Jonestown: A Caribbean/Guyanese Perspective:
A Speech by Walter Rodney

© Walter Rodney

(Editor’s note: This transcript of a speech given by Dr. Walter Rodney at Stanford University in 1979 was recently published as Chapter 9 in the book, A New Look at Jonestown, by Eusi Kwayana (Los Angeles: Carib House 2016). Reviews of the book by Laura Johnston Kohl and Khaleel Mohammed appear on the Arts page of the 2016 edition of the jonestown report. The speech is reprinted with the kind permission of Dr. Patricia Rodney and the Walter Rodney Foundation, and of Eusi Kwayana and Carib House publishers. Editorial comments which appear in brackets in the text below are by Eusi Kwayana.]

[The objective of this transcription is to maintain the character of the moment by leaving in those word forms that are normal when speaking to a live audience, even though they may be unnecessary and distractingor even redundantwhen put on paper.

Transcribing this particular event was made less easy because the talks, more or less, were given extemporaneously. Additionally, in the playback of the recording, some words were inaudible or undecipherable due to the quality of the recording.

When a word cannot be understood, and I am unable to make a reasonable guess, I have left it out and indicate the omission with an ellipsis ( … ). More serious incomprehension is labeled as “unintelligible” in parenthesis. Additionally, for the sake of clarity, I have in a few instances added a word or two, and these are indicated in square brackets

All in all, this transcript is as verbatim as readability allows. E.K.]

Introduction by Dr. Ewart Thomas

… some of you, I am sure, know him from the classic text, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which provides to my mind a correct historical evaluation of the underdevelopment of Africa, and shows why development in Africa is not possible unless and until there is a radical break with the national capitalist system.

Some of you are also probably familiar with his definitive work on the Atlantic slave trade entitled A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545 – 1800. If you read it, [you will agree] it is a comprehensive examination from a radical perspective that debunks the myth some historians hold … . Rodney shows convincingly that there was the existence of an export market that created the possibilities of the many forms of domestic slavery that were observed.

revgroundingsAnd a few of you might remember the shortest of his books called The Groundings with my Brothers, which happens to be my favorite book for a number of reasons. It is a living testimony of how the black intellectual can move beyond his or her own discipline and challenge the social niche that is invariably structured in a Eurocentric way. This short and brief book also shows how the black academic can develop his or her ideas in a positive way by attaching himself or herself to the activities of the black masses.

But then I personally remember him from high school, on the cricket field, as being a fearsome fast bowler, with a very long run-up. But he wasn’t all that fast, it was the unpredictability of his direction [laughing]. It had opposing batsmen fearful for their lives. So there are a lot of reasons why we were very grateful when Rodney chose history, rather than … [laughing].

He was born in Guyana in, in [pause] not that long ago [laughing]. He graduated from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in 1963 with first class honors in history. Then he proceeded to the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where [at age 24] he finished the Ph.D. on the slave trade (his thesis was developed into the book referred to earlier). That thesis was written in 1966. From there he proceeded to Tanzania to teach at Dar es Salaam. Then he returned to Jamaica to teach at the University of the West Indies. That was about nine months before he was, as they say, refused entry after leaving the country for a short stay in Canada. And this [Jamaican government declaring Dr. Rodney persona non grata], to my mind, … historians will regard as a watershed in recent Caribbean history.

There were popular demonstrations in support of the work that Walter was doing in Jamaica before he was denied entry. And many of the movements we saw in the late 60s and early 70s are closely tied to the event of 1968 in Jamaica. After he was expelled from Jamaica he returned to Tanzania and that’s where How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was written. He stayed there until 1974 and then returned to Guyana, which is where he is still based.

Wherever Walter Rodney has lived, he has taken a deep interest in the affairs of the country. He has tried to analyze them; he has written; he has given in-person presentations about these aspects, and he has actually participated in the political process in the countries. This is evident in this short book, Groundings … . It is also evident in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. There are also a number of papers he has written on Tanganyika. Currently he is working on A History of the Guyanese Working Class, and is actually participating in the struggle of that class.

