HOW WE CAME TO OCTOBER 5
by Moses V. Nagamootoo - Posted October 3rd. 2003
It was a long march to October 5, 1992. For me it started after the 1964 general elections with a slogan, "Cheated, not Defeated". My party, the PPP, was removed from government even though we polled more votes than any of the other contenders. But the losers - the PNC and the United Force - pooled their votes and were catapulted into stolen office. They were then the handmaidens of Anglo-American imperialist interests.
That was the beginning of our descent into what became the infamous 28 years of our loss of democracy and erosion of an hitherto decent standard of life. It took a painful struggle to regain elected government - a struggle that was to take the lives of some, sacrifices of many, and the best years of our youth and idealism.
October 5, 1992 therefore was not just the year when the PPP returned to government, though that by itself was an achievement that should be celebrated. It was more than that. It was for leaders and followers alike the triumph of sustained, committed and disciplined struggle, and the vindication of unbending moral and courageous leadership. Victory came because so many believed that it would come, inexorably and inevitably. And when it did it was received gratefully as the return of dignity to an entire generation that has had to endure the disgrace of oppressive rule.
Eleven years have passed since a PPP-led government assumed office. Much was expected of the new government, which was returned to office in 1997 and in 2001. While it is fair to say that the government should be judged by what it has done, this must not be isolated from a reflection of what it had inherited.
It might be said with justification that we must place the past behind us, as it stands in the way of our future. But before we set it aside, we must return to its lessons lest we repeat its mistakes, especially its arrogance and abuse of power.
However, my purpose of recalling the pre-October period is to capture the collective bravery of an entire generation of Guyanese of all walks of life, and the leaders whom they had created to guide them through the difficult times. I have come to know that bravery in so many faces and in so many places in vignettes of actual struggle.
For me the efforts to restore fair elections were synonymous with winning back freedom. The denial of freedom was symbolized during a period after the 1964 elections by the continued detention of several PPP and PYO leaders and activists. They were being held without trial at the dreaded Sibley Hall. I was to join in the PYO "Free Detainees Ride" from Crabwood Creek to Georgetown. I wanted to go the whole distance. As I could not get leave from the school where I was teaching, I turned back at Unity. But I took with me the revolutionary enthusiasm of the comrades on the ride, and a sense of urgency that freedom for the detainees was an important aspect of the fight to free Guyana from the clutches of an incipient dictatorship.
I was to join the "Free Detainees" campaign in Georgetown on the eve of Guyana's independence in 1966. The venerable E.M.G Wilson was staging what had looked like a one-man civil liberties crusade outside Parliament Buildings. I remember Comrade Willo chaining himself to the hefty steel gates and, in a pre-determined act of self-sacrifice, he slashed his chest with a razor blade. E.M.G Wilson had shed his blood for his comrades' freedom. He also dramatized our party's opposition to the draconian National Security Act under which the detainees were held without trial.
I had had a minor role distributing leaflets on the pavement, and joining the choir, styled Workers' Stage, in signing protest songs. The lead singers were comrades Cyril Belgrave, Stella Dac Bang, Shirley Edwards, Beatrice Cassato, and Philomena Sahoye, among others. Clinton Collymore was very much an activist of the crusade, though I never saw him on stage singing!
The point I wish to make is that the journey to October 5 was not exclusive to fair elections. It was a freedom struggle with many components: the defence of civil rights; protection of freedom of the press and the right to dissent; creative use of the right to strike and to win trade union recognition; opposition to compulsory national service as a perquisite to enjoyment of university education; objection to the militarization of politics, industrial relations and the society; demand for a fair standard of life, etc..
Admittedly, it was the struggle for free and fair elections that galvanized national support, and attracted regional/international attention. It might have appeared as just a tiny footstep in the political wilderness at the time, but the one-man march of David Westmass from Crabwood Creek to Georgetown against the abuse of proxy voting was in fact a bold, giant step in the restoration of democracy. It was followed by a massive march from Crabwood Creek before the 1968 elections to stop overseas voting. Comrade Cheddi (Jagan) led that procession. We were blocked several times by the police, but we pressed on. By No. 53 village, police in riot gear blocked the road with barbed wires, and they had taken position on the ready to fire. I was standing besides Comrade Cheddi when Inspector Dick La Borde came up to him. As he spoke his arm moved unintentionally before Cheddi's face. It was Wilfred Murdock, a West Berbice party organizer (and reputed to be a one-time boxer), who pushed away the arm of the police officer, saying "whey mouth ah talk, hand gat no business dey!" Murdock was ready for a fight. He had to be restrained. Hundreds of others were similarly agitated. We felt that no one, not even Burnham, should take away from us our right to march! But, indeed, that day the regime was ready to kill to make sure that the right to march peacefully was trampled. We were given a final warning to disperse, and we did. That day also, I guess, a chunk of our self-esteem as a free people dissolved.
However, the iron fist only broke the march into several pieces, and soon it was replicated in guerrilla formations all over the country. While the jackboots came down on a march in one part of the Essequibo Coast for which Clement Rohee, Feroze Mohamed and I were deployed as "Georgetown leaders", in another part Harry Persaud Nokta, Roger Luncheon, Ally Baksh and Isahack Basir were singing in the face of their arresters, and were taken away to the lock-ups at Anna Regina. That was the story every where: marches and arrests - the twin trophy in a poignant story of resistance.
