• 23 May, 2024

Recalling Invaluable Role of Hucksters (traders) in Guyana

Recalling Invaluable Role of Hucksters (traders) in Guyana

Recalling Invaluable Role of Hucksters (traders) in Guyana

Hucksters (especially those involved in foreign trade) played an invaluable role in providing goods (including basic medicines) for survival (people barely eking out a living) in Guyana (which was in dire straits) during the period of the dictatorship when basic items were banned on the importation list (as well as outlawed for consumption) -- items that were favored by and popular among the population. Hucksters were small business traders who brought the goods from across borders and supplied shops (retailers) and or they themselves peddled the goods in markets or at home. It was a very profitable small business initially as there was huge demand for the goods (especially banned food items) with limited supplies but with many risks as it could lead to arrest, fine, jail time for selling foreign foods or religious items that were prohibited. Almost all imports of food were on a prohibitive list, and if found with them the consequences were very severe – confiscation of goods, fine and jail term. The hucksters filled a need in making available basic foods that were scarce. Many Guyanese were literally on the verge of starvation as money was not coming in and goods were not readily available. Begging make widespread from the airport to the villages. Even clothing was very scarce. Death literally stalked the land from inadequate nutrition and lack of medicine.  Without traders, many would have lived shorter lives. The hucksters not only made basic goods available but also propped up and rescued the collapsing economy especially during the 1980s when every state supplied item was rationed and distributed based on a preference to supporters of the ruling party. One needed a party card in order to have access to basic supplies.


There were several individuals who took risks and went into the huckster trading business. Some went on to become prominent businessmen, having large business today. Almost every major business person today in Guyana was into trading during the 1970s and or 1980s. They mastered the trade and knew how to beat the legal system that victimized or punished hucksters with burdensome fines or custom duties. Huckster trading gave them the break into business success. They were true entrepreneurs who took risks against great odds, and the country should commend them for their business ventures. Various factors caused them to go into huckstering. Some went into it because of the business opportunities – to earn quick money. Others went into it because jobs were not available. Some were terminated from state employment. Some went into it because government salary was extremely low to provide for a family while huckstering was more profitable. Well known public commentator Leyland Roopnarine became a trader because he was fired from his teaching job; he refused to go National Service and was a vocal opponent of Burnham’s government and was fired from state employment. He went into trading in order to support his family.


There was a fraternity among hucksters. This writer happened upon hucksters or traders, including Leyland and several others, in Trinidad, Curacao, Barbados multiple times. (No, I was not a huckster and nothing is wrong in being a huckster. I used to go Trinidad and other islands regularly to drum up support for the struggle for restoration of democracy. The Trinidadians were very supportive of our struggle – Kumar Mahabir, Samaroo Siewah, Rajnee Ramlakhan, Ashram Maharaj, Kamal Persad, Trevor Sudama, Basdeo Panday, among others).  The hucksters purchased goods to ply their trade in Guyana. All the traders are commended for taking the risk in business to provide for the needs of the country during a most desperate time under the dictatorship.


The hucksters are credited for introducing or pioneering a kind of trading Guyana had never experienced. Huckster trading involved bringing cheap (or prohibited) imports smuggled at the border or at times even through the airport and wharf (allowed once the right bribe was paid) and selling locally at an extremely high mark up, three or four times the cost. The risks were high to peddle the banned items because it involved heavy fines and jail time if caught; so the mark up had to be high to recover costs and make a handsome profit.

The huckster trading started right after the rigging of the 1968 general elections and removal of the Privy Council as Guyana’s final court of appeal in 1970.  The dictatorship controlled all aspects of life including food consumption. Potatoes, channa, flour, onion, garlic, and other necessities as well as cod fish, mackerel, cheese, fruits like apples and grapes including preserved ones like raisins and cherries, all canned items including milk and sardines, ovaltine, milo, marmite, chocolates, jams, and drinks including wine, whiskey, cydrax, peardrax, were among the first items to be placed on the banned list during the early 1970s. The list was widened to include other items such as split peas or dhall in later years. Almost all imports were prohibited. Newsprint was not available to the private media or political parties for their organs; the private media was nationalized.


