Click here to close this window and return to the main menu
Previous Chapter Next Chapter
At the beginning of January 1969, just three weeks after the December 1968 rigged elections in Guyana, a group of large ranch owners in the Rupununi region, supported by a number of Amerindians, broke out in open rebellion against the Guyana Government in the savannah area near the border with Brazil. The Amerindians involved in the uprising were mainly employees of the rebel ranchers who were Guyanese of European ancestry.
In determining the causes of this insurrection, some analysts subsequently have pointed to various factors including frustrations over the recent rigged elections which returned the PNC to power, and opposition to the proposed demarcation of Amerindian lands as set out by the Amerindian Lands Commission. Whatever role these factors played cannot be fully determined, but it was clear that the rebels expressed their non-allegiance to the state and sought the assistance of a foreign government to promote the secession of part of the territory of Guyana.
The lands issue probably had a role in influencing some Amerindians to support the rebel ranchers. In retrospect, it was the PNC itself, nine years earlier, who first hatched the idea of an uprising in the Rupununi as part of a scenario to show Amerindians' dislike for the PPP. The New Nation, the party's weekly newspaper, on 27 August 1960 sensationalised a false and mischievous front page report in an attempt to scare Amerindians in the Rupununi by claiming that the PPP Government was taking over lands from the Amerindians in the area. The fictitious story, headlined "Amerindians Alarmed by Take Over Report", stated:
"The news item over [radio station] BGBS with regards to the intention of the PPP to take over the Rupununi lands has caused widespread anxiety among Rupununi Amerindians and settlers. At least two persons have volunteered to lead a revolutionary movement to safeguard Amerindian interest at all cost, if the Governor lets them down. One of them complained to some of the British priests and has threatened to join the movement. Another [Amer]Indian said that the PPP will have to kill him and his family first while others have planned moving over quietly to Brazil. Others again have pinned their faith in the PNC and its leaders to support them in their struggle for ownership of their lands."
Immediately after the New Nation report appeared, the Government protested to the manager of the British Guiana Broadcasting Service (BGBS) which subsequently disclosed that it never carried any such news, although there had been a news item about Amerindians' concerns over the government's land policy.
Ironically, the story the PNC concocted in 1960 began to play out when they themselves occupied the seat of government.
In the course of this revolt, the ranchers declared that the Rupununi District had seceded from Guyana and that they would set up a Government of the "Republic of the Rupununi". Valerie Hart, a 27-year-old UF candidate in the December 1968 elections in Guyana, and the wife of one of the rebel ranchers, shortly after declared herself as President of the "Republic". However, she and the ring leaders, on 2 January, fled to Venezuela and Brazil after the rebellion was crushed by the Guyana Defence Force (GDF).
Apparently, the Guyana government, through its investigations, was able to prove that Venezuela helped to organise, equip and support the revolt. The rebel ranchers from the North Rupununi savannahs were transported in late December 1968 by Venezuelan aircraft to Venezuela where they were trained by the Venezuelan army and supplied with weapons. Shortly after their return to Guyana on the 1 January 1969, they attacked the administrative town of Lethem and its outlying Amerindian villages, killing five policemen and two civilians and destroying a number of Government buildings. However, the revolt was quickly crushed by the Guyana Defence Force, but most of the rebels who managed to escape, were given refuge by the Venezuelan Government who resettled them in two villages, San Martin de Turumbo and Yuruani, close to the Guyana border.
A group of about thirty men, mostly Amerindians, were arrested by the Guyana security forces, but some were released a few weeks later after their detention in Georgetown. However, ten of them were later charged with the murder of the five policemen and the two civilians. Those charged were: Ignatius Charlie, 23; Anaclito Alicio, 20; Handel Singh, 28; Francis James, 20; Charles Davis, 20; Damian Phillips, 21; Brenton Singh, 43, Colin Melville, 22; Aldwyn Singh, 41; and Patrick Melville, 17.
Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the newspapers and radio stations on 3 January 1969 reported that there was an armed uprising of Amerindians seeking to secede the Rupununi district from Guyana and place it under annexation with Brazil or Venezuela. Interestingly, the Guyanese ambassador in Caracas, Eustace R. Braithwaite, (the author of To Sir With Love), later that day informed the international media, based in instructions he received from the Minister of State Sridath Ramphal, that there was "absolutely no truth" of an armed rebellion among the Amerindians but that "some trouble" had arisen among a few ranchers in the Rupununi and that the Government found it necessary to send security forces to the area to restore order.
Statement by Burnham to the National Assembly
However, on the afternoon of the same day, Prime Minister Forbes Burnham admitted that there was indeed an armed rebellion when he made the following statement in the National Assembly:
There have been considerable disorders in the Rupununi over the past two days and from information available to the government, these disorders have been instigated and propelled by certain sections of the ranchers, some of whom hold foreign citizenship, who have not scrupled those under duress the services of some of the native Amerindian inhabitants.
One of the persons principally involved in the disorders has since surrendered to the security forces, cum machine gun. There has been loss of life though it is not possible at this moment to give an authentic and accurate figure.
Detachments of the Guyana Defence Force and Police, well armed and supplied, have been deployed in the area which centres around Lethem and the northern savannahs. As soon as further and more definite information is available, I propose to communicate to the nation as much as security considerations permit.
In the meantime, I have been keeping in close touch with the Honourable Mr. Ram Karran who has been deputed by the Leader of the Opposition to act and speak on his behalf during the latter's absence from the country.
The evidence so far suggests that the disorders were not spontaneous but masterminded and planned by hostile elements in and outside Guyana.
Broadcast by Burnham
Then in a nation-wide radio broadcast on the 4 January 1969, Burnham narrated his government's version of the events that occurred in the Rupununi:
The picture of the recent disorders in the northern Rupununi savannahs has now become sufficiently clear for me to place before the public the facts of these tragic and sinister events as they have so far unfolded.
On Thursday, 2nd January, 1969, at about eleven o'clock in the morning, the township of Lethem-which is the principal centre of Government administration in the Rupununi District- came under heavy gun fire attack.
The main target of the attack was the police station which was manned by twelve members of the Guyana Police Force and a number of civilian employees and which had radio communication with Police Headquarters in Georgetown.
