Guyana: CIA Meddling, Race Riots and a Phantom Death Squad

Guyana: CIA Meddling, Race Riots and a Phantom Death Squad
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Why a tiny South American country can't escape the ugly legacies of its idiosyncratic past.

GEORGETOWN, Guyana — A jumbie, in Guyana, is an evil spirit. The term derives from the same Kikongo word — West African, like many of the enslaved who once toiled in this tiny South American country — that zombie does. A rich cast of jumbies, evocative of Guyana’s history, populates the nation’s folklore and its country lanes, many of which were unlit well into the late 20th century. The lack of electricity was bad for economic development, but good for telling stories of the supernatural. In the glow of kerosene lamps, tales were spun about the Land Master, a spectral planter on horseback placated only by rum and cigarettes, or the churail, a wild-haired woman walking the night, inconsolable after dying in childbirth; pregnant women who saw this figure were fated to lose their babies.

A different kind of jumbie stalked the political landscape in May, when this onetime British colony, wedged between Venezuela and Brazil and populated by the descendants of enslaved Africans and indentured Indians imported as plantation labor, held a significant election. The Indian-dominated People’s Progressive Party, led by incumbent President Donald Ramotar, was eager to hold onto the rule once unjustly denied it due to U.S. meddling during the Cold War. In the early 1960s, the PPP was maneuvered from power because its leader, Cheddi Jagan, was a Marxist; it remained sidelined for three decades before regaining authority in independent Guyana’s first-ever clean election and keeping it for nearly a quarter century. By this spring, however, the party seemed poised for an undoing of its own making, having lost whatever moral authority it had earned as a victim of America’s global fight against communism. Critics charged that Guyana had become a corrupt narco-state under PPP rule and, even more unnervingly, that the government either tacitly condoned or actively sponsored a death squad run by a drug lord now in U.S. federal prison. Local government elections had not been held in two decades. Faced with a no-confidence vote in parliament last November, Ramotar simply suspended the body.

In this embattled context, the PPP resorted to telling its own ghost story on the campaign trail for May’s special election — one of a racially riven, at times violent political history pitting Afro- against Indo-Guyanese. The party repeatedly resurrected black leader Forbes Burnham, installed by the British and Americans as a lesser evil than Jagan. A London-trained lawyer and gifted orator who founded a rival to the PPP, the People’s National Congress, Burnham maintained a firm grip on Guyana from 1964 until his death in 1985. He declared his party paramount to the state, changed the constitution at will, tightly controlled the media, and used state violence to suppress dissent. Indians experienced systemic discrimination, and during his rule, many of them fled the country. (My family was part of the exodus.)

The PNC’s present avatar led the multiracial, but majority-black coalition seeking to unseat the PPP this year; the coalition’s presidential candidate was retired Brig. Gen. David Granger. Summoning the specter of Burnham, and the fact that the armed forces in which Granger built his career have long been predominately Afro-Guyanese, Bharrat Jagdeo, a former president and the PPP’s current motive force, told a rural rally to fear the opposition. “When they link with the military, as they have done,” he said, “and come into your homes and start kicking the doors down and when they come after you, who is going to be there?”

Burnham’s daughter, Ulele, an attorney based in England, poked fun at the PPP’s strategy at a massive rally in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, a few days before the vote. She called for national unity, then invoked her father. “I feel I got to be here to bury him because is every election season, he grave getting dig up again and again and again, so that they could tell people jumbiestory,” she proclaimed in Guyanese Creole, the country’s English-based language, to roars of applause and laughter. “But insofar as I quote him, let them not say that I came here to glorify Burnham name or anybody name, you hear me? … None of these men were gods. Nor were they devils.”

Revival is nothing new when it comes to Burnham. During the prime of his dictatorship in the 1970s, opposition to him was multiracial, but under PPP rule, with many Africans feeling marginalized, the PNC and others rehabilitated his image — as a black champion and national hero. A popular 2005 book by a former political aide even sought to recast him as a figure who strove for racial reconciliation. The remembering inherent in resurrection, in other words, was selective and sometimes manipulated.

