Image: The three member commission pictured with former President of Guyana, Donald Ramotar. From left to right, Senior Counsel Seenath Jairam from Trinidad and Tobago, Donald Ramotar, Barbadian attorney, Queen’s Counsel Sir Richard Cheltenham (chair) and Queen’s Counsel Jacqueline Samuels-Brown from Jamaica.
By Gerald A. Perreira
This article was prompted by the unrelenting campaign by friends and associates of the late Dr Walter Rodney, to maintain the false accusation that Forbes Burnham ordered Walter Rodney’s assassination. Many of these academics and commentators are not Guyanese and do not fully understand the circumstances in 1980 that led to Walter Rodney’s demise. Enamored by the scholarship of Dr Walter Rodney, which is certainly not in question here, and behaving as if he, Dr Rodney, was infallible, they have allowed themselves to be misled by the mountains of misinformation and distortions proffered by those forces, both progressive and reactionary, that ended up working in tandem to destabilize the anti-imperialist and non-capitalist government led by Forbes Burnham in the 1970s-80s. Those of us who defend Burnham, are accused of hero-worship, portraying him as perfect, having made no mistakes. This is a hollow accusation, since of course we acknowledge that all leaders, and the movements they lead, make mistakes – this is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. Upholding such an unrealistic and impossible image of Burnham, or any other leader for that matter, would therefore amount to an absurd notion and is certainly not our intention.
Dr Horace Campbell, known for his attacks on Robert Mugabe and Muammar Qaddafi, is among the most vociferous in the attempt to convict Burnham of Walter Rodney’s assassination. In 2013, he led an international campaign to prevent the South African Government from giving the Oliver Tambo Award, posthumously, to Forbes Burnham, for his outstanding contribution to the struggle against Apartheid. Recently, international headlines once again screamed “Burnham Conspired to Assassinate Walter Rodney”, following what can only be described as a farcical Commission of Inquiry into the death of Walter Rodney held in Guyana over the past two years. We must once and for all try to set this record straight. As revolutionary nationalists, we are currently involved in an intense, ongoing struggle to complete our national liberation, and to achieve true independence and self-determination. We want nothing more that to move on to the more urgent and pressing issues confronting us in Guyana and countries throughout the Global South. However, we can only move on once we dare to have the courageous conversation needed to put this matter to rest. Apart from setting the historical record straight, there are many lessons to be learned.
Having myself been a part of history making events, I am well placed to state categorically that the adage, chanted by Bob Marley, that “half the story has never been told” is 100% correct. Nowhere is this more evident than the rehashing and reshaping, over and over again, of the fallacious charge that Forbes Burnham, visionary leader and revolutionary nationalist, Prime Minister of Guyana from 1964 to 1980, and first Executive President of Guyana from 1980 to 1985, ordered or sanctioned the murder of renowned historian and political activist, Dr Walter Rodney.
Those people who were close to Forbes Burnham know only too well that this was not how it went down. There are people who know the truth – persons in what is now known as the Peoples National Congress Reform (PNCR) (which has transformed itself from the Burnham-led, socialist-oriented PNC, into a centre-right political formation, and is the largest party in the present coalition government) and the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) (once led by Rodney, a small party, also a member of the Coalition Government) – some have gone to their grave with the truth, but many are still living. Some in both parties compromised themselves. Others, who were extremely close to Dr Rodney, compromised his security. That is their story to tell.
Psych-Ops: the Demonization of Revolutionary Leaders
I have been privileged in my lifetime to know and work with remarkable leaders such as Forbes Burnham, Muammar Qaddafi, Hon. Minister Louis Farrakhan and Kwame Ture. I have never worked with or studied any leader who has challenged Empire and has not been demonized. I have had opportunity to see firsthand why the enemy is so unrelenting when it comes to this strategy – it is because it is a very effective weapon. The only leaders that escape this fate are those who go through what Cornell West refers to as “a Santa-Clausification process”, whereby Empire and its minions attempt to reduce revolutionary leaders, whose image they cannot tarnish, to harmless icons. Nelson Mandela and Dr Martin Luther King are both examples of this attempt at historical revisionism. Ruling elites and their media outlets, who once proclaimed Mandela a terrorist, managed to turn him into their “darling”. They conveniently talk on and on about Nelson Mandela as a man of peace, deliberately failing to mention that he remained in prison for 27 years because he would not renounce his people’s right to engage in an armed struggle. Dr Martin Luther King is constantly remembered for his dream of peace and racial equality, however his well articulated view that neither was possible under capitalism is conveniently dropped from the story.
