Cheddi Jagan returned from studies in the United States to a British Guiana in 1943 that was a cauldron of poverty. The report of the Moyne Commission, which investigated poverty in the region in the 1930s concluded that “for the laboring population, mere subsistence was increasingly problematic.” The report was so explosive that it was not published until 1945. It weighed heavily in subsequent developments. In 1946 Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, Jocelyn Hubbard and Ashton Chase, the latter two of whom were active trade unionists, formed the Political Affairs Committee (PAC). In 1947 Cheddi Jagan fought and won a seat in the Legislative Council.
The cauldron of poverty was being stirred by decades of intensified industrial unrest, prompted by the new found strength of organised labour. The British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU) was the first to be registered in the British Empire in 1922. The Man Power Citizens Association (MPCA) was registered in 1937 and represented sugar workers. The Transport Workers Union (TWU) was established in 1938 and superseded the BGLU as the largest and most militant in the city. In 1947 bauxite workers went on strike. In 1948 the successful Teare Strike led by the TWU, stopped the trains and boats and closed down the country for two weeks – unprecedented in a colony. In 1949 the Enmore strike of sugar workers took place during which five sugar workers, who became known as the Enmore Martyrs, were shot and killed. This heightened labour activity was also a feature in the Caribbean region and was prompted by a decline in sugar prices on the world market which further exacerbated poverty.
February is African History Month originally designated to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas on February 12 and 14 respectively. It is noted and marked in Guyana.
The African people of Guyana have contributed the most, not only to making Guyana the habitable place that it is, but also to the historical narrative of revolutionary resistance to oppression that is now our common heritage. This heritage bequeathed by our ancestors from Africa has inspired Guyana’s quest for freedom and justice. While it is important to bring the story of Guyanese of African origin to public notice, as I have done in the case of Jack Gladstone and the pivotal role he played in the 1823 rebellion, there are many others from other countries who filled my teenage and early adult years and inspired me.
The basis of Guyana’s political outcomes has remained static for many decades. With deeply entrenched ethnic voting patterns, Indian Guyanese, originally constituting close to 50 percent of the population, would always have the upper hand. The two elections in 1957 and 1961 demonstrated to the African Guyanese political leadership that if it wanted political power, it would have to obtain it in coalition and later sustain it through electoral malpractice. And so, after the 1964 elections, in which the PPP obtained the plurality, the PNC and UF, together holding a majority of the seats in the parliament, formed a coalition government. The coalition ended in 1968 and the PNC resorted to electoral malpractice thereafter to maintain political power.
In 1957 the PNC merged with the United Democratic Party (UDP). The UDP, led by John Carter, a prominent lawyer of Mixed heritage, represented the interests of the Mixed and African middle and professional classes. At some point between 1973 and 1985 the support of these groups for the PNC started to wane. But it mostly returned with the election of Desmond Hoyte as President. These groups showed their electoral clout in 2006 when a section of it abandoned the PNC and supported the AFC. Many of these votes went back to the PNC after the election of David Granger as its leader, but it is believed that a significant number remained with the AFC. At the 2011 elections the APNU obtained 40.81 percent of the votes, much in line with its record in free and fair elections, and the AFC got 10.32. The AFC benefited from the loss of between 5 to 7 percent of its votes from previous elections. It obtained 48.60 percent.
There are frequent, frustrated, refrains from observers that it is Guyana’s political parties that are mainly responsible for promoting the culture of ethnic dominance and without it, Guyana’s politics would not be dominated by race and instability. This is not true. Guyana’s main political parties reflect the social, economic and political aspirations of the people of Guyana. The fundamental feature of Guyana which determines these aspirations is its ethnic composition and history. This has been characterized mainly by separate struggles against employers and the colonial state for survival. The lesson that has been learnt is that whoever controls the state controls the distribution of its limited resources. The struggle for control of the state was a natural outcome of the nature of our main political parties and their fundamental, though unspoken political objective – ethno-political dominance.
By the time the first popular political party, the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP), emerged, it was recognized that ethno-political dominance, which had already reared its head after the second world war, was a negative phenomenon that will hinder Guyana’s political development and its main objective of Independence from Britain. The PPP was therefore organized with a multi-ethnic, multi-class, leadership. It attracted widespread support. However, as is well known, colonialist intrigues and internal opportunism led to what was in effect a departure of the “moderate” faction of the PPP. That faction later became the African led Peoples’ National Congress (PNC) which got its support mainly from the African Guyanese workers and farmers. Its merger shortly after with the United Democratic Party (UDP) brought support from mixed Guyanese and African middle class. Indian Guyanese gave their support to the PPP.
The spectacular discoveries of oil in offshore Guyana, with promises of a glowing future, must be tempered with what that future really means and with the realities of today. It appears that Guyana stands to receive $US300 million a year for the first five years after production commences and a little over that sum for the twenty years thereafter. The size of Guyana’s economy is $US1.2 billion. This means that Guyana’s economy will increase by one-fifth as a result of oil revenue. This will be a significant boost but by no means a spectacular transformation. This figure is probably based on production of 100,000 barrels a day. It may well be that Exxon will produce far more than that amount for various economic reasons. While all of this is in the future, Guyana has pressing economic and political problems that require immediate solutions.
The dismissal of thousands of sugar workers will intensify poverty and crime across Guyana, particularly in the areas affected by the closures. Communities will deteriorate, drug taking and alcohol abuse will intensify and the economy will suffer from reduced spending. All of this will impact negatively on economic growth for 2018. By the time divestment concludes and some job opportunities emerge, the damage to the communities and their inhabitants would already have occurred. There is no immediate potential investment in Guyana’s economy on a scale large enough to absorb the dismissed sugar workers, or even a portion of them, that will make a difference to their dire situation. Any impact that a new oil industry may have is at least ten years away. By this time, an entire generation of workers and their children will be lost to productive labour by a decade of deprivation.