Historical diagnoses of Guyana’s predicament – By: Dr. Bertrand Ramcharan

 By – May 12, 2021

Dr. Bernard Ramcharan

Dr. Ramcharan was the Seventh Chancellor of the University of Guyana. He was born on April 27, 1943 in Diamond, Guyana. (more info at end)

Peoples’ perceptions count in politics. The news columns and letters in the Guyanese media bring out varying perceptions. Might one turn some of these perceptions to positive use for the future of the country? Yes we can: by assembling a volume of historical diagnoses of Guyana and drawing recommendations from them.

Some years ago, civil society in Guyana brought in this author as part of an international team to discuss with the various political, cultural, and other formations their perceptions of the way forward for the future of a multi-ethnic country.         

Four things stood out: Afro-Guyanese would not accept what they saw as Indo-Guyanese rule because of their electoral strength; Indo-Guyanese had strong resentments over what they saw as the twenty-eight years of PNC arbitrary and discriminatory rule; Indigenous representatives felt that they were marginalised; and people of mixed race were full of hope but not politically organized. 

The way forward requires intellectual and policy leadership. The first four Presidents of Guyana had such intellectual depth. We knew Forbes Burnham well as a Barrister and he did have ideas, even if he might have gone off the rails. We also knew Desmond Hoyte and visited him in his home in North Road. He was fond of reading French literature. He certainly had ideas. Dr. Cheddi Jagan and Mrs. Janet Jagan, both of whom we knew well, were deep thinkers who pioneered the political path in Guyana.

Dr. Cheddi Jagan, with whom we spent much time in discussions when he visited the United Nations, had a historical diagnosis of the roots of the racial phenomenon in Guyana. In The West on Trial he analysed that the early division of labour occupationally and geographically according to race tended to prevent integration and to arouse racial hostility.  He wrote:

“Undercutting of wages of the emancipated Africans by cheap Indian immigrant workers was the source of early conflict. So was the division of plantation labour into ‘field’ and ‘factory’. The Indians, the ‘field slaves’, were the least favoured and lowest paid; the Africans, the ‘house slaves’, who provided the factory labour and the domestic retinue were more favoured and better paid. The ‘mixed’ races were the best treated and the best paid, and constituted the bulk of the emerging middle class.”

The political struggles in Guyana since 1953, until now, and foreign manipulations during the cold war, prevented Guyanese leaders from benefitting from historical diagnoses of the Guyanese problematique that might have helped the country to move forward in a spirit of trust and confidence-building. Even now, when the electoral pendulum swings occasionally, political leadership has remained largely mired in small-mindedness. Forbes Burnham used to say, “In Guyana, the small man is the real man.” This adage fits admirably the political leadership the country has seen for some time.   Historical diagnosis is crucial for taking Guyana forward.

This is a country in which African slaves and  Indentured Indians, Chinese and Portuguese were thrown together haphazardly in a land originally belonging to its indigenous peoples. Over time, people of mixed race became part of this mix. One should not under-estimate the challenges of nation-building in such an ethnic mix. This requires thoughtful historical analysis.  For three and a half years we were part of the team of mediators during the fierce wars in the former Yugoslavia. That was a situation in which  Ottoman occupation over five hundred years had added to the population of Serbs, Croats, Albanians and others, a group of converts, Muslims now known as Bosniacs. After the death of Tito the Yugoslav glue suddenly melted and they had no time to come to terms with their diversity. They had no time for historical analysis of their predicament. They fought bitterly as a result.

In the midst of the civil war in Ivory Coast, we led a UN mission to look at the situation first hand. Colonialism had thrown different ethnicities together. Tribes in the North felt disrespected by tribes of the South around the capital, Abidjan. To this day, the country has not yet arrived at an ethnic understanding.  Cyprus, Myanmar and other countries demonstrate the pressing need for historical diagnoses of their situations and for the negotiation of ways forward.

Guyana urgently needs historical study and analysis of its ethnic predicament. Blithe pronouncements by pseudo leaders, of whatever ethnic complexion, will not help the country deal with its central problem, described by one Guyanese as “two nations living under one roof.” He should have said ‘four nations’.

The Guyanese Diaspora, especially historians, might be able to help provide historical diagnoses of Guyana’s ethnic predicament. Two Afro- and Indo-Guyanese historians might together edit a collection of essays under the rubric, Historical Diagnoses of Guyana’s Predicament. Chapters could be written by detached Guyanese historians on Afro-Guyanese perspectives; Indo-Guyanese perspectives; Indigenous-Guyanese perspectives; Chinese and Portuguese perspectives; and the perspectives of people of mixed ethnicity. We emphasise: written by detached historians.

Perhaps friends of Guyana might help fund such a project. If it is well done, it could provide invaluable insights and lead to recommendations on ways forward for nation-building in the Dear Land.

Let us say up front that we are content to put forward this idea but do not envisage being involved in its implementation.  We were admitted to practice at the Bar of Guyana in 1969 and then left to join the United Nations, where we served for four decades. We were honoured to serve as the Chancellor of the University of Guyana. We declined offers to become Guyana’s Ambassador to the UN in 1977; to join Dr Jagan’s team in 1992; and to become Attorney-General in the mid 1990s. We have served the world, but our heart remains in Guyana.

We must study the history of our nation if we are to help it. The achievement of One People, One Nation, One Destiny, requires conscious effort. Historical Diagnoses of Guyana’s Predicament can help in this effort.