It is therefore to be expected that the events in Jonestown would be subjected to the same incisive scrutiny that is evident is his writings. This is the topic of his presentation this afternoon, and I now turn to Dr. Walter Rodney [applause].

Talk by Dr. Walter Rodney

rodneynew11102015Good evening everyone: It is always good to be introduced by one’s countryman and by one’s friend. I recall that on one occasion the prime minister of Guyana was to have addressed a conference and he was introduced by someone who chose to quote — somewhat haphazardly — phrases from Shakespeare about individuals who are born great or achieve greatness or have greatness thrust upon them — you will recall the quotation. And he said that the prime minister of Guyana qualified in all three ways [laughing].

Now, that in itself is strange. But what is stranger still is that the individual who is making the introduction was the Ombudsman in Guyana; that is to say, the public official, the unbiased public official, to whom you would take a dispute which you have with the prime minister. So I hope that fortunately you and I have no dispute which has to be resolved by [the Ombudsman of Guyana].

Topic

I would say that taking my cue from his [Ewart Thomas’] very last remarks, I would remind you that I am in fact resident in Guyana, that I am attempting to lay work that reflects within that society, and that what I have to say, therefore, is specifically from that perspective. Indeed, the topic is entitled, “Jonestown: A Caribbean or Guyanese Perspective.”

I say this at the beginning so that we start together, so that we have no false expectation, one of the other. I will offer, for instance, no explanation of the ministry of motive behind the mass murder and suicide in Jonestown. I will not pretend to cover any possible involvement of the CIA. I will not delve into the amazing sex life of Mr. Jimmy Jones. I have no interest in recounting the final moments of Jonestown. Those are issues which have been touched by others, sometimes satisfactorily, sometimes not so satisfactorily, but in any event they fall outside of my own purview.

Instead, I want to speak about Guyanese society, and in speaking about Guyanese society, secondly it will be possible to generalize about the type of society, the dependent colonial society of which Guyana is but one example. And thirdly, I would like us to reflect upon the relationship between this society and the dependent society, the relationship between metropolitan societies and ones like Guyana, the Caribbean, Africa, and the so-called Third World, which are peripheral within the internationalist capitalist system because there are relations which are integral, which are essential, which are recurring between this part of the world and my part of the world. And it is incumbent upon us not merely to understand our society in and of themselves but to understand them within the wider framework.

Why in Guyana?

Having said that, the question which has been posed by Guyanese and in Guyana with respect to Jonestown is essentially, why should it have happened in Guyana? Others will ask, why did Jonestown occur? We would ask, why did it occur in Guyana? Was it a mere quirk? Was it an accident in the absolute sense of that word that it defeats any logical understanding that it should have occurred in Guyana? And we would argue that it was no accident, that it was not incidental. It is essential to an understanding of that tragedy that Guyana provided the framework in which it occurred. And that it [the Jonestown tragedy] tells us a great deal about Guyanese society and about dependent, peripheral, neo-colonial, post-colonial societies of the type.

Lure of Foreign Personage

First of all, what is very general to many, I would say least of all of the post-colonial society, a feature which they have not shed since colonial days is a certain type of welcome, a certain uncritical welcome to that which proceeds from the metropole. It is a welcoming spirit which in some senses is worthwhile, is credible, and personable, but it also opens these societies to being conned. It opens these societies to all manner of misdeeds. For example, quite removed from Jonestown, the sort of thing that occurs when a European or American businessman steps off a plane whether in Kingston or Accra and he carries with him the aura of the metropolitan society and that aura allows him to sell all manner of junk at inflated rates in our society because there is that presumption of benefits spreading from the metropole.

There is that overtone that goes with cultural [word not clear], which allows that particular individual to function so effectively in our society to the detriment of our own people. There is some of that in Jonestown and in the welcoming carpet which was laid out for the Reverend Jim Jones when he approached our society and our government with respect to the settlement at Jonestown.

