The Food Bans Of The 1980s Affected The Working Classes Of All Races In Guyana

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By David Hinds

News Americas, PHONENIX, Arizona, Fri. June 18, 2011: The debate in the Guyanese press on the racial consequences of the food ban of the 1980s is interesting.

Both sides of the argument have merit. The problem is that one side ignores the merit of the other side and elevates its sense of victimhood.

It is true, I think, that the banning of some foods affected Guyanese of all ethnic groups. But that does not erase the fact that it had a particular effect on Indian Guyanese for reasons outlined by the Indian writers.

But for Indian writers to ignore or trivialize the effect on African Guyanese is to say the least disingenuous. It is not grounded in fact. If the primary effect on Indian Guyanese was religious, the primary effect on African Guyanese was economic and nutritional – for working class Africans these food items were cheap staples.

To argue that the effect on Indians was greater, as some have overtly and covertly argued, is to argue that the religious is primary to the economic. From my reading the effect of the ban on the two ethnic groups was different, but both were telling.

If anyone doubts the impact on African Guyanese, I wish to remind readers that the year 1983 witnessed large scale food protests which begun at Linden when bauxite workers downed tools after a fellow worker collapsed on the job.

What followed were strikes and demonstrations by workers, housewives and other citizens at Linden which were eventually joined by sugar workers and their families on the West Coast of Demerara. Some bauxite workers were summarily fired.

The WPA called two “Days of Rest,” which saw thousands of citizens of all races stay away from work and hire car drivers withholding their services. On the East Coast we held two marches of mainly schoolchildren, youth and women which started in Buxton but grew to include residents from nearby Indian communities and ending up at Beterverwagting.

Scores of mainly Buxtonian youth and schoolchildren were arrested and charged with unlawful procession. Then magistrate, Clarissa Rheil, eventually dismissed the charges on the grounds that people had a right to march against hunger.

I recount the above to stress that the food ban affected both ethnic groups and that the effect on Africans drew them into large scale public protest. Why would people protest against a policy by a government of their ethnic kind if the consequences for them were not dire? Both sides, especially the working classes, were victims of a policy that was economically grounded.
A feature of these protests was the participation of women and children of both races – it points to an impact that went beyond race. The suggestion by some that the government’s policy was racially driven is premised on shaky ground. But such is the nature of ethnic narratives -they often consist of extreme singular ethnic suffering perpetrated by a guilty race.

This means that the suffering of the so-called guilty race has to be silenced. It also means that class and gender consequences are also silenced. Lack of access to affordable food and nutrition cannot and should not be confined to the ethno-religious.
Finally, it is interesting how a certain pollster can clearly see the ethnic effects of PNC policy on Indians but acknowledge no ethnic effects of PPP policy on Africans. But as the Christians taught us … forgive them Lord.

David Hinds is a Professor of Caribbean and African Diaspora Studies at Arizona State University in the USA. More of his writings on Politics in Guyana and the Caribbean can be found on his website.