This remains very much the case today. Forty-nine years free from British rule, Guyana — an overlooked chapter in the Cold War’s annals of U.S. interventions and the post-colonial dictatorships and racial tensions they fostered — is still haunted by its past. The most recent electoral contest might be seen as many things: a referendum on corruption, a test of coalition politics, or an effort to transcend ethnic voting. But beneath all those skins, it seemed, the unnerving campaign was about the chemical reaction between self and fact, identity and reality. It felt like history was on the ballot, with candidates on both sides putting it to political use or conveniently forgetting inconvenient parts of it.

What became plainly evident in this spring’s contest is that few narratives about the idiosyncratic country — ghost story or otherwise — are truths shared by everyone. What happened just now is as contested as what happened many decades ago.

* * *

Race divides much of Guyana, even its geography. The capital, where a third of the country’s 750,000 people live, is predominately Afro-Guyanese, while the countryside is predominately Indo-Guyanese. Racial lines are also tripwires — ones activated repeatedly in May’s election, triggering moments of intense anxiety and others of outright violence.

An excess of caution seized the country even before the vote. Rumors were rife and wild: One portended an armed coup by the opposition if the PPP won. Another suggested that the ruling party, in a smoke-and-mirrors tactic, would pay African men to attack Indian women. A schoolteacher told me that many Indian parents kept their girls home for an entire week before the vote. Meanwhile, to suggest a PPP capacity for violence, the opposition capitalized on the mysterious shooting death of an anti-government demonstrator named Courtney Crum-Ewing. One billboard bearing his image read, “Only the ballot can stop the bullet.” Granger called him a martyr at his funeral. “He knew the risk he was taking to oppose the oligarchs,” the candidate eulogized. “He bled to death for democracy.”

The warnings and fear were catalyzed by elections past. The first vote to scar the body politic took place in 1964 and involved America. Washington funded splinter and opposition groups challenging Jagan, who — as the country’s premier in its final colonial years — had developed close ties to Cuba’s Fidel Castro. (According to U.S. State Department archival documents, $2.08 million was spent on “covert action programs” in Guyana between 1962-1968.) In the lead-up to the poll, the CIA and AFL-CIO were on the ground, allegedly inciting racially charged strikes and riots. “The U.S. fostered violence and death in British Guiana,” historian Stephen G. Rabe, author of U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story, told me via email. “U.S. money fueled this violence and death.”

Dire ethnic violence, including murder and rape, claimed nearly 200 lives and made thousands domestic refugees. Covering a Georgetown campaign rally in November 1964, a Time reporter found a young Indian woman on her knees, clothes torn off, encircled by Afro-Guyanese assaulting her. When the journalist went to her rescue, he became a target too. The police, a mostly black force then (as now), looked the other way. People in a passing car saved the duo.

Jagan’s party won a majority in that election, held two years before independence, but British and American officials midwifed a proportional representation system that allowed the PNC to take power. The British governor invited Burnham to form a coalition with a small capitalist third party, giving him the combined votes to unseat Jagan. Although officials on both sides of the Atlantic worried that Burnham bore the marks of a demagogue, he was not the doctrinaire socialist that Jagan was; little else mattered.

The coalition soon disintegrated, and Burnham inaugurated a decades-long pattern of rigging elections. In 1968, when votes from the diaspora determined the election, an investigation of voting lists compiled by Burnham’s diplomats in Britain and America uncovered scores of invented names and fake addresses. Instead of Guyanese voters, Granada TV foundtwo horses in a Manchester field, a boarded-up butcher’s shop in Brooklyn, a stretch of railway in London, and many bemused housewives who had never heard of the voters purportedly at their addresses. Of 900 names checked in Britain, little more than 100 were genuine. In New York, four in every 10 were. Peter D’Aguiar, leader of the capitalist party briefly allied with Burnham, called it “a seizure of power by fraud, not an election.”

In 1973, the overseas vote was again padded; proxy and postal voting gave the dead, under-aged, and fictional a say, while disenfranchising real people. Fatal violence also scarred that election. In Berbice, a PPP stronghold of rice farmers, fishermen, and cane cutters, a skirmish erupted when party activists tried to escort ballot boxes to counting stations. The army shot dead two Indo-Guyanese poll workers, who became known as the “Ballot Box Martyrs.” In a telegram, U.S. Embassy officials told the State Department that boxes had likely been stuffed while at army headquarters: “As U.S. had in past devoted much time, effort and treasure to keeping Jagan out,” it read, “we should perhaps not be too disturbed at results this election.”