It is now known that the attack was made by a band of heavily armed ranchers of the Rupununi District, drawn mainly, but not exclusively, from the Hart and Melville families.
The Hart ranch is at Pirara, 15 miles from Lethem- and the control centre of the operation. It was from Pirara that the terrorists had set out earlier in the morning for Lethem.
On arriving at Lethem they opened fire on the police station with a missile throwing bazooka and with bursts from automatic weapons. Policemen rushing out of the building were fired at, and at least one was killed in this way. The attackers then entered the station and, in the struggle that ensued, shot and killed three other policemen and one civilian employee, Victor Hernandez, an Amerindian, who was at that time a member of the Board of Governors of the School of Agriculture. The senior police officer at Lethem who was at the District Commissioner's Office at the time of the attack was shot and killed there.
Nor were the security forces the only object of the attack. The Government dispenser, who came down to the police station when the firing began, was shot at and wounded as he sought to take cover by his car.
The terrorists then rounded up the residents-including the District Commissioner, Mr. Motilall Persaud, and his wife-and held them prisoners and hostages in the abattoir. Other persons were locked into their homes. At least ten thousand dollars of Government funds were taken.
One of the early acts of the terrorists immediately after their attack on the police station was to block the airstrip at Lethem with seven ton trucks and other obstructions, thus completely isolating Lethem except by a ground approach from some other point in the area. To make this isolation more effective, the terrorists simultaneously with the move in Lethem blocked the other airstrips in the area at Good Hope, Karasabai, Koranambo and Annai.
This left only the grass strip at Manari, five miles from Lethem, and it seems that the intention of the terrorists was to use this strip themselves with light aircraft. In fact, certain missionary priests who were at Lethem when the attack occurred were allowed to leave by road for Manari later on Thursday.
Contrary, however, to the expectation of the terrorists, news of the attack at Lethem had reached Georgetown by lunch time on Thursday and the same afternoon a number of policemen and the GDF personnel were flown into Manari by two Guyana Airways aircraft. Both planes were fired at from the approaches to the Manari strip, but neither was hit.
Within the next eighteen hours, a fully equipped and supplied contingent of the security forces was assembled at Manari and yesterday morning (Friday) they began to move on to Lethem. With the security forces advancing, the terrorists fled Lethem, probably for Pirara. On arrival at Lethem, therefore, armed forces were able to re assert lawful authority without any resistance.
Their arrival confirmed the casualties earlier reported, and the wounded persons were immediately flown to Georgetown. The District Commissioner is now engaged in assessing the damage, both of a public and private nature, and the security forces have been assisting in the return to normalcy.
Meanwhile the terrorist groups that had closed down the airstrips at Good Hope and Annai on the morning of January 2, had also overrun the small police contingents there and closed radio communication between these outposts and Police Headquarters in Georgetown. So far, as we know, there was no loss of life at either Good Hope or Annai, but at both places, the policemen were tied up, placed in trucks and driven off towards Lethem.
By then, of course, Lethem was under the control of the security forces and, on discovering this, on their return journey, the terrorists dumped the bound policemen and fled.
Today, the security forces have continued their operations to restore all points in the area to normal governmental control and to pursue and capture these criminal elements that are already responsible for the loss of nine lives. The police posts at Annai and Good Hope have been relieved and the centres of terrorist activity at Pirara, Good Hope and Sunnyside have been razed to ground by our forces.
A number of persons have been arrested in the area, and this afternoon word was received from the police authorities at Boa Vista (Brazil) that seven of the terrorists have been taken into custody there in the flight from Guyana. Steps are being taken to bring these fugitives to face trial under the criminal law of the land they have defiled and betrayed.
On the basis of what I have already said, the acts of insurrection and murder that I have narrated are of the most serious nature; but they are, in fact, even more serious and sinister than would appear on the surface. One of the terrorists [Colin Melville] who surrendered to the security forces yesterday has given an account of the entire operation-an account which places it in a different category from that of mere criminal terrorism. From this account it is now known that there was a gathering of Rupununi ranchers on the 23rd December  at the home of Harry Hart at Moreru in the northern savannahs. At this meeting a plan was unfolded for capturing the main Government outposts in the Rupununi with assistance from the Venezuelan authorities and declaring the establishment of a separatist state in cessation from the rest of Guyana.
On the 24th December, a group of ranchers and ranch hands numbering approximately forty were flown from the Hart ranch at Pirara to Santa Theresa in Venezuela where the party spent the night. On Christmas Day, 25th December, the group were driven to an airstrip at Santa Helena and airlifted in a Venezuelan military aircraft to a Venezuelan army training camp at a point approximately two hours flying time away. They spent seven days receiving intensive training in the use of weapons with which they were supplied, including automatic weapons and bazookas. On New Year's Day, 1st January, 1969, the group were flown back to Santa Helena, again by Venezuelan military aircraft. The following morning, at dawn, they were flown to the Hart ranch at Pirara, and set out immediately for Lethem and the acts of terrorism and murder I have already related.
The insurrection as we know was planned, organised and carried out by ranchers of the Rupununi-the savannah aristocrats. Such Amerindian citizens as were involved were employed in a secondary capacity and appeared generally to have acted under duress and in response to the orders of their rancher employers. Nevertheless, within a few hours of the attack on Lethem, the Venezuelan press and radio were reporting an Amerindian uprising in the Rupununi and suggested that it arose out of the wish of these Guyanese citizens to come under the sovereignty of Venezuela.
In addition, Valerie Hart, the wife of one of the Hart brothers, and a candidate of the United Force at the recent election, was taken to Venezuela by the aircraft that brought the armed gang. In Venezuela, Valerie Hart has been provided with facilities for broadcasting appeals for assistance in support of what she describes as an uprising of the indigenous population. These appeals are beamed to the United States but call for assistance from all possible sources.
The pattern of this Venezuelan involvement is easy to discern. Going back to the Talyhardat incident¹, the Venezuelan authorities have sought to manipulate the Guyanese Amerindian community to promote the spurious claim to the Essequibo region of Guyana. This was followed more recently by the abortive attempt to establish and finance a Guyanese Amerindian Party and in a variety of ways to promote an Amerindian movement favourable to Venezuela's territorial ambitions.