Alienation of Leadership and Citizenry

More important still, however, would be the character of our state, of the specific post-colonial state which developed in Guyana, with its own peculiarities, but which at the same time is part and parcel of a series of third-world states which show a great deal in common, demonstrate many features in common, a state which has distanced itself from the mass of the producers and the mass of the citizens in that state. Spoken of in class terms, it is a state which is not only alienated from the working people and the peasantry of our region, of our country, but which has also increasingly alienated itself even from the middle strata, even from the so-called petite bourgeoisie, who, in objective terms, may be said to constitute the class from which the government was recruited.

Even that class finds that the actual mechanisms of the state, both coercive and non-coercive, are not in the hands of the middle class, and of course, even less so in the hands of the working class. They become mechanisms which are monopolized by a very tiny segment of the population, usually itself dominated by petite bourgeoisie concerns, usually engaged either explicitly or otherwise in an alliance with international capital, but concerned internally with the disciplining and control of the mass of working people in the society. That is their principal function, whether they carry it out through the conventional state apparatuses of the police and the judiciary, or through the other extended tentacles of the state into the media and into the spheres of education. The fact is that they have created at this particular historical juncture, something [resembling] an incontrollable monster.

One doesn’t have the time to go into the whole theorizing about the state. One understands that the state is not separate from the society. But at this historical juncture, the youth of these new societies those who control the state are in fact in a position to exercise inordinate power, to twist the society and to manipulate the surplus, to manipulate culture, ideas, people and so on in their own narrowly defined interests.

I would like to suggest that this is very important for understanding Jonestown, and that Jonestown in turn helps us the better to understand the distance between colonial or post-colonial state and the mass of its subjects, the alienation between citizen and state and particularly between the working class citizens and the state.

Private and Secretive

Jonestown was essentially based upon a relationship between the Peoples Temple, or the hierarchy of the Peoples Temple, and a number of individuals within the government of Guyana. It was not even an official relationship between the Peoples Temple and the government in the open legal sense that our parliament and our national institutions had validated and legalized the relationship between the Peoples Temple and the Guyanese people. It was a very narrow, specific relationship between members of the government, prominent members of the government, the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the minister of foreign affairs, heads of the judiciary and police, ambassadors, specific individuals, controlling positions of public power in the context of the warped nature of our state, in the context of the lack of controls over that state on the part of the Guyanese people; these individuals established what proved ultimately to be a very aberrant relationship with the group which was recruited from outside of our society.

What is interesting is of course that the mass of the people in Guyana were deliberately excluded from knowledge of Jonestown. Some two years ago, one political group, which at that time was in fact part of a coalition of which I myself was a part, a group known as the Working People’s Vanguard Party, raised particular questions and asked about the repeated rumors that had been heard. This group even queried: what was Jonestown, what was the extent of its holdings, what was its status, and what was the relationship between the Guyana government and the U.S. citizens who were resident at Jonestown?

In other words, they asked the kinds of questions that in fact were publicly and internationally raised after the holocaust of November, 1978. But at that time we received no answers, because it is the normal procedure in Guyana that the government offers no answers or explanations to its citizens. It is a government that is so distant from the population that the normal functioning of information flows in the society — that does not occur. What you take to be commonplace, that citizens have access to what is called public information, information that is both generated publicly and which is known to be in the public interest — such information becomes practically state secrets in Guyana, as well as in a large number of third-world countries.

Absence of Accountability

That is why I feel that the import of my remarks will extend beyond the boundaries of Guyana. These are states in which it is no longer possible to have national income figures, national account figures; no longer possible to get data on the state of employment or unemployment in the society. One is given a series of fictitious figures regarding the inflation rate and so on. The question of audited public accounts, which was standard procedure in the colonial days, in that every year, every ministry, every institution of the government which handled public funds would leave an account to the people from whom these funds derived and on whose behalf these funds were supposed to be exercised — has practically disappeared in independent Guyana. Even in the colonial days such practice used to be treated as standard procedure.

