Bookshelf- The evolution of Guyana’s defence policy
(David A. Granger National Defence: A Brief History of the Guyana Defence Force 1965-2005. Georgetown, Guyana : Free Press, 2005.) By R M Austin
Stabroek News Features, Sunday June 1, 2008
David A. Granger
Very few academics and commentators seem to have found the study of Guyana defence policy an attractive proposition. Indeed, one is hard put to find any major study of Guyana in this regard. David Granger in the introduction to his book National Defence: A Brief History of the Guyana Defence Force has noted the impediments encountered in researching national defence matters in Guyana. It “has been hampered by the difficulty in gaining access to information which may be classified as a state secret and the natural disinclination of scholars to pursue studies without sufficient sources of evidence.” But he himself is undaunted by these difficulties and has used both his theoretical and practical experience to write an instructive book of the Guyana Defence Force of which he was once a Brigadier, and the evolution of Guyana’s defence policy.
Retired Brigadier David Granger is eminently qualified to write such a book for he has spent a considerable period of his life in the army and has done research and written numerous papers on defence issues for such institutions as the Institute of International Relations, The University of the West Indies (St Augustine), the Research and Education and Defence and Security Studies (REDS), conferences of the Center of Hemispheric Defense Studies (CHES) of the National Defense University (NDU) of the United States. His theoretical understanding of defence matters and the afore-mentioned experience in the army as well as his interaction with other defence scholars have enabled him to deliver a highly readable account of the GDF and Guyana defence policy in 248 pages, which is decorated by an excellent bibliography, a valuable index and footnotes which instruct as well as edify.
The impending withdrawal of the colonial power, the disturbances in February 1962, the revival of Venezuela’s claim to Guyana’s territory forced the then PPP administration to bring before the Legislative Assembly, a bill to establish a British Guiana Army (BGA), of six hundred men, which would be mandated to function “as a reserve to aid the civil power in times of civil commotion and disturbances when law and order are threatened and as… helping a constitutional government to maintain law and order.”
Even though it is not explicitly stated it is clear that the looming threat from Venezuela helped to inspire the creation of the BGA. It is interesting that the PPP and the PNC which disagree about so much, seemed to have arrived at a common position that the security forces of Guyana would always carry out the role of defending the nation’s territorial integrity and aiding the civil power to maintain internal order. Indeed, it is more than interesting that when the PPP assumed the reins of power in 1992 the main lines of the existing defence policy were maintained, with Mrs Janet Jagan as President, insisting that the GDF should evolve “to perform a substantial and committed role in law enforcement.”
It was the PNC/UF government which oversaw the creation and institutionalisation of the GDF. By the middle of the sixties the structure of the GDF had been settled and defence policy was being elaborated. Even though Brigadier Granger does not say it, this period represented an important learning curve for Burnham and his government. Positioning the army on the coast and focusing exclusively on internal developments in the wake of the searing disturbances of 1964 translated into a neglect of the external dimension of defence policy. Also, the administration believed that the Geneva Agreement of 1966 and the understanding with Suriname in the same year had laid to rest the ghost of Venezuela and Suriname’s claims respectively. This is Brigadier Granger’s judgment: “The indications are that, at the outset, the administration had no clearer strategic vision about the external dimension of national defence than its predecessors.”
There was to be an education in office. Four seminal events would change the defence posture of the nation: the seizure of Guyana’s half of Ankoko in 1966; the incursion into the New River zone by Suriname in 1967; the promulgation of the Leoni Decree annexing a belt of sea off the Essequibo coast in 1968; and the Rupununi uprising of 1969. Brigadier Granger feels that these developments displayed “at best, a lack of vigilance and, at worst, poor intelligence and negligent contingency planning.” No defence ministry existed to promote the development of a national defence strategy or draft defence plans to cater for contingencies. It is amazing that some forty years later the same situation still exists. After these adverse developments the Burnham administration laboured to ensure that the controversy with Venezuela and the dispute with Suriname were integrated into the foreign policy and defence plans of the nation. These events also, especially the seizure of Ankoko island by Venezuela, effected changes in Guyana’s defence policy in terms of the increase in the number and diversification in the training of troops and their deployment to the major hinterland areas. The period of the seventies and eighties when Guyana was challenged within and without are interestingly told by Brigadier Granger and he analyses how the requirements of diplomacy and defence clashed with the reality of Guyana’s economic circumstances. As the economy declined and discontent grew the focus of the Burnham administration, in the wake of relative stability on the frontier with Suriname and Venezuela, ensured that the focus of defence policy was on the internal situation. This is highlighted by the appointment of Norman McClean as head of the army, instead of a professional soldier, underlining the fact that the security forces would be concentrating on internal order. McClean’s appointment followed the cashiering of a number of senior officers who were considered to be negligent in preventing the destruction of the PNC headquarters by fire in 1979.