At the twenty third session of the General Assembly in New York last October, Guyana warned of a massive effort being made by Venezuela "to subvert the loyalty of Guyana's indigenous Amerindian people". We pointed out that it was an effort that had no lack of financial resources and which functions through hand picked agents, working under the direction of the Venezuelan authorities from bases situated on the Venezuelan side of the border.
Into the campaign of subversion the Venezuelan authorities have now recruited this group of Rupununi ranchers who have traditionally resented the authority of the central Government, more especially since independence when the authority passed from British to Guyanese hands. The results of the recent general elections which have confirmed the process of decolonisation, was apparently the signal for insurrection among these people who have induced in themselves a conviction that the grasslands of the Rupununi are theirs and theirs alone to the exclusion of others, including the Amerindian people, and especially to the exclusion of the Government of Guyana. Not surprisingly, they have found common cause with the Government of Venezuela who have once more-and again with a traditional clumsiness and indifference to Guyanese opinion-embarked on overt interference in Guyana's internal affairs with the objective of advancing their traditional claims.
It is perhaps not without significance that at the same moment that Venezuelan representatives were sitting down with their Guyanese counterparts at a meeting of the Mixed Commission in Caracas between Christmas and New Year, Venezuelan army personnel were training and equipping saboteurs and terrorists and launching them in a campaign of insurrection in Guyana. Nor is it perhaps without significance that they chosed for the scene for their campaign a part of Guyana which has a frontier, not with Venezuela, but with the friendly State of Brazil.
I do not know where these events will lead us or what their excesses of armed interference Venezuela may be poised to embark upon. This may well be the beginning of a series of similar incursions launched by the Venezuelan government, and we must, therefore, expect further acts of aggression and intimidation from the new imperialism on our western doorstep. We must be ready as a nation to meet all eventualities and we must prepare ourselves for further attacks upon our national integrity from the combined forces of Venezuelan military authorities and disloyal and subversive elements in Guyana. . .
Burnham departed for London on the following day (5 December) to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference. He felt the situation in the Rupununi which was returning to "normalcy" should not impede his attendance at this "specially important conference".
Activities in Caracas
During this period, a flurry of activities was taking place in Venezuela. On Saturday 4 January 1969, the Guyana Embassy in Caracas sent the following telegram to the Guyana Ministry of External Affairs:
Valerie Hart, (27), claiming to be a Member of Parliament elected on a UF ticket, arrived in Ciudad Bolivar on a plane owned by the Rupununi Producers' Association. From there she travelled by a private plane to Caracas for meetings with Iribarren Borges and Interior Minister Moro. Her intention was to solicit support for the armed resistance by ranchers and others in the Rupununi against the government. Hart claimed that the movement was headed by a person named Melville and had widespread support for the secession of the Rupununi to Venezuela. Hart stayed at the Hotel Conde near to the Foreign Ministry.
By Sunday 5 January, Ambassador Braithwaite received copies by cable of Burnham's statement to the National Assembly and his radio address on the situation in the Rupununi. That afternoon he was visited by Mr. Herron and Mr. Walters, two political advisers attached to the American Embassy in Caracas, to discuss the situation. The American diplomats showed him transcripts of messages sent by the American ambassador in Georgetown giving details of the Rupununi situation, including a statement to the Guyana police by Colin Melville on his participation in the events and of circumstances prior and during the events as were known to him.
Braithwaite's meeting with Iribarren Borges
On Monday 6 January, which was a public holiday in Venezuela, Braithwaite sought a joint audience with the Venezuelan Foreign Minister Iribarren Borges and the Interior Minister Dr. Leandro Mora. Subsequently a joint meeting was arranged for 11.00 a.m. at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But on his arrival at the Ministry, he learned that Mora could not be located and Borges apologised for the Interior Minister's absence.
Braithwaite told Borges that his visit was routine and he was anxious to seek clarification from the Venezuelan Government regarding the situation in the Rupununi. Immediately Borges said that Venezuela was not involved and categorically denied any participation or identification with the uprising.
Braithwaite informed Borges that the Guyana Government had indisputable evidence volunteered by some of the major participants in the uprising that Venezuelan aircraft, personnel and weapons had been involved, and that planning for the operation and training in the use of weapons were carried out on Venezuelan territory.
However, Borges vehemently denied this. Braithwaite pointed out that there was no direct air communication between Guyana and Venezuela, but nevertheless Mrs. Valerie Hart, a confessed leader of the rebellion, was able to fly from the Rupununi to Ciudad Bolivar and then to Caracas. Borges said that as far as he knew, Mrs. Hart had flown in a private plane from Rupununi to Venezuela, but she was not in any way assisted by the Venezuelan government.
Braithwaite reminded Borges that even though Mrs. Hart had entered Venezuela illegally, she was able, immediately on arrival in Caracas, to have meetings with him (Borges) and the Interior Minister. To this Borges replied that the woman had asked to see him, and as Foreign Minister he had no choice but to agree to meet her. In response, Braithwaite said that since the woman arrived in Caracas, she was in the care of the Venezuelan Government which was assisting her in arranging press conferences and radio and television interviews and in making appeals for arms and other support for the rebels. Borges replied that that the Government undertook to look after her purely on humanitarian grounds and again stated that his Government was in no way implicated in the uprising.
The Guyanese ambassador told Borges that on the one hand there were his repeated denials and on the other an accumulation of incontrovertible facts which placed his denials in very poor light. At this, Borges became quite agitated and ended the meeting after again insisting that he could do no more that assert his government's non-involvement in the uprising.
Later that afternoon, Borges at a press conference again denied Venezuela's complicity in the abortive rebellion, but stated that more than one hundred persons from the Rupununi were "given refuge" in Venezuela. He avoided mentioning if these persons were granted political asylum.
On the following day (7 January), according to a Reuter report, Braithwaite said that Guyana was absolutely certain Venezuela was involved in the uprising. He said his meeting with Broges "had no particular positive factor in favour of Guyana, but it left the impression that Borges was taken aback on learning of the rebels' confession." The ambassador admitted the Venezuelan Government might not have supported the uprising directly but felt sure that officials in Caracas were aware of military training to the Rupununi rebels and military airlifts to and through the Rupununi region.