This demonization or co-option of our leaders and heroes is indeed the first and often most deadly weapon that the enemy unleashes from its arsenal. Forbes Burnham is no exception. It is the enemy’s rule of thumb that revolutionary leaders of the people must somehow be vilified because at all costs, the people must be denied their heroes and a proud and militant history to draw on. The enemy knows how effective it is in their war on us as a people, to erase these memories and this consciousness. This is all a part of their psych-ops to ensure our subjugation, our oppression, to diminish our faith and our hope in our ability to radically transform our society. To quote Burnham:
“A country without its own history, without its own heroes, without its own legends…would find it difficult to survive…there will be nothing to look to, nothing to admire, nothing to write or sing about.”
A Litany of Untruths and Half-truths
The Commission of Inquiry into the death of Walter Rodney was first convened in Guyana in February 2014 and handed its final report to the Guyana Government last month, February 2016.
From day one, the recent Commission of Inquiry (COI) into Dr Walter Rodney’s demise was a farce. The intention of the then ruling PPPC (People’s Progressive Party Civic), who convened the commission, as well as those who constituted it, was not about getting to the truth of this matter. It was about many other things, including the continued demonization of Forbes Burnham; the embarrassment and discrediting of the opposition PNCR prior to the May 2015 General Elections; attempting to fracture the unity that had been achieved amongst APNU (A Partnership for National Unity), a PNCR led coalition of a number of parties including the WPA, opposing the People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPPC) in the 2015 elections; and finally, to act as a fig leaf to cover 23 years of PPPC crimes against humanity.
As a result, many of those who knew what really went down refused to participate in this COI, since we knew it was a charade. I do not have to read the COI’s full report, which has not yet been made available to the public, to know that it is discredited. Since the beginning of 2014, we have been bombarded with reports from the hearings, which cost Guyanese taxpayers 400 million Guyanese dollars (approx. 2 million USD). I have never heard such a litany of untruths and half-truths as that which passed as evidence before this Commission. It was utterly farcical and the veracity of its findings, ill-founded.
A long list of people appeared before the commission, each offering mere opinions and hearsay, because they had nothing else to offer, while important witnesses, such as Assistant Commissioner of Police under Burnham, Cecil ‘Skip’ Roberts, who now resides in the US and travelled to Guyana to give evidence, was accommodated at a hotel in Georgetown for 10 days, all expenses paid by the Commission, but was never called upon to give evidence. At the time of the events supposedly being examined by the COI, Mr Roberts was the chief investigator into the circumstances surrounding Dr Walter Rodney’s death – so surely an important witness. If we do not go on record as questioning this COI and its findings, then their report will go unchallenged and be legitimized as fact. Already this has occurred as once again, all around the world, the headlines screamed “Burnham conspired to assassinate Walter Rodney.”
I was a member of the Central Executive of the Young Socialist Movement (YSM), which was the youth arm of the PNC under Burnham. Leaks from the Commission’s report have claimed that the YSM sanctioned and engaged in violent activity against the WPA and other PNC opponents. To set the record straight, as a member of the Central Executive at the time of Rodney’s demise, I can say that neither myself, Chair of the YSM at the time, Robert Corbin, or any executive member of the YSM sanctioned or encouraged any such activity. The YSM had thousands of members and perhaps there were individual members who acted in their individual capacity and might have engaged in such behaviour, but it was certainly not sanctioned by the Central Executive of the YSM.
The Role of US Imperialism and the CIA
The political atmosphere in Guyana in the late 1970s and early 1980s was extremely tense. Forbes Burnham was leading the nation on a revolutionary, non-capitalist and anti-imperialist path. He was determined that Guyana should free itself from the yoke of neo-colonialism. He understood that the so-called independence we achieved in 1966 was just the beginning of a long struggle for true independence and self-determination.