In political terms, the entire period from 1968 to 1985 could be characterized by state terrorism and prosecution. Leaders and activists of the party, its youth and women arms, were targeted. Plainclothes policemen followed us everywhere. They took copious notes of every thing we said at meetings. Our homes were routinely searched for "arms and ammunition". Many were jailed periodically. At constant risk were the comrades who defended our party and protected our leaders.
Our public meetings tested our courage. They were routinely broken up by thugs. Those elements would slash wires connecting our speakers. On one occasion on the East Coast Demerara, they carted off with our loud-speaking equipment. And under the very nose of the police! When Derek Jagan and I spoke at the back of Clonbrook, someone came into the meeting place and threw a bucket of cow-shit at us, and our car was besieged as we tried to drive away. Harold Snagg and other security details came to our rescue.
In Berbice, when things were getting rough, I once held up a plastic chair at a New Amsterdam meeting to keep rotten eggs from hitting Comrade Cheddi. But I was to experience later a whole new ball-game in Georgetown. During 1980-85, at meetings in Albouystown and Charlestown, I donned a crash helmet. Bottles rained at the podium! So risky were those outings that twice Comrade Cheddi was hit by stones, which could have been fatal. On one occasion, I was knocked almost unconscious when a bottle containing formalin was hurled at me.
No where, it seemed, was safe from those marauding hooligans. I was at Wauna in the North West. And there, shortly after we started our meeting, a jeepload of thugs appeared. One was the bearded and intrepid Morrison, who came right up to my face as I was speaking. He tried to wrest the microphones from my hands but he backed off after I threatened that on the rough return ride to Mabaruma, vehicles could fall off the hillside on that dark and rainy night!
In those difficult periods Cheddi Jagan was to prove his astuteness in that he involved the entire party leadership in exchange of ideas on methods of struggle, and promoted the collective strategy of inner-party unity, alliance and solidarity. For us to win we needed alliance with all who were opposed to the dictatorship, and solidarity from partners overseas.
The struggle was therefore waged from many sides, from several allies and partners. Some of the most courageous fighters were in GAWU, the union whose members in the sugar belt had formed the base of the liberation movement. Being at the centre of the economy, sugar workers had capacity to inflict blows on the dictatorship. So too did rice farmers who, when they refused to cultivate new crops, adopted the refreshing anti-government slogan, "non-cooperation with evil is sacred".
Religious communities played their part. For that, attempts were made to break their ranks. A split was engineered in the Maha Sabha, and its finest leaders were expelled, including Reepu Daman Persaud. The Sad'r Islamic Anjuman was under pressure, and its leadership was being discredited. The outspoken, courageous Imam, Yacoob Ally, was put on a trumped-up charge of blackmarketing an item for a penny over the gazetted controlled price!
No one would ever forget the framed-up murder and treason charges against PPP activists. I covered the three trials of Arnold Rampersaud, which I documented in a booklet by that name with help from Eusi Kwayana and Janet Jagan, who were members of the Arnold Rampersaud Defence Committee.
Other players featured in different phases of this long march to freedom. I recall the work of the Movement Against Oppression among the Tiger Bay depressed community. Among the leaders were Joshua Ramsammy, Harold Snagg and young Juman and Freddy Kissoon. At the university radical intellectuals like Clive Thomas, Harold Luchman, Perry Mars and Fr. Malcolm Rodrigues were questioning the legitimacy of the regime.
An important feature of the anti-dictatorial struggle was against racial discrimination which was highlighted in publications by the Guyana Anti-Discrimination Movement with Ayube McDoom, Doodnauth Singh and Fenton Ramsahoye.
It was clear that the burden to unseat an unrepresentative government had not fallen solely on the shoulders of the PPP, although we did carry the brunt of the fight. But other groups, like the WPA, were engaged and suffered casualties. Walter Rodney fell for democracy and for a revolution of relations in our society. Partners along the way included the Patriotic Coalition for Democracy; Guard with Samuel Hinds and Yesu Persaud; the Church, and the non-government press.
The Mirror's role as an organizer for the pro-democracy struggle would need a separate analysis. It was from there, for some 20 years, that Janet Jagan, Clinton Collymore, Kellawan Lall and I fed the masses what they needed to know to keep the resistance going. In the region, the Caribbean Contact became an important ally, especially when Rickey Singh was its editor.
Wider afield, the Carter Centre, Commonwealth and lobbies at the United Nations and European Union help to tilt the balance in favour of a people's victory.
The march to October was finally a story of optimism and hope. After every rigged election we came out wounded yet full of hope to fight the next rigged election. We were confident that we could win, in spite of the rigging. That was before the army came into the fray from 1973. But led by the indomitable Cheddi Jagan, we contested elections in 1980 and 1985 and lost. However, we came out stronger with cogent documentation of the fraud, and the reports that were now known internationally that elections in Guyana were "crooked as barbed wire". That was what broke the back of the rigging machine -internal opposition and international exposure.
So, all in all, it took one damned great effort to bring us to October 5, 1992. Elections were held under changed rules. Democracy triumphed. The old guards resisted momentarily, even contemplated a coup. But the past had to go. The PPP/C was declared winner. Cheddi Jagan was sworn in as Guyana's first freely-elected Executive President, and the first freely-elected people's government since independence came to office.
It was a new beginning.
*(Moses V. Nagamootoo, a former PPP/C government Minister, is an Attorney in private practice)