This article was originally published at OpEdNews.com. Given the direction the US government is taking today it seems more relevant than ever.
Socialism in Guyana
By Rehana Wolfe
Imagine for a moment what life would be like if you had to queue up at every grocery store just to get basic food items for your family. While you’re standing in line, your palms get sweaty , your heart pounds hard against your chest. Waiting to get to the point of sale seems like an eternity. While in line, your fear intensifies with every step forward to the counter. Your fear is that you would have spent several hours in line only to be turned away at the counter with the dreaded words, 'sorry, come back next week. We just ran out of ….' For many, this is a difficult scenario to comprehend, but for my generation and that of my parents, this was reality during the 70’s and 80’s in Guyana, South America when we lived under the dictatorship of Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, the first President of this small South American country of only 83,000 square miles and a population of under one million people.
Guyana, once a British colony, gained its independence in 1966 under the leadership of Burnham. Under his ideology of nationalization and self sufficiency, he gradually steered the country into the abyss of socialism from 1966 until his death in 1985. In an already poverty stricken environment, 1966 marked the beginning of political and economic chaos accompanied by growing racial tensions between the East Indians and Blacks who together form the majority.
Guyana, conquered from the Dutch, came to be developed under British rule. Under the British Slave Act, shiploads of African slaves were cast on the shorelines of Guyana, followed by indentured laborers from India, Asia, and Europe. These slaves and laborers were brought to Guyana to work on the sugar plantations.
After Burnham gained Guyana’s independence in 1966, his political platform and cabinet were very race oriented, empowering the Blacks and resulting in growing tensions and dislike for each other among the Indians and Blacks. There were no general elections between 1966 and 1985. Human rights and civil liberties were suppressed. There were many political assassinations of brilliant scholars and political activists who tried to bring change to Burnham’s socialist regime. Two unforgettable assassinations were Walter Rodney and Vincent Teekah.
The tensions between the Blacks and Indians continued to grow and eventually rose to the level of riots, looting, burning, and killing. I’ll never forget the riot of 1971. At eight years old, it would be my first glimpse and real understanding of the racial pain. It was a beautiful day. At around 9 a.m., the sun shone in all its glory but the calm and beauty of the day was disturbed by the echoing cries of people running for cover as the loud bang of gunshots filled the air. My sister and I were at school when suddenly my Dad burst into the classroom and grabbed us without much explanation. He had to brave the violent streets on his bicycle, dodging bullets to get his two daughters back home safely. My Dad put my sister and me on the bike, both on the middle passenger bar and pedaled as fast as he could to get us home safely. When we got there, he rushed us into the living room (which was upstairs) and told us to lie on the floor behind the sofas. There would be many more of these riots in the years ahead.
Let’s go back to the scene at the beginning of this story. Many institutions were nationalized; travel and foreign currency were restricted. Therefore, waiting in line for basic food items was the norm. Burhnam’s idea of self sufficiency meant that we produced our own flour, rice, sugar, etc. Of course, importation of these items was illegal. Many businessmen tried to smuggle them in but couldn’t meet the demand. While Guyana could supply itself with rice and sugar, we could not produce wheat flour (He urged the people to make flour from rice), milk, and other nutritional foods.
Infant formula was not sufficiently available. Mothers improvised to feed young babies. The baby formula ration was one five pound can of per month. How did working mothers feed their babies when they were not available to breast feed? I was one of those mothers who added pureed plantains to the formula to make it last until it was time for the next can.
Many things were in short supply. At the gas station where we purchased propane cooking gas by the canister there were lines too. And not every day, only on certain days when the canisters were in stock. Here the lines would form the previous evening. At around 6pm people started taking their positions to make sure they were among the first 20 or 50 or whatever the quota was that day. They would take turns sleeping and watching each other ‘s position until dawn.
Electricity was another big problem. It was constantly interrupted – to the point where many residential areas would go without electricity for an entire day or night. This affected not only electrical appliances but also the flow of water to our homes. We were constantly keeping buckets of water for the shower, toilets, and all other needs.
Education was good until the student got to the university. A four year college became a three-year one, with the third year being obligatory national service. After graduation, students often had to sign a five year contract with the government. One had to work for the government and could not leave the country during this period.
All travel abroad was controlled. Permission to travel abroad was granted only after your tax records were checked and it was confirmed that you were tax compliant. Foreign currency restrictions were tracked by stamping the last page of the passport with the date and amount of cash issued per trip.
Guyana’s socialism gradually faded after the death of Burnham in 1983. And it wouldn’t be until 1992, after 28 years of dictatorship, that Guyanese citizens would experience their first free and fair election. Cheddi Jagan would become President – yes the same guy that lost the rigged election to Burham in 1963.
In conclusion, I must say that amidst all these sufferings and struggles, one cannot leave amiss the emotional distress that a population suffers from under socialism. While trying to find food, and nurture growing babies, families yell at each other in anger and frustration – life becomes a barren desert upon which love and compassion are hard to cultivate.
Rehana Wolfe, born in Guyana, now lives in Pennsylvania. She has a Master's degree in Communications from Villanova University.