The evolution of national identity and development in Guyana
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By Dr. Ken Danns

After fifty years of political independence Guyana remains an underdeveloped country. Distinguished Guyanese economist Dr. Clive Thomas has dubbed this sustained underdevelopment a “permanent crisis”. I submit that we should look to the phases of the post-colonial national identity of Guyana as one approach to best understand its permanent crisis. The national identity refers to those elements of nationhood such as its flag, national anthem, constitution, system of government, geographic, economic, ethnic and cultural elements that combine to make its peoples have a sense of belonging and see themselves as Guyanese, and the world to identify their nation state as Guyana.
The national identity of Guyana has emerged and been transformed over time through five distinct phases.
Each identity phase is dominated by the government and a paramount leader and “norm entrepreneur”; and, distinguished by ethnic rivalry and class transformations. I will focus briefly on the features of the identity phases that occurred mainly after independence. The first phase is The Nationalism and Political Independence Phase–1964 – 1970. A significant development in this phase was the replacement of English Government officials with dark and brown skin native born Guyanese. The colonial state had withdrawn by administrative decree taking its officials with it and relinquishing its power to the colonized peoples. The dwindling minority of White population no longer commanded all power and privilege. The colour class stratification order based on whiteness and nearness to whiteness was irrevocably reversed. The post-colonial state and its new elites had emerged and were unrelenting in the pursuit of radical decolonization and the creation of a new national identity.

The country’s motto emblazoned on its coat of arms is: “One People, One Nation, One Destiny” and highlighted a strategic vision to go forward as a united nation. Independence on May 26, 1966 was a highpoint in Guyana’s political development. Ethnicity and class were subordinated, however briefly, to the aspirations of the new nation and the identity of togetherness it was trying to forge. It was a coalition government comprising the People’s National Congress (PNC) led by Forbes Burnham and the United Force (UF) led by Peter D’aguiar that shepherded Guyana from it turbulent past of ethnic conflagration under the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) internal self-government led by Cheddi Jagan 1957 – 1964.

The best moments in Guyana’s post-colonial history were the periods during which the government was under genuine broad based coalition party rule. PNC/UF Coalition Government 1964 – 1968; and, again the APNU/AFC Government 2015 – present. These periods have been characterized by markedly reduced ethnic ferment. The lessening of ethnic insecurities is imperative for the development of Guyana. Rigged 1968 elections marked the beginning of undemocratic electoral rule in Guyana under the PNC for the next 24 years. These elections also deepened the ethnic divide with East Indians and other ethnic groups, leaving them feeling disenfranchised. Though making immense and significant contributions to Guyana’s political development, the PPP and PNC, on their own and in power, have proven to be enduring symbols of ethnic divide and ethnic rule.
The second national identity phase is The Cooperative Socialist Republic Phase 1970 – 1985. The Cooperative Socialist Republic Phase is the phase in which the post-colonial national identity of Guyana was crystallized. The Burnham’s PNC as the new rulers of the post-colonial state apparatus were the purveyors and custodians of Guyana’s “collective memory”. They set about the task of defining the collective consciousness in order to build a new national identity. The government’s ownership and control of the media made this task less challenging. The common history of suffering under slavery, indentureship, plantation exploitation, and ethnic and cultural marginalization provided the emotional, motivational and symbolic grist to build the new nation’s identity. The new nation was going to build an El Dorado out of the country’s abundant, largely unexploited natural resources. This El Dorado was the Cooperative Republic. The new rulers were developing a new strategic culture out of past experiences.

