Who else but Forbes Burnham could have established diplomatic relations between Guyana and Cuba? It was Burnham who led Guyana to Independence, not Jagan who years prior has established trade relations with Cuba but who could not establish formal diplomatic relations since he was Premier of a colony in which foreign policy was the province of the British.
Burnham therefore was the only person who could have established diplomatic relations with Cuba because he was the Prime Minister at the time of and just after Independence. It is of greater significance that it took him more than six years to do so than it is of the fact that he helped break the diplomatic isolation of Cuba in the Caribbean.
Guyana was one of four Caribbean nations which broke the diplomatic isolation of Cuba within the Region. Burnham was too timid, too afraid of the Americans to have gone it alone. And so he joined forces with Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Jamaica in agreeing to diplomatic relations with Cuba in December of 1972.
Ironically just months prior to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, Barbados had voted against a resolution within the Organization of American States (OAS) calling for the normalization of relations with Cuba. That resolution was piloted by Peru. If there is any nation that deserves the credit for breaking the diplomatic isolation of Cuba within the Region it should be Peru.
No one should however deny the Caribbean its proper place in such a process and no one should deny Burnham the credit duly due to him for parting with his previous ambivalence towards Cuba.
He may have been prior to 1972 inconsistent in terms of relations with Cuba. He certainly did not establish diplomatic relations with Cuba when he assumed the leadership of Guyana and propelled the country towards Independence.
Like he was on Independence, Burnham can justly be accused of being inconsistent. There was a time when he did not support Independence for British Guiana just as there were times when Burnham was not enthusiastic about establishing relations with Cuba.
As in such issues, there is no single factor that propelled Burnham to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. There were a multitude of factors involved.
For one, Guyana harboured ambitions within the Non- Aligned Movement. Guyana was positioning itself to become an influential voice within that movement. Burnham saw the movement as presenting him with the opportunity to promote himself internationally more so following the lack of legitimacy of his government which had the distinction of having donkeys and the dead vote in the 1968 elections, one of the most farcical elections ever held in the western hemisphere. Breaking Cuba’s diplomatic isolation was the perfect ploy to gain a legitimacy that was lacking internally.
Cuba was also a member of the Non- Aligned Movement (NAM). Guyana had hosted, at great expense and sacrifice, two important meetings of foreign ministers of the NAM in the early years of the 1970’s. These had given Guyana great recognition within the NAM. It would have been inconsistent for Guyana to be playing a leading role in the NAM while at the same time forgoing diplomatic relations with Cuba. As such diplomatic relation with Cuba was a logical next-step for the Burnham administration.
Burnham also desired to build on the credibility that he had achieved by hosting these two important meetings of foreign ministers of the NAM. What better way to do this than by being associated jointly with other Caribbean nations in breaking the diplomatic isolation of Cuba?
To its credit, Guyana was in the forefront of the four-nation decision to establish diplomatic relations even though Manley had prior to taking office promised to establish relations with Cuba. It is only fair that both Ramphal and Burnham be given their due credit for leading the process that saw the four MDCs of the Caribbean establish formal diplomatic ties with Cuba.
The second factor was that the Black Power riots had forced Burnham to change ideological course. He began the process of radicalizing Guyana’s political and economic landscape. He felt there was no other option than taking a leftward turn. And therefore it was only logical once this had happened that he had to establish ties with socialist and communist countries. The record will show that just prior to establishing relations with Cuba, Guyana had established diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China.
Establishing relations with Cuba was also part of a plan to neutralize Cheddi Jagan. Burnham lived in the perennial shadow of Jagan who was always more respected in the socialist world than he, Burnham, ever was. Burnham, according to persons close to him and close to his early foreign policy formation, was deeply envious of the high regard that Jagan enjoyed.
What better way to neutralize the threat of Jagan than by Burnham projecting himself as the ultimate leftist radical of the Caribbean? And what better way to achieve this than by doing the radical: establishing formal diplomatic ties with Cuba.
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