One of the enduring strengths of American politics is its willingness to hold a dialogue with earlier opinions; to review, for example, current political issues from the perspective of the Founding Fathers. Whether the debate is about the Second Amendment, foreign entanglements, or states’ rights and the federal government, this habit of returning to the original words and phrasing of earlier thinkers often refreshes the public sphere and furnishes striking examples of how much, or little, progress has been made in a particular area over the course of a generation.
Fifty years after our own Independence, the Caribbean has accumulated a smaller but no less fertile body of opinions. The thought of the New World group, for example, is frequently as relevant today as it was at the moment of its publication. The work of Frantz Fanon, Edouard Glissant, Aimé Cesaire and CLR James have arguably become even more relevant with time. Closer to home, some resonances are even stronger. Consider, for instance, footage from a black-and-white film released by the Victor Jara Collective in 1983. In the Sky’s Wild Noise – a title taken from a Martin Carter poem – shows Walter Rodney telling a political meeting that: “Not even those of us who stand here on this platform can tell you that the remedy in Guyana is that a new set of people must take over from the old set of people, and we will run the system better. That is no solution to the problems of Guyana.”
Rodney expands on the idea by noting that US and British interventions to “abort the democratic process from 1953 onwards” were subsequently coupled with widespread electoral fraud to ensure “that we cannot claim at the present time to be a politically enfranchised people. We cannot claim to have chosen our own national government.” He explains: “[T]hat is one level. Below that level you find that there is reproduced in every facet of the national life the same antidemocratic tendencies. So that there are no local government elections for instance, we have local government elections that are postponed every time they become due, with ease, with no concern whatsoever. With no reaction. There are no elections taking place within certain trade unions, where workers at that basic level should be choosing their representatives to deal with their material interests. And once that antidemocratic principle is established, we see then step-by-step we move backwards. And I say backwards very deliberately.”
He continues: “In the early years of independence, or the last years of colonialism, we had certain illusions that having inherited the formal mode of political procedure from the British that of necessity we would not follow the path that had been followed by other Latin American territories or by countries such as Haiti under Duvalier and the Dominican Republic and Cuba and the like. And as people begin to recognize that many of these authoritarian traits and repressive institutions can and are emerging in our societies, I feel there is a growing awareness of the need to attempt to combat this repression.” He illustrates this with a comment on the way the government has “ostensibly nationalized [local] newspapers, meaning ‘in the interests of the nation’ but in practice it is specifically in the interests of the ruling party. As the prime minister of this country himself once cynically remarked, “The government never tells the newspapers what to print, just what not to print.”
These comments are followed by a searing commentary on the dangers of allowing state control of key national industries. Rodney warns that while “It does not appear on the surface to be as frightening as the overt exploitation and oppression of the South African prisons or the Chilean torture cells, or the Brazilian torture cells, but from the viewpoint of the mass of the population in the country, and their capacity to express themselves politically, this denial of the right to work is a new, frightening dimension of our political scene.”
Other documents from the early 80s will show that these concerns were as much part of the zeitgeist then as they appear to be now. In an essay on State Capitalism in Guyana (also published in1983, in a book called Crisis in the Caribbean, for instance, Clive Thomas recounts the political upheaval which preceded Independence before concluding: “Perhaps, above all else, the independence settlement demonstrated that there was no ‘smashing of the colonial state’ in Guyana. [This] however, should not be allowed to mask the fact that the post-colonial state … began a significant dimensional growth in three areas, namely bureaucratization, militarization and ideologization.” Thomas worried that the relative underdevelopment of the Guyanese working class and bourgeoisie coupled with a “highly complex and variegated class structure, in which ethnic factors play critical roles” had enabled the state to play a dangerous role in “class formation.” “In Guyana, as elsewhere in the capitalist periphery…” he warned, “political/state power is being used as an instrument for the consolidation of a now developing ruling class.”
Irrespective of one’s ideological sympathies, the resonance of these words – not just in Guyana but throughout Latin America the Caribbean – is a telling indication of how little has been done to resolve some of our country’s and region’s most profound political questions; how little we have interrogated or altered the excessive power of the state and of the constitution that enables it, or extended political engagement beyond a ruling class.