Hucksters emerged right after the banning of goods in the early 1970s to fill a void. People wanted the banned goods as their taste was not changing, and consumers were willing to pay for them – sold in the underground or black market at several times the price before they were banned. In short, huckstering started with the banning of goods, control of trade, and restrictions placed on access to foreign currency.


Huckster trading was known by several names -- also called contraband trading, banned goods trading, back track trading because traders illegally crossed the border and brought back goods (some of which were banned), tata boat trading (mode of transportation), suitcase trading, stripe bag trading because the goods were brought in colorful striped bags. The striped bags were identified as belonging to hucksters. It mostly involved bringing into the country goods that were prohibited by the government but some of them were not banned (like tyres, ghee, agarbati, atar perfume, among a few others).  It was a most difficult period for Guyana as almost every allowable item imaginable (not to mention banned goods that were on a prohibitive list) was in shortage, scarce, or unavailable. No other country in the world was known to ban basic foods and rigidly control imports as Guyana. No other people in the world were known to experience the kind of shortages of basic items (including of food and medicine) and food hardship that Guyanese were forced to endure for almost two decades (1970s and 1980s).

Beginning in the 1970s, government took control over all imports and nationalized all banks. Foreign currency (primarily American dollars) was not available to the public during the period of the dictatorship; government controlled all banking institutions and all official trade (import as well as export) transactions. There was a serious shortage of foreign exchange as government had to service heavy foreign debt and pay for imports of munitions as well as goods needed for regime (dictatorship) survival. Since foreign currency was not available, the government could not purchase non-prohibited goods. Foreign currency was not available to traders to purchase goods abroad. Hucksters purchased foreign currency on the local black market, offering higher (competitive) exchange rates than the official government bank rate. Not surprisingly, the underground economy probably had more foreign currency than the government. One of the ways the traders obtained foreign currency was to smuggle (raw) gold or gold jewelry to Trinidad, Barbados, Curacao which was sold to earn cash that was used to purchase needed goods in demand to take back to Guyana.


Most of the hucksters were women especially those involved in the contraband food business. And regrettably, some of the women engaged in (illicit – the oldest profession) activities to earn money to purchase items for sale in Guyana. But males were also in the thick of the trading especially in clothing, equipment, machinery, entertainment sets, and the like. Sometimes, husband and wife ran the operation. One ethnic group dominated the trading while the law enforcers (food police) were of another group that dominated the police force.


Hucksters operated between Guyana and the border states of Venezuela and Suriname as well as bringing goods from Trinidad, Barbados, and Curacao. Foods came from Venezuela, Suriname and Trinidad. Clothing came from Curacao. Equipment, spare parts, and medicine, came from wherever they could be procured. Cheese and vehicle parts came mostly from Trinidad (the Bamboo Villages) and from Suriname. Some traders also brought goods from other territories (like Antigua, St Martin, Grenada) to sell in Guyana. Almost every item was smuggled from abroad including paper products (toilet paper, print paper), pens, pencils, etc.

It was a crime to be found in possession of banned goods especially food items. The wrath of the full force of the law was unleashed on violators. The ‘Food Police’ tried, sentenced, fined violators on the spot (on the road). The good could be confiscated (some or all of it) depending on the bribe offered. One had to pay the fine right away or be taken to the police station for official prosecution -- a trial ensued that is accompanied with hefty fines as well  – pay right there. Women were forced to submit their bodies in lieu (or reduction) of fines resulting in unwanted pregnancies especially of Mixed children and broken families. The hucksters used clever means to evade the police. Goods were transported in hearses and coffins or on secret compartments of truck and vans. Political Science professor Dr. Chaitram Singh wrote about the flour convoy – sacks of flour transported in coffins from Crabwood Creek to other parts of the country. Banned goods were stored in false bottoms of vehicles and for storage they were kept under houses, in animal pens, chicken coops, deep holes dug into the ground, and water wells. But it didn’t take long for the police to learn the tricks of the hucksters in transporting or staring band items. They would swoop down on traders of illegal banned goods. Also, it was not unusual for police to make unannounced raids in markets and at peoples’ homes especially at prayer meets and weddings of Indians – puja or Jhandi, Koran Sharief, Christian Service, and other religious functions.  It was a norm and requirement for Indians to serve dal, potatoes, channa, roti, sirni, mohanbhog, puri – all banned goods -- at their religious functions. Inevitable Indians were in violation of the law for observing their faith. They were often forced to pay bribes to the police in order to continue their religious service. At times, relatives had to grab banned goods and dump them in latrines or carry for storage at neighbors in order to avoid prosecution and fine. In the market areas, it was not unusual to see swelled bread, roti, cake made from flour floating in rivers and trenches as vendors dumped goods in order to avoid the long arm of the police.