We still have an official who is called the Director of Public Audit. But never has there been a post which is a greater sinecure than the Director of Public Audit in Guyana. He has not produced an audit for some 8 or 10 years. And I imagine that the only way his job will be in danger is if he in fact dares to try and produce an audit of public accounts.

Framework for Fiasco

So it is against that background one must understand that, curiously enough, such a large settlement of non-Guyanese could flourish inside the national boundaries and the government did not find it possible before the crisis, during the crisis or subsequent to the crisis, to offer to the Guyanese people any explanation whatsoever as to the terms under which that group resided in our society.

Whatever we know of Jonestown we know it through investigations that came through channels outside of the government. Many of our people know paradoxically only that which they had learned from the foreign press and foreign media. One of those paradoxes was that after the news broke in Guyana, the government in Guyana had suppressed the news of the tragedy for some forty-eight hours. As it began to leak through the international media, people in Guyana began calling abroad to friends and relatives in London and New York and Toronto saying, “Would you please tell us what is this that is happening inside of Guyana; we don’t know.” Ultimately the government bended when it saw that the news was too big to hold and our people were given the details.

It seems to me that that particular parameter is especially important; the parameter that in third-world countries it has now become the norm, not the exception, that people have no access to important public information on which they should base judgment about events in their society.

So Jonestown was, in this particular respect at any rate, possible because it was entered into in a context in which the Guyanese people had no control, nor did they have even the prerequisite of that control, which is information. We are assuming that whatever judgments one arrived at, the prerequisite for that judgment is the available information on which one would exercise that judgment.

No Official Inquiry

And our people were deprived of that before, during and since the crisis. The news blackout and the government’s attempts to ensure that the people did not discover the essentials of Jonestown, that process still continued. There was a major public demonstration [in the city] just after the incident. This was blacked out of the media. Few people outside our country, even some people in our country did not know there was a major public demonstration where people were demanding that the government should investigate Jonestown.

Ultimately after the U.S. government itself announced it would investigate, the Guyana government very belatedly said it would appoint a commission of investigation. It did in fact appoint one of its judges to be the investigator, one of the types who would normally say that the prime minister has greatness thrust upon him from all directions … [laughing]. And this individual has not yet began to constitute the administrative mechanism for the investigation.

[The Judge appointed was the head of the judiciary, Chancellor of the Judiciary, A. V. Crane, who in a rare act of defiance announced about August 1979 that he wanted nothing to do with Jonestown. Observers are of the opinion that the appointment was never formalized.E.K.]

The incident, as you know, occurred in November of last year, and at the present moment the Guyana government has not yet began even to set up the administrative infrastructure to carry out an investigation into the incident.

A Tragedy Waiting to Happen

This is the type of situation, which I am suggesting, made a Jonestown possible. That is the first stage of my analysis. This kind of situation in Guyana predisposed — it made a Jonestown possible, it did not necessarily make it inevitable. We shall now proceed in a little while to see why it became more and more likely as time went on.

Materialist Pursuits

It became more likely because the state in Guyana, like so many other parts of the Third World, is not only alienated from the population, but implicit in that alienation is that it had become a mechanism for accumulation on the part of segments of the national petite bourgeoisie. There are individuals within the society who see the state as the principal means by which they would acquire wealth personally.

The variety of ways by which individuals can acquire wealth traditionally, ownership of land, ownership of various forms of private property which yield value of a particular type — these still exist in our society. But throughout the Third World the state has been asked to do more than simply referee the struggle between the owners of the various means of production and the working class, or the struggle between different types of capitalists. The state has become that agency which is being constantly utilized and constantly fought over by a number of contending agencies precisely because they are aware that it can be used as an instrument of accumulation. And all the more is this true when the state extends its functions beyond the so-called conventional or traditional functions with which it has been associated and begins to undertake direct political enterprises — which is of course the case in Guyana, as in so many other parts of the Third World.