Statement by Brazil
Meanwhile, the Brazilian Government expressed its concern over the situation and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued the following communiqué on 7 January 1969:
The Brazilian Government is following since its first moments and with the utmost interest the recent occurrence in the Rupununi region, in areas close to the Guyanese and Roraima Territory borders, and immediately has taken measures in order to intensify the control of the border, and prevent any violation of Brazilian territory. The Brazilian government, in accordance with its principles of non-intervention in domestic affairs of other countries, has expressed to the Guyanese Government in this difficult moment its belief that this bordering and friendly nation will completely overcome the movement that disturbs its internal security and menaces its territorial integrity.
Valerie Hart's activities in Caracas
In Caracas, Valerie Hart continued to press the Venezuelan Government for military assistance and intervention in the Rupununi. But on 7 January, the Foreign Ministry turned down another of her appeals for Venezuela to invade Rupununi and take over the region. A Reuter report (of 8 January) of her meeting at the Foreign Ministry stated that the Venezuelan Government bluntly refused the request for any military intervention to aid the separatist movement which staged the uprising.
Speaking to the press shortly after her meeting at the Foreign Ministry, Hart insisted, "Venezuela must assert her rightful claim and not only the Rupununi but all the 50,000 square miles of territory of the disputed Essequibo region."
But Foreign Minister Ignacio Iribarren Borges crushed the rebel leader's slim final hopes with a flat and negative answer.
"We would never intervene directly in what is essentially a Guyanese problem," he affirmed.
Nevertheless, Hart continued in Caracas to urge the Venezuelan Government for open support. She held several press conferences and gave television interviews, and it was clear that she received assistance from official circles since interpreters were provided for her on account of her inability to speak Spanish. At one of her press conferences on 8 January-the day after the Venezuelan Foreign Minister refused her request for military intervention-she declared (according to a Reuter report): "If Venezuela does not intervene right now with troops they would have in their hands a situation similar to the Bay of Pigs." She, no doubt, was referring to the Cuban situation in which opponents of the Castro regime had been promised support when the initial attempt at invasion proved abortive.
This statement openly insinuated that the Rupununi rebels had received some kind of support and possibly military training and arms as alleged by Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham.
Note of Protest
In Georgetown on 8 January, the Charge d'Affaires of the Venezuelan Embassy, Luis Martinez , was summoned to the Ministry of External Affairs and was handed a Note of Protest which bluntly blamed the Venezuelan Government for instigating and supporting the uprising and involving itself in Guyana's internal affairs. The Note related the events as outlined in Burnham's radio address, and added:
The Government of Venezuela, by the responsibility it bears for the training, arming and supplying of a group of wealthy, reactionary landholders, men who have resented the authority of the Central Government since the independence of Guyana was declared in 1966, stands indicted not only of the breach of every relevant principle of international law but of a consummate hypocrisy in the role it purports to play as part of the developing world which is a world of nations striving to better the lot, not of privileged groups, but of the great majority of their peoples.
The Government of Guyana denounces the Government of Venezuela for the invidious, divisive and self-serving support it has given to a wealthy, reactionary minority which sought to enrich itself by seizing lands which are the heritage of all Guyanese. . .
The Government of Guyana protests in the strongest terms this most recent act of intervention on the part of the Government of Venezuela in the internal affairs of Guyana. It represents the gravest act of interference in the internal political life of Guyana and is part of a pattern of such acts, one of which, as it will be recalled, led to the expulsion from Guyana as long ago as 1967, of a Second Secretary of the Venezuelan Embassy in Georgetown, who was responsible for organising and financing clandestine meetings of the indigenous tribes of Guyana in a futile effort to induce them to express support for the spurious Venezuelan territorial claims.
The Government of Guyana is constrained to express its disgust at this most recent attempt by the Government of Venezuela to advance its spurious territorial claims under cover of subversion and terrorism.
The Government of Guyana gives notice to the Government of Venezuela that it will avail itself of every opportunity to ensure that the recent actions of the Government of Venezuela are brought to the attention of the International Community. . .
Incident over the Note of Protest
That same afternoon in Caracas Ambassador Braithwaite received by cable from the Guyana Ministry of External Affairs the Guyana Note of Protest to be delivered to the Venezuelan Foreign Minister. Just after 4.00 p.m., he went to the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry and handed the Note to Iribarren Borges who invited him to sit down and read it "aloud". At the end of the reading he informed the ambassador that he would contact him in a few days' time. But when Braithwaite returned to the Embassy half an hour later, he was informed by his staff that the Minister had called to invite him for a meeting at noon on the following day (9 January).
Braithwaite arrived promptly for the meeting and Minister handed him the Guyana Note of Protest explaining that his Government found the language "undiplomatic" and therefore it was unacceptable. Braithwaite departed and immediately after Borges told a gathering of media personnel that he had returned Guyana's Note both in Caracas and Georgetown because of its "undiplomatic language".
At the same time in Georgetown, the Charge d'Affaires of the Venezuelan Embassy in Guyana, (Martinez), met with Dr. Ptolemy Reid, the acting Prime Minister, for the purpose of returning the Note of Protest. Dr. Reid explained that so far as the Guyana Government was concerned the Note, having been received the day before by Martinez, was now the property of the Venezuelan government. Martinez then departed with the Note, but later he turned up at the Ministry of External Affairs where he sought to meet with the Permanent Secretary or the Chief of Protocol. However, his requests were denied and he subsequently departed.
Venezuela's activism moved to a new stage on 8 January when Interior Minister Reinaldo Leandro Mora announced the granting of Venezuelan documentation to refugees of the Rupununi region who fled Guyana following the abortive uprising. He said Venezuela considered the refugees as fellow citizens since they inhabited part of the territory being claimed by his country. He further claimed that as a member of the United Nations, Venezuela had a right to do so, and added that the "refugees" had come from "a zone that is considered Venezuelan and are being persecuted."