The huckster trading was very important to the economy. It was more financially potent than the official economy. No one could fathom its importance and size. It was larger than the official economy. And this underground economy sustained lives. It also created a “Nouveau Riche”, a new class, an unintended consequence that the dictatorship did not imagine. As an illustration, a police officer earned G$300 per month in 1980. Bribes from hucksters tripled and quadrupled his income. From brines of Smuggler would make over 1000 a trip – doing multiple trips a month. A teacher was earning an average $800 a month in 1980. Leyland stated that after one trip to Trinidad or Curacao, he earned over $1000 (after expense) and would make multiple trips a month. A goods smuggler made thousands of dollars a month. Those who plied their trade across the land border earned even more.   

Life was most difficult during the period of the dictatorship.  Everyone, including the hucksters, was a victim of misrule. The hucksters played a very critical role in providing the nation with the most basic of items for almost two decades.

The huckster trading of illegal or illicit goods (foods in particular) largely came to an end when then President Desmond Hoyte reluctantly, under pressure from Indian businessmen and foreign lenders, abrogated the law on restriction of imports in 1988. Hoyte announced that government had no foreign exchange for private imports but gave permits for the private sector to import goods. He also removed restrictions on foreign currency exchange. Cambios were granted permits to exchange currencies. Government offered exchange rates to compete with cambios. Government removed price control of goods. All imported goods (four, potatoes, channa, etc.) that were prohibited during the 1970s and 1980s started to re-appear on shelves of shops or supermarkets post-1988. Full blown importation of goods and a free open market occurred during the 1990s.  And it has remained this way till now. There is still huckstering of all kinds of items, but it is now legal and the goods of hucksters are taxed at the port of entry.


Dr Vishnu Bisram

Dr Vishnu Bisram is Guyanese born who received his primary and secondary education in Guyana and tertiary education in the US and India. He is a fourth generation Indian. His great grandparents from both his mother and father’s sides were born in India -- Gurbatore from Ghaizpur, Amru from Azamgarh, Sau from Chapra, Mangri from Mau, Bhuri and Bhura Singh from Bharatpur, among others. They all came at different times to then British Guiana (1880s and 1890s) to work on sugar plantations as indentured laborers. After serving ten years, they were freed laborers. They remained on the colony rather than returned to India, married and had children. They used the savings from indentureship to purchase landholdings to cement their ties to their adopted land. They were not given free land. Vishnu Bisram is ninth of twelve children of Gladys and Baldat, rural farmers, she also was a seamstress and he a taylor and they attended to a kitchen garden as well. Vishnu attended the St Joseph Anglican (called English) primary school from 1966 to 1972. In 1972, he passed the annual nationwide Common Entrance exam winning a scholarship place to attend the government Berbice High School in New Amsterdam, some 17 miles from his home village of Ankerville, Port Mourant. He declined the placement scholarship and opted instead for the private Chandisingh High School to which his family pad to pay a tuition. He entered for eight subjects at the Cambridge University Exam in 1977. Vishnu migrated to the USA in 1977 to further his studies. He enrolled at the City College of City University of New York September that year at age 17, studying Bio-Chemistry and also completing a major in Political Science. After his BSc in Bio-Chem, he pursued graduate studies in International Relations earning a MA. He went on to complete multiple post graduate degrees including doctorates in Economics, Sociology, History, Political Science and Educational Administration. Dr Bisram taught for over forty years in various subjects in the US. He also served as a newspaper reporter and columnist for over four decades and is a well-known pollster in the Caribbean region. He is a specialist on the Indian diaspora traveling extensively around the globe to research and write about Indian communities. He published countless articles on various subjects in the mass media, journals, and books. He also organized international conferences on the Indian diaspora and presented papers at many conferences. He was a guest lecturer at universities in Mauritius, India, Fiji, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, USA, and other countries. He is a well regarded political analyst on American and Caribbean politics. He makes him home in Guyana, Trinidad, and America and travels frequently to India.