286. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Conversation with Prime Minister.


  • The Honorable Linden Forbes Burnham, Prime Minister, Cooperative Republic of Guyana
  • Ambassador John R. Burke

Prime Minister Forbes Burnham received me at his country residence at Belfield at 5:00 P.M. on Friday, September 15. I had requested the appointment in order to have a general tour d’horizon with him following my return from home leave and consultation in the U.S.

Prime Minister Burnham was a few minutes late for our appointment having just driven out from Georgetown himself. As is his custom when receiving at Belfield, he greeted me on the veranda and we seated ourselves on the seaward side looking out over the Atlantic and the rice fields that separate his residence from the sea wall. Having come from a full day of meetings in his Georgetown office, he seemed quite weary and appeared to be somewhat “up tight,” but after lighting an English-made Benson and Hedges and taking his first sip of a Chivas Regal and Soda he appeared visibly to relax. He was dressed in sport shirt, slacks, socks and espadrilles, all in his favorite color: lavendar.

The conversation began with Burnham asking me about the summit meeting at Camp David which was then in progress.2 I told him that I knew no more about it than the press men who were covering it. He observed that the convocation of the meeting was a “big gamble” for President Carter. A successful outcome would be a great coup for him, in Burnham’s opinion, while a failure, though not necessarily amounting to an irretrievable disaster, would be very difficult for President Carter to recover from.

I rehearsed with the Prime Minister my discussions in Washington during consultation and I referred particularly to my meeting with his Ambassador, Laurence Mann, taking the opportunity to praise the Ambassador for the job he was doing in the U.S. on behalf of Guyana. I also informed him that the transition from Assistant Secretary Todman to Assistant Secretary Vaky in the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs [Page 689] was now concluded.3 It was obvious that the Prime Minister knew little about Mr. Vaky’s background so I provided him orally with a curriculum vitae. I told him further that it was my understanding that Assistant Secretary Todman was very pleased to be going off to Madrid, and as Ambassador to Spain he would be the first black American to serve as Ambassador to a major Western European capital.

The AID Program in Guyana

I then provided the Prime Minister with a three-page status report on our AID efforts in Guyana. I reminded him that when Assistant Administrator Valdez had been in Georgetown in company