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Blowback: Burnham, Jagan and the O R Tambo Freedom Award (Part 1)
by Aubrey Bonnet, PhD
Posted on 2011-08-04

Just recently, last month to be exact, the late Cheddi Jagan, former
President of the Republic of Guyana, and one of the heroes of the
mass nationalist movement for independence, was awarded one of
the Republic of South Africa’s highest honors - the Order of the
Companions of OR Tambo. This is a signal and significant award,
for it signifies recognition of the recipient’s commitment not only to
the struggle against oppression worldwide, but also to a
reaffirmation of the basic human rights, civil liberties and absolute
freedom of all peoples -irrespective of gender, race, religion, age or

It is this goal that resonates in a new South Africa as it marches to
build, at the end of apartheid, a civil society and nation in which an
economic vibrancy and a non racial multiparty democracy can
thrive –respectful of , and committed to, the enforcement of the
rights of minorities in a de facto and de jure manner.
It is to such a plural society that the earlier freedom fighters
–Norman and Michael Manley, Eric Williams, Eric Gary, Grantley
Adams, Forbes Burnham, Cheddi Jagan, Jahawahrlu Nehru, Jomo
Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah and Sukarno for example – were
committed. One other prominent West Indian national, who won the
coveted award - again posthumously in 2004 -, was Michael
Manley, when he was given the gold award with the designation
“Supreme Companion”.

As is typical in Guyana’s fragmented racial and political context one
columnist- qua political commentator-Freddie Kissoon, opined about
this event in the Kaieteur News on May 10th and has concluded that,
not only is this a crowning achievement for Jagan, but that it
forebodes badly for Burnham whom he argues will never receive
the award because of his alleged complicity in the death of
Guyanese patriot and friend Walter Rodney.

This, he implies, was an unforgivable sin in the eyes of freedom
fighters and those aligned to fight against capitalist exploitation, and
is an indelible blot on Burnham’s attempts at amassing a
distinguished progressive record. This conclusion, I would contend,
is not based on evidentiary data and, more so from the facts
presented, is what one would clearly describe as conclusions based
on non sequiturs and faulty assumptions.

It was William Shakespeare who intoned that, “The evil that men do
lives after them, but the good is often interred with their bones”.
This prophetic statement has a ring of truth for many statesmen:
One is Richard Milhous Nixon, now reviled as the President who lied
to the nation and committed an act that almost led to a traumatizing
political impeachment before his ultimate resignation; that played
the Cold war to his advantage and engaged in profound red- baiting,
inter alia.

However, very little is extolled about his focus on Black capitalism;
his efforts to enhance economic advancement for African
Americans through the Philadelphia Plan; his rapprochement with
China and attempts to engage that dormant potential superpower,
whilst driving a wedge between China and the USSR; his weakening
of the Soviet’s hold in eastern Europe, and its subsequent
contribution to the implosion of what Ronald Reagan described as
the “evil empire;” and so it is with Forbes Burnham - the first
executive President of the Republic of Guyana.

For some, Forbes Burnham is a brutal despot who ruined the
country and plundered its miniscule wealth; one who was implicated
in the death of many of Guyana’s emerging political stalwarts- not
excluding Walter Rodney; one who was an egotistical, maniacal and
opportunistic leader whose shortcomings contributed, in a large way,
to the ethnic rivalries and conflicts in the society between, and
among, Indo and Afro Guyanese, for example.

Others see him as disciplined nationalist whose fortitude and vision
helped usher Guyana’s political independence from England; as a
regional. integrationist whose frame of reference and paradigmatic
thrust helped form the cornerstone for Caricom and other such on
going successful ventures, today; as a gifted and renowned orator
and intellectual whose brilliance, combined, pragmatic realism and
leadership, was able to attract the “best and brightest” to serve
Guyana at crucial junctures in regional and world affairs. I, in an
earlier work, described Burnham as a dynamic part of a “dual
charismatic” political formation that initially led to the rise of a
popular mass movement in the 1950’s, only to fall prey to the
disintegrative forces of Guyana’s plural society, and one who clearly
contributed in some way to the factionalism that was rife between
the two “maximum” leaders-he and Jagan.

In fact, Burnham was a much more complex and nuanced political
figure-brilliant visionary, cavalier, dashing and ensnaring; he could
also be calculatingly ruthless, pragmatic and pointedly instrumental
in the pursuit in his goals. He was also destined- with the other great
leader, Cheddi Bharrat Jagan- to play a lasting and tortuous role in
the evolution of Guyana‘s modern political and social history.
Rodney, I knew from the early 50’s-1953 to be exact –and still
remember clearly as young teenagers our giving the “V’ for victory
sign from his parents’ home, to Cheddi Jagan who was incarcerated
in the prison infirmary – a window of which faced the street where
he resided. Indeed it was Burnham, in an act of defiance and
empowerment against an elitist political and educational social
structure, and as the new Minister of Education in the 1953
short-lived PPP government, who added a scholarship which
catapulted Rodney from Tutorial High where he had started.
He had qualified at the national common entrance [scholarship]
examinations, but not high enough to attend the prestigious Queens
College on a full scholarship. The rest is history; and, indeed, it was
Burnham, who in a heated late night discussion, (gaffe), with me
and another close friend and reputed distant relative who then had a
senior position in his administration, reminded me of the fact that he
not only “made” Rodney, and was not adverse to a robust political
tussle with the young upstart.

He admired Rodney’s brilliance and strong nationalistic stance;
demurred that he had anything to do with Rodney’s inability to get
an appointment at the University, and suggested that Hammy
[Green] may have been the pivotal impediment; reminded me of the
ubiquitous power of incumbency, and that power never conceded
anything without a struggle; and of his feeling that Rodney was
waging an undisciplined campaign at an “undignified level” and one
that was totally unfamiliar to him [Rodney], yet favored a more
seasoned, political veteran.

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