Forbes Burnham – Was He A Socialist Dictator of Guyana?

Apart from communist Cuba, the Caribbean is a largely democratic region. The idea of dictatorship is staunchly refused and opposed in most Caribbean countries, as the life of Forbes Burnham demonstrated.

Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham was prime minister and later president of Guyana for two decades. Burnham was the political leader who defined the path of Guyana’s political development, following its independence from the Great Britain in 1966. The alliance with the Soviet Union and Cuba made Guyana the only socialist country besides Cuba in the Caribbean region. Under his dictatorship, country’s economy stagnated and crime became a natural way of life.

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Education and Early Years

Burnham, born on February 20, 1923, attended the elite Queen’s College. In 1942, he won the Guyana Scholarship as the country’s top student. In 1948, he graduated with honors from the London’s School of Economics, and received a degree in law. He became one of the founders of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and after the party won the first elections permitted by Britain, in 1953, he served as the education minister.

However, in 1955, the PPP split, and Burnham formed People’s National Congress, which entered in the election in 1961. In the election in 1964, Burnham formed a coalition with the United Force party and formed a majority, becoming the premier of British Guiana, which two years later became the independent state Guyana.

Guyana as a Socialist Country

Even though at the beginning, Burnham was adopting relatively moderate policies, later, during the 1968 election, he grabbed full dictatorial power; he promoted a police state in which opposition members were killed. He established strong relations with the Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea and other socialist states in 1970 and implemented a socialist form of government.

In the 1970s, Burnham’s policy of austerity bankrupted the local economy. His nationalization of foreign-owned companies lead to a drop in the United States’ reduction of financial aid and to the country’s entry into default of international debts to the International Monetary Fund. He also banned the import of basic products, without having a program of producing them domestically.

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Burnham as the President of Guyana

In 1980, after a referendum (internationally considered as fraudulent), Burnham changed the constitution, and replaced the premiership with more powerful presidency. The elections held in the same year (again considered as fraudulent), put Burnham in the post of Guyana’s president. During his presidency, the country’s economy stagnated.

Guyana was not able to export sufficient goods to earn enough for the import of the vital goods. The repression of political activity evolved and included the murder of political opponents. During his presidency, Burnham, awarded himself the highest distinction of the country, the Order of Excellence.

Personal Life and Death

Burnham was married twice. His first marriage brought him three children, and he had two children from his second marriage. He also adopted a boy during his second marriage. Burnham died from heart failure during a routine throat surgery on August 6, 1985. His death put an end to autocratic rule and opened doors for political reforms in Guyana.

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By Norvan Martin



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