Captain Gerry Gouveia has a particular reason to remember the tragedy that was Jonestown, 38 years ago. As a Guyana Defence Force pilot he had been part of the army detail assigned to the stomach-churning operation that had followed the deaths of more than 900 followers of an American man named Jim Jones, who had chosen a remote corner of Guyana to cause an entirely unwanted spotlight to be focused on this country. But when you ask him about the impact that Jonestown has had on Guyana almost four decades after the incident, he evades the question somewhat. “We do not always choose the history that we make. We must simply live with that history,” he says.
His memory of Jonestown is linked to his own connection with the terse command he had to carry out to fly troops to Pork Kaituma and land them there. “Something terrible had happened at Jonestown but for some time I had no clue what it was. I only knew that we had to be wary of the place,” he said.
His rehearsal of the details of the routine eventually settles on his encounter with the bullet-riddled body of a woman named Jackie Speier, Secretary to Congressman Leo Ryan, one of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy. He had flown the seriously wounded Speier out of that hellhole to where she would receive medical attention that ultimately saved her life. In June this year he met again with Speier after all those years. She is currently serving as a Congresswoman in the very seat which Ryan held until his untimely death.
Yesterday, Gouveia told Stabroek Business that before the end of November he intends to hold a simple ceremony to routinize his company’s periodic flights to Jonestown, more specifically, to the monument erected to honour the victims of the tragedy. “Jonestown was a sobering moment in our country’s history. Roraima Airways is deliberately not selling this as any sort of tourism initiative. Unpleasant as it was, Jonestown is history and people are a part of history. We will take those people with those varied interests to the site of that monument. I believe I owe it to people like Jackie Speier and to the victims of Jonestown to oversee this one myself,” he said. It is a commitment that has an underpinning of conviction.
Ironically, Gouveia’s announcement that Roraima Airways will now be regularizing its flights to Port Kaituma from whence visitors will make their way to the site of Jonestown coincides with increasingly assertive pronouncements from the private sector regarding the need to aggressively market the country abroad. Gouveia says that Jonestown is not about marketing Guyana it is about “reminding ourselves and the rest of the world of the Jonestown and the lessons that it teaches. Perhaps there is an example there from which Guyana can learn, going forward. The rest of the world will, of course, have its own separate interest.”a