Over the weekend I spoke with Guyanese activist Mark Jacobs * in order to contextualise the uprisings and occupy movement taking place in Guyana this past five weeks.
SE: We are well into the 5th week of the Linden uprising. Could you start by giving readers some background on the importance of Linden to the Guyanese economy? Where is it located, the population and racial dynamics of the town.
MJ: Linden is central to the economy of Guyana because of it’s central location. It’s approximately 60 miles south of the capital. Readers would do well to look at a map to better understand as Guyana sits on the coast of South America. The only road connecting Guyana to the rest of South America passes through Linden. This road eventually ends at the Takatu bridge in south west Guyana on the border with Roraima state Brazil. This is about a 208 mile journey. To get to all the major gold mining regions of Guyana you also have to pass through Linden. Recently gold has surpassed sugar and sea food to become the number one export.
Most of the information in Guyana are state secrets but in 2008 the government reported that gold production was 286,812, 288,646 in 2009, 363,883 in 2011. These numbers are for small and medium scale mines but even the government admits that they do believe mining companies fail to report 25% of their total production. As for the larger producers Omai pulled out one million ounces of gold out of a concession which they then closed after a massive cyanide spill that polluted rivers used by river communities. No one was ever punished for this. You can find information on gold companies in Guyana at publications like Buillionstreet.com. ETK Inc estimated annual production of 250,000 to 300,000 at a new mine it is developing and a company called Guyana Goldfield just invested $1 billion in a mine named Aurora [none of these companies are owned by Guyanese].
It’s been a while since the government conducted a census in Guyana and they’ve refused to release the last results but the best estimates say there are about 20-30,000 people living in Linden. It is predominantly Afro Guyanese but there are also east Indians, Amerindians, Chinese and mixed people. Timber is another major foreign exchange earner for Guyana and most timber producers have to access their concessions by passing through Linden. Because of the large sums of money the Guyana government receives in the name of
indigenoous development [carbon trading, eco tourism etc] blockage of the road has been a major headache. Travel warnings have been issued by the USA, Canada and the European Union. For more information on Guyana’s mining industry – gold, diamonds, and bauxite see here. Suffice it to say in addition to gold production as stated above, diamond output in 2010 was 49,920 carats which is down 6% over 2009. This was due to a transfer in mining focus from diamonds to the more profitable gold market. Bauxite output in 2010 was 2010 was 1,099,880 metric tonnes. Again a decline due to mining conditions.
SE: When and why did the people of Linden decide to hold protests and what happened? Give us an overview of the timeline
MJ: The government has been threatening electricity increases for a while now and they finally set the date to implement it on July 1st. There were a few protests by Lindeners and their supporters in the capital against the increase because of the 70% unemployment in the town. These were all ignored and ridiculed by the government. Lindeners set July 18 as the date to begin a one week protest and shut
down the town to all vehicular traffic. Later that day as the place got dark someone shut off the lights of the town and the police, soldiers and unknown men began shooting at unnarmed citizens who had blocked the Wismar/Mckenzie bridge. Background: To get to Linden you are basically travelling on the eastern side of the Demerara river. To get to the other side and continue on the road to the Amazon and Brazil you cross the Demerara river into Wismar. The bridge the people were blocking is called the Wismar/Mckenzie bridge. Mckenzie is the old name for Linden and is sometimes used alternatively by older Guyanese.
The next day more people came out into the streets and Lindeners vowed to continue the protest indefinitely. The Guyana government over the past 20 years has used the police and soldiers to shoot people and intimidate them into silence. From the beginning, their stance was they will not talk or visit Linden until the protesters cleared the roads. Many attemnpts were made by the army and soldiers over the past weeks to clear the blockade but as fast as they removed them the people replaced them. A few late night raids were made into the town hoping to catch citizens off guard. Negotiations of a sort have been ongoing between the office of the President, the regional chairman of region 10, Sharma Solomon and representatives from Linden and the region. [Guyana has 10 regions and three counties.] For admin purposes there are elected regional chairmans. Linden is the ‘capital’ of region 10 – Upper Demerara- Berbice]
In the early morning of August 15 men dressed in police and army uniforms invaded Linden again. This is hours after a concluded negotiation between the government and region 10 representatives. On this occasion a few more citizens were shot. Randy Tello a former boxer was shot through the jaw and in the back. The government say they are unclear as to who did this shooting. The one mile primary school was also set on fire. Citizens caught two men who admitted that they were being paid $1000 for each building they burnt by known government agents. Within 24 hours the police released those men claiming to have no evidence to charge them. The Guyana government is no stranger to arson. Four government ministries have gone up in flames over the years with billions disappearing up in smoke. On August 16 the president [Donald Ramotar] popped into Linden for a photo pop and about 30 people went to go see him. The rest stayed on the streets and protested his presence.
SE: The government have killed protestors, what has been the response to these acts of violence by Guyanese people,
MJ: The reaction of most Guyanese to the shootings are hard to guage. One would like to assume that most are horrified, but outside of Linden, rallies and protests rarely have more than 50 people. Beginning a few years ago the govermment employed the services of a cocaine dealer to eliminate hundreds of ‘criminals’. This and many other outrageous crimes against the people have left most people wary of putting their necks on the line and joining in protests.
SE: Shirlina wrote a moving article about the failure of elite women’s organisations to support Linden. She and Red Thread (an organisation of grassroots women) are involved in the occupy camp and we have updated reports from occupiers. Could you tell us the importance of the occupy movement and the role of women and what you all hope to gain.
MJ: Linden has thousands of single mothers as does Guyana. Women are under constant attack in all forms in Guyana. Domestic violence is at epidemic proportions with hardly a week going by without murders,stabbings, beatings etc. and these are the ones that make the newspaper. Women have also seen their sons, husbands, brothers etc murdered and brutalised over the years by the Guyana government. Remember men are still the primary breadwinners for most families in Guyana so either way you cut it, women loose and they understand that Occupy Guyana is important because government repression has beaten most people into submission. Most people are of the opinion that there is nothing you can do to stop the government atrocities. The appearance of this movement hopefully is a spark that brings more people out in protest against govt crimes and atrocities. Because it would take up too much time we wont get into rampant corruption and nepotism by the Guyana government and this is a country the size of the UK with a population of 700,000 people.
SE: What are the implications of the Guyanese uprising to other parts of the Caribbean/ South America?
MJ: I cannot say what implications these protests will have in the Caribbean or South America because Guyana for the most part is
isolated from both regions. We’re not an island but part of the Caribbean because of our colonial past and we’re not quite part of
South or Latin America because the majority of Guyanese speak English. We have maintained the attachment to the ‘home ‘country European colonialism established. So you would find Guyanese lean more towards England, Canada and the USA.
More updates from the Occupy Georgetown movement which is predominately led by women and the Red Thread organization.