• 23 May, 2024

Reminiscing the Struggle for Guyana Democracy Oct 5, 1992

Reminiscing the Struggle for Guyana Democracy Oct 5, 1992

Reminiscing the Struggle for Guyana Democracy Oct 5, 1992

October 5th 2023 marked the 31st anniversary since the restoration of democracy in Guyana. It was the date for the nation's first free and fair election marking an end of the dictatorship. Several activists penned articles reminding the public how the country was transformed into a dictatorship, what life was like in that hell hole, and the struggle for democracy. Others reminisced about the struggle. This brief piece focuses on the New York based struggle against the Guyana dictatorship (1968-1992). The list of names mentioned below of participants in the movement is not exhaustive. 

 

When Guyana became independent in 1966, it was among the most progressive democracies in the world with a free independent judiciary, press, civil service, police, army, elections, and the like that characterize a democracy. The country quickly descended into authoritarianism right after independence developing into a full-blown dictatorship within a short period of time. Guyanese faced persecution and deadly attacks at the hands of the Burnham government as they protested for justice and peace.  Several Christian clergyman, Mulvis, and Pandits were attacked in the streets. Reporters were mauled.  The government killed several militant opponents, arrested protesters, beat thousands of peaceful protesters. There was a sustained campaign of violence and repression, targeting anyone who opposed the regime’s abuses — including journalists and religious figures, members of civil society and any others who dared exercise their right to free assembly and expression. 

 

No country or international organization (not Caricom, not OAS, nit Commonwealth) stood with Guyana in the struggle for democracy, not even Jagan’s left wing allies. Apart from Ralph Gonsalves and Maurice Bishop, no Caribbean political leader expressed solidarity with the struggle for democracy in Guyana. Michael Manley, a socialist, did not call for FFE in Guyana and did not back Jagan. China, the USSR, Cuba, and the socialist bloc did not offer support to communist Jagan, the PPP, or any movement that was championing FFE in Guyana.  When asked why he was not holding elections in Grenada after the 1979 coup, Bishop replied elections were not important but uplifting  lives was of greater importance. He said he could hold election and rig it like Eric Gairy and Burnham to retain power but what would do for development of country and people. 

 

An array of forces, locally and internationally, mobilized into action to remove the dictatorship and restore democracy. The diaspora and political forces at home organized to combat the dictatorship. The diaspora informed the world about human rights violations at home and lobbied governments, prominent personalities, as well as international organizations to pressure the dictatorship to respect human rights and return the country to democratic governance. The struggle was long in the diaspora (1970s onwards) and succeeded with the first free and fair election on October 5, 1992, resulting in the PPP being elected to office and Dr. Jagan rightfully occupying the highest elective position in the country. 

 

In New York, as was the case in Washington, Canada and England and other locations (including the Caribbean), only a handful of individuals were involved in the overseas struggle against the dictatorship.  Guyanese started coming to the US during late 1960s as foreign students (I-20 immigrants). Increased numbers came during the 1970s as the dictatorship got a firm grip over the country, engaged in institutionalized racism, and the economy began to deteriorate. As economic conditions worsened during the 1980s, a wave of Guyanese exited the country, exceeding 30K annually -- mostly to North America, Surinam, Venezuela, French Guiana, and the islands in the region. 

 

Very few Guyanese were involved or showed interest in any struggle against the dictatorship. Given the bitter experience, they wanted to forget about Guyana. Involvement in a struggle would remind them of their terrible experience. Their primary concern, especially Indians, was getting relatives out of Guyana. 

Not surprisingly, throughout the diaspora, Guyanese were very busy eking out a living and or providing for the welfare of family and relatives back home with hardly any time to participate in or to pioneer or join any  struggle against the dictatorship. Life was most difficult in America as it would be in any new environment for new immigrants like Guyanese in North America, UK, and other countries. When one had to work to earn a living and also commit time to family affairs, not much time remained to participate in struggle against the dictatorship; some did double jobs and probably also in attendance in classes. Guyanese foreign students at tertiary institutions were pre-occupied with their studies and working full or part time (to meet expenses) with very little free time to engage in a struggle against the dictatorship. Thus, only a handful of Guyanese pioneered the movement against the dictatorship from NY. Arjune Karshan, Chuck Mohan, Mel Carpen, and a few others pioneered the movement in the early 1970s. They stood out in the campaign against the dictatorship. They were virtually all students at colleges. The group this writer belonged to were students at City College from 1977 and only a few students or Guyanese in general were interested in matters pertaining to Guyana or the Guyanese diaspora or community in New York. I met Chuck at CCNY, a hotbed of of revolutionary activities, that hosted militant figures from several countries. There were also student groups in Minnesota, Washington, and Chicago that focused attention on rights violations in Guyana. All of the groups in America except for our group at CCNY and another group in Washington DC were affiliated with political parties in Guyana. Our group was unaligned and did not oppose any other group or political party in Guyana. It was the PPP that benefited from the struggle of our group and that of others. 

