The passing of Guyanese President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham leaves a volatile power vacuum in the economically depressed, English-speaking South American nation. It raises new questions about Guyana's relations with the West -- particularly with the United States.
In recent years, relations have been chilly at best. But much of the English-speaking Caribbean has warmed to the US, particularly since President Reagan began his Caribbean initiative four years ago.
Guyana, a potentially rich but troubled bauxite-producing nation on South America's northeast coast, was not embraced in that initiative. It is unlikely to be included under Prime Minister Desmond Hoyte, who assumed the presidency Aug. 6 shortly after Mr. Burnham's passing.
But the transfer of power to new hands in Guyana affords the opportunity for Washington and Georgetown, the Guyanese capital, to begin the process of healing their differences. That will take some doing. It is unlikely until new elections early next year. Much depends on who is eventually elected to succeed Mr. Burnham.
Whether Mr. Hoyte will emerge as the leader or simply serve until the election remains to be seen.
Mr. Burnham so dominated Guyana through 21 years of rule, first as prime minister and then as president, that there wasn't much room for other leaders to emerge.
Mr. Hoyte, nevertheless, has long been one of Mr. Burnham's most trusted aides. Several years ago Burnham described the him this reporter as ``a valuable and trustworthy friend and ally -- no, better yet, I would say, a loyal associate.''
This would seem to give Mr. Hoyte a boost in any power struggle. But there are others on the horizon in Mr. Burnham's People's National Congress (PNC), dominated largely by Guyana's black minority, who could challenge Mr. Hoyte.
Standing in the wings, moreover, is Dr. Cheddi B. Jagan, a longtime archrival of Mr. Burnham. He is leader of Guyana's East Indians, who make up more than half of the population, and he heads Guyana's major opposition party, the People's Progressive Party (PPP). Dr. Jagan and Mr. Burnham were once allies in the PPP, which, like the PNC, is leftist and socialist in orientation.
Through the years, neither Burnham nor Jagan won much favor in Washington. When Burnham split with Jagan back in the early 1960s, there were moments of good relations. But after Burnham became prime minister in 1964 and led Guyana to independence from Britain in 1966, Washington became increasingly concerned about the leftist bent of the Burnham government. Burnham's political friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro was particularly worrisome to Washington.
Relations cooled during the Nixon years and became especially chilly early in the Reagan administration. In 1983 and 1984, for example, the US suspended two multimillion-dollar aid programs to Guyana, then blocked a low-interest, $48 million World Bank credit to the country. Washington held that the money could be better used elsewhere, although the World Bank money was aimed at helping resolve Guyana's agricultural deficiencies.
State Department officials admitted privately that close ties with Cuba and his nonaligned foreign policy were partly responsible for the US stance.
Burnham smarted under the US charges. He noted to this reporter in 1983 that his nonaligned foreign policy led him to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and to vote against the Soviet Union -- and Cuba -- on ``some 45 percent of critical United Nations votes'' since 1975.
``Is that being pro-Soviet or pro-Cuba?'' he asked. ``Maybe a teensy bit, for Guyana was not 50 percent against those countries. But that, I submit, is splitting hairs.''