Guyana’s Burnham Moving to Expand Communist Relations

Times Staff Writer

Leftist President Forbes Burnham is expanding this former British colony’s trade relations with Communist countries and opening the door to a political alliance with the local Communist party.

But Burnham, mindful of nearby Grenada’s ill-fated fling with international communism, is proceeding with caution on both fronts.

Some Western diplomats and other analysts here say that what might be seen as a further shift to the left by Burnham is more likely just a tactical feint in that direction.


“He’s out to get what he can for Guyana,” one diplomat said. “He’s a master at playing people off.”

Burnham, 62, insists that he is only trying to further economic development in his hard-pressed country by looking to the East for more trade and to the pro-Soviet Guyanese Communists for broader domestic support.

In an interview, he ruled out any political alignment with the Soviet Bloc or any merger of his party with the Communists. He described himself as a Marxist but not a Leninist, and he emphasized that his basic international commitment is to nonalignment.

“We aren’t pro-Soviet,” he said.

Nevertheless, in a message to Moscow on the occasion of the Soviet national day last November, Burnham expressed his government’s “satisfaction with the manner in which our relations have progressed over the past year.”

“The relations that now exist between our two countries are a fitting tribute to our commitment to the struggle for the realization of an international environment of peace and social and economic justice,” the message said.

Burnham was the head of government here in 1966, when Guyana, then the colony of British Guiana, gained full independence. Today, this country of 800,000 people is desperately short of hard currency to pay its debts. Western credit has all but dried up.

Trade With Communists Easier

Guyana has entered into barter or countertrade agreements with several Communist governments, paying for needed imports with bauxite, sugar and rice. Burnham said countertrade is easier to arrange with Communist countries because of their centralized economic systems.

“That doesn’t indicate any ideological deviation or movement,” he said. “So I wouldn’t say there’s any swing to the left. We’ve continued to be left, but at the same time politically nonaligned.”

He said that 25% to 30% of Guyana’s trade in 1984 was with Communist countries, and added that he hopes it grows to 40% to 50% in 1985.

Guyana now trades with the Soviet Union, China, East Germany, North Korea, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Cuba. Most of these countries are sending teams of technicians to work on development projects in Guyana.

More than 170 Guyanese students are studying in Communist countries, 75 of them in Cuba. The Guyanese-Cuban relationship goes back a decade but is now undergoing a surge of growth. Burnham visited Cuba in September.

The official Cuban mission to Guyana numbers about 100, including medical personnel, technicians and diplomats. Burnham said the only Cuban military man in Guyana is the embassy’s military attache.

Asked if he thinks that Guyana’s growing links to the Communist world could result in U.S. military intervention, Burnham said: “After Grenada, that always remains a possibility. . . . The American Administration seems to be in a strange mood sometimes.”

A diplomatic source in Georgetown said that the United States has “some concern, particularly about Cuban influence” in Guyana. “There are people in the government who have close Cuban ties,” the source said.

He indicated that the United States would be more concerned if the expanding trade relations with Communist countries led to any military cooperation.

Burnham said Guyana’s Communist ties pose no military threat.

“We don’t have any foreign troops here,” he said. “There’s absolutely no intention on our part to permit hostile bases here.”

In the early 1950s, Burnham was a leader of the People’s Progressive Party, the pro-Moscow Communist Party headed by Cheddi Jagan. When the two split, Burnham formed another party, the People’s National Congress.

CIA Help Charged

From 1957 to 1964, Jagan was premier of British Guiana, which in most respects was self-governing. Then Burnham was elected--with CIA help, Jagan says, though Burnham denies it--and has headed the government since.

For years, Jagan has proposed a “national patriotic front government” in which the two parties and other national groups would work together. At the end of January, Burnham’s party announced that it would talk with Jagan’s, but Burnham emphasized that “there is no intention on our part to unify the two parties.” He said his international policy clashes with Jagan’s.

“I wouldn’t accept his tactics at all,” Burnham said. “So far as he is concerned, everything the Soviet Union does is right. I say, nonsense.”

The last talks between the two parties, in 1976, broke down without agreement. At that time, Burnham was also expanding his government’s relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union, Jagan recalled. But after Guyana signed a loan agreement in 1978 with the International Monetary Fund, Burnham “pushed the Cubans and the Soviets into the background,” Jagan said.

In 1983, Burnham rejected IMF loan conditions, including currency devaluation and the return of some state enterprises to private ownership. Then the U.S. government cut off aid loans, on grounds that Guyana was behind on repayments, and began voting against World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank loans to Guyana.

“The Burnham government pragmatically moved again to embrace the Cuban government,” Jagan said. “Burnham is like a cork in the ocean, and moves with the tides.”

He said Burnham may be sending a message to the West: “You had better give us modified IMF terms; otherwise, we will link up with the Russians.”

Other analysts agreed that Burnham could well be playing East and West against each other, but some warned that a leftward swing could become irrevocable if it goes too far.

“He’s such a proud character that it is really going to be hard for him to swing back to the right again,” a diplomat said.

And a human rights activist remarked, “It’s still a ploy, rather than anything based on conviction, but it might just get out of hand.”