Corruption

As an integral part of the means of accumulation in the Third World, we must consider the advent of corruption. Corruption to my mind is not an aberration in the Third World; it is part of the normative political behavior now established in the Third World. This has to be understood because every third-world country to which you go, whether it be Nigeria, or Ghana, Tanzania, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, you will see in the national press some discussion of corruption and people proposing ways in which they can remove this blemish of corruption. The premise is that corruption is alien to the system and that it requires a few techniques and a few more honest persons here and there, and you will get rid of corruption.

For example, in Guyana when we had a lot of problems, the government decided that they would appoint an ombudsman to look into instances of corruption. And then the problem became: who would supervise the ombudsman [laughing]. Because the corruption being so endemic, it must really be seen as part of the means by which those who control the state in the Third World do not in fact bother to draw distinction between the quote/unquote legitimate and illegitimate means of accumulation. Any means that flow logically from the monopoly of political power are considered as acceptable within the political framework. And things such as cut-backs, fraud, and the illicit removal of public funds, these are integral at the present time to the distorted third-world states. And of course, they have a tremendous significance because in a number of economies, Guyana’s being included, the size of the economy is so small that when a significant amount of funds is removed from the public treasury, it makes a great deal of difference to national economic development. At the present moment Guyana is in the grip of an International Monetary Fund oversight. We are asking the IMF for a standby credit of twenty million dollars. To meet the demands of the IMF, more hardships would have to be imposed on the working class. And yet, the amount for which we are asking the IMF is actually less than the amount known to have been siphoned off in foreign exchange frauds in Guyana over the last five years.

There has been a series of foreign exchange frauds which have removed from the public treasury more than twenty million dollars. And yet we have now to turn and ask an international agency to replace this and to endure onerous conditions that you know about and to which I will in fact allude in a short while. What I am driving at here is that, as it were, there were all indications of corruption that is part of the third-world system.

Gold, Diamonds, and U.S. Currency

One automatically asks, now what was Jonestown in the context of the material corruption for which the government of Guyana is well known? And one knows that it was located in an area which gave access to the gold and diamond fields. One notes that there was a significant amount of gold discovered in the settlement at the time. One notes that foreign currency, that is, U.S. dollars, were present in that area in huge quantities. And in our society we are therefore speaking about gold, diamond, and hard currency, three commodities. Foreign currency is classified as a commodity because in our society foreign currency is a most scarce and valuable commodity in our context.

It was very clear, even without our knowing the details of the transactions, that there was a relationship between members of the government as well as a specific individual in his public capacity and the leadership of Jonestown, which was based upon the movement of these commodities. Every effort was made to ensure that the movement of these commodities would not be monitored. They did not go through the normal customs regulations. In fact they broke the laws — all the laws — of Guyana which have to do with the control of currency, and of gold and diamonds. People need to have a license to trade in gold and diamonds, for which the Peoples Temple had not applied. And you have to have in Guyana a permit to have even ten American dollars in your possession. An attempt to change currency one way or another constitutes a serious offence for which dozens — indeed hundreds — of Guyanese have been brought before the courts on foreign currency charges.

So when one sees the settlement left free to speculate in these three commodities and the frequent visits by upper echelons of the government, it doesn’t require a great deal of perspicacity to recognize what was the nature of the material connection.

There was an incident reported shortly after the actual deaths had occurred. It was reported that the deputy prime minister and the wife of the prime minister had brought gold and currency from Jonestown to Georgetown in a plane. The government of Guyana was very incensed at the report and issued an official disclaimer of this story. It said it was not true that they brought gold and currency in the plane; it was merely that they traveled on the same plane which brought the gold and currency [laughing]. The fact that there was no one else on the plane [loud laughing] was not very important in their calculation.

Laying the Foundation

This backdrop of material corruption is important for laying the basis for why Jonestown becomes more and more possible. In other words, it was introduced without the knowledge of the Guyanese people. It proceeds without any supervision from the Guyanese people. And it proceeds in a direction in which so long as specific members of the government will get their cut from the transactions taking place, in a sense, anything goes; or anything could have gone on in that settlement, without incurring the ire or the concern of the government of Guyana, because their concern was with one thing. And this is precisely how the scenario was elaborated.

