Author:Taylor, Moe


In the early days of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro famously boasted that if he could, he would place guns in the tiny paws of the stray cats that inhabited the alleyways and rooftops of Havana. (1) His words testify to an era in the Cold War Global South when a broad and diverse group of socialist and socialist-oriented governments adopted "peoples militias" as part of their strategy for national defense, economic development, and nation building. But what exactly is a people's militia and what are the origins of such militias? What is the significance of these militias and why did they proliferate throughout the Third World in the 1960s and 1970s? Some answers to these questions may be found by examining the Guyana Peoples Militia (GPM), which Prime Minister Forbes Burnham launched in December 1976. Burnham tasked the GPM with defending the country's borders, combating domestic subversion, assisting in economic production, and responding to emergencies such as natural disasters. Burnham's communist opposition originally proposed the GPM, which was modeled on Yugoslavia's policy of Total National Defense. It reflected the era's Third Worldist spirit of transnational cooperation and experimentation among the more radical member states of the Non-Aligned Movement. Like many of Burnham's endeavors, the pragmatic goals of the militia were inseparable from a political agenda of entrenching party hegemony, uprooting colonial influences, and imbuing the populace with new values of unity, discipline, and sacrifice. The GPM was established in a time of economic crisis and austerity, and its goals were severely restrained by inadequate resources. But of larger consequence, Guyana's divisions along political, ethnic and regional lines proved severely challenging for a project premised on popular participation and a shared national vision.

This article examines the GPM from its founding in 1976 to the death of Forbes Burnham in 1985. It draws from declassified US government documents; pro- and anti-government Guyanese newspapers from the era; a recent interview with the original GPM commandant, Colonel Cecil Edgar Martindale; and numerous informal discussions with former GPM members.


Guyana is the sole English-speaking country in South America. It borders Venezuela, Brazil, and Suriname on the northern coast but is culturally affiliated with the Anglophone Caribbean. In addition to its indigenous peoples (who are called Amerindians locally), slaves arrived from Africa and indentured laborers arrived from India, China, and Portugal during periods of colonial rule by the Dutch (1648-1814) and the British (1814-1966), forging a diverse society of six official ethnic groups. By the time indentured labor was abolished in 1917, people of African descent (Afro-Guyanese) and South Asian descent (Indo-Guyanese) constituted the majority. Colonial development resulted in a major spatial and cultural contrast between a dominant Creole society on the coast, where most of the population lives, and the indigenous communities of the interior. Guyana emerged from colonial rule in May 1966 with a population of some 600,000 and a largely foreign-controlled economy dominated by exports of sugar, rice, and bauxite to Europe and North America.

In April 1953, the People's Progressive Party (PPP), a broad-based nationalist party that called for independence and socialism, swept the first elections under universal suffrage. (2) Fearing it had allowed the first communist victory in the Commonwealth, the Churchill administration suspended British Guiana's constitution, deployed troops, and jailed party leaders. In the aftermath of this crisis, a combination of ideological differences, foreign intervention, and the personal ambitions of political leaders ignited traditional communal tensions that split the PPP along ethnic lines. (3) The new political arena that emerged pitted the PPP, led by Cheddi Jagan and supported by the predominantly rural Indo-Guyanese community, against the People's National Congress (PNC), led by Forbes Burnham and backed by the Afro-Guyanese populace concentrated in the capital of Georgetown. Ideologically, PPP leaders were Marxist-Leninists who followed the Soviet line, while the PNC positioned itself as a moderate socialist party that would protect private property and welcome foreign investment under acceptable conditions.

Further PPP electoral victories followed in 1957 and 1961. However, in 1964, after years of civil strife and with much assistance from the US government, Burnham, leading a coalition of the PNC and the right-wing United Force (UF), was elected premier. He became the country's first prime minister with the granting of independence in 1966. The PNC remained in power until 1992; Desmond Hoyte succeeded Burnham after he died in August 1985. Although the PNC always had a degree of popular support among its core base, (4) it also relied on election fraud; control of the press; clientelism; its control of access to jobs, scholarships, and loans; and so forth. At its most extreme, as during the instability of the late 1970s and early 1980s, state security agencies and party militants dealt violence to opposition forces, resulting in several murders. The most prominent was that of renowned activist and scholar Walter Rodney.


Three contexts are essential to understanding the emergence of the People's Militia in 1976. The first is that in 1970 Burnham made a decisive political shift to the left. He announced a new guiding doctrine called "cooperative socialism" and expanded Guyana's relations with socialist countries. (5) Historically his detractors have tended to see this as an essentially Machiavellian move to secure working-class support in a time of deepening crisis and a time when socialist ideas had great currency. (6) While Burnham was certainly a shrewd politician who had many of the classic characteristics of those driven by the pursuit of power, he also had a history of socialist activism and trade unionism that reached back to his student days in London in the 1940s. (7) There he was active with the League of Colored People and led a delegation to the first World Festival of Youth and Students in Prague. In addition, the reading of Burnham as Machiavellian tends to inflate his degree of personal agency and ignores the large radical left component within the PNC, both in its leadership and in its rank and file. (8) Cooperative socialism reflected a Third Worldist Zeitgeist of the 1970s that extolled non-alignment, economic nationalism, south-south cooperation, and heterodox roads to socialism based in indigenous traditions. Burnham, a particularly zealous champion of the Non-Aligned Movement, hosted the 1972 foreign ministers conference in Georgetown inside a large benab (a traditional palm-thatched hut) that Wai-Wai Amerindians had built for the occasion. In this period, Guyana experimented with various projects that bore the influence of its new allies in the non-aligned camp, in particular, North Korea, Tanzania, and Yugoslavia. Central to the government's new development strategy was nationalization (the state owned approximately 80 percent of the economy by the late 1970s), facilitating the growth of a large cooperative sector; heavy investment in education, housing, infrastructure, and the military; and a multitude of ambitious educational and cultural initiatives designed to create a "new man" free of colonial influences. A central tenet of cooperative socialism was selfreliance, to which end the government banned various imports, pushed domestic production, and set ambitious goals of economic self-sufficiency Another was paramountcy of the party; the state took a wide range of measures to erode the autonomy of state institutions and civil society. (9) The country's military, the Guyana Defense Force, was particularly subject to politicization; senior officers were required to attend ideological education sessions. (10) The vision of the future the PNC presented was that of a self-sufficient, egalitarian society that had a cooperative-based economy, a more enlightened culture that ensured material prosperity and social harmony, and a powerful military that safeguarded the country against foreign aggression. The transformation this required was conceived as a top-down process: the vanguard state would educate and guide the masses that were still mired in backward ways of thinking. Burnham argued that a culture of individualism and indiscipline left over from the colonial era was a primary obstacle to Guyana's progress. Likewise, he claimed that while workers' self-management remained an ideal that had to be postponed until the consciousness of the working class had been sufficiently elevated. One document from the era defined the PNC's job as "leading tasks of stimulating and implementing that learning and unlearning, that education and re-education without which transition [to socialism] will be impossible." (11) More instructive examples come from the government's decision to build the President's College, an elite, tuition-free secondary boarding school that was completed in August 1985. Burnham's former vice-president, Hamilton Green, argues that the project must be understood in the context of the late leader's vision of "an egalitarian society... with a special group of people who should provide leadership." (12) Burnham himself remarked that "every important country and every important civilization has an elite.... Regardless of the ideology, the civilization or the culture if you do not have an elite school, where are you going? Now the purpose of an elite school is to select the majority of those who will bring about the changes you need and/or preserve the society which you consider desirable." (13)

The second context is that in the last half of the 1970s, the PNC government faced a...

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