At a conference in 1980, Burnham said:
“Political independence is not an end in itself but an instrument. If after its achievement no attempt is made to restructure the economy and society; if there continue to be the old white- faced cocktail parties; if foreigners continue to control the wheels of the economy and display haughty condescension towards the natives; if tokenism at the economic, employment and social levels is institutionalized…then we will have marched, struggled, fought and died in vain.”
He was among the leading and most vocal members of the Non-Aligned Movement, and had close ties with liberation movements in the Caribbean, Africa and worldwide including the Communist Party of Cuba, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Popular Front for the Liberation of Saquia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), the African National Congress (ANC) and the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO). It was the freedom fighter, Forbes Burnham, who allowed the Cuban planes, on route to Angola carrying Cuban troops to fight alongside the African Liberation forces, to refuel in Guyana. He deployed hundreds of Guyanese civil servants to Zambia to assist that nation during its post- independence struggle. He assisted liberation movements in South Africa financially. Like all those who take a stand against Empire, Burnham’s government was targeted for destabilization by US imperialism and their factotums in Guyana and the region.
It is not possible to fully understand the events that led up to Dr Walter Rodney’s death if the context is removed. Walter Rodney who was then, and remains an esteemed intellectual warrior, decided to oppose Burnham at a time when the CIA was waging a very real and threatening campaign to destabilize Burnham’s government and roll back the revolution. It is imperative for us to note that the half of the story that has been left out over the years, as people from both sides rehash and reshape these events, is the role played by the US and its Central Intelligence Agency, in these historic events that we continue to ponder in 2016.
To fully understand what was, in my opinion, the erroneous attempt by the WPA, under Dr Walter Rodney’s leadership, to attempt to destabilize and overthrow the revolutionary and anti-imperialist regime of Forbes Burnham, the question that should be asked is this: At the time, who would have benefitted most from disunity and warfare between two anti-imperialist formations in Guyana, namely the PNC and the WPA? Who would have tried to escalate the disunity rather than facilitating unity?
Of course, the answer is the imperialists. Then, as now, the CIA knew how to recruit people from all sides. Some were recruited knowingly, while others were not aware that they were working directly with, or in tandem with the CIA. A number of senior figures in the political and security apparatus of both the PNC and the WPA were, without doubt, utilized by hostile external forces.
There are a few well established facts that have emerged over the years, facts that can no longer be denied. Among them are (1) Gregory Smith, the man who delivered the device that exploded and killed Dr Walter Rodney was not a PNC agent as has been claimed, but rather had close and what seem to be genuine ties to Walter Rodney and his brother; (2) the WPA was amassing weapons in an attempt to overthrow Forbes Burnham’s government, which was also facing a very real threat of destabilization and overthrow from the CIA. There are people here in Guyana who stored those weapons in their homes. Of course, they will never come forward, because such activity is, under any circumstances, treated as treason. (3) The US government and its security agencies were actively involved in a plot to destabilize Burnham’s regime and were major players in the events that unfolded. After all, it was a wonderful opportunity for them to discredit Burnham both at home and internationally and eliminate Dr Walter Rodney all in one operation. I daresay that if the internet had been in existence back then, WikiLeaks would have produced irrefutable evidence to support this claim. Deceased member of the WPA, Brian Rodway, told me that he and some other WPA members knew that the device that killed Rodney was made in the USA and certainly was not the handiwork of Gregory Smith.