Again he does not say, but Brigadier Granger must have known that there was advance intelligence given to both the army and special branch on the possibility of arson at the PNC headquarters, but nothing had been done to prevent it. It was a grim and angst-ridden Burnham who therefore stood in front of the National Development Building in 1979.
Brigadier Granger is relatively reticent about the appointment of McClean as head of the army, but I distinctly recall that it caused consternation at various levels in the society and the cabinet. He did however concede that with the emergence of the WPA the relationship between the army and the wider society became problematic as most of the officers of the GDF were old QC boys as were leading members of the WPA. Burnham took no chances. Another word may be said here about another appointment which affected the career of Brigadier Granger. The appointment of Joe Singh as head of the army resulted from representations made to President Hoyte that Granger was no longer interested in the military and wanted to continue his studies. It is one of the mysteries of the recent history of the GDF. From my vantage point, one of the important developments of the eighties, including the adumbration of the doctrine of “defence in depth” which Brigadier Granger describes in some detail is the change in Venezuelan diplomacy. After the belligerence of Presidents Leoni and Caldera, there was a shift in Venezuelan policy. President Perez, like his successors, was determined to get the very access to the Atlantic which his predecessors fought for and which is a long-term goal of Venezuelan foreign policy. Perez offered to finance a major hydroelectric power project in Upper Mazaruni in return for “a symbolic cession” of territory, giving Venezuela the northern portion of Guyana. Brigadier Granger comments on the significance of this move: “The strategic significance of this territory is the prospect that it would give Venezuela access to the Atlantic, salida al Atlantico, from the Orinoco delta. This was the same thinking behind Raul Leoni’s decreto No. 1152 of 1968 which had laid claim to the Atlantic waters off the Essequibo coast.”
It was at this period too that Brazil proved itself receptive to overtures from Guyana and President Burnham paid a visit to Brazil in 1981. Brazil was clearly concerned at this time about the growing role of Venezuela in the region and its designs on Guyana’s territory. During the preparatory phase of this visit in which I was involved, the Brazilian representatives in the Foreign Ministry were keen to have an analysis of Venezuelan aims and objectives in the region and it was clear that they had reservations about the goals and objectives. It was no surprise when the final communique was signed the Brazilians expressed an interest in establishing a joint commission and extending a line of credit, and, as Brigadier Granger has written “…the construction of a highway through the Essequibo region linking the Brazilian state of Roraima with the port of Georgetown. The significance of such a highway through the so-called zona en reclamacion would not have been lost in Caracas.”
Then, as now, Brazil in terms of policy and defence doctrine has remained a counterweight to Venezuela. It has long been accepted that Brazil is a key nation in South America and will have a great role to play in the evolution and destiny of the continent. In the relations between Guyana, Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname, Brasilia could be critical to the outcome of any adverse interaction between any of these two states. The politicization of the GDF is clearly a concern of Brigadier Granger and rightly so. The GDF is one of the critical national institutions of the country and should not be subject to political direction and dominance. This was not the case in the eighties. Brigadier Granger has related how the involvement of the GDF in national elections in 1973, the strike in 1977, and its protection of polling officials and ballot boxes in 1978, did not enhance the national image of the army. In the case of the strike, the involvement of the army “had the effect of stigmatising the defence forces as strike breakers in an industrial dispute between workers and employers.” In the case of the army’s involvement in the elections the impression was conveyed that it was “a partisan, rather than a national, force, concerned more with public order than with national defence.” Indeed, the GDF would become subject to the strictures of the PPP when in opposition and remain under suspicion when it became the government. In 1998 the PPP government would accuse the GDF of seeking to overthrow it, and only the robust response from the then Chief-of-Staff Joe Singh, put an end to the flow of allegations. This section of Brigadier Granger’s book is a timely reminder that important institutions like the GDF must have national legitimacy and be above suspicion like Caesar’s wife.
Guyana is now pursuing a defence policy in circumstances remarkably different from when the national army was created. The nation enjoys good relations with most of its neighbouring countries and has military agreements with the United States and other Western countries. It is now incumbent on those who lead the army to rid it of absenteeism, illiteracy and other ills, and to prepare it for the challenges of the new century. In the concluding chapter of his book, Brigadier Granger offers this agenda: “Defence policy in the new century must be driven by a new thinking and serious planning by competent people who recognise the changes taking place on our frontiers, who understand that the fundamental threat to any state is an attack on its territoriality and who appreciate the old adage that, like liberty, the price of security is eternal vigilance.”