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Stealing Elections

How Forbes Burnham ‘stole’ elections
Part 1

Independent - November 9, 2000
By Raffique Shah

THE last time there was an open attempt by an incumbent Caribbean government to steal a general election through the “padding” of voters’ lists was in Guyana in 1968. The fiend who was exposed as the mastermind behind the scheme was Forbes Burnham, then Prime Minister and leader of the PNC, a party that was installed in office by a collaborative effort between the US Government, the CIA and the British Government. It was not the first or only instance of gross irregularities in an election in the region; there have been allegations of corruption in the electoral process in almost every island-state.

The PNC, however, was the first party in the Caribbean that was bent on holding on to that power at any and all costs. Many readers, especially the relatively young, will hardly remember Burnham (he died in office in 1985), far less his evil nature and the havoc he wreaked in Guyana from as far back as 1953, when he was part of the PPP that was led by Dr Cheddi Jagan, in his twilight years, won the general election and became President of the Republic. He, too, died in office and was succeeded by current president, Mr Bharat Jagdeo.

Initially, Burnham, who was considered a moderate socialist as opposed to Jagan being an outright communist, had joined with Jagan to form the PPP and contest the first real elections in 1953 in what was then British Guiana. The party won, but even before it assumed its place in the legislature, Burnham began bucking party discipline (shades of another man, another place, another time). The British Government (Guiana was still a colony) soon moved with force against “the communists”, suspending the Constitution and imposing rule by decree. Several PPP members were arrested and detained, and by the time the British were ready to restore some measure of democracy, they, along with the US Government and its notorious CIA, had decided that Burnham was the man they wanted in power.

In the 10 ensuing years, Guyana became a hotbed of racial strife that saw hundreds of people murdered in an orgy of political violence. Burnham, financed and fuelled by CIA money and support, had his mobs reduce parts of Georgetown to what Port of Spain looked like after the 1990 Muslimeen coup. Certain international trade union federations that were arms of the CIA (ICFTU, ORIT and the Caribbean Congress of Labour) played critical roles by funding and supporting a number of crippling strikes that were intended to force Jagan (he later won elections in 1957 and 1961) out of office.

By 1964, the stage was set to remove Jagan from office by any means necessary. The British Government, which had opposed proportional representation wherever else it had been proposed, imposed it on Guyana. In a campaign that was marred by even more violence than before, 176 people were killed, 920 were injured and some 2,668 families-approximately 15,000 people-were forced to move from their homes into communities of their own ethnic groups. Jagan’s PPP won the most votes (109,332), with Burnham’s PNC winning 96,567 to team up with Peter D’Aguiar United Force polling 26,612.

Although the PNC and UF had savaged each other on the campaign trail, they became political bedfellows immediately thereafter, forming a coalition that put the PPP in opposition and them in government. Phillip Agee, one of the first CIA agents to have resigned and written a book about his experiences in “the Company”, recorded of that election in his book CIA Diary: “December 18, 1964: A new victory for the (CIA) station British Guiana, in order to throw out the....Marxist Prime Minister, Cheddi Jagan....The (Burnham) victory is largely due to CIA operations over the past five years to strengthen the anti-Jagan trade unions....Jagan is protesting fraud....but it’s of no use.”

Burnham’s next step was to consolidate himself in power. The superpowers were liberally doling out funds to him, and corruption became rampant in poverty-stricken Guyana. He also instituted draconian laws (National Security Act of 1966) and waged a campaign of terror against his opponents. Among the controversial pieces of legislation his coalition government passed was one that allowed Guyanese who lived abroad to vote. About the December 1968 general election, Jagan wrote: “...And the right to vote has been virtually denied. The 1968 general election and the local government election were fraudulent from beginning to end...Without fabricated, padded voters’ lists, extensive proxy voting and ballot box tampering, the PNC could not win.

I was not privy to the extent of “padding” and “rigging” and hijacking of ballot boxes inside Guyana. But on the outside, the extent that Burnham went to secure 94 per cent of overseas votes was an international scandal. I distinctly recall the Granada Television Company doing a series on this fraud. They showed, on film, that most of the voters’ lists in the UK were fraudulent. In one case, as Jagan recalled in his book “The West On Trial”, Granada’s reporters found 117 genuine names in a sample of 551 registered in London, and 19 in a sample of 346 registered in Manchester. The second part of the programme (“The Making of a Prime Minister”) declared, “A hanged man voted in the Guyana general election. So did his children.” It concluded that only 4,700 of 11,750 registered voters in the USA, and 13,050 of the 44,301 registered in the United Kingdom, were genuine. If all the 12,550 registered in the rest of the world were genuine and had voted, the most generous estimate of Guyanese voters abroad should be 30,300, but 36,745 voted.”

According to Jagan (and I can corroborate this, since I had closely followed the Granada expose) Humphrey Taylor, director of the Opinion Research Centre, which conducted an independent survey, said: “Obviously, I don’t know what happened in Guyana, but so far as Britain is concerned, the compilation of the register was a totally dishonest and corrupt operation. And, as we have clearly established, the great majority of people listed do not exist. This, I would think, is unprecedented for a Commonwealth country, as far as I know; and it’s, you know, a pretty awful and disgraceful episode.”

Ironically, the words of Burnham’s former coalition partner, Peter D’Aguiar, summed up the PNC’s wholesale stealing of the election this way: “To call it an election is to give it a name it does not deserve; it was a seizure of power by fraud, not election.”

In view of widespread allegations of fraud in the upcoming election here, I have sought to look at the only example I could find of anything similar. There were other mechanisms used by politicians to steal elections, which I shall deal with in the next instalment of this column. Many people, for example, believe that Dr Eric Williams stole several elections using the voting machines. Panday should ask Kamal Mohammed and Muriel Donawa, both of who were PNM MPs elected by voting machines, whether those charges were true.

Clearly, though, stealing an election today is worse than stealing a horse in the days of the Wild West. The punishment for the latter crime was hanging-from the nearest tree the cowboys who tried the offender could find. Maybe we should revert to such measures for what is a much more serious offence. Ramesh Maharaj may have some gruesome work ahead of him..if he is not tarnished by the brush of electoral corruption.

Part 2 How Forbes Burnham ‘stole’ elections

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