He explained that the refugees who sought political asylum in Venezuela "in the past two days" would be given jobs or land according to their profession. At Santa Elena, a border village near to the Brazilian and Guyanese frontiers, over one hundred refugees were granted asylum.
On making the announcement, the minister said Venezuela was offering help and documentation "in this painful moment in which the inhabitants of the Rupununi region are suffering." He reiterated Venezuela's conviction that the Guyanese Government carried out a bloody reprisal against Rupununi's inhabitants for taking up arms against the government.
Mora claimed this move to grant asylum did not mean that Venezuela was interfering in Guyana's internal affairs, and denied any implication in the uprising, saying that if it did, his country would have been controlling the region.. However, he admitted that Guyanese youths had received military training in Venezuela at the wish of their parents, but he did not specify the number and did not say whether they participated in the uprising.
In Georgetown, the Acting Prime Minister, Dr. Ptolemy Reid, responding to Mora's statement and other statements reported in the media by Venezuelan Government officials on Venezuela's involvement in the insurrection, said that Venezuela had now further admitted that Guyanese youths had received military training in Venezuela. He added that the youths had left Guyana illegally without proper travel documents while Venezuela had allowed improper entry. This action provided irrefutable evidence of Venezuela's inspiration and support of the uprising. He refuted reports in the Venezuelan print media that Amerindians were being massacred, saying that those who died were all victims of the conspirators and denounced the attempted comparison (by the Venezuelan media) of the Rupununi situation with Biafra.
On the statement by Mora that Venezuela considered the refugees as Venezuelans since they inhabited part of the territory claimed by Venezuela, Reid said Venezuela "stands indicted of the breach of every relevant principle of international law" and the statement by the Interior Minister was consistent with Venezuela's behaviour in the past.
Here, note must be made of the fact that just six months before, during the debate in the Guyana National Assembly on the Venezuelan Decree of the Sea, the Third Deputy Prime Minister of the then PNC UF coalition Government, Randolph Cheeks, had stated that the Amerindians who were commuting between Venezuela and Guyana for decades ". . . do not recognise national boundaries or national borders", and that according to existing regulations, "Venezuelan Amerindians can come here and enjoy the same benefits as the Guyanese Amerindians and vice versa". Therefore, if the youths, as mentioned in Reid's statement were Amerindians, then according to Cheeks, those particular youths had not left the country illegally. Thus, there was some contradiction in the statements of two different high ranking members of the Government of Guyana, albeit at different periods separated by a mere six months.
Guyana's letter to UN Secretary General
On 9 January, Guyana's Ambassador to the United States and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Sir John Carter, officially informed the Secretary General, U Thant, of the situation through the following letter:
I have the honour to bring the following to your most urgent attention.
On January 2, 1969, there took place in the Rupununi District in the south of Guyana a series of armed attacks on Government centres and peaceful farming villages which resulted in considerable loss of life and property.
The Government of Guyana is now in possession of irrefutable proof that the individuals who organised and carried out those crimes were trained for the purpose within the territory of the Republic of Venezuela, and supplied with arms by authorities of the Republic of Venezuela.
During the General Debate at the Twenty-third Session of the General Assembly my Minister of State for External Affairs drew attention to the massive effort which was being made by the Republic of Venezuela to subvert the loyalty of our people in order to advance its spurious territorial claims. He said, on October 3, 1968:
"It is an effort which has no lack of financial resources; which functions through hand-picked and trained agents working under the direction of the Venezuelan authorities from bases situated on the Venezuelan side of the border. . . A more flagrant premeditated course of interference in the internal political life of a neighbouring country directed from a governmental level it would be hard to find."
The extreme gravity of the consequences which may flow from this most recent calculated violation on the part of the Republic of Venezuela of generally accepted norms of international law and civilised behaviour compels my Government to request that you bring this matter, at your earliest possible convenience, to the attention of all States Members of the United Nations by way of a copy of this letter and of the attached Note which was issued from the Ministry of External Affairs in Georgetown to the Venezuelan Ambassador to Guyana.
Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration. . .
Letter from CLASC to UN Secretary General
It was apparent that the rebels managed to garner some international support from the Confederacion Latino Americana Syndical Cristiana (CLASC) [Christian Democratic Trade Union] which had consultative status in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which had its headquarters in Europe and branches in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile and Venezuela. In a letter to U Thant on 14 January, CLASC expressed support for the Rupununi rebels and urged the intervention of the United Nations. A copy was also sent to the UN Human Rights Commission. The letter, addressed from Caracas, and signed by its Secretary General, Emilio Maspero and Ernesto Molano of its "Organisation Division" stated:
As a result of the popular uprising in the Rupununi region of Guyana, the Government of that country led by Mr. Forbes Burnham has unleashed a bloody wave of retaliation against the entire Amerindian population.
The countryside has become a human hunting-ground for innocent peasants-villages and farms have been totally destroyed by incendiary bombs and those responsible have respected neither the civil population, women nor children. The Amerindians constitute the native population of Guyana and the great majority are peasants kept in misery and at the margin of survival, by successive Governments. Thousands of them are active members of the Guyana National Confederation at Workers and Peasants, a trade union movement affiliated to the Confederacion Latino Americana Sindica Cristiana (CLASC).
By means of this note we wish formally to denounce before the United Nations these acts which, by their unreasoning and repressive ferocity, threaten to transform Guyana into a second Biafra. Moreover, the incitement of this official violence is that of racial discrimination, the establishment at which is being attempted in the country, and which we wholeheartedly condemn and denounce.
In the name of all the workers of Guyana and in the name of the millions of workers of Latin America, CLASC demands intervention by the United Nations to restore peace in Guyana and to put an end to the official terrorism which the dictatorial Burnham Government has again launched against the Amerindian peasants of the Rupununi and other areas of the country. All workers must have equal opportunity and the fullest guarantees of their human at social rights. . .
A copy of this letter was handed by the UN Secretary General's office to the Guyana Permanent Mission at the UN for a response.
Further Activities of Valerie Hart
Meanwhile, in Venezuela, Valerie Hart continued to be active in trying to win support for her cause. On 20 January, she visited the eastern city of Ciudad Bolivar to meet with the other rebel refugees who apparently were now working in the area. She told them not to give up the struggle and that they must continue to strive for the recovery of the Rupununi.
