Guyana’s Delayed Political Independence

This article will deal with the civil disturbances in the country in 1962, 1963 and 1964; the inability of the three main political parties to agree on a date for independence and an independence constitution; and, the influence exerted by the government of the United States of America.

The spate of social upheavals during the period of 1962 to 1964 had made British Guiana ungovernable and militated against the grant of independence for the country prior to 1966.  The first in a series of crises occurred in 1962, the occasion being the presentation of the government’s budget, which became known as the Kaldor budget, after its formulator.  It attempted to raise funds for economic development mainly through tapping domestic sources of capital.  The budget encountered very strong opposition from the PNC and UF, some of the business interests, newspapers and the trade union movement which called a strike. 

The disturbances culminated in widespread violence and arson in Georgetown on February 16, 1962.  When the disturbances, which came to be known as “Black Friday”, came to an end there were serious consequences for the country.  The biggest damage was, however, done to the PPP regime, which was unable to maintain order in Georgetown, and had to call on British arms to assist in maintaining control.  The February disturbances postponed the new Constitutional Conference, which was scheduled for May 1962, to discuss and fix the date of Guyana’s independence, until October 1962.

The following year, 1963, witnessed further disturbances.  The 80-days strike, as it was dubbed, stemmed from the introduction of the Labour Relations Bill.  One of the key political objectives of the Bill was to replace the company union, the MPCA, with GAWU, which was controlled by the PPP.  The Trade Union Congress (TUC) called a general strike.  This strike was supported by the MPCA, the PNC, the UF, the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce, the police force and mainly by the American-controlled, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), of which the TUC was an affiliate.  During the strike, the ICFTU organised a general blockade of air and sea traffic to Guyana and supplied money and food to the strikers, which aided in prolonging the strike.  Violence became a daily occurrence throughout the strike and racial relations deteriorated.  The strike finally ended on July 8 with nine people dead, and many more injured.  The colony-wide civil strife brought the British Colonial Secretary, Mr. Sandys to Guyana, and from his visit he was persuaded to hold another independence conference in October 1963.

The third crisis was somewhat different in nature. It was also the most serious in nature.  In late January, 1964, the PPP launched what Dr. Jagan called “a hurricane of protest” in order “to afford our supporter the opportunity to demonstrate their confidence in the leaders of the party in the face of the British Government’s betrayal at the London Conference.”  The PPP sought to create widespread disruption in the colony to dissuade Britain from implementing the Sandy’s decision, which had decided all issues against the PPP at the London Independence Conference.  Incidence of violence broke out in January and by the end of July, over 170 persons, mainly people of African and East Indian ancestry, had died. There was widespread destruction of property and thousands of persons fled their home districts.  Conditions had deteriorated so badly that a State of Emergency was declared.  Eventually the volatile civil disturbances, which featured prominently during the 1962-1964 period, became a major obstacle in Britain granting political independence before 1966.

Inability of the three main political parties to agree on an independence constitution and a date for independence also militated against the granting of independence before 1966.  The constitutional movement after the PPP electoral victory of 1957 was towards self-government and political independence.  The British Guiana Constitutional Conference was held in London in March 1960.  The Secretary of State convened the conference for the colonies at the request of the British Guiana Legislature, ‘to consider what measures of constitutional advance should take place in British Guiana’.  Considerable controversy arose as to whether the Legislature should be bi-cameral or unicameral, and whether the electoral system should be first-past-the-post or proportional representation. 

The PNC reiterated its support for internal self-government, as a step in the process towards political independence. The PPP delegation demanded political independence by August 1961.  At the end of this first conference it was decided that only internal self-government was to be conferred.

The October 1962 Constitutional Conference was held against the background of violent disturbances, which occurred in February of that year.  It was therefore of little surprise when the leaders of the three parties failed to reach agreement on whether (a) elections should be based on first-past-the-post or proportional representation system; (b) the age of voting should be reduced to 18 or remain at 21; and (c) elections should be held before independence.  Unable to reach agreement, the conference collapsed two weeks later.

A third conference was held in October 1963.  When talks opened it became clear that the three leaders had failed to reach agreement on the outstanding issues.  Consequently, the three leaders signed a letter agreeing to allow the British government “to settle on their authority all outstanding constitutional issues”.  On October 31, Sandys announced his decision, incorporating a change in the electoral system from first-past-the-post voting to proportional representation and ordering a general election in 1964.  The voting age remained at twenty-one, and, after new elections, another independence conference would be scheduled.

The failure of the three leaders to agree on the most pressing issues at the Constitutional Conferences led to the failure of the first two and it was only after the intervention of Mr. Sandys that a solution was arrived at.  The failure of these conferences caused British Guiana to suffer a setback and ultimately delayed independence.

The United States government only began to show obvious interest in the politics of British Guiana after the formation in 1950 of the PPP, a Marxist-oriented Party in the era of the Cold War, marked by intense fear in the US of Communism.  The US government was completely opposed to the idea of British Guiana proceeding to independence under a PPP government.  American concerns about British Guiana grew significantly after Castro’s successful revolution in Cuba in 1959 and Cuba’s subsequent emergence as a Marxist state. The US made it clear that they were not prepared to tolerate another Cuba on the mainland of South America.  Dean Rusk, the US Secretary of State, stated that, “the United States does not object in principle to British Guiana independence.  However, we are gravely concerned over the prospect of communism gaining a toe-hold on the South American mainland…Accordingly we hope that the sub-committee will not pressure United Kingdom to grant British Guiana independence …”

The United States government resorted to a variety of tactics in their effort to get the British government to modify its plans for independence of British Guiana.  Particularly after the re-election of the PPP in 1961, the US government actively supported efforts to overthrow the government.  Destabilizing efforts by local opposition political parties and trade unions, heavily backed by funding from US sources, found ready support from the Kennedy administration. 

The US government welcomed the 1962 disturbances, which were supported by the CIA, because they felt that the British government would delay independence of British Guiana, as they desired.

The true reason, according to Sallahudin, for the delay of independence was summed up in an article written by Mr. Drew Pearson, a US Columnist, published under the caption “Castro and Jagan”, on March 22, 1964. “The US permitted Cuba to go Communist purely through default and diplomatic bungling.  The problem now is to look ahead and make sure we don’t make the mistake again…But in British Guiana, President Kennedy, having been badly burnt in the Bay of Pigs operation, did look ahead.  Though it was not published at the time, this was the secret reason why Kennedy took his trip to England in the summer of 1963…but London was ahead of his itinerary only because of Kennedy’s haunting worry that British Guiana would get independence from England in July 1963 and set up another communist government under the guidance of Castro.  If this happens just before the US Presidential elections of 1964 and if at that time the Communist Guiana began seizing the Reynolds Metals Aluminium operation and other American properties, Kennedy knew the political effects would be disastrous…the main thing that they agreed on was that the British would refuse to grant independence to Guiana because of the general strike against pro-Communist PM Cheddi Jagan.” The Americans concluded that Jagan’s ties with Communist Cuba were posing problems to them and to Kennedy’s re-election bid, and thus were willing to use non-democratic and ‘covert activity’ to remedy the situation.

It is a combination of these factors that explain why the grant of political independence, which was expected earlier, was not realised in British Guiana until May 1966.

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