Lessons from Jonestown

November 18 marked the 33rd anniversary of the Jonestown murder-suicide that took the lives of some 909 Americans, members of the People’s Temple of Jim Jones, at their sanctuary near Port Kaituma. Even though it could be argued that the Jonestown tragedy was a peculiarly American phenomenon, it was a horrific event that scarred the national psyche for years afterwards, made all the more bewildering by the relative ignorance of the Guyanese populace of the cult leader and his messianic experiment in a remote part of our country.

To this day, there are people, mostly geographically challenged Americans, who have no idea what or where Guyana is, until Jonestown is mentioned. But in 1978, most Guyanese themselves did not even know what or where Jonestown was or what the so-called People’s Temple Agricultural Project was all about.

In May this year, Guyana’s Ambassador to the United States, Bayney Karran, attending a ceremony to unveil a memorial to those who died at Jonestown, in Oakland’s Evergreen Cemetery in California, where the bodies of more than 400 of the victims are buried, had this to say in his address: “To the people of Guyana, those sad occurrences were totally alien to them and completely divorced from their reality.  The average citizen had had no idea that such a place like Jonestown existed in their own country.”

1978 was a time, of course, when President Forbes Burnham’s co-operative socialism was at its height and his rule was becoming increasingly authoritarian, secretive and, according to some, eccentric. There was no television, the government owned the two radio stations and the telephone service was comparatively primitive. Freedom of information was a myth, a dream at best.

It was therefore relatively easy for the People’s Temple Agricultural Project to be established at Port Kaituma without the knowledge of the average Guyanese or even, it seems, without proper oversight on the part of the then government. In this respect, Ambassador Karran asserted that the People’s Temple operated “within our borders with impunity” and in criticizing the secret autonomy it apparently enjoyed, the Mirror editorial of November 21, 1978, called the settlement, “a state within a state.”

Whatever the reason for this unusual arrangement – there were rumours of collusion between high-ranking members of the administration and Jim Jones and there were theories that Jonestown was meant to act as a sort of “buffer” in the area claimed by Venezuela – the government did itself and the nation no favours by essentially ceding sovereignty over part of our territory to a foreign entity led by a man who turned out to be a deranged mass murderer.

In the language of contemporary political science, Jonestown would now probably be called an “Alternatively Governed Space (AGS),” a term referring to areas in which criminal organisations, rather than the state, exercise effective control over citizens.

Perhaps the most notorious example of an AGS in the region was the 16,200 square mile zone granted the FARC guerrilla army in Colombia by President Andrés Pastrana in 1998, as part of his administration’s short-lived peace process. Currently, the AGS phenomenon is particularly prevalent in Central America, where narco-trafficking groups enjoy virtual autonomy over substantial portions of national territory and urban gangs control whole neighbourhoods. In the English-speaking Caribbean, we have only to think of Jamaica and Christopher ‘Dudus‘ Coke, who ruled supreme, unimpeded by the police, in his West Kingston ‘garrison,’ the parliamentary constituency of the then Prime Minister Bruce Golding, until the ‘Don’ became an international embarrassment and political liability.

But whether it be terrorists or criminal gangs, the failure of governments to rein in these threats to their authority, for whatever reason – political expediency, weak political will, lack of capacity, corruption, criminal connivance even – only serves to undermine further constitutional governance, as the de facto regimes they allow, ‘govern’ through their own systems of fear and patronage and impose their own alternative ‘rule of law.’

In Guyana, with our vast, unpopulated hinterland, our porous borders and our under-resourced security forces, we know how vulnerable we are to the depredations of the drug runners. We are already a trans-shipment point for cocaine. The reports of illegal airstrips, unexplained flights by unidentified aircraft and even the disappearance of aircraft from our airspace are well documented. And we are well aware of the allegations of the nefarious activities of the drug lords and the ‘phantom squads.’

Mr Karran also said in Oakland, that both the USA and Guyana had “learnt their lessons” from Jonestown. He added, “more importantly, Guyana is now a different country…” There is no doubt that the Guyana of 2011 is significantly different from the Guyana of 1978. But the threats to our sovereignty and political stability remain.

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