Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version Mohammed reflects on Walter Rodney’s continuing relevance in Guyana and the Caribbean, 27 years after his assassination in Guyana on June 13, 1980.

The stalled Rodney inquiry and the racial dimension of Guyana

It is necessary that the questions are asked: What happened to Walter Rodney, why was he assassinated, and who was responsible? After years of stops, starts, and inaction on this issue, in 2005 it seems as though an international inquiry into Rodney’s assassination was finally on the cards. The Guyanese parliament on June 29, 2005 passed a unanimous resolution authorising the creation of a commission of inquiry, whose terms of reference were to be ironed out among representatives of the government, the Rodney family and others. This year, as we mark 27 years since his passing, we ask, what has happened to this decision for the inquiry?

It is now 27 years since Walter Rodney, 'the prophet of self-emancipation', was murdered in a dark corner, at a dark moment of Guyana’s history. That day in June 1980 is arguably the saddest of modern Guyana. I was 22 years old at that time, but my life was already enmeshed in the struggle, which Walter Rodney defined in terms of a battle for 'people's power – no dictator'. Dictatorial rule was the hallmark of the Burnham presidency which ruled Guyana for more than two decades. Yet, for many years until his death in 1985, Burnham was revered in the corridors of power in the region, Cuba, the Soviet Union, and all the Eastern bloc countries.

My own observations are derived from my political history with Guyana’s working people and the experience of the Walter Rodney period in Guyana. I grew up in the period of anti-colonial nationalist ferment. While still in school, I became an active member of the Progressive Youth Organization (PYO-Youth arm of the ruling party) and later a member of the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP). However, at the end of 1979, I left the PPP to join forces with Walter Rodney and the Working Peoples’ Alliance (WPA), and became one of the young full-time activists in the civil rebellion movement.

The inquiry into his assassination, in my view, cannot skirt around the root of Guyana’s problems – the deep seated racial division in Guyanese society, which Walter identified as the main barrier to forward movement and progress. In his view, Guyana could not embark on any true development unless the issue of ethnic and racial insecurity was resolved. Today, racial healing and multiracial unity remain the prerequisite for democracy and development in Guyana.

Walter did not equate liberation and development with the mere replacement of expatriate rulers with local versions. His determination as a scholar-activist propelled him to argue that transformation and true human development can only be achieved through the common struggle of all peoples to recognise the necessity for a single humanity. In this stead, at the time of his death, he was deeply involved in mobilising to unite the six racial/ethnic groups in Guyana who constitute the Guyanese working people, a period now popularly known as the 'civil rebellion of the 1970s'.

This was a moment of mass mobilisation in a struggle to replace and reshape the neo-colonial state, under the control of Forbes Burnham and his minority PNC government. He was convinced that the racial conflict between African workers (former slaves) and Indian workers (former indentured labourers) was part of a political strategy of divide and rule. Being first contrived by the colonial planter-class and later on by Britain and America to derail the progressive anti-colonial movement headed by the PPP. According to George Lamming, in the foreword to Walter’s History of the Guyanese Working People, 'it was Walter Rodney’s tireless opposition to this betrayal of a people which finally cost him his life'.

While Walter’s assassination may have deep seated implications for the struggles for freedoms everywhere. Its significance must, first and foremost, be understood in the context of the struggle to unify the working people of Guyana. His work with colleagues in the WPA and in the wider Guyanese society between his return to the country in 1974 up until the time of his death was dedicated to nurturing a new political culture, and establishing common grounds for joint action of the people.

While Rodney’s assassination on June 13, 1980 dampened and in many ways silenced the mass movement for people’s power in Guyana. It removed an important voice for a new grassroots politics in the region. This was only a temporary setback in the struggle for people’s power. As current experience shows, similar ideas are now taking root and springing up all over Latin America.

What made Rodney special?

Walter Rodney’s way of life stands as an exceptional example to the international movement. His drive to combine original historical scholarship with involvement in the day-to-day struggles of the oppressed serves as a model to academics and activists the world over. Thus he could switch from researching and writing about the devastation wrought by outside forces on African societies in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, through intervening in the pan-African movement in Tanzania, to discussing with Rastafarians in Jamaica in Grounding With My Brothers.

