dr. Rodney.
The testimonies show a PNC State that commanded the heights of the national economy, destroyed the economic livelihood of workers, banned basic food, rigged local and national elections, and denied press freedom and basic human rights to citizens, under a 28-year authoritarian rule that, for the first time, is coming under intense scrutiny and microscopic analysis.
But the PNC, which is the main party in APNU, in alliance with the WPA, and its Counsel, Williams, who is also an executive member of the PNC and a Member of Parliament for APNU, portrays a different image of the PNC in 1978 to 1980 than what the vast array of evidence at the Commission is revealing.
Williams sought yesterday to shift the perspective of Dr. Gopaul in describing the severity of the PNC rule, to suggest that the four militant unions, along with leaders like Dr. Rodney et al, were agitating to unseat the PNC Government, which was struggling under international economic pressures such as rising oil prices.
Dr. Gopaul insisted, however, that all he and the unions were interested in was the rights of workers to decent wages and working conditions, along with other workers’ rights.
He resumes the witness stand this morning, with Williams cross-examining him, and today could be heated and dramatic, based on the confrontation and intense flaring up of passions between Witness and Counsel yesterday.
Their exchanges became passionate, and both resorted to raising their voices and venting their frustrations as their perspectives clashed. Williams employed derisive laughter in reacting to Dr. Gopaul’s perspective of what transpired under the PNC Government, while Dr. Gopaul employed visible signs of exasperation.