If we examine data that is fully accessible, quite apart from other things that we suspect to be true and other rumors that are current in Guyana, we know that Jonestown entered into part of the deeper corruption of Guyanese political and social life. By the “deeper corruption” I mean things that go beyond merely a transfer of money or of something valuable. [We are talking of a level of] corruption that makes it impossible for the state to function even within the narrow framework of the constitution which we presently have. I’ll take two examples having to do with the police and the judiciary.

Immunity from Police

First, the police. It does appear that the security services expressed a certain amount of alarm over what was taking place in Jonestown. First of all, the army, to the best of our knowledge, was told it should be hands-off, that Jonestown was not an area into which they would normally go to conduct exercises and so on. And that matters dealing with Jonestown must be cleared in an entirely different fashion. The police was more concerned: apparently they heard reports. And it seems from a variety of statements, which have not been denied — even by the government itself, including by the Commissioner of Police [Lloyd Barker] himself — that at some stage he [Commissioner of Police] dared to express his concern and to move to have certain things done. And the word came back to him that that was not his prerogative; that was not his function; in a word, hands-off. The word came from above, not from below. People below are not in the habit of giving orders to the chief police officer of a country. So the Police Commissioner got this order from some source, which is still unidentified. But we know that we have now the focus considerably when we understand that chief police officers only take orders from a certain height. And we know that within our government that limits it to very few individuals. He was told, hands-off!

He had an interview with a number of Guyanese citizens after the Jonestown massacre, as it is called. And in this interview he was asked: why it was that guns were present in such large numbers in Jonestown? Why it was that dangerous drugs were present because they too fall under our legislation? Why it was that [U.S.] currency was there? Why they have machinery for which they have no license? Why it was that their boats came and went without going through Guyanese customs? What was the role of the police in all this? Etc. And he gave a very serious reply. He said that people get the police protection which they deserve.[The Commissioner actually said everyone gets the police “surveillance” that he deserves. E.K.]

One has to place this [Police Commissioner’s statement] in a broader context of the way in which the police harass the citizens of Guyana. And one infers from that that he was saying that whatever protection — that in effect, Jonestown did not need protection. It was being protected by the political elite, that the political elite had been … that they should proceed in the way in which they were proceeding, and he did not feel as the chief police official that the people of Jonestown needed any protection. A very remarkable statement. And one bears in mind that under international law as well as under the conventions which guide people in any society it is normally accepted that when one moves into a new country, into a different country, one automatically receives the protection that that state has to offer. But our chief police official determined that the people of Jonestown did not need or deserve any protection. And this of course is because of that wider corruption in which it is possible for a phone call to be made to a high public official and for him to automatically — immediately — desist from carrying out his legitimate functions.

Subversion of the Judicial Process

With the judiciary, it was just as bad. It was clear that in the case of the Stoen child [John Victor Stoen], that now famous — or infamous — case, a notorious case that came over from the courts here [in the U.S.] to the courts of Guyana, that at least one judge in Guyana was prepared to order that the child be taken into the custody of the court. Because if there was a dispute, as there was, over the custody of the child, then the procedure, which we have inherited from English law (may or may not be the same here) is that the court shall in the interim exercise custody over the child. So one of those judges [Aubrey Bishop, now deceasedE.K.] sought to take the Stoen child from the Rev. Jim Jones and maintain the child in the custody of the court.

The record shows that he was frustrated in this enterprise by the Registrar of the court [Kenneth Barnwell], an important public official; that he was frustrated by political interference; that he was actually receiving a number of threats. And ultimately he decided that under the circumstances he would wash his hands of the case. He made a public statement that he could not finally give judgment on the issue because a variety of methods were being used by parties on both sides, as he put it, to stop him from exercising his judicial judgment. And the case was given, returned, as is our practice, to the Chief Justice [Sir Harold Bollers], who is — who has the authority to reallocate that case to another judge. And under normal circumstances that authority would have been exercised to ensure that justice was being done. It would not have been possible to tolerate undue delay. It would have been reallocated to another judge but it so happens that the matter was placed in abeyance. Our Chief Justice determined in his wisdom that it was not necessary to reallocate that case. And so the Stoen child, like so many other children, was murdered at Jonestown.