But Rodney’s later political work in his home country of Guyana was of equal or possibly greater significance. His rejection of racial politics in favour of struggling for unity of all the oppressed was in the finest traditions of Malcolm X. It came not from some abstract theory – Walter was not a prisoner of political orthodoxy - but from the concrete reality in Guyana, where racial politics had been used by the colonialists and imperialists to split the progressive movement and prevent the people from securing their rightful shares. Walter was neither interested in the corruption readily available from the Afro-Guyanese PNC government, nor in joining the Indo-Guyanese embrace of the PPP. Instead, he called for a new kind of politics based on the grassroots, or the 'street force', as he used to call it.

People’s power in Latin America is Walter Rodney’s legacy

Walter anticipated the movements that are now flowering all over Latin America: the fusion of the struggles for collective land rights with the struggle for women’s equality and human rights – represented by the horizontal and unemployed workers' movement in Argentina; the struggles of indigenous and black people, landless workers and trade union movements in Brazil; the indigenous Amerindian and water justice movements in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru; the Zapatistas of Mexico; and, of course, Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. These movements, like Rodney’s, are a rejection of traditional party politics, which have failed the peoples of the region. Instead, people are moving to take power into their own hands.

Walter Rodney’s slogan of 'People’s Power' was at the core of his vision for a new Guyana. If he were here today, he would smile to see what is happening across Latin America. Especially in Venezuela where Hugo Chavez is championing the idea of popular power and campaigning for its implementation, not only there, but throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Time for the Caribbean to join the party

So far, the rising tide of democratic action in Latin America has found few echoes in the Caribbean (with the obvious exception of Cuba). No doubt, language and cultural differences are a barrier. But greatly reinforcing this have been the hostility and distortions in the Caribbean media, which is largely a servant of imperial US and European interests, and their multinational news agencies.

This is a disservice to what is happening in our region. The initiatives for continental cooperation that are being announced on a weekly basis are specifically aimed at Latin America and the Caribbean. But a significant number of our countries are not responding in kind.

We in Guyana, have special reasons for developing cooperation with our revolutionary neighbours. For instance, there has never been a better time to make progress on our border dispute with Venezuela. If we Guyanese were to stretch our hands across the border, it is more than likely that we would receive a warm welcome on the Venezuelan side. In this context, we could work towards an amicable understanding about the Guyanese Essequibo region, which is claimed by Venezuela. We could also explore the possibilities for joint development of the region - perhaps Venezuela could provide investment that we do not have towards the environmentally safe development of the rich resources of the area. So too, on the issue of electrification we should be working with our neighbours to link the grid and bring an end to our energy problems, the high cost of which continues to bedevil Guyanese life and industry.

On a wider scale, developing regional programmes for energy integration, industrial and agricultural cooperation, low interest finance, technology transfer and sharing of resources offer us a great chance to finally get out from under the yoke of American and European economic domination. This is our opportunity to leave behind the curse of neoliberal economics and get back on track towards our original hopes of a progressive regional federation so strongly held by C.L.R. James (the self-made working class intellectual and revolutionary from the Caribbean) and others in the anti-colonial movement.

People's power is on the march in our continent and we must get on the wagon without delay. We cannot wait for our governments to start the ball rolling. As C.L.R. always argued, change must start at the grassroots. We could imitate our Latin cousins and develop more grassroots movements like the 'Red Thread' women’s organisation in Guyana, whose leading members include Andaiye, formerly a leader of the WPA.

I conclude with the ever relevant words of Walter Rodney: 'Only the people can make a revolution. And the day has come when the real revolution will begin - the revolution in the economy, the revolution in the society, the revolution to bring us back to a level where we can hold our heads up high. And it is that day that we need the participation of people.'

The above is the first of a two part piece. Part two will be published at a later date.

* Wazir Mohamed is former Co-Leader of the Working Peoples’ Alliance of Guyana, now PhD Candidate in Sociology-Binghamton University, New York.

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