Guyana: JONESTOWN REVISITED: A People’s Tragedy, Lessons Learned – By Lear Matthews

43rd Commemoration of the Jonestown Tragedy in Guyana

 – By Lear Matthews

  •  Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.
  • None but ourselves can free our mind.
  • (Robert N. Marley)

Lear Matthews

November 18th 2021 marks the 43rdcommemoration of the People’s Temple tragedy in Guyana, South America, a nation that has been in the news again recently, but this time for good reason. According to Exxon Mobile, oil discovery off the northern coast of this southern Caribbean country, was expected to top six billion barrels by 2020, making it a leading oil producing nation.

The story of the People’s Temple symbolizes (a) fallibility of persons whose path to the ‘American dream’ had been  frustrated because of  economic hardship, political ideology or racism (b) the rabid power of a religious zealot over those seeking spiritual and material comfort (c) a developing nation’s vulnerability to sundry influences as it struggled to stymie conditions of poverty. The government of Guyana engaged in a policy and practice of offering resources to encourage efforts at hinterland resettlement and development.           

That unprecedented ‘Jonestown event’ in which more than 900 lives were lost, occurred after members of a religious cult settlement were forced to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.  A significant number were African Americans, and about a third were children. One Guyanese was known to have been among those killed. Led by a controversial Jim Jones, some of the members were reportedly shot as they attempted to escape. In the debacle then California Congressman Jim Ryan attempted to investigate and was killed. Jackie Spears who accompanied Ryan and survived, is currently serving as Congressperson in that position. Lest we forget, the event set off an international conversations about cults, the role of religion and politics in violence, terrorism, disenfranchisement and racism.  There have been lingering questions about the surreptitious nature of the Jonestown community and benefits incurred by officials from the U.S and Guyana.

The tragedy was for many in the rest of the world their “introduction” to the country of Guyana.

The actions of a megalomaniac, group dependency, geopolitics, and experimentation in nation-building characterized the Jonestown experience which was initially supported by officials in the United States. Virtually unknown to Guyanese, Jonestown became the largest and most advanced community. Jones deviously misled his followers by promising to take attend to their basic needs.  It was an experiment in human organization, involving a people (some voluntary) searching for a better life and enticed by officials of a state struggling to conquer the problems of under-development.

The group was given  government’s blessing and free reign to the interior partly perhaps because of the ongoing Guyana-Venezuela bordering dispute.

Jonestown provided an American presence that Venezuela presumably dared not penetrate.  Not only were the CIA and the American embassy more informed than were the local military/security officials, but the latter were ostensibly prevented from investigating that community. The Guyanese public, many of whom were skeptical about its emergence in the jungle, was unfortunately duped into believing that this ‘novel’ American community was a genuine development model project. However, it was also believed that Jonestown had a strategic, clandestine military purpose orchestrated by the Government of the United States.

The “foreign settlement” as it was referred to by some observers, was viewed as harboring the sort of activity instrumental in the transition to ‘cooperative socialism.’ In retrospect, it was doomed to failure.  At a time when Guyana was experiencing shortages of basic commodities, Jonestown enjoyed special privileges. The cult members believed that they could create a community free from the problems encountered in the US. Like many immigrants today, participants were after an elusive “dream”, but religion was used for indoctrination and conversion, sustained by harsh discipline reminiscent of a plantation experience. Duped by staged faith healing events, followers and officials in both countries were manipulated into believing the authenticity of Jones’ project. Members expected a place free from prejudices and other social ills.

Ultimately, the People’s Temple debacle emerged from three divergent motivations- the Jonestown residents’ desire to create a better world, the Guyana government’s plan to develop the interior, and Jones’ determination to re-establish a power base away from US soil. What started out as a utopian experiment in community building, ended up an improbable venture, embarrassing to unsuspecting Guyanese, and a deadly alternative for hundreds of disenchanted Americans, who are often blamed for their own victimization.

More than four decades after the People’s Temple tragedy, Guyana is trying to managing a refugee crisis as well as internal, prolonged racial tensions while establishing itself on the international stage. Relatedly, hinterland development agreements have been entered with foreign states such as China, while the Brazilians have established a curious foothold in the country. Although such national and transnational activities reportedly have the potential of exploiting the country’s resources and creating challenges for its sovereignty, benefits to the nation are anticipated.

This is particularly relevant based on what some view as a “game changer” with the discovery of oil. However, in order to avoid tragedies similar to the People’s Temple, there must be vigilance and adherence to human rights principles as an integral part of sustainability. With the emerging gas and oil industry, the nation’s stewards must exercise due diligence, turning impoverishment into prosperity. Nonetheless, they must ensure that (1) the general population benefits from profits made supported by instituting effective “local content” laws and other safeguards(2) technologically advanced environmental safeguards are in place and (3)the nation is protected from egregious damage to its reputation and violation of its core values as occurred in Jonestown.

May their soul rest in peace.

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  • Bernard  On 11/17/2021 at 5:56 am

    Humans are exploitable creatures.

    And religion is the world’s father of fraud and deception as well as a refuge of weak-minded people seeking to unravel the mystery of the universe whilst surrendering their innate ability to think independently.

    Jim Jones was an evil exploiter of that generational human weakness. The fraudster ignominiously put a little-known nation (often mistaken for Ghana) on the map.

  • Diana Abraham  On 11/17/2021 at 9:29 am

    I believe this tragedy gave rise to the expression that someone has “drunk the Kool aid”

    • Bernard  On 11/17/2021 at 2:25 pm

      You are absolutely correct, Diana!

      I had to look it up to be sure:

      “The phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” refers to followership at its worse. It was coined after a delusional, pseudo-guru named Jim Jones led his cult, the Peoples Temple, to mass suicide. Over 900 people, including 304 children, killed themselves by drinking from a vat of grape-flavored drink laced with cyanide.”

  • Dennis Albert  On 11/19/2021 at 11:29 am

    What if these Americans were murdered to set an example that leaving the system to live offgrid has consequences?

    Like the American expats who are warned that if they expat to Mexico, that they will be beheaded by narco cartels and they will be in jail for marrying 12-year-olds?

    • Brother Man  On 11/19/2021 at 12:59 pm

      Trevor, boi you dos always come up with stupidness.

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