 

The support groups were small during the 1970s but grew in size, stature, and importance during the 1980s. As more Guyanese made their presence at colleges in NYC, Washington, Chicago, Minneapolis, and other cities and as more Guyanese came to USA, the movement slowly grew.  The presence of Guyanese opposition political leaders helped to recruit more membership in diaspora organizations. Dr Jagan, Eusi Kwayana, Llewelyn John, Manzoor Nadir, Paul Tennassee, Vishnu Bandhu, Lesley Ramsammy, among other stalwarts of varied political parties made regular visits to USA and engaged the membership of support organizations as well as the diaspora.  Support groups grew in membership or following. Most of the support groups in the diaspora were affiliated with the PPP but all of the political parties (DLM, TUF, URP, NRP, WPA, PDM, etc.) had support groups overseas. Supporters of the ruling PNC showed no interest in removing their party from power and whenever dictator leaders visited NY, they were in attendance in solidarity. 

 

Although not having the time to join the struggle and showing very little interest in Guyana or Guyanese diaspora affairs in America, almost every diaspora Guyanese, except those supportive of the PNC, were sympathetic with the struggle waged abroad against the dictatorship. Only a few Guyanese in America, Canada, UK, and other countries were committed to the anti-dictatorial struggle. The handful of us mobilized and led the movement – planned, organized, and staged rallies, street protests, petition drives, prepared and distributed literature, posted flyers, engaged in sit ins and fasts, participated in letter writing campaign to governments and international organizations, among other activities — to bring awareness of the violation of human rights in and lack of democracy in Guyana. The US and other governments were lobbied to help restore democracy in Guyana. 

The prominent names in the movement during the 1970s were Vassan Ramracha, Baytoram Ramharack, Arjune Karshan, Chuck Mohan, Mel Carpen, Flattie Singh, and a few others. During the 1980s, Raj Singh, Samad Ally, Joe Kanhai, Abdul Hafeez, Lincoln Vansertima, Joe Ragnauth, Balram Jagessar (V was call name), Wendell Singh, Mahadeo Persaud, Kenneth Persaud, Pandit Ramlall, etc. joined the movement; they formed or were affiliated with their own organizations and political parties. Joe Kanhai started the Guyana Solidarity Movement. Herman Singh was very supportive of the anti-dictatorial movement, and he also made available his office and later banquet hall for meetings. David Hinds, supporter of WPA, also played a major role in USA in opposing the dictatorship from mid 1980s onwards -- post Burnham; he was at several meetings and protests and was a regular commentator in Caribbean Daylight newspaper as well as other left-wing publications. Rohit Kanhai, publisher of Daylight, a member of WPA, also provided support as did Malaysian Nala Singham. Chinese Jamaican Richard Hoyen, also a college student who subsequently became a teacher and a trade unionist, was seen at several protests going back to the early 1980s; Jagan was his hero. And there were several Trinidadians (like Rennie Ramracha, Narine Singh, Robin Parray, among others) who gave financial support as well as joined protests. Balram Rambrich, Jagdesh Mohunlall, Somdath Mohabir, Bal Krishna Naipaul, among a few others, were very supportive of the struggle during the late 1980s. Yashpal Soi joined the struggle during the 1980s; he was a Jaganite though not a socialist. Ruben Khusial and his wife joined the movement in 1990. Albert Budhu, former GAWU leader, also supported the movement from around 1988. Somdath chaired several meetings particularly those associated with URP (Lesley Ramsammy). Dhanpaul Narine was supportive after he migrated from London to NY around 1990. Dr. Tara Singh and Dhanpaul organized a few meetings. Ramesh Kalicharran provided much support including use of his office. Jass Persaud had a constant presence at events. Ravi Dev and Randy Depoo (known as Rano) and a few others founded GUDM in 1985; Randy would depart on duties in Washington and overseas around 1987 and provided support to a movement in Trinidad in late 1990s. Dr Prem Misir was a member of that movement though he was not an activist. He donated to the organization to help pay the rent for an office at 168 Place, off Hillside Ave. several meetings were held at that location. There were a few election watch forums in 1992. Dr Tara Singh organized an Election Watch forum on Liberty Ave on the night of the election where I spoke. Baytoram Ramharack, Vassan Ramracha and myself also organized election forums.

 

Kawal Totaram, Bhola Ramsundar, Rickey Singh were also quite active and supportive of ACG. They and several other donors contributed significant funds to the PPP.

 

Several individuals donated funds to assist the struggle. Some gave only to their party while others like me, Balram Rambrich, among others donated to all of the parties. Balram was among the most generous donors. PPP received the bulk of the overseas funding. The ACG raised hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of American dollars that were donated to the PPP. Other parties also received substantial funding from support groups in America. 

Without the critical role played by the diaspora, October 5 1992 would not have happened. 

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.