OVER the last month a great deal of attention has focused on the United States campaign for electoral democracy in Panama. Nowhere is there more interest in this effort than in Guyana. During a recent visit there, I was repeatedly asked by Guyanese whether Washington would also insist on free and fair elections in their county. Although located in northern South America, to the east of Venezuela, Guyana is historically and culturally part of the Caribbean. It was a British colony, and its estimated 750,000 citizens speak English. Since Guyana's independence in 1966 the US has been deeply involved in its politics, and the results have been disastrous. National elections, scheduled for late 1990, present the Bush administration with an opportunity to redeem US policy and promote democracy in Guyana.
US intervention in Guyana was motivated by one consideration - to deny Cheddi Jagan the presidency of his country. Mr. Jagan, who was educated in the US, is a self-declared Marxist. As leader of the largest political movement, and an East Indian in a country where this ethnic group accounts for nearly 50 percent of the population, he fully expected to lead the newly independent Guyana.
Fearing Jagan's left-wing politics, Britain and the US conspired to delay independence until an arrangement could be engineered to keep him out of power. The person chosen for this task was an erstwhile ally of Jagan, Forbes Burnham. With the active support of the US Central Intelligence Agency, Mr. Burnham and his People's National Congress (PNC) won control of the government. In all subsequent elections the PNC has never officially lost, in spite of being the party of the minority Afro-Guyanese, who compose about 30 percent of the population. Peoples of mixed background, Amerindians, Asians, and Europeans constitute the remainder of Guyana's population.
Gerrymandering and fraudulent elections have kept Jagan and his People's Progressive Party (PPP) out of power, but they did not save Guyana from Marxism. Once in office, Burnham turned sharply to the left. In 1970 he declared Guyana the first cooperative republic in the world and embarked on a campaign to socialize the economy. During the '70s Burnham became a leader of the nonaligned movement and joined his new-found friend, Fidel Castro, in bashing the US at various third-world forums.
Burham died unexpectedly in 1984. He was succeeded by his first vice president and prime minister, Hugh Desmond Hoyte. Under Mr. Hoyte, who was elected on his own in 1985 elections widely recognized as fraudulent, Guyana embarked on a more moderate course.
The most urgent priority was the economy. Burnham's cooperative socialism, plus corruption, almost wrecked it. The gross domestic product declined during most of the last decade, and today per capita income is lower than it was in 1960. Georgetown, the capital, is in a state of decay with daily power outages and crumbling buildings. A diplomat stationed there compares Guyana to Burma, where he had previously served. Several hundred thousand Guyanese have emigrated, and it is their remittances that keep the economy afloat.
The Hoyte government adopted market oriented economic policies. Last April it even agreed to an International Monetary Fund austerity program that resulted in a drastic devaluation of the Guyanese dollar and a steep increase in the cost of living. Such steps mean added misery in the short run, and labor unions responded with a six weeks strike to protest government policy.
The US supports Hoyte's economic program. Last year Guyana became a participant in the Caribbean Basin Initiative, and Washington joined a group of nations pledging funds to support the IMF agreement. The US is also promoting political liberalization in Guyana.
Everyone I spoke with, including Jagan, admits that Guyana is indeed less repressive and more open today than in 1984, and they give Washington some of the credit. But it is precisely in this context that the real test for US policy is posed. Does Washington's commitment to democracy extend to free and fair elections in 1990, elections that Jagan and the PPP could very well win? Jagan's interest in this question is obvious, but others, who are not PPP supporters, feel that political legitimacy must be established before other issues, including the economic recovery, can be effectively confronted.
Sadly, the US shares responsibility for the illegality and impropriety which plague Guyanese politics. Now Washington has an opportunity, and an obligation, to abandon realpolitik in Guyana. Not only does consistency, and US credibility in the hemisphere, demand it, but past policy has failed to advance US interests, much less those of the Guyanese people. The Bush administration needs to send a clear signal that it supports free and fair elections - in Panama, in Nicaragua, and in Guyana.