By Dr Vishnu Bisram
October 5th 2023 marked the 31st anniversary since the restoration of democracy in Guyana. It was the date for the nation’s first free and fair election marking an end of the dictatorship. Several activists penned articles reminding the public how the country was transformed into a dictatorship, what life was like in that hell hole, and the struggle for democracy. Others reminisced about the struggle. A handful of dedicated Guyanese New Yorkers pioneered and led the struggle from America.
When Guyana became independent in 1966, it was among the most progressive democracies in the world with a free independent judiciary, press, civil service, police, army, elections, and the like that characterize a democracy. The country quickly descended into authoritarianism right after independence developing into a full-blown dictatorship within a short period of time.
An array of forces, locally and internationally, mobilized into action to remove the dictatorship and restore democracy. The diaspora and political forces at home organized to combat the dictatorship. The diaspora informed the world about human rights violations at home and lobbied governments, prominent personalities, as well as international organizations to pressure the dictatorship to respect human rights and return the country to democratic governance. The struggle was long in the diaspora (1970s onwards) and succeeded with the first free and fair election on October 5, 1992, resulting in the PPP being elected to office and Dr. Jagan rightfully occupying the highest elective position in the country.
In New York, as was the case in Washington, Canada and England and other locations (including the Caribbean), only a handful of individuals were involved in the overseas struggle against the dictatorship. Guyanese started coming to the US during late 1960s as foreign students (I-20 immigrants). Increased numbers came during the 1970s as the dictatorship got a firm grip over the country. As economic conditions worsened during the 1980s, a wave of Guyanese exited the country, exceeding 30K annually — mostly to North America, Surinam, Venezuela, French Guiana, and the islands in the region.
Very few Guyanese were involved or showed interest in any struggle against the dictatorship. Only a handful of Guyanese pioneered the movement against the dictatorship from NY. They were virtually all students at colleges. The group this writer belonged to were students at City College from 1977 and only a few students or Guyanese in general were interested in matters pertaining to Guyana or the Guyanese diaspora or community in New York. All of the groups in America except for my group at CCNY and another group in Washington DC were affiliated with political parties in Guyana.
The support groups were small during the 1970s but grew in size, stature, and importance during the 1980s. A handful of us mobilized and led the movement – planned, organized, and staged rallies, street protests, petition drives, prepared and distributed literature, posted flyers, engaged in sit ins and fasts, participated in letter writing campaign to governments and international organizations, among other activities — to bring awareness of the violation of human rights in and lack of democracy in Guyana. The US and other governments were lobbied to help restore democracy in Guyana.
Several individuals were involved in that struggle. Some were active on the ground. Some contributed funds. All of the political parties in Guyana had support groups in the diaspora raising money for them. The ACG raised the most funds — millions of American dollars that were donated to the PPP. Other parties also received substantial funding from support groups in America.
The various groups and prominent individuals lobbied the governments of the developed democracies to apply pressure on the Guyanese regime to restore democracy. Statements were issued by American legislators, President Bush, and others from the American administration. Canada and UK also issued statements calling for democratic rule in Guyana. None of the socialist nations ever issued a statement calling for democratic rule in Guyana.
Without the critical role played by the diaspora, October 5 1992 would not have happened. Those who partook in the struggle are saluted.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.