On her return to Caracas, she gave her version of the background of the uprising during a television interview. She said the Rupununi ranchers had on several occasions made representations to the Guyana Government because they were not satisfied with the conditions in the area. She claimed that the Amerindians were treated in a sub-human manner and that Government officers in the Rupununi frequently mistreated and assaulted the Amerindian women. She added that the only action taken as a result of their representations was the transfer of the defaulting officers. As a result, the ranchers became disillusioned and decided to form a movement with the backing of the Amerindians.
She further claimed that they had not planned to kill anyone but merely to seize certain Government buildings, hold the officers as hostages and close down the airstrips. After that action, they planned to negotiate with the Government to get concessions.
Unfortunately for the rebels, a priest who was not held as a hostage, used his radio set to contact someone in Georgetown and other persons opened one of the airstrips to allow the Government planes to land.
When asked by the interviewer about the policemen who were killed, she said that they were killed in the ranchers' self defence, and emphasised that the rebels had only rifles and guns which they normally used for hunting, but no sophisticated weapons. She admitted that it was a great blow to them that the revolt failed, but they were making plans for another attempt to take over the Rupununi, details of which she could not divulge. She added that it was not the end of the struggle, and she considered it as only the first battle lost.
Venezuelan political links with the uprising
The failed uprising continued to hold the attention of the Venezuelan throughout January and February of 1969. In various commentaries in the Venezuelan newspapers, towards the end of January, there was speculation that the Rupununi uprising was one of a number of moves designed by the Acción Democratica (AD) [Democratic Action] party to prevent President-elect Caldera of Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (COPEI)[Social Christian Party] from assuming office. About a month prior to the December 1968 presidential election, one of the first of these moves was put into effect. A number of top army personnel known to be favourable to COPEI were dismissed. Then soon after the election, it was alleged that some AD ministers together with the governor of Bolivar State got together to instigate the Rupununi uprising. President Leoni, who had not yet been inaugurated, was not apprised of these plans. Significantly, one of the planes used in the operation belonged to Bolivar State. It was impounded by the Brazilian Government after it landed on Brazilian territory, and the Brazilian Government declared that it would not release it until it knew the intentions of the new Venezuelan Government.
Thirty-six years later, on 13 March 2005, the Caracas daily,Ultimas Noticias, carried an article by Diaz Rangel who mentioned that the AD administration in 1968 gave support to the separatist movement in the Rupununi. The article revealed that "military troops and the police force, apparently commanded by General Yépez Daga, were ready to back the Amerindian separatist movement in the Essequibo which failed. Assault troops and paratroops were left waiting."
Ramphal's letter to Guyana's Mission to the UN
The CLASC letter to the UN Secretary General apparently raised some concerns within the Guyana Government since it urged the UN to investigate the situation in the Rupununi. With concerns that this could involve a visit by the UN Human Rights Commission, Guyana's Attorney General and Minister of State, in a letter of 13 February to the Ann Jardim, the Charge d'Affaires at the country's Permanent Mission to the UN, said that Guyana should be cautious of inviting the UN Human Rights Commission to visit Guyana. He explained that there were dangers in any such offer particularly since it would be difficult to resist a proposal from, for example, a Latin American country on the Commission to send an investigating committee in response to any such offer.
Ramphal insisted that he would be unhappy over such a visit because it was possible that Venezuela could ensure that rehearsed complaints were advanced by Amerindians. In addition, he believed that an investigating committed from the UN Human Rights Commission would attract unfavourable notice for Guyana and, whatever its final report, he was certain that Venezuela would make much mileage out of it. Further, according to Ramphal, matters could be made worse since the political opposition might make efforts to embarrass the Government during the proceedings.
Guyana's response to the CLASC letter
On 13 February 1969, Jardim, (Charge d'Affaires at Guyana's Permanent Mission to the UN), responded to the CLASC letter of 14 January 14, 1969, in the following communication to Secretary General U Thant:
The letter of January 14, 1969, emanating from Caracas and signed on behalf of the Confederacion Latino Americana Syndical Cristiana (CLASC) forwarded with Your Excellency's note of 8th February, 1969, hereafter referred to as "the CLASC letter", is consistent with the efforts currently being made by the Government of Venezuela to conceal its most recent interference in the internal affairs of Guyana behind a facade of distortions and fabrications.
Venezuela's efforts at subversion within Guyana and aggression against Guyana are designed to advance her frenzied territorial ambitions and the false allegations already made by the Venezuelan authorities, and now repeated to Your Excellency for the attention of the Human Rights Commission, are intended to provide a pretext for further Venezuelan acts of subversion and aggression against Guyana. Presented in terms of humanitarian concern for the Amerindian people of Guyana the recital represents merely another stage in the shameful campaign by the wealthiest State in Latin America to plunder more than one-half of the territory of one of the newest and smallest States of the hemisphere, and to do so within the first years of the new State's independence while she is pre-occupied with the essential tasks of development and of social and economic change.
The events in the Rupununi region of Guyana to which the CLASC letter refers have already been the subject of a separate report by the Government of Guyana to Your Excellency, a report which at the request of the Government of Guyana was circulated to the Permanent Missions of all Member States of the United Nations in Your Excellency's Note No. PO 220 VENE(2) of January 10, 1969. A copy of that report is enclosed herewith and the Government of Guyana wishes its contents to be regarded as incorporated in this reply.
The incidents referred to were not, as stated in the CLASC letter, a "popular uprising". There were, as the report to Your Excellency indicated, a series of attacks on Government outposts by a group of wealthy ranchers trained, armed and supplied by the Government of Venezuela. The attacks resulted in the destruction of property and seven persons, including members of the Guyana Police Force and Amerindian citizens, were killed by the attackers. The principal insurgents have since fled Guyana and the majority of them have received both asylum and succour from the Venezuelan authorities.
Contrary also to the statement made in the CLASC letter there has been no retaliation by the Government or any agency of the Government of Guyana against the Amerindian people of the area most of whom had nothing to do with the violence, who fled in the wake of the attacks by the ranchers and who have returned to their peaceful pursuits in the region with the restoration of normal conditions. In fact, the only acts of violence involving either in injury to persons or in death have been those of the ranchers themselves perpetrated with the arms and equipment supplied to them by the Venezuelan Government.
