Guyana’s President Burnham Dies at 62

Times Staff Writer

President Forbes Burnham of Guyana died Tuesday of heart failure during surgery on his throat. One of his closest associates was sworn in as the former British colony’s new president.

Burnham, 62, had headed the South American nation of 800,000 people since it gained full independence in 1966. He called himself a Marxist, but his leftism often seemed mostly rhetorical.

His government was never radical enough to attract much international notice. What did draw world attention to Burnham’s Guyana was the fatal poisoning in 1978 of 911 members of the Peoples Temple cult commune called Jonestown. Burnham had allowed the Rev. Jim Jones--who incited the mass murder-suicide that included himself--to move his sect from Northern California to a jungle site near the Venezuelan border.


Shortly after Burnham’s death at mid-morning in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, his Cabinet chose Prime Minister Desmond Hoyte as his successor. Hoyte, 56, was first vice president and has served previously in other Cabinet positions.

‘Common Destiny’

“We shall draw strength in each other and ponder our common destiny as authoritatively defined for us by our great leader,” Hoyte said. He added that his government will be conducted as Burnham would have wished.

A U.S. official in Washington said, “Hoyte has been described to us as intelligent and competent but difficult to deal with--sensitive to criticism of the country and high-strung.”

Burnham was elected prime minister of the self-governing colony, then named British Guiana, in 1964 and became the country’s first prime minister at independence two years later. He won reelection in 1968, 1973 and 1978, although his critics accused him of fixing the elections.

After having the constitution changed to make Guyana a “cooperative republic,” Burnham was elected “executive president” in 1980. The constitution requires that new elections be called by March, 1986.

There was no official government announcement Tuesday providing details of the nature of the throat operation, but one source said it was to remove a polyp.

The president was said to have had an ailing heart for several years. According to some unconfirmed reports, he also suffered from diabetes.

Jack Galinas, a New York public relations man who worked for Burnham, said he had heard that the president suffered some sort of a “scare” about his heart about 3 1/2 years ago. “I remember they were trying to get him to take it easy,” Galinas said.

Galinas, who knew Burnham for 14 years, said the president was not the leftist he sometimes appeared to be. “He was no more a Marxist than I am, and I’m a Republican,” Galinas said. He said Burnham spiked his speeches with Marxist rhetoric to better appeal to the electoral majority.

“Burnham is like a cork in the ocean and moves with the tides,” said his chief rival, Cheddi Jagan, in a February interview. Jagan is leader of Guyana’s Moscow-oriented People’s Progressive Party.

Burnham, a fellow founder of that party, broke with Jagan in 1957 and formed the People’s National Congress party. The political split deepened divisions between the two main ethnic groups in Guyana. Burnham was black, and Jagan is of East Indian descent.

Burnham sharply criticized the U.S.-led invasion of Grenada in October, 1983, and suggested as recently as February that Guyana might be the next country to be invaded. The United States suspended loan programs to Guyana in 1984.