We also know that there is no record or evidence to show, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Forbes Burnham ordered or colluded with others to assassinate Walter Rodney. We are left with spurious claims by unreliable sources. What I can say to be true is that in 1980 the PNC was a formidable force and we did not see the WPA as a serious threat. The perception that the WPA was a serious threat to the PNC existed in the heads of various WPA activists, but was never the reality on the ground. This was borne out by the WPA’s swift demise following Dr Walter Rodney’s death, and their lack of any real mass support on the ground in Guyana. Any support they did enjoy came from a small segment of the middle-class and remains so to this day. Forbes Burnham however is still loved by the masses in Guyana. In a recent flyer, Organization for the Victory of the People (OVP), an organization that I chair and which draws on Burnham’s revolutionary legacy wrote:
“One thing history has taught us, is that no matter how many lies are told, the truth never dies. It survives in the hearts and minds of the people. Despite all the efforts to turn Forbes Burnham into Public Enemy Number One, the plan failed. To the people, he remains a hero. Even youths, who were not born during Burnham’s lifetime, know that he was the ‘Father of the Nation’. “
Divide and Ruin
In 1980, the year Dr Walter Rodney was killed, Burnham was mostly pre-occupied with the larger threat of US destabilization of Guyana. A seasoned and astute leader, Burnham knew that the homegrown opposition was being fuelled by the imperialists. He knew that the WPA, whose leadership comprised mainly of middle-class academics, would be an easy target for CIA operatives. Being nothing short of a brilliant strategist, he would have certainly known that given the circumstances he found himself in, and the threats he faced from external forces, the very worst thing he could have done, akin to shooting himself in the foot, would have been to order the assassination of a world renowned academic such as Dr Walter Rodney. It is clear that this would have been political suicide.
As a political analyst, having studied the works of Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, and CLR James, Burnham understood the middle-class character and contradictions of the WPA and what he described as their hollow, revolutionary rhetoric, borne out of their immersion in theoretical analysis and the culture of critique without any revolutionary praxis. This led him to call the WPA the “Worst Possible Alternative” and their leaders “Champagne Socialists”. Many writers, including myself, have pointed to the fact that the Black Middle Class, with few exceptions, has consistently been a major obstacle to the progress of African people in the Caribbean. They were the class that joined with the imperialists when it came time to destroy the Hon. Marcus Garvey. They were the same ones who sat on the sidelines and criticized Burnham’s every attempt, under enormous pressure, to feed, clothe and house (FCH program) the masses of impoverished people of this nation -– African, Indian and Amerindian. They were the ones who fell prey to the “divide and ruin” psych-ops of the enemy. When mayhem was finally unleashed, and the people poured onto the streets following Dr Walter Rodney’s death, the Worst Possible Alternative (WPA) did not then know what to do and the entire exercise “fizzled out” into the nightmare that it has now become.
On the Correct Handling of Contradictions
Guyana is not alone when it comes to such a tragedy. There are a number of historical examples where progressive and revolutionary forces have opposed each other, allowing the differences between them to become openly antagonistic. In so doing, they allow themselves to become distracted from the principal contradiction between the revolutionary nationalist forces on one hand and imperialism on the other. Local reactionary forces working with the imperialists, exploit these differences in their bid to abort the revolution and roll back the progress made. The assassination of Maurice Bishop and the overthrow of the Grenadian revolution by hardcore Communist elements within the New Jewel Movement, leading to the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, is one such example. Another example is the counter-revolutionary role played by the brilliant Pan-African historian, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, in an attempt to overthrow the Burkinabe revolution led by Thomas Sankara. In Peru, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerillas carried out armed attacks on the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, assisting imperialism and the reactionary Peruvian state to finally crush both organizations.
I am not suggesting that we must never oppose a progressive or revolutionary government or movement when they make a wrong turn. We know only too well the danger of postponing criticism because of the primacy of the principal contradiction. All leaders and movements make mistakes – that is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition – it is how we handle these mistakes and contradictions that determines history. The debate regarding the degree to which the end can justify the means is a fundamental one and cannot be avoided. We must acknowledge that no matter how urgent the end outcome is, it cannot be used to justify all means. These are difficult and complex issues that affect every revolutionary movement and process and must be grappled with. This is exactly what MaoTse-Tung was doing when he wrote “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions”. Mao understood that in the process of struggle and becoming, which is an eternal state of affairs, contradictions will always be present. The crucial point made by Mao, is that contradictions need not always be antagonistic, and depending on the circumstances can be resolved constructively. Also, Mao points out that in certain situations, it may be necessary to focus on the principal contradiction, while the secondary contradictions are placed on the back burner.
