Walter Rodney’s ideas and the long shadow of ExxonMobil on Guyana’s future

By: Wazir Mohamed & Mark Chatarpal

Dr. Wazir Mohamed is a former activist and co-leader of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). He is now an Associate Professor of Sociology at Indiana University (IU), East. Dr. Mohamed holds a B.S. in Communication from the University of Guyana, and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology from Binghamton University.

Mark Chatarpal is originally from Hauraruni Village. He is an Associate Instructor at IU, Bloomington and holds a B.A (Hons) specializing in Caribbean Studies from the University of Toronto, a M.A. in Anthropology and is completing his Ph.D. in Anthropology at IU. He was a recent recipient of IU’s Harold K. Schneider Prize for best paper in Economic Anthropology.

Thirty-eight years have passed since Walter Rodney was assassinated in Guyana on June 13, 1980. In the 2014-2016 Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the circumstances that led to his death, evidence showed that the device which exploded in his lap was constructed by Guyana Defence Force army sergeant Gregory Smith. The explosive device was remotely controlled from a range of frequencies normally accessed and controlled by state security. Despite the evidence and clarity brought by the COI, the political controversies that have haunted Guyana since his assassination have not disappeared. The government of Guyana is yet to accept and use the findings and recommendations of the Inquiry as a means of putting the matter of his killing to rest, bringing much needed closure to his immediate family, friends and colleagues globally and beginning the long-awaited path towards national healing and reconciliation. Observers in Guyana and around the world have looked on in dismay as the governing coalition chose to make what could only be construed as a political error in their dismissal of the COI report. However, the legacy of Walter Rodney cannot simply be wished away. Yes, his physical body was killed, but his ideas live on and they continue to have potency and power.

National healing and reconciliation was a platform that Walter Rodney firmly advocated for between 1973 and 1980. As a scholar, Rodney was interested in exploring the reasons for the deepening of structural economic and political inequalities between the rich and poor in poor countries and between races and ethnic groups in countries such as Guyana. His organizing in Guyana provided insight into the thesis he formulated in his scholarly writings. Especially in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, where Rodney explained that the economic transfer of Africa’s resources which led to its structural underdevelopment was only possible because of the intentional political and cultural underdevelopment of African society. He felt that independence should have halted the excesses, and hence was alarmed that the inequalities continued to widen after independence.

As a gifted historian, Rodney recognized that the problem lay in our understanding of our history and in the structure of the management of our natural resources. From this viewpoint, he became too hot to handle for the ruling elites in Guyana, in Jamaica, and some may argue, in some countries in Africa. He unsettled the structure of local politics. In Jamaica, he grounded with the Rastafari and the working people and taught them to see their underdevelopment as a point of collusion between their ruling elites and the elites of global capital. This led to his banishment from Jamaica in 1968. In Guyana, he was banished from the University of Guyana, but being a Guyanese, he could not be banished from the country. The only means of banishing him from the country that was available to the ruling elites was silencing him by death. But despite his death, his views have not died, they are now more potent and relevant than ever. This is because the gap between rich and poor countries, between the ruling elites and the working peoples, and between racial/ethnic groups continues to expand.

Thirty-eight years after his assassination, students, activists, and lay people ask, what would Rodney be doing if he was here today? Recently, this question was posed by concerned Guyanese who are uncertain that the newborn possibilities of wealth from oil discoveries would bring much needed relief to the economic plight of the majority of Guyanese citizens. History shows us that the sugar windfall between 1975 and 1990, the Omai goldmine disaster in 1995, the rice windfall between 1990 and 1996 –brought only minor economic relief to the people. For a country with a population of less than 800,000 with the natural endowments we have, our standard of living should at least be comparable to our colleagues in Barbados. Therefore, how will oil change the economic situation of ordinary Guyanese when there is nothing much to show from all the wealth produced so far, especially since independence?