A key strategic policy initiative of Burnham’s PNC government was to give national recognition to and celebrate the multiethnic and multicultural nature of the Guyana society through national holidays and festivities. In colonial British Guiana, the national holidays were almost exclusively in recognition of Christian religious festivities. These were Good Friday, Easter Monday and Christmas. New Year’s Day, Boxing Day and the Queen’s Birthday were also celebrated. The new nation celebrated in addition Independence Day, Republic Day (Mashramani), Labour Day, Freedom Day, Caricom Day. Further, five new religious holidays were introduced. Three Muslim holidays: Yuman-Nabi (Birth of the Prophet Muhamad), Eid Al Fitr, and Eid Al Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice); two Hindu holidays Phagwah (Holi), Diwali (Hindu Festival of Lights) are all nationally celebrated. These ethnic, cultural and national holidays are embraced by all Guyanese and it is very normal to see the various ethnic groups participate in the cultural festivities of each other. The Christian holidays, Christmas in particular, remain the most popular among all ethnic groups. Enmore Martyrs Day is not a national holiday but is celebrated by sugar workers and the labor movement in recognition of the killing of East Indians workers who were on strike. The national recognition of ethnic and cultural diversity cultivated over time a sense of a national identity. Additionally, Indian Heritage Day was subsequently introduced by the PPP President Bharrat Jagdeo.
The celebration of Mashramani on February 23 was in recognition of the nation’s status as a Republic. The concept Mashramani is associated with the indigenous Amerindians’ celebration after a harvest. Sixteen holidays are held in affirmation of the nation’s identity. At least one of these national commemorations is held during each month except the months of July and September. The national recognition of ethnic and cultural diversity cultivated over time a sense of a national identity. National recognition of freedom from slavery and indenture, the struggles of workers, the country’s independence, and the birth of the Cooperative Republic are symbolic and emotional markers in building the national identity.
A second strategic policy initiative which fostered the national identity was in the sphere of education. The government took control of all schools and colleges removing ownership and control by the churches and other private enterprise. The educational system was seen as perpetuating colonial and anti-national values and learning. The resocialization of the Guyanese people as citizens of an independent nation was seen as the way forward. A policy of free education from kindergarten to university expanded considerably the Guyanese middle class and significantly narrowed the inequality gap between the classes.
A third and major strategic policy initiative was the constitutional change of the country to a sovereign republic. PNC leader Forbes Burnham had stated: Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else shall be added. The Queen was removed as head of state and executive power rested almost exclusively with Prime Minister Burnham.
A fourth strategic policy initiative was the nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy. This was seen as a logical step for the transition to socialism. Nationalization functioned to define Guyana’s identity indelibly in the eyes of the international community. The state nationalized and or controlled 80 percent of the economy culminating with the historical act of taking over the sugar industry from Bookers McConnell in 1976, and subsequently the bauxite industry and other businesses. The nationalization of sugar brought the external ownership of the sugar plantations to an end.
The implications of socialism and nationalisation for Guyana’s national identity were the discouragement of foreign investment and the serious limiting of development aid from Western Countries. The government sought to overcome this by unsuccessfully championing a domestic policy of self-help and self-reliance; and, a foreign policy of non-alignment and noninterference in the affairs of other nations. Burnham’s PNC oriented Guyana to play a leading role in the International Non Aligned Movement and in the formation of CARICOM and CARIFIESTA.

