THIS week’s column is mostly political history, but also partly contextualisation. Particularly, it looks at the earlier history of the PNC and its evolution over time as the party observes its 60th anniversary. I decided to focus on the history, because I have come to realise that it is a dying interest among our citizens, including our elites, which in turn leads to seriously flawed analyses of our politics and society.
I am often dismayed at the ignorance of the history of the PNC that resides among the younger and not-so-young members of that party and the public at large. It is my opinion that this ignorance is manifested by the over-reliance of PNC members on this and that project initiated by the party when it held office, rather than serious interrogation of the party’s origins and evolution both as a product and shaper of post-colonial Guyanese politics and society. As is the case with such projects, the facts and analysis contained in this column are products of my own research and reading of what I unearthed. In that sense, there is bias contained here.
This past week the PPP observed the 25th anniversary of its return to power in 1992 after almost three decades in the opposition benches. Since the party equates that moment with the return to democracy, it frames its subsequent tenure in office as a historic intervention. Many independent observers and detractors of the PPP would obviously read that period in our history much different from the political ideologues at Freedom House. But I shall return to that in a subsequent column.
Whatever the PPP thinks of itself before and after 1992, that narrative is intertwined with that of its long-time nemesis, the PNC. The modern political history of Guyana cannot be properly written without due consideration of the PNC’s role, which by all accounts is phenomenal. In our ethnically bifurcated country, the PNC has these six decades symbolised the political aspirations, survival and hegemony of one the two major ethnic groups. In many regards, for African-Guyanese, the PNC is the “race” and vice versa. The PNC, like the PPP, has, understandably, always disavowed this ethno-racial tag, but that has not stood in the way of the uncomfortable truth.
To understand the evolution of the PNC, one must be reminded of the very origins of the party, which lie in the ruins of the original PPP. The historic victory of the PPP, the country’s first mass-based party, at the 1953 election proved to be both a moment of triumph and the origin of political dislocation. When the split was formalised in 1955, the Burnhamite faction walked away with the party’s mainly African-Guyanese urban membership and a minority of the top leadership. Between 1955 and 1957, this faction functioned as PPP-Burnhamite and contested the 1957 election under that name.
The PNC would come into being after the defeat of the PPP-Burnhamite by the PPP-Jaganite-PPP at the 1957 election. The Burnhamites garnered 25.48% of the popular vote and won three seats, while the Jaganites got 47.5% of the popular votes and won 9 seats. It is obvious from those results that the Burnhamites had not yet emerged as a broad national force when it renamed itself, the PNC, in October 1957.
That would drastically change within two years. First, Eusi Kwayana, then known as Sydney King, would join the PNC shortly after its birth and bring into the party his following among rural African-Guyanese. He, Kwayana, had remained with the Jaganite faction at the time of the 1955 split, but along with other Black leaders, would leave in 1956 primarily because the leadership had begun to embrace a more pro-Indian Guyanese outlook. He contested the 1957 election as an independent candidate and while he was opposed by the Jaganites, the Burnhamites did not field a candidate against him.
Kwayana became the PNC’s general-secretary and editor of the party’s newspaper, New Nation. He also wrote the party’s song—he was also writer of the PPP’s and WPA’s party songs. Kwayana’s entry into the PNC effectively began the consolidation of the PNC as the African-Guyanese response to the emerging Indian-Guyanese PPP.
This process was completed with the 1959 merger of the PNC with the African-Guyanese middle class United Democratic Party (UDP), then led by John Carter. In effect, one can argue that this represented the real birthdate of the PNC. The PNC, like all our major parties, is really a coalition of various forces, often with vastly different outlooks. This early PNC brought together the ideologically moderate Burnhamites, the very conservative Afro-Saxons from the UDP and the radicalism of Kwayana and his followers. What they had in common was their blackness (race) which, after the lull of the early PPP, had again become salient in our politics.
Of historical note is the fact that Peter D’Aguiar, who went on to form the United Force, had refused an invitation to join the PNC. Also of note is the role played by legendary Caribbean thinker, CLR James, in the merger of the UDP and the PNC. The impact of the expanded PNC could be gleaned from its showing at the 1961 election when it garnered 40.99% of the popular vote (a mere 1.6% less than the PPP and a whopping 15.51% increase of its 1957 takings) and won 11 seats.
From 1959 to the present, the PNC has undergone tremendous change. It must, since it is part of a changing Guyana and a changing world. Its detractors, including this writer from time to time, give the impression that the PNC is stuck in time. That is wrong history and dishonest analysis. The early PNC, therefore, represented the massive ideological contradictions within its early leadership. Kwayana and the UDP faction soon found it difficult to co-exist ideologically and Burnham’s own pre-occupation with top leadership could not co-exist with what was perceived as leadership threats from Kwayana and John Carter.
Carter was soon banished overseas and King was “expelled.” These developments, in a sense, saw the emergence of a new PNC leadership dominated by Burnham’s loyalists. By the time it took power in 1964, the PNC was not the same party that came into being in 1957-59.
For the next 21 years the party went in directions that few observers anticipated. First, it transitioned from a chaotic, eclectic ideology to a deeply Marxist-Leninist party. Whether one thinks this movement was politically opportunistic or not, the truth is that it transformed the party.
The second great development was its adoption of political domination and authoritarianism as a mode in both party and government. What this meant for the PNC and Guyana was the awkward convergence of a progressive foreign policy, liberal to progressive domestic policies in the socio-economic sphere and a most regressive (authoritarian) form of governance. Ultimately, the former two could not survive the onslaught of the latter.