This year, PPP campaigners frequently invoked the Ballot Box Martyrs, even suggesting that Granger, who happened to be an army officer in 1973, had blood on his hands for their deaths. At a concert commemorating Indian indenture on a sugar estate a week before the election, Ramotar said, “We must never forget their sacrifices, but [the PNC] now are saying that those things never happened before. They want to forget the past. We must never forget that past.”

* * *

What unfolded shortly before polls closed on May 11 in Sophia, a mostly black community on the outskirts of Georgetown, also turned on the specter of ballot boxes. The trouble started when a minibus driver claimed that votes had been illegally cast at Narine Khublall’s home, which served as both the Indo-Guyanese pastor’s church and the PPP’s local election headquarters. After a pre-dawn prayer there, the party’s poll workers had fanned out to the area’s 30 voting stations. Food for these workers was delivered to Khublall’s house throughout the day in blue Rubbermaid plastic containers that the driver allegedly mistook for ballot boxes. As that rumor spread, an outraged knot of people formed outside.

Joseph Hamilton, the PPP parliamentarian running the headquarters, emerged to speak to the driver, an ex-policeman he knew personally. He tried to reassure residents that nothing was amiss, but the crowd only grew more irate. Hamilton’s failure to quell concerns was likely due in part to his reputation as a lightning rod; he is a man viewed alternatively as a turncoat or thug. A recent PPP convert, he had served Burnham’s party twice in parliament. Before that, he belonged to the House of Israel, a messianic, black pride church started in Guyana in the 1970s by American David Hill, a fugitive from extortion charges. House of Israel members used batons, fists, and dirty tricks to sabotage opposition political meetings for Burnham. Hamilton later helped organize PNC street demonstrations against the election of Jagan’s American-born widow, Janet, to succeed her husband after he died of heart disease in 1997. Six months of unrest followed, punctuated by bombings at a landmark hotel and TV station.

To check out the claims of illegal polling in Sophia, a team of opposition politicians swiftly descended on the town. The fusillade that followed was an assault on fact, making it difficult to decipher what precisely happened that night.

According to media reports and interviews, the team found no ballot boxes and begged the crowd to disperse. Many people, unmollified, continued to mill around the pastor’s house as night fell. At some point, they began pelting it with rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. Over the course of the night, they would set fire to at least eight vehicles, reducing them to charred metal carcasses evocative of a war zone.

When iNews Guyana reporter Jomo Paul arrived, around 8:30 p.m., he found himself stranded between police with riot shields and a mob with petrol bombs. Over the next three hours, Paul told me, he witnessed people from outside Sophia fuel the mayhem. He heard one bay, “Bring he coolie skunt out, let we chop off he head,” referring to Khublall. The racial epithet — coolie was once shorthand for indentured laborer, a slur used against Indians — and the threat of violence horrified him. Paul said he looked at the man with disgust. The man shot back, “You want me chop off you’ head too?”

“The people wanted blood,” Paul said a few days later. “I don’t know what happened in Sophia that night.” He grew up there. The population is 15 percent Indian, and there have never been ethnic clashes, he claimed. This wasn’t the Sophia he knew.

The community started as a squatters’ settlement, abandoned cane fields reclaimed by single mothers, tenants from Georgetown’s impoverished core, in the early 1990s. Jagan, by then back in power, allowed the squatters to claim legal title to the land, but residents say that in the two decades since, the PPP has ignored their needs — for sports fields, safety from crime, and basic services. What roads are paved are riddled with potholes, and for many residents, drinking water comes from standpipes on street corners. Sophia, now home to 35,000 people, is crisscrossed by garbage-clogged trenches, broken water mains, and exposed electrical wires.