The promulgation of the 1980 Constitution was the fifth strategic policy initiative. It effectively encapsulated and underscored: the nation’s identity as being in transition from capitalism to socialism; state control of the economy; the organisation of people into cooperatives; and the creation of an executive presidency with dictatorial powers. The 1980 Constitution removed the last vestiges of colonial rule removing the British Monarch and the Governor General as titular heads of state. It also legally institutionalized authoritarian rule in the new nation.
An important element of this socialist transformation was “comrade politics” a symbolic usage that was engendered in the national culture. Everyone regardless of their status in the society was a comrade. There was “Comrade Leader”, “Comrade President” Comrade Minister”, “Comrade Ambassador”, Comrade PS”, Comrade Messenger”, or just plain “comrade” when there was no compulsion to recognize status. Comrade became a socially equilibrating construct that in the words of its purveyors made “the small man, a real man”. This was another symbolic departure from the status conscious colonial social structure. Comrade had no race, no color, and no creed. Everyone was a comrade. The gap between those in the ruling class and the other two classes was not wide.
The third phase of Guyana’s national identity is The Phase of Pragmatic Liberalism 1985 – 1992. The death of President Burnham in 1985 marked a significant turning point in Guyana’s post-colonial history. As the new lead custodian of the nation’s identity, President Desmond Hoyte set about vigorously reintegrating Guyana back into the capitalist world economy and weaning it away from the failed cooperative socialism of which he himself had been one of its strongest ideological advocates. The implementation of austere structural adjustment policies to foster a market economy, as well as substantial cutbacks in the dispensation of welfare benefits by the state, led to a widening of the gap between haves and have nots. University education was no longer free. Pressured by IMF/World Bank requirements to cut spending, President Hoyte also abandoned many other social programs that defined the cooperative socialist phase. The anemic cooperative movement which was heavily subsidized by the Burnham government and touted as an engine of development disappeared. The era of anti-imperialism, chest thumping nationalism and comrade politics had unceremoniously ended. Nationalized industries were quickly put up for privatization in the new market economy and industrialization by invitation came to define the changed strategic culture.
The Hoyte’s impact on Guyana’s national identity was transformative and included the repudiation of cooperative socialism, the reintroduction of a market economy, and the democratization of the society by paving the way for the first time for free elections and the peaceful transfer of power in a post-colonial Guyana. Hoyte believed and sought to promote a political culture where elections would be based not on race but competence and fairness in government. Notably, a free press was allowed under Hoyte’s PNC to re-emerge and flourish in Guyana.
The fourth phase of the development and transformation Guyana’s national identity is The Autocratic Democracy Phase 1992 – 2015. The Cold War had ended, the Soviet Union had collapsed, the Berlin wall had collapsed and Cheddi Jagan was no longer seen by President Clinton’s Administration as a threat to the national security of the United States. The Jagan platform had pledged to have a mixed economy and not to turn back the economic and other initiatives President Hoyte’s PNC government had negotiated with the foreign donor community. Foreign donors promised substantial development aid if free and fair democratic elections were held in Guyana. Ministers of Finance were appointed who kept the country faithfully in line with the prescriptions and proscriptions of the IMF/ World Bank structural adjustment programs. Pursuing socialism was not an option for the PPP if even it wanted to. East Indians who formed the party base were in no mood for such an ideology and strongly embraced private enterprise. The Black population, while unsettled by the change in government and the austerity measures of the economic recovery programs, were also largely fed up with the greater economic hardships and undemocratic rule socialism had brought. President Cheddi Jagan during his five years in office from 1992 – 1997 as Guyana’s President changed little of the basic structure of authoritarian governance left in place by the PNC. The most significant change was the removal of Blacks from top positions in the public service, state enterprises and government and their replacement by East Indians. Blacks were marginalized and victimized, their communities largely deprived of resources, and were equated with the PNC and seen as enemies of the PPP government. This reversal in the social order underlines the critical role ethnicity continued to play in defining the national identity of Guyana. The paramountcy of the PNC over the government was supplanted by the party paramountcy of the PPP. The PPP was able to sustain its autocratic rule through the electoral support of the majority East Indian population.
Jagan died on March 6, 1997 by which time rampant corruption had taken hold of his government and narco-traffickers had begun to operate unchecked. Despite a record of tepid economic growth, high poverty rates, high unemployment especially in the Black communities persisted. Public infrastructure and public utilities are very deficient. Some efforts have been successful in attracting some foreign direct investment but the more consistent source of investment appeared to have come from some nouveau riche whose wealth derived from sources largely unknown. Although private investment was encouraged, poor infrastructure, corruption, a declining population and a highly threatening security climate were disincentives to investment. The PPP government entered into many highly questionable public-private investment partnerships such as investing much of the monies from the National Insurance Scheme to build the Berbice River Bridge with a private enterprise. A rotation of PPP leaders President Janet Jagan, President Samuel Hinds, President Bharrat Jagdeo and President Donald Ramoutar followed their founder leader President Cheddi Jagan, all leaving the country in a state of permanent crisis and autocratic underdevelopment.
The fifth, and current phase of Guyana’s national identity is The Liberal Democratic Phase 2015 to the present. The new APNU/AFC governing coalition is comprised of A Partnership for a National Unity (APNU)—made up of the Guyana Action Party (GAP); National Front Alliance (NFA); Working People’s Alliance (WPA), the People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR)—and the Alliance For Change (AFC). The APNU/AFC government is a partnership of rivals comprising political parties coalesced to democratically end the 23 years of autocratic yet, ostensibly democratic rule by the PPP. APNU/AFC government is led by President David Granger from the PNC and Prime Minister Moses Nagamotoo who originally came from the PPP. The Guyana Government is now in the hands of a seemingly capable and caring coalition administration. No government is perfect and missteps have been evident, but not unexpected. There are however, solid indications that this two year old APNU/AFC Coalition Government is undertaking programs and policies geared to restoring credible administrative rule, rebuilding trust, improving the nation’s security and in general promulgating initiatives to positively transform the country’s economic, social and political fortunes. While it is important to restore good governance and manage the country in an orderly way, the challenge is to transform and develop it at the same time. President David Granger has been promulgating an emergent vision of a “Green Economy” as the way forward for Guyana’s development.
In conclusion, the nation of Guyana is undergoing a paradox of identity. First, it is a democratic nation state that is seemingly locked in the throes of zero sum ethnic struggle. The nation’s identity is consequently metaphorically intertwined in the dysfunctional grip of ethnic politics historically fueled by the two major political parties. Secondly, it is a would be market economy which is dominated by state control and substantial ownership. Third, its Constitution proclaims the nation a parliamentary democracy, yet it enshrines an autocratic executive presidency that can operate above the law. Fourth, it is dominated by declaredly socialist political parties in power and in opposition while seeking to pursue a capitalist path of development. Fifth, it is geographically located in South America and is bordered by neighbors Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname with which it has limited contact. Yet, it is culturally and in other ways strongly connected with the English-speaking Caribbean. Finally, it is a country rich in natural resources, but poor and underdeveloped. The country’s identity has evolved from colony to an independent nation state, to cooperative socialist republic, and now a liberal democracy on a state dominated capitalist path of development.

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