It is the most difficult part of the PNC’s history for its members to come to grips with. Even President Granger, an astute historian, has not worked out how to locate and explain this part of the party’s history. Of the current PNC leaders, only Carl Grennidge, Vincent Alexander and Aubrey Norton have made any serious attempt to confront this moment in the party’s history—I still remember Carl Grennidge’s presentation in this regard at a symposium on Burnham at St Stanislaus in 2011, I think.
Along the way, Llewelyn John, a product of the UDP, and a key player in local government policy and electoral “reform,” split from the party. But the biggest break occured in 1971 between the PNC and Kwayana’s ASCRIA. Kwayana, though expelled from the PNC, remained a big influence on the party’s governance and politics from 1964 to 1971. He greatly influenced the government’s Land Reform policy, support for African Liberation as foreign policy, support for African empowerment as domestic policy, the village economy as policy, government agricultural policy and the movement towards a Cooperative Republic. In fact, the name-term “Cooperative Republic” was coined by Kwayana. But he would break with Burnham and the PNC over government corruption—a development that would set in train a new period in Guyanese history that saw the emergence of the WPA and a new politics of protest and resistance.
By the time Burnham died in 1985, the world had changed. The assassination of Walter Rodney had deeply damaged Guyana’s image at home and abroad. The rise of Reaganism, the demise of the Grenadian revolution and the imminent end of the Cold War meant the global dynamics that kept the PNC in power despite its terrible human rights record and electoral rigging, now had less currency. So, even before his sudden death, Burnham had begun to search for ways to change course. He had begun to talk to the PPP, had brought into the party leadership and government a new cadre of technocrats and had toned down his anti-imperialist rhetoric.
When Desmond Hoyte assumed power he escalated that which Burnham had hesitantly started during his last years. But he, Hoyte, went further–he purged the Burnhamites who were generally contemptuous of him, slackened the authoritarian state and retreated from socialist economics. This transition culminated with free and fair elections in 1992, which saw the PNC lose power.
The Hoyte intervention precipitated yet another split in the PNC , with Hamilton Green, the long-time PNC strongman and most popular party leader, being expelled by Hoyte who then replaced the “Greens” with a younger cadre of technocrats who had not grown up with the party—some of whom are still in the party’s leadership today. Some of these technocrats were part of the REFORM component that emerged as the PNC’s version of the PPP’s CIVIC and the WPA’s CITIZENS. Green’s Good and Green Guyana(GGG) would embarrass the PNC at the 1994 Georgetown municipal elections by soundly beating the party in its core constituency
The PNC in opposition was a changed party. After 28 years, it knew nothing about opposition politics. As is the custom, many top leaders left. Hoyte had become bitter as the expected ethnic results of his policies had not materialised. He flirted with mass-protests, but pulled back when he realised that it was the, younger leadership which was growing impatient with his leadership who were benefiting from this tactic. He and the PNC almost buried themselves politically by refusing to press for power-sharing with the PPP which, under the pressure of the protests, was prepared to concede. By the time Hoyte agreed to power-sharing, it was too late—Bharrat Jagdeo had taken over the PPP and had begun his crusade of PPP dominance and Indian-Guyanese hegemony.
When Hoyte suddenly died in 2002, Robert Corbin, an unlikely PNC maximum leader, took the reins of the party. But the world had changed from the days when he was a young PNC strongman and firebrand. His leadership coincided with the weakest period in the party’s history—both the party and its supporters were demoralised by the party’s inability to shift the PPP. Corbin was never allowed to govern the party as his predecessors did, largely because his peers did not see him as their intellectual equal—he suffered from not being able to fit into the “doctor politics” that still dominates our culture. He was challenged by Vincent Alexander for the leadership, which in turn led to another purge from the party. The 2006 election at which he was the party’s presidential candidate saw the PNC’s lowest returns ever at an election. In the end, there was another split. Raphael Trotman, seen as a rising star, left to help form the AFC and took with him a quarter of the party’s electoral base.
But the very Corbin, who led the party at its lowest moment, would be the unsung hero of its revival. He knew the party had no electoral future as a winning party on its own and would have to forge alliances if it were to return to power. He first sought power-sharing with the PPP, but even though Jagdeo expressed some interest, the initiative was scuttled by Mrs. Jagan. He then floated the “big tent” idea with the party’s old enemy, the WPA, but the latter wasn’t ready for the plunge—not with Corbin as the leader of the tent.
But Corbin continued to court the WPA, both in front of and behind the scenes, and by 2011, he scored a breakthrough when the WPA agreed to the formation of the APNU. But the Corbin “partnership faction” was a minority within the PNC. Many still believed the myth that the PNC could win alone, while others were still bitter at the WPA for helping to topple the party in 1992. Ironically, most of the PNCites in government today initially scoffed at the idea of the APNU partnership.
Corbin paid the ultimate price for choosing partnership over party—he could not be the leader. As he gracefully stepped away, he endorsed David Granger over Carl Grenidge in a bitter contest. Granger won and has since brought a new element to the PNC—the ex-soldiers, who have become a formidable force in the party. But Granger is not a natural PNC leader—he does not enjoy maximum support among the membership and the rank and file. So like Hoyte, he governs the party more as President than as party leader.
Under his leadership, the party has not regained its bluster largely because the APNU and the coalition have weakened its power as an electoral force. As was the case when it lost power in 1992, the PNC is yet to adjust to the new reality and figure out the proper role of the party in a coalition government and its relationship to its African-Guyanese base.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org