According to declassified Department of State Documents “At 8am EST [January 3, 1969] Valerie Hart contacted US Ham radio operator and broadcast appeal for help from U.S. ‘or any other country listening’ on behalf Guyanese rebels. Mrs. Hart identified herself as ‘President Association of Producers and representative of Free Peoples and Free State of Essequibo, in revolt against GOG and government of Burnham’. She said Amerindians and ranchers [were] fighting together against ‘dictatorship’ of Burnham and listed four Amerindian tribes she claimed in revolt. She said towns of Arapahom, Annai, Pirara, Karasabai, and Manarin were in the hands of rebels, but that there [was] heavy fighting at Manari against 127 members [of] Guyanese Defence Force.” It was through her broadcast as “Rebel Envoy” that the rest of the world learnt of the uprising which had begun nearly twenty-four hours earlier, on January 2, 1969 forty years ago tomorrow.
Four years ago in a series of articles I had written for this column titled: Guyanese Women in Politics/Power and Decision-Making, Valerie Hart was featured as a woman for whom the tragedy of the Rupununi Uprising provided the opportunity to both defy and reinforce then conventional wisdom as to the place and role of women in the context of power and decision-making, gender organization and sex role assignments when she acted as spokesperson for the mainly male participants in the uprising.
On the 40th anniversary of the uprising a shortened version of the second of those two articles is being reprinted with some concluding comments on the current status of our indigenous peoples.
Valerie Hart: “Rebel Envoy”
Valerie Paul became Valerie Hart when she married into the Hart clan, one of the prominent Rupununi ranching families or so called “Savannah Aristocrats”. She was not an indigenous woman but a coastlander of Chinese extraction. She grew up in a village on the West Coast of Demerara with her parents and several siblings, one of whom, Mrs. Wong was visiting when the uprising began. According to statements made at the trial, Valerie Hart was very much a part and at the heart of the decision making structure which planned and executed the uprising. It was clear that the part she was to play was well planned. She was flown to Venezuela prior to the outbreak of hostilities with clear instructions as to when to begin her broadcasts as “President of the Essequibo Free State”. She proved to be an articulate and aggressive advocate for the rebels’ cause. According to a dispatch from the American Ambassador to Caracas, the day after she made her first broadcasts, she called on the Venezuelan Foreign Minister requesting to see President Leoni, but she was granted an audience with him instead. She described herself as one of the heads of the government which had been established in the Essequibo area as an independent entity. She claimed that the inhabitants of the region had been attacked without provocation and that the government was treating them in a most barbaric fashion. She appealed to the Venezuelan government in the name of humanity and as an act of justice. Given the tense nature of the relationship between Guyana and Venezuela, she must have realized that her statements were bound to stir up the Venezuelan public and so create the demand for a helping hand to be extended to the voiceless and unrepresented victims of oppression.
The American Ambassador in his report stated that he found it difficult to reconcile Mrs. Hart’s allegations of an unprovoked attack with the testimony of missionaries and the representative of the United Force who indicated a plot with overtones of violence. The missionaries had clearly indicated that the rebels had attacked the town and apparently killed some of those in authority. He therefore cautioned that Mrs. Hart’s statements should be taken with a grain of salt. After her request for an interview with the Venezuelan president was turned down, she held several press conferences which showed her to be what in today’s parlance would be described as a clever spin artist. Undoubtedly, her spin on the treatment of the Amerindians was responsible for the creation of several committees in Venezuela for the protection of the Amerindians. She later announced at another press conference that she was able to acquire political asylum and Venezuelan citizenship for members of her family and later for fifty of the other rebels.
Valerie Hart proved to be an aggressive and shrewd lobbyist prepared to do or say anything to achieve her ends namely more tangible involvement and support of the Venezuelan government. When her pleadings on the grounds of humanity and justice fell on deaf ears, she threw caution to the winds and made a second call to the Venezuelans to intervene militarily to help the rebels and take over the region.
In a clearly treasonable statement, she urged the Venezuelans to assert their rightful claim to 50,000 square miles of territory of the Essequibo, the region at the centre of a border controversy. While one can certainly question her loyalty to the country of her birth, there is no denying that in the context of the time in which she operated, she showed tremendous courage and determination. More than two weeks after it was clear that the uprising was unsuccessful, that dozens of persons including members of her family and that of the Melvilles would be tried for murder and that there was little support regionally and internationally for her cause, she still declared her intention to petition the UN, the OAS and US President-elect Richard Nixon.
These were not the utterances or actions of a tentative gentle woman who needed protection from the harsh, brutal world of power and politics. Rather she showed her capacity to handle and manipulate them. Not surprisingly, she was second on the list of thirteen persons including one other woman whom the Government of Guyana wanted to try for murder. During the trial, the defence for the murder accused said it was a murder trial rather than a treason trial because the ringleaders – Valerie Hart, Dick Hart and Neville Junor were absent. The Government of Guyana tried to have her extradited to Guyana for trial when they became aware that she planned to visit the United States. The request was refused and the matter quietly dropped.
Whither forty years on?
According to declassified Department of State records, rebels Jim Hart and Maurice Mitchell were interviewed by the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional, in Ciudad Bolivar where about 100 Rupununi refugees were being housed. Both in separate interviews stated that “Government of Guyana land and tax policies aggravated general discontent which was the real cause of the rebellion.” In another interview Aurell Melville underlined Amerindian feelings “of being third class citizens as far as Government of Guyana’s social and economic policies were concerned.”
How far have we come since those comments (taken at face value) were made forty years ago? At Independence in 1966, the Amerindian Act was modified and a new Amerindian Act Cap. 12:01 took its place. In the same year, the Amerindian Land Commission Act Cap 59:03 was also modified. This Act set up an Amerindian Land Commission with the right to determine areas of Guyana where any tribe or community of Amerindians was ordinarily resident, rights of tenure to each tribe, nature of tenure to be conferred, among other clauses. Clearly, dissatisfaction of the wealthy ranchers and some ordinary Amerindians with the terms and the implementation of the act undoubtedly contributed to the uprising. Both of these acts were modified in 1973. A perusal of the sections of the Amerindian act included, among others, defining Amerindian citizens, issuing of birth certificates, application to be registered as Amerindians, employment of Amerindians, intoxicating liquor etc made for indignant reading. No doubt the uprising was the reality check which made the previous administration revise the two acts and make amendments to the Amerindian Act in 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1990.
In 1976 the lands were demarcated not divided. In subsequent amendments individual villages were given titles to their land. This process has continued under the present administration. After a series of consultations, the new Amerindian Act, Ordinance no. 6 of 2006 was passed. It repealed previous acts including Cap 12:01. This new act in addition to the relevant issues has taken cognizance of the main issues of the day like mining and its impacts. However the wide residual powers of the Minister makes for uncomfortable reading. Clearly there is still a lot to be done.
In an assessment of the poverty situation in Guyana, indigenous peoples in general but indigenous women in particular are among the most disadvantaged. They still have less access than their coastlander counterparts to post primary education. In our fight against Trafficking in Persons, it is the indigenous women who are more likely to be lured to the city or to the mining camps to be exploited. Much credit must however be given to the tremendous efforts of the Minister of Human Services to improve the status of all disadvantaged Guyanese women.
On a more positive note however, while there are only six women in the current cabinet, three or fifty percent of them are indigenous women one of whom holds the portfolio of Minister of Foreign Affairs. No doubt detractors would say that Amerindians still do not sit at the table on equal terms.
In closing, if Valerie Hart could read this would she be pleased at the current status of the Amerindians in the country of her birth?