The long answer to this question lies in understanding the structure of underdevelopment, which is economic, political, and socio-cultural. In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney explained that the problem could only be addressed if the people are able to benefit from both the intrinsic and added value of natural resources. With regards to continental Africa, he argued that the basic structure of the underdevelopment paradox lies in the production of raw materials locally for export, while processing that adds value is done in the Western developed countries, none of which is ever returned. This helps to produce the power structure that enables further and deeper processes of exploitation of the working peoples by the global and local elites.

More importantly, he noted that the role of local lackeys is to enable the political and economic power structure that aid the transfer of wealth through the way natural resources are mined and managed.

Walter Rodney called for and placed his life on the line to produce a seamless connection between academia, the people and activism. Such activism must encourage the people to set up democratic people’s power institutions to protect the natural resources of their country from exploitation that leads to wealth transfer and from theft of national patrimony. This is why, while he was a critic of imperialism (the structure of wealth transfer from poor to rich countries), he was even more critical of the local lackeys of imperialism (the structure of wealth transfer from working people to the rich within poor countries). There are those who make the argument that this was a tactical error. We disagree, because the processes of exploitation are often heavily localized.

Our individual research trips to Ghana provide a useful point of comparison. We were shocked to see so many young people who should be in school, hawking foreign consumer goods along the highways. This is a widely accepted norm in most parts of the continent and reifies the view that political leaders of our age in oil producing countries in the global south are more interested in latching on to the banner of consumerism. Walter Rodney would have been a thorn in the side of this kind of leadership—leadership that colludes with foreign and local capital involved in land grabs, and who stands idle as women, youth, and the poor are denied equality of access to land. Rodney was not afraid of mingling with every-day people; indeed, he believed that producers, the workers and farmers, were really the most important elites in any country. He was a firm believer that the people must be involved in decision making and in government; and he understood the role of the intellectual in teaching the working people to form social movements as a safeguard against collusion between local and foreign lackeys of imperialism.

In Guyana, Rodney worked tirelessly to construct the framework for a Government of National Unity and Reconstruction (GNUR). He understood that for this to become a reality, the people had to be taught the reasons for the structure of exploitation. This led him to ground with workers, farmers, and sympathizers of the working people within civil society and from across the ethnic divide of Guyana. Thirty-eight years after Rodney, Guyana faces the challenge of further estrangement of its resources as ExxonMobil embarks on exploitation of its offshore oil deposits. It is a moment that calls for education and mobilization of its working people to challenge their leaders to take decisions in the interest of the populace. At a time when the natural resources of poor countries are being depleted and the lands of the poor are being grabbed, a new breed of intellectuals must arise and challenge themselves to educate the people, so that they can renew the struggle for equality and decency.

If Rodney was with us today, he would have urged the African Union and CARICOM to be true to the people of continental Africa and the Caribbean. He would have urged the people to elect governments capable of striking hard bargains with global corporations such as ExxonMobil, and others – hard bargains that ensure benefits for the people, including the erection of much needed social and cultural infrastructure. He would have urged the working people to build lasting institutions to act as checks to ensure that no government enjoy unbridled political control and power. He would have been critical of governments and the African Union and would have been on the side of emerging social movements, such as La Via Campesina and other food sovereignty movements.

In the USA Rodney would have supported the black lives matter and me-too movements and would have urged all working peoples to form a bond to defend the rights of marginalized groups. In China he would have urged for respect for the rights of workers and farmers, whose rights are being trampled as a new breed of capitalist emerge. In India, he would have been supportive of the social movements that have struggled to preserve rights to food sovereignty. In Guyana, Rodney would have struggled tirelessly to establish a national dialogue to inform policy on important national issues such as the future of sugar, the future of small farmers, the future of small miners, safeguarding the environment from further decay, and sustainable forestry. He would have advocated for indigenous land rights, gender rights, scrutinizing the country’s relationship with the IMF, and how to relate to large global companies such as ExxonMobil. It is a shame that 38 years after his death the institutions he helped shape in Guyana have become mere shadows of their former selves. As we mark yet another anniversary of his assassination, it is important that we all reflect seriously and honestly on the tasks ahead.

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