OCTOBER is an important month in the annals of Guyana’s history. It is the month when British troops invaded the then British Guiana ostensibly to turn back a Communist plot. Four years later, after the split of the nationalist movement along ethnic lines, the People’s National Congress (PNC), one of our major ethnic parties was formed. And in October 1992, Guyana held elections that marked the return of democratic electioneering after almost three decades. The consequence of the latter is being hotly debated as partisans discuss the developments since that date.
But it was the events of October 1953 that set everything in train. On October 8, 1953, the British Government landed troops in then British Guiana and the next day the Governor, on the orders of the Crown, suspended the constitution which among other things gave limited self-government to the colony. Several leaders of the governing People’s Progressive Party (PPP), which, a mere 133 days earlier had won the first election under universal adult suffrage, were arrested and forced to spend months in prison. It would be another four years before some degree of political democracy returned to the colony.
So, what was all the excitement about? Once in office, the PPP began to make some modest, but important changes to the political landscape. These included lifting the ban on so-called subversive literature and on socialist leaders from entering the colony; amending the 1945 Rice Farmers Security Tenure Ordinance to make the landlords rather than the tenant farmer ultimately responsible for the upkeep of the land, and to protect the tenant farmers by enacting a standard rental for land; and passage of a Labour Relations Bill in the Lower House to make it legal for employers to negotiate with workers through their trade unions.
Although those government actions were aimed at democratising the political economy, in the context of the Cold War they were considered by the Western powers to be subversive. British Guiana was, therefore, deemed a “communist threat.” So, upon the urging of the then USA government, the British invaded the colony and removed the elected government. The USA took similar action in Guatemala and Iran, where elected governments deemed to be too left wing were overthrown. The government was removed and the constitution was suspended, what national poet, Martin Carter, himself a PPP leader of that time, referred to as the “dark time’ and a “carnival of misery.”
The habit of overthrowing governments deemed to be too left-leaning characterised Western foreign policy during the Cold War. It may have contained communism, but the consequences for many countries have been devastation. In the case of Guyana, independence was delayed and the invasion of the country opened the door to the politics of ethnic division. While the British may have satisfied their national interests, their action set in train a series of developments that would change the course of history in the soon-to-be-independent Guyana.
By 1955, the PPP had split into two ethno-ideological factions that would eventually consolidate into an ethnically polarised political system. After two election results, in 1957 and 1961, which produced ethnically skewed results, the country was plunged into three years of violent disturbances that pitted the two major ethnic groups against each other. The legacy of those years still haunts our country as our political parties and their followers are persistently locked in a zero-sum political competition which has contributed in no small way to the country’s socio-economic underdevelopment.
Suffice to say that 1953 represented both a high point and a moment of despair for our new country. The PPP’s victory at the elections of that year represented a significant statement about the possibilities of a multi-ethnic government based on the support of the working classes. Here were young men and women prepared to rise above ethnic sentiments in the service of joint nationhood. It was indeed a shining moment pregnant with possibilities for an enduring future.
But despite their best intentions, the leaders seemed unable to suppress their individual quest for power. That the multi-ethnic experiment blew up within a couple of years is hardly something for us to be proud of as a nation, for we have not recovered that magic since. More than six decades after October 1953, many still yearn for the ethnically united example of that period.
Over the years, several questions have been asked. What if the British had not invaded? Would the united movement have withstood the pressures of ethnic hegemony that had begun to stir before the British intervened? Were the leaders of the movement too politically naïve and inexperienced? Did they underestimate the imperialist forces?
Some of our scholars have delved into these questions, but more work needs to be done in this regard. Maybe our younger historians and political scientists should be encouraged to go back to a larger investigation of this period. At least two of the active leaders of the then PPP are still alive—Ashton Chase and Eusi Kwayana—and their perspectives would be invaluable in this regard. It is time that our country begins to invest in its history, however uncomfortable aspects of that history may be. And the events of 1953 and the history which it spawned is a good place to begin.