Khublall, who has lived amid this neglect for 18 years, is by his account doing God’s work. “These people,” he told me, speaking of the rioters, “have proved their ungratefulness.” But another role he has played in Sophia may have proven more fateful than any Bible study or charity he offered. In 2009, Khublall established a PPP-funded community policing unit. With this came a stipend, vehicle, and a gun license. Social worker Colin Marks, who runs Sophia’s community center, says the pastor’s aggressive approach alienated him from the neighborhood’s young men. As a rural constable, Khublall focused more on dramatic arrests than on crime prevention and foot patrols. Bridges connecting Sophia’s fields had attracted vendors, and youth perched on the railings. Seeing this as a hub for drugs and criminals, Khublall proposed topping the railings with barbed wire and destroying specific stalls. “They [the mischief-makers] would be in those stands hiding and planning what to do to people at night,” Khublall said. On top of his campaigning for the PPP in the national election, the pastor’s sheriff persona had tarred him as a representative of state power — at a time when many black men saw the government as hostile.

On election night, Marks says, he saw this festering resentment in the community explode. “With more people coming [to the house that night], they get the sense that they’re empowered now,” he told me. “[He] got the vehicle; he got the backings of the police; he got the backings of the party; he got the backing of the gun, but Khublall doesn’t have [the power] now.”

* * *

The perception of the PPP-run state as discriminatory extends well past its support of people like Khublall and its failure to deliver infrastructure to places like Sophia. History might well be repeating itself, but with ironic role reversal. Critics contend that the PPP, once an underdog, has perpetuated the state repression and disturbing settling of ethnic scores rampant under Burnham.

In 2002, five escapees from a Georgetown jail embarked on a spree of murders, kidnappings, and robberies. They styled themselves as guerrilla fighters in an Afro-Guyanese resistance to the Indian-dominated government believed to have been hoarding opportunities for its own. Other gangs joined; perhaps the most notorious, led by Rondell “Fineman” Rawlins, was judged responsible for three devastating massacres. When law enforcement couldn’t cope, a shadowy paramilitary unit, known as the Phantom Squad, emerged. Run by an Indo-Guyanese cocaine trafficker named Shaheed “Roger” Khan, once linked to two PPP ministers, the Phantom Squad conducted extrajudicial killings, mainly of black criminals who had targeted Indo-Guyanese.

The crime wave and the retributions against it lasted for six dark years. (Khan is now in prison in California.) Its influence is still deeply felt, including in Sophia, which served as the hide-out or home to two members of Fineman’s gang.

On election night, local police watched as Hamilton’s SUV and other vehicles were burned. And they watched as Khublall’s neighbor became a target too. An active PPP supporter, she is a businesswoman accused of using racial epithets against her black employees, a charge she denies. Her bed, flat-screen television, and refrigerator were looted — rioters distributed Guinness from the fridge — and her horse stable and the shack where her grooms lived were torched; her employees, husband, and horses were beaten.

The violence did not stop until an army detachment arrived, to the trust and clapping of the crowd, shortly before midnight. Soon after, police led 30 people from the election headquarters, including Khublall and Hamilton, in plastic handcuffs. The arrests appear to have been staged to save them.

After hiding with relatives in the rice-growing countryside for a month, during which he considered fleeing Guyana, Khublall returned home. His congregation has diminished, and an uneasy truce exists between him and the neighborhood. While the pastor doesn’t dispute the critical characterization of his policing style, he says that the outburst on election night wasn’t about that. It wasn’t even about politics, he argues. His neighbors “used this [election] period here to get into our homes to kill us and rob us,” he charges. “This Sophia community is predominantly a thieving area.”

Hamilton, meanwhile, alleges it was a premeditated attempt by “opposition elements” to interfere as polls closed: “What transpired that evening wasn’t spontaneous,” he told me. “It was orchestrated and planned. You don’t have a spontaneous protest, and people already have Molotov cocktails.… I deh round dis business a long time. Take it for granted when I speak to you about these matters.”

* * *

Hamilton had previously testified before a commission convened by the PPP government in 2014 to investigate the killing of a historian 35 years ago. Walter Rodney, one of Pan-Africanism’s intellectual stars and the world-renowned author of a classic text on imperialism, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, fought Burnham’s regime upon his return from lecturing abroad in the 1970s. He led a revolutionary third party, the Working People’s Alliance, that was devoted to ending racial polarization and Burnham’s dictatorship. The House of Israel disrupted WPA meetings because Rodney posed a threat as a rival political leader and as a dissident open to the notion of overthrowing the government. He died in 1980, when a device given to him by a soldier he believed had defected from the army exploded in his lap a block away from Georgetown’s prison. (The PNC insisted that the device was a bomb Rodney planned to detonate to free his comrades jailed there. Those close to him maintain that he thought he was testing a walkie-talkie and that the soldier intended to kill him on government orders.)