[It since leaked out that the Chief Justice Harold Bollers had dinner with Jim Jones on the eve of the trial in the company of a visiting professor of criminology Dr. David Dodd, a party uninvolved in the case and probably invited as a diversion and an alibi.E.K.]

Preventable Disaster

So really when one looks at the scenario from our perspective, we the Guyanese people recognize the way in which as the days went by Jonestown — without our knowledge, because most of this comes from hindsight, very few people has access to this information beforehand but as we saw it in hindsight — Jonestown, while it may not have been predictable was certainly preventable. We mustn’t get involved in mysticism which says this thing is impossible to comprehend; how can human beings do this to themselves and each other. I don’t know the answers to those questions. But those individuals were living in a specific society, and if that society was articulated in a particular way, their lives could not have been placed in danger as eventually occurred. It would have been prevented because so many abuses were known to have been occurring over the weeks and the months prior to the final debacle that something would have been done to put a stop to it.

In that sense, it would have been prevented. It would not have been prevented because someone foresaw that 915 people would have died, but they would have had to stop it because they would have said that this settlement is not in the national interest. They would have said that the rules governing the control, the authoritarian control by the leadership in this settlement over the various individuals, were not compatible with the rules governing the behavior of citizens, all citizens, in the society. They would, if they were serious about certain ideological pronouncements which they were making, they would of course have said that this was not a socialist settlement in the least. But all of these hypothetical preconditions did not exist. The government was not socialist. The government was not concerned about the lives of its own citizens and least of all about the common rank and file of the Peoples Temple. And so they allowed a certain situation to grow and grow until the final outburst with which all are familiar.

Jonestown, then, was preventable, and if it was to have been prevented, the principal agency in its prevention would have had to be the Guyanese government.

Government of U.S. not Blameless

The U.S. government bears a certain responsibility. And it is interesting to see that in the recent report which was here only a few days ago, there has been a cautious and guarded recognition of that failure of responsibility on the part of the U.S. government. A citizen abroad is in a curious position. In a certain sense a citizen abroad is even more protected than a citizen at home because he or she falls under the protection of the host government as the first line of defence. If that host government fails to provide protection then they can have recourse to their own government, via its agencies, embassies, consulates, and so on. The people of Jonestown found that neither of these two lines of defence were of any use to them.

The government of Guyana was uninterested in their well-being, and the government of the United States reneged, for whatever reason, reneged on its function of entering to ensure that citizens abroad were being protected. So that, this tragedy is not the huge mystery that it has been made out to be. As a social phenomenon, Jonestown was most definitely preventable. While we may wish to ask the U.S. government some further questions, we are concerned with raising these questions to the Guyana government. It is still a political issue in our country.

Guyana Itself a Larger Tragedy

Now, it is of course part of the larger tragedy of Guyana. Jonestown merely came at a juncture when the national life was reeling from a series of blows. The economy is at a lower ebb than ever. The national balance is at a negative figure. There is inflation beyond all acceptable proportions. Unemployment spirals. Social violence increases. The moral fiber of the society begins to collapse in a most all-encompassing manner. One of the biggest issues in Guyana today among the population is how to get out. It is a society that is fast losing confidence even in its own ability to continue to persist, and a large proportion of people are seeking to escape from the society. Not in Guyana alone; of course, a number of Caribbean societies are going through the same crisis to a greater or lesser extent. I remember that some wit I was told in Jamaica chalked up a slogan asking the last person to leave the island to please turn the lights off [laughing], because it seems as though that is the direction in which it was going. In Guyana the government has long since switched off the electricity so we don’t have that problem [loud laughing].

But essentially, as part of a larger tragedy, which of course we as Guyanese … [tape abruptly ends].

Last modified on October 21st, 2016.
Skip to main content