The month of June is significant in the political calendar of Guyana. It is the month in which five sugar workers were brutally shot to death by colonial police for having dared to stand up for their rights. It is also the month in which Walter Rodney was assassinated for having dared to stand up for a democratic Guyana.
Much has changed since those sordid years. Guyana is today a free and democratic country, quite unlike what it was during the days of the Enmore shootings and the death of Walter Rodney. At the time of the shooting of the sugar workers, there was no mass-based political party. Indeed, it was the shooting to death of the five sugar workers that acted as a catalyst to the formation of the PPP.
At the graveside of the slain sugar workers, Dr. Cheddi Jagan made a silent pledge that he would dedicate his entire life to struggle for the liberation of the Guyanese people from the yoke of colonial rule. He was later instrumental in the formation of the People’s Progressive Party which until today remains the true voice of the working people and the vanguard of the liberation struggle for a better and united Guyana.
Walter Rodney fought valiantly for a democratic Guyana. Unlike the sugar workers who later became known as the Enmore Martyrs, Guyana during the time of Rodney’s death had freed itself from colonial rule, but there was a new kind of oppression that resulted from the destruction of the democratic fabric of the society following the removal of the PPP from government in the elections of 1964 and the installation of the PNC-UF coalition government.
One of the first indications of the rise of authoritarian rule was in 1967, one year after the attainment of political independence, when the PNC booted out its junior coalition partner the United Force from government and hastily called fresh elections, but only after it had taken full control of the elections machinery. From a minority party in all elections prior to 1968, the PNC dramatically arrogated to itself through force and fraud the status as the ‘paramount’ party.
It was against this background that the struggle for a democratic Guyana has meaning and significance. While the country was independent from British colonial rule, the dark shadows of authoritarian rule became a limiting factor in the country’s quest for genuine freedom and statehood.
To a large extent, freedom from colonialism was overshadowed by a new oppression which saw the systematic erosion of civil and constitutional rights of the Guyanese people. The high expectations of a prosperous and united Guyana following the attainment of political independence were shattered by the insatiable greed for power by the PNC regime, which shamelessly rigged all elections after 1968 until democracy was finally restored to Guyana on October 5, 1992.
The Working People’s Alliance, of which Walter Rodney was a founding member, became a sharp critic of the PNC then led by Forbes Burnham. Rodney was able to turn the tide of rank and file support away from the PNC by exposing the anti-working class postures of the PNC. The economy was in crisis and it was the working class who was made to carry the full burden of the crisis. Real wages and salaries fell drastically which affected mainly those in the public service, the majority of whom were Afro-Guyanese drawn mainly from the ranks of the public service, army, police and the teaching profession.
As the crisis worsened, the PNC became more vicious and authoritarian. Burnham boasted of its “steel being sharper” in direct reference to Rodney and the WPA leaders, many of whom were harassed and tortured by the PNC. It is widely believed that the PNC was responsible for the eventual assassination of Dr. Rodney, who was killed on June 13, 1980, under mysterious conditions.
Politics, it is said, make for strange bedfellows. Today, some thirty-two later, the WPA or what remains of that Party, is politically affiliated with the self-same PNC which that Party is accusing of masterminding the assassination of Walter Rodney. This is indeed an interesting development, especially given the close ties between the WPA and the ruling party, the PPP/C, during the days of authoritarian rule. Rodney was highly regarded by Dr. Jagan and the PPP for the courageous stand he took against the PNC dictatorship, for which he later suffered martyrdom.
The WPA is now calling for the setting up for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, before which it would be willing to share information on the events that preceded the assassination of Walter Rodney. It is interesting to know what new disclosure that party is willing to lay before the Guyanese people.
Both the Enmore Martyrs and Walter Rodney have etched their names in the political sands of time in Guyana. There are others such as Father Darke, a Jesuit photographer who was knifed to death by thugs belonging to the House of Israel, and the two ballot box martyrs from Corentyne who were shot and killed by the military for protecting ballot boxes from being carted away to some undisclosed location. These are people who have paid the ultimate price for freedom and democracy. The freedom and democracy that we enjoy today is as a result of the grit and determination of a significant number of Guyanese, some of whom have given their lives in the process.
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