The commission hasn’t issued any findings — and, in the wake of the election, may no longer have the chance to do so — but according to Arizona State University’s David Hinds, a political scientist and WPA leader once jailed by Burnham’s regime, the PPP used it during the election as “a platform to speak to the Indo-Guyanese community about the terrible days of the PNC.” Although the WPA, Rodney’s party, joined the opposition coalition, the PPP used the commission as a way to implicate Granger, army commander when Rodney died, in wrongdoing. (Absent a subpoena, Granger would not testify before the body.) Indeed, if Burnham was a jumbie, the PPP strategy was to depict Granger as a bogeyman by association.

A lay historian of Guyana’s security forces and a policeman’s son who still walks like a soldier, Granger embraces Burnham. In an interview, he praised the former leader for building schools and roads and spoke of him as “the father of modern Guyana … [who] brought Guyana out of the colonial era and gave us a sense of pride and dignity in the international community.” He told me, “It’s impossible for any statesman to be faultless,” and added that closer scrutiny of Jagan’s record would reveal “some grievous errors or mistakes.” Asked about rigged elections during Burnham’s rule, he replied that all of Guyana’s elections had been flawed and that he has publicly called for an investigation of the past five.

With perceptions of reality harnessed to identity for so many, and with such a profound clash among them, schools don’t teach post-independence history. Neither elementary nor high school students learn of fraudulent elections or racial strife. But Granger says that historical accounting might not be what the nation needs in order to heal. “People have spoken about truth and reconciliation,” he told me. “I always tell them that the truth doesn’t always bring reconciliation. You can discover the truth about something, but it doesn’t always mean that you’re reconciled to the perpetrators of misdeeds. Sometimes, it can do more damage.”

* * *

The official election results didn’t come in for days. Doctored poll statements were discovered — in time to be discounted, but discovered nonetheless — at election commission headquarters, and the PPP demanded a wholesale recount. While Guyana waited, its capital was a ghost town, shops shuttered and streets desolate.

Granger was finally declared president five days after polls closed. In a final stroke of summoning the ghosts of history, however, the PPP refused to give up. As Granger was inaugurated on May 26, several senior PPP officials held a rally in Berbice alleging vote rigging. They echoed Jagan’s chants of “cheated not defeated” during countrywide demonstrations after the British and Americans installed Burnham as premier in 1964. And when Western diplomats pronounced May’s vote free and fair in a joint statement the day before Granger’s swearing-in, the PPP invoked interventions past. One placard at a rally listed a dozen dates when the United States interfered in the affairs of other countries, below the warning: “Beware of British, Canadian, USA Ambassador, USA Intervension.”

As of this writing, the PPP’s leaders still have not assumed their seats in parliament. In late June, the party filed a petition asking the courts to call a new election. Meanwhile, a significant swath of the country, caught in the loop of its relived traumas and divisions, believes the PPP was robbed of rule. Shock and depression have seized the PPP’s rural base.

In a country house close to Jagan’s birthplace, 42-year old Rajmattie Arjune told me, “Our president ask for a recount, and they don’t want give we.” Her friend, who attended several PPP protests alleging rigging, spoke to me about the election night incident in Sophia as an anti-Indian attack. And she remembered the food shortages and stolen votes during Burnham’s regime. “I’m telling you about the hardship that we went through under the PNC government,” 63-year-old Baso Sukhdeo said. “That’s what everybody’s saying, that there’s a possibility it will happen again.”

History has warned Sukhdeo, like so many Guyanese, to be wary of other people’s facts. She is guided only by her belief in the PPP, its leaders, and their narrative. Her faith, unshaken by newspaper headlines, international observers’ reports, or any other material claiming to pronounce truth, is a reality all its righteous own.

“There are two things I won’t change in my life: my religion and my party,” the old woman told me. Then, employing a Hindu metaphor for destiny, she added, “What is written on the forehead is written. That’s just my belief.”

Research for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. 

Clarification, Aug. 3, 2015: This article originally stated that the PPP pointed out the connection between the WPA and the PNC in the political coalition vying for power in the 2015 election. It should have said only that the connection existed.