For example, the principal contradiction in 1980 in Guyana was between imperialism and the national forces working to advance the struggle for national liberation and true independence. The differences and contradictions which emerged between Dr Walter Rodney’s WPA and Forbes Burnham’s PNC were secondary, and since both parties presumably understood the principal enemy, their differences need not have become antagonistic. If the WPA had fully understood the principal contradiction, then they should have been able to resolve these secondary contradictions in a non-antagonistic manner, in order to ensure that the principal contradiction remained firmly on the front burner – the primary and unwavering focus of everyone’s attention. This is an action that requires revolutionary integrity, personal sacrifice and the setting aside of egos and partisan interests for the good of the nation. The issue of principal and secondary contradictions is faced by all revolutions. If we fail to learn from our historical mistakes and mishandle these contradictions, revolutions will continue to be aborted.
Armchair revolutionaries and ivory tower, soi-disant socialists are infamous when it comes to the mishandling of contradictions. History is replete with examples of their destructive rather than constructive impact on movements for change. Obsessed with interpreting the world around them, rather than changing it, they become immersed in a culture of criticism, which comes easy when one is standing on the sidelines as an observer, rather than actively participating in the struggle. Constantly espousing theory devoid of practice, they fail to understand the unfolding revolutionary process. As soon as a contradiction emerges, they fly into antagonistic mode because the entire exercise is a self-serving one. It becomes purely academic, all about them and their ability to score a point against their perceived opponent, rather than any genuine immersion in the arduous struggle to actually bring about meaningful change.
Activist and writer, Alexandra Valiente, addresses this:
“The reason I sometimes avoid engaging in discussions with “activists” is that they cannot handle contradictions. The very nature of their engagement is confrontational and dogmatic from the outset, being more interested in demonstrating their intellectual supremacy, rather than grappling with complex truths. Because of this, they reduce revolutionaries and revolutionary movements to mere caricatures, divorced from the reality “on the ground” either by deification or demonization, stripped of their humanity. One can compare this to what Mahdi Nazemroaya described as the “fragmentation of totality”. This is not a rational process, but entirely delusional, and all propaganda is based on fragmentation of reality. This disables higher thought and prevents the questioning of perceptions of reality that imprison and obfuscate truth, accepting the fragment as the absolute, when it is in fact worthless.
In all ways, exposing truth is much like mass therapy, where we encourage people to step out of their fragmented perceptions of events, their colonized mental constructs and complexes, to relinquish the blinders, the ego and arrogance, so we can be enlightened together, and together, rendered wiser and stronger. Dynamic revolutionary movements are in a continual process of evolutionary change which is to be embraced if our movements are to survive and be authentic. If we are afraid of introspection and critique, we invite our own downfall. I admire most the people and movements that not only undergo this process privately, but who share their realizations with the public. By this act, we are made richer, provided we have the wisdom to accept these collective teachings.”
Had the WPA worked with Burnham’s PNC to build Burnham’s vision of a truly independent and self-reliant Guyana, and thwarted the imperialist plot to roll back this Guyanese revolution, then our history would have been a triumphant one rather than a tragic one. We surely would have had something genuine to celebrate this year as opposed to the illusion of 50 years of independence that is being celebrated.
Finally, something which has always baffled me and continues to do so, is this: why a self-proclaimed anti –imperialist, anti-capitalist, revolutionary organization like the WPA under the leadership Dr Walter Rodney could not find common ground with the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist and revolutionary PNC under Forbes Burnham but, years later, found themselves in bed with the PNCR once it abandoned its revolutionary, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist programme?
Perhaps the answer to this question will shed more light than anything else on the events that led up to the death of Walter Rodney.
Gerald A. Perreira is a writer, educator, theologian and political activist. He is chairperson of the Guyanese organizations Black Consciousness Movement Guyana (BCMG) and Organization for the Victory of the People (OVP). He is an executive member of the Caribbean Chapter of the Network for the Defense of Humanity. He lived in Libya for many years, served in the Green March, an international battalion for the defense of the Al-Fateh revolution and was a founding member of the World Mathaba based in Tripoli, Libya.
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