The contribution of the Working Peoples’ Alliance and Walter Rodney to the political development of Guyana is under discussion in the letter pages of the newspapers. Unfortunately in much of the emotionally charged comments, facts tend to take second place. I wish to add my two cents worth but I can only do so from the prism (not ‘prison’) of the PPP because it was through the PPP that I perceived and understood the WPA. I cannot claim therefore objectivity but I can try to be rational.
The role of the WPA, like that of the PPP (and the PNC, now PNCR), and their leaders, will always be the subject of controversy, because of their impact on the development of our political realities. Until history settles the arguments, if it ever does, differing perceptions will continue. But these can be expressed in more constructive and less embittered language. No purpose is served by conjuring up demons.
There was a sense of anticipation in the political air upon the return of Walter Rodney to Guyana in the mid 70s. Elections had just been rigged and our comrades killed. It was felt that the struggle for democracy needed to be broadened. We in the PPP were especially happy when Cde. Cheddi Jagan reported shortly after Rodney returned that they had met. He indicated that the discussions revealed a large area of agreement on the political situation in Guyana and the world and that there was agreement on the need for co-operation in the struggle to restore democracy. A good personal relationship and mutual respect had been established. This grew as their engagements intensified.
When the WPA was established there began almost immediately broad co-operation on many areas of political work. Joint activities were organized. Some attracted publicity, some did not. Regular discussions took place at the highest levels and for a sustained period. Camaraderie developed. Friendships were created. Hope was engendered.
There were many major achievements of our collaboration. One that stood out was the joint struggle for the freedom of Arnold Rampersaud who had been charged with the murder of a constable who was on guard at the toll station at No. 62 Village, Corentyne, Berbice, on a night in 1973. Rampersaud was a leading activist of the PPP in the Corentyne and both the PPP and the WPA were satisfied that he was framed. The Arnold Rampersaud Defence Committee consisted of leading members of the PPP and WPA which worked throughout the three years of the three trials, 1976-1978, mobilizing and keeping activated public opinion, garnering international support and organizing legal observers to attend the trial. The not-guilty verdict of the jury at the third trial in 1978, after disagreements in the two earlier trials, was a great victory for justice in Guyana and a triumph for political co-operation between the WPA and the PPP.
The leadership of the WPA boldly confronted the issue of race, mobilized for ethnic unity, brought the professional strata into political activity and energized many youth. Abu Bakr, in a recent letter, suggested that the manner in which the PPP dealt with race, differentiating its approach from that of the WPA but not particularizing it, intensified the problem. But the PPP always pointed out the overwhelming political dimension to ethnic discrimination. Its call was at all times for an end to ‘political and racial discrimination,’ never forgetting the political perspective. The WPA’s message was hardly any different. During the struggle for the freedom of Arnold Rampersaud, the WPA, and particularly Walter Rodney, delivered this message in clear and eloquent language.
But the approaches of the two parties to the race issue also had some significant differences. The WPA utilized an activist appeal which translated into organizational success. The PPP’s approach to the issue of ethnic unity was also by mobilization across ethnic boundaries (which partially accounts for its electoral successes today), but also by creating organizational and/or policy alliances. The PPP spoke simultaneously to the trade union movement, the PNC, civil society and others.
The PPP was deeply conscious of ethnic cleavages which generated ethnic voting patterns. Recognizing the organizational outcomes which this situation gave rise to, the PPP felt that no political (hence, ethnic) solution was possible without the PNC. This accounts for a fundamental difference in approach between the WPA and the PPP towards the PNC enshrined in their proposals of 1978 for the post PNC governmental dispensation – Government of National Unity and Reconstruction and National Patriotic Front and Government, respectively. Up to 1985 the WPA gave no indication of seeing any reason to include the PNC in any post authoritarian arrangement. The PPP felt that the PNC was a necessary partner in such an alliance.
By the beginning of 1979, when what the WPA called the ‘civil rebellion’ started, political clouds began to gather. The PPP’s assessment at that time was that the opposition forces did not together have the capacity to mount a mass insurrection. The WPA did not share its strategy with the PPP, but evidently it did not support the PPP’s view.
By the beginning of 1979 collaboration on political strategy had slowed. There was none in relation to the ‘civil rebellion.’ This may have been inevitable because of the differences in approach to bringing about the end of PNC authoritarian rule which had already begun to emerge the year before.
The period between 1980 and 1985, one of anti-climax after the referendum, sadness at the loss of Walter Rodney by assassination, rigging of the general elections of 1980 and imposition of the new constitution, saw efforts by both parties to work together, particularly in the Vanguard for Liberation and Democracy (VLD). It was a period of changing political circumstances and difficult political issues to resolve. Despite the hard work, a tremendous amount was not achieved.
The passing of President Burnham in 1985 and the subsequent rigging of the elections later that year created the impetus for a new wave of collaboration between the parties in the Patriotic Coalition for Democracy (PCD). The work of the PCD was effective and essential for the outcome of 1992. Such an outcome was not inevitable and could have been contrived to favour the PNC while satisfying the external actors had it not been for the strength of the alliance between the two parties. The unity between the WPA and the PPP was the driving force behind the success of the PCD.
The public conversation in relation to aspects of that period has now unfortunately lapsed into recrimination. But while I do not speak here for the PPP, I am sure that its leadership would like it to be pointed out that it has never sought to diminish the important and vital role and contribution of the WPA in Guyana’s modern political history or in the restoration of democracy. The parties might have had their disagreements on the course that events might have taken, particularly in the 1991-1992 period and subsequently and sharp exchanges may have occurred; but no one in the leadership of the PPP has ever deliberately sought to denigrate the good name, outstanding scholarship, enduring commitment, brilliant leadership and historic legacy of Walter Rodney in which the WPA shared.
Walter Rodney and the WPA were friends of the PPP, despite the fact that political competition created challenges. There were many facets to that friendship but its most fundamental aspects were shared ideological perspectives and common goals. Whether or not Walter Rodney had doubts about PPP’s strategy or felt that the PPP made mistakes in the past, he never questioned its commitment to freedom and social justice for Guyana, just as the PPP never questioned his and the WPA’s. Submerged by the current accusations and acrimony, but hopefully to surface at some time in the future, are the years of fruitful and fraternal struggle spanning 20 years for democracy in Guyana and the positive lessons for Guyana of the work, role and sacrifices of the WPA and its many leaders and supporters.