  • WIKIPEDIA on Dr. Bernard Ramcharan

Bertrand G. Ramcharan of Guyana, a former United Nations official who once held functional diplomatic status, was from 2011 to 2015 President of UPR Info,[1] an NGO working to promote and strengthen the Universal Periodic Review. He is also former Chancellor of the University of GuyanaSenior Fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies and currently visiting professor of international law in Lund UniversitySweden. Dr. Ramcharan is the first holder of the HEI Swiss Chair of Human Rights at the Geneva Graduate Institute of International Studies. He has a doctorate from the London School of Economics and is a barrister of Lincoln’s Inn.

Ramcharan was in the UN Secretariat for 32 years. He served in the position of Deputy and then Acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (2003–2004), before Madam Louise Arbour, at the level of Under-Secretary-General, having previously worked for Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, when she subsequently became UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Previously he had been Director with the International peacemakers and peacekeepers in the Former Yugoslavia, Director of the Africa I Division of the Department of Political Affairs, and head of the speech-writing service of the Secretary-General of the United Nations. He has taught as an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and at the Geneva Graduate Institute of International Studies (HEI). He is the author of numerous books on international lawhuman rights and the United Nations.

A 2010 article by him, “The Protection Concept of the UN Human Rights Council,” was published in International Criminal Law and Human Rights, Manoj Kumar Sinha (ed.) (Manak Publications, New Delhi, 2010).

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  • Ram esh  On 05/14/2021 at 2:23 am

    From his book The West on Trial, Dr. Cheddi Jagan wrote:

    “Undercutting of wages of the emancipated Africans by cheap Indian immigrant workers was the source of early conflict…”

    Troubled Waters:

    Here we see the great man defining the origin of ethnic conflict in Guyana, instituted by white plantation owners.

    Cheddi and Janet Jagan formed the PPP in 1950 and the first general election was held on 27 April 1953. Cheddi won in a landslide, garnering 18 of the 24 seats in the House of Assembly, or 75%.

    On 9 October of that year, the British, working in collusion with the Americans, stormed the Capital City of Georgetown by military invasion, arrested and jailed the Jagans, suspended the constitution, and appointed a British-born governor to run the country for the next three years.

    The military coup was a collaborative effort between Churchill and Eisenhower. That was the beginning of Guyana’s existential (ongoing) socio-political woes.

    In keeping with their centuries-old tactic (modus operandi) to conquer and divide, the British set our ship assail into troubled waters, waters we are still adrift in.

    The question is: how do we get out of this?

    Burnham further divided us and kept the ship anchored in troubled waters. Jagan, after 28 years in the wilderness, began to right that ship, but didn’t live long enough to see it through to safety. He died of a heart attack in March 1997 at the age of 78.

    In hindsight, one can only rue what might have been for the country had the British and Americans not meddled in our affairs on the eve of liberation.

    Will our ship one day reach harbour safely or will it break up in troubled waters? Only time will tell.

  • wally n  On 05/14/2021 at 10:38 am

    Suggestions any? now we almost up to date with the cause/causes?? To me it looks like we are back to page one.

  • Ram esh  On 05/15/2021 at 12:47 pm

    Rewind the clock to 1953:

    The racist Winston Churchill, in unison with his American coconspirator Dwight Eisenhower, worked in concert to oust the newly democratically-elected government of British Guiana.

    Their reasoning was that the tiny colony, with a population of 458,000 people, was a communist threat to the Empire and to the Americans.

    In early October, Churchill mobilized a military force to head to Georgetown to remove the Jagan government. At the time the British had warships stationed in British Honduras, Trinidad and Jamaica.

    They were ordered to redeploy to British Guiana. In about ten days the H.M. Superb reached Georgetown and anchored 15 miles off shore as it was too large to get any closer.

    From there the H.M. Frigates Burghead and Big Bury Bay carried troops, trucks and other logistical supplies to port in preparation for the coup d’état.

    Military trucks patrolled the streets of Georgetown. People were terrified! Other troops were dispatched to man strategic points all over the country. Children gathered at the sea wall in Georgetown to look at the massive battleship Superb in the distance as well as the smaller frigates closer to shore.

    Georgetown was under seige. The coup was successful – with no resistance offered. It was like taking candies from a kid.

    Governor Alfred Savage arrested and imprisoned the elected members of the government and suspended the Constitution. Democracy was not allowed to succeed. Blatant war crimes were committed by the British with impunity as was the case during centuries of occupation across the empire.

    Lest we forget!


  • wally n  On 05/15/2021 at 1:01 pm

    And again what/where……More recently than the above…Took a ship filled with British Soldiers to Wismar on the Barima after coming in from drifting in the Atlantic, I was covered in diesel oil, not slept for two days. All my pleasant memories of the upper Demerara were wiped out, when I saw what went on on the beach.Everyone (almost) should be aware of the history, but we should focus on solutions, after all these years it seems, to me, nothing changed.

    • Brother Man  On 05/15/2021 at 3:58 pm

      “all these years it seems, to me, nothing changed.”

      You lying! Look in the mirror. You still look de dame?

  • wally n  On 05/15/2021 at 4:18 pm

    SORRY don’t speak French???????

  • Dennis Albert  On 05/15/2021 at 5:05 pm

    Oil will only worsen the divide and conquer, in order to benefit the ligher-skinned Guyanese elite who own most of the prime real estate. While we fight, the foreigners get rich, and the Guyanese elite buy more condo in Miami, NYC or Toronto.

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