The letter from CLASC alleges that thousands of the Amerindian people are members of the Guyana National Confederation of Workers and Peasants, which it claims as an affiliate, and in its final paragraph the organisation purports to speak "in the name of all the workers of Guyana". A trade union called "The Guyana National Confederation of Workers and Peasants" was registered in Guyana in 1964 but it has never become active, has no known membership and has never complied with the requirements of the law regarding filing of annual returns. The Guyana Trades Union Council, which is an affiliate of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), of its regional organisation the Inter-American Regional Organisation of Workers (ORIT) and its sub-regional group the Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL), represents the great majority of the trade unions operating in Guyana and is the only organisation which can speak in the name of the workers of Guyana. The Guyana Trades Union Council has repeatedly condemned Venezuelan acts of hostility and aggression and of interference in Guyana's internal affairs.
Having regard to the current attempt by Venezuela to disguise her territorial ambitions by a feigned humanitarian concern for the people of Guyana, there is enclosed herewith a copy of a public statement made by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Georgetown, Revd. Richard Lester Guilly, S.J. on his return from the 39th International Eucharistic Congress in Bogota and the Conference of Bishops which followed it. The statement was made on September 10, 1968, and reveals some of the Venezuelan attempts at subversion among the Amerindian people of Guyana.
The Amerindian people of Guyana share in full and equal measure the constitutional guarantees enjoyed by all the citizens of Guyana. In addition, however, the Constitution of Guyana imposes and the Government acknowledges special responsibilities for Amerindian affairs designed to advance the welfare of Amerindian people. These responsibilities are discharged with serious regard by the Government of Guyana within the limits of the country's resources-resources, however, which must inevitably he diverted from development to defence as Venezuelan militarism and subversion become more threatening. In general, in terms of respect for their fundamental human rights Guyana's Amerindian people take second place to the Amerindian people of no other State of Latin America. In particular, they are subject to no discrimination in any area of Guyana's national life.
It is the view of the Government of Guyana that the Human Rights Commission should take no cognizance of the CLASC letter of January 14, 1969. If, however, this letter or any of the allegations it makes is to be discussed by the Commission, it is the wish of the Government of Guyana that it be invited to participate in such proceedings of the Commission and the Government of Guyana will be grateful for this wish to be communicated to the Commission. . .
Alleged atrocities in the Rupununi
After the uprising was crushed, claims were made by numerous Guyanese, including some Rupununi Amerindians, that particularly in the northern savannahs the security forces had harassed, and even killed, a large number of Amerindians in putting down the revolt and in their subsequent "mopping up" operations which continued weeks after the revolt ended. Actually, many Amerindians were so fearful of the security forces that they fled over the border to seek refuge in Brazil. The allegation of harassment and killings was subsequently denied by the Guyana Government and the administration of the Guyana Defence Force, both of which claimed that no one was killed in the suppression of the rebels.
The Roman Catholic Bishop of Georgetown, the Reverend R. Lester Guilly, was allowed by the Ministry of Home Affairs to make a four day observation tour of the southern Rupununi Savannahs to see the condition of the Amerindians, most of whom were Roman Catholics. However, he was not allowed to visit the northern Rupununi where the rebellion actually took place. On his return to Georgetown, he reported that at St. Ignatius and Macusi Village (both located near Lethem) the Amerindians were still nervous and that a number of them had fled across the border to Brazil. He said that the old school building was burned to the ground, but little damage was done to the newer school building.
Despite the fact that Bishop Guilly did not actually visit the areas where there were military activities, he concluded: "I am happy to say that I am quite satisfied that there have been no atrocities."
However, the Leader of the Opposition, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, who had applied to the Government to visit the Rupununi District, which was now designated a restricted area to non Amerindians, was refused permission by the Ministry of Home Affairs to visit the area to examine the situation. As a result of this refusal, the PPP sent two of its leading Amerindian members, Eugene Stoby, a Member of Parliament, and Basil James to the Rupununi by the Guyana Airways passenger flight to make on the spot observations. But on landing at the Lethem airfield, they were detained by the GDF authorities and sent back on the return flight to Georgetown where they were rigorously questioned by the police before being released.
PPP views on the situation
Based on the refusal by the Government to allow Dr. Jagan and the two PPP Amerindian members from going to the Rupununi, the party expressed the view that the Government had something to hide and that, most likely, some Amerindians had been killed by the GDF in the suppression of the rebellion. The PPP felt that the Government's statement that no Amerindian was killed in the crushing of the rebellion was untrue since it was apparent that the army met resistance which caused it to burn down a number of buildings in which mainly Amerindian rebels had entrenched themselves. It would be unique, the PPP stated, for an army to crush an armed rebellion without inflicting any loss of life on the rebel forces.
In the July September 1969 issue of Thunder, the theoretical journal of the PPP, Dr. Jagan in an article entitled "What the future holds for Guyana", wrote:
. . . The Government, having ruthlessly crushed the rebellion . . . is moving to militarize our politics. Incessant calls are being made for greater sacrifices to build a bigger army and police so "that our nation can be protected".
The revolt had its origin in a combination of factors-resentment by the people of the Rupununi against the PNC Government for the electoral fraud and the eviction of the United Force from the coalition; dissatisfaction with the Government's high handed action in connection with their leased lands; subversion by Venezuela in its quest for a Guyanese "fifth column".
Venezuela's claim to nearly three fifths of our territory was part of the Anglo American conspiracy. It was resurrected in 1962 to be used as an aggressive weapon against the PPP or any future progressive regime in an independent Guyana. . .
During the past four years this claim was used for jingoistic and diversionary purposes in support of US puppet regimes in both Guyana and Venezuela. In the 1968 election, it served as an intimidatory weapon. The PNC, with its main electoral slogan, "peace not conflict", openly suggested the threat of Venezuelan aggression in case of a PPP victory.
These were the reasons for the failure of the PNC UF coalition to take to the UN Security Council Venezuela's aggression (occupation of the whole of Ankoko Island), threat of aggression (Venezuela's edict authorising its Navy to patrol Guyana's offshore waters), and subversion. The USA, while not wishing to be placed in a position of deciding between Guyana's "right" and Venezuela's "might", wants at the same time the Venezuelan claim to remain open indefinitely.
Indeed, there is every likelihood that the USA either backed or connived at Venezuelan support (military training and refuge) for the Rupununi rebels. This is just one way in which the United States not only expressed disapproval of the expulsion of the pro capitalist imperialist UF from the Government, but also intends to keep the PNC regime in line politically. . .
The National Security Act
During early February 1969, the PNC Government rushed a National Security Act through the National Assembly in the face of strong opposition from the PPP. The Government claimed that the Act was aimed at curbing subversion in the country. In the October December 1969 issue of Thunder, under the article, "The Erosion of Civil Liberties", a leading Executive Member of the PPP, Ranji Chandisingh (who later defected to the PNC in 1976) commented on this Act and the aftermath of the Rupununi revolt:
During the debate in Parliament (on the National Security Act of 1969 to restrict the movement of persons within Guyana and to prevent Guyanese leaving the country), Opposition members pointed out that in the vast Rupununi area-following the short lived uprising-the Government imposed administratively a complete ban on persons entering the area. The charge was made that the Government had something to hide; it was not telling the whole truth about the situation in the Rupununi-particularly with respect to the treatment of the Amerindians. There was much speculation as to the number of deaths.
The PPP sent two of its Amerindian members-one an organiser, the other a Member of Parliament-to investigate. They bought airplane tickets from the Guyana Airways Corporation and duly boarded the plane. Shortly after they landed, however, they were rounded up by police and sent back to Georgetown. Even priests who had served in the area were hustled out and prevented from returning. The Government had actually sealed off the entire area, long after there could be any military justification for this. Only Government officials and certain PNC activists were allowed in.
At that time the Government was acting without any legal or constitutional authority. It was only subsequently that the Government-through this Act (National Security Act, 1969)-gave itself legal authority for such action.
Shortly after the National Security Act was passed, a Defence Levy tax of three percent on imported goods was imposed. The aim of this new tax, according to the Government, was to raise revenue to strengthen Guyana's defence capabilities.
Nearly two months after the Rupununi uprising, Prime Minister Burnham invited all Amerindian Touchaus (Chiefs) to Georgetown for a four day conference, from the 28 February to the 3 March 1969, ostensibly aimed at formulating a far reaching programme of Amerindian development. At the end of the conference, the Amerindian chiefs, in condemning the Rupununi revolt, passed the following resolution:
Acknowledging our duties to the State of Guyana and prepared to share also with our brothers in Guyana responsibilities for the development and the defence of Guyana;
Concerned over the claims of Venezuela to that part of Guyana in which many of us live in peace and harmony with the other people of Guyana-hereby declare that we
1. Pledge our whole hearted loyalty to the Government of Guyana which we consider our only Government;
2. Reject the unjust claims of Venezuela to any part of the territory of Guyana;
3. Deplore the action of those misguided persons who conspire with foreigners to the detriment of our State;
4. Condemn all persons who seek to overthrow by force the lawful authority of the Government of Guyana;
5. Call upon all Guyanese to resist by all means any attempt by Venezuela or any other State to take or gain control of any part of Guyana;
6. Inform all nations of the world that we will never agree to the destruction or division of our country or recognise the claim of Venezuela or any other nation to any of the territory of Guyana.
Rupununi revolt reported to the UN
As part of its diplomatic offensive, Guyana used the forum of the 24th session of the UN General Assembly to highlight the failed insurrection. In the general debate on 6 October 1969, Guyana's Attorney General and Minister of External Affairs, Shridath Ramphal, informed the delegates of the Venezuelan involvement in the Rupununi revolt. Of special interest was his statement that the leaders of the revolt were ranchers, "many of whom were not even citizens of Guyana", and all of whom resented the authority of the PNC Government.
On the following day, the Permanent Representative of Venezuela, claiming the right to reply, accused Guyana of using the UN to propagate its internal policies by bringing charges of "invented aggression by Venezuela" before that body. He claimed that the Guyana Government was attempting to draw attention away from the troubled racial situation-left by British imperialism-and from the economic problems facing the country at home. He added that Venezuela was justified in warning foreign companies that their land rights granted by Guyana might not apply when the disputed territory should become "part of Venezuela".
Then on the 8 October, Guyana's Permanent Representative to the UN, Patterson Thompson, in a rebuttal, admitted that Guyana had its share of economic and social problems. But, he said, for Venezuela to attempt to present these matters as a reason for Guyana's justified complaints in the General Assembly against Venezuelan hostility, was to seek the flimsiest pretext for inhibiting discussion in the General Assembly and to divert attention from the real motives underlying that hostility.
Meanwhile, towards the end of the year, the trial of the ten men charged with the murder of the five policemen and two civilians during the uprising began in the Supreme Court in Georgetown. In its case, the prosecution alleged that the men conspired to take over the Rupununi from the administration of the Central Government. Evidence was also introduced to show Venezuela's implication in the rebellion in providing training and arms for the insurrectionists and giving direction to their activities.
On the other hand, the defence urged the jury to return a "not guilty" verdict since the men took part in the uprising under duress because they were afraid for their lives. Finally on 16 January 1970, after both sides had presented their concluding arguments, the jury retired to consider their verdict. After deliberating for over seven hours, they arrived at their verdict shortly before midnight. They acquitted Ignatius Charlie, Anaclito Alicio, Handel Singh, Francis James, Charles Davis, Damian Phillips, and Brenton Singh. However, they failed to agree on a verdict in respect of Colin Melville, Aldwyn Singh, and Patrick Melville. The judge ordered a retrial for these three, but shortly after, the Director of Public Prosecutions dropped all charges against them.
Note: ¹ Leopoldo Talyhardat, Vice-Consul for Venezuela in Guyana, was expelled from Guyana on 1 May 1967 after the Government claimed that he was involved in a clandestine meeting two weeks earlier with Amerindians at Kabakaburi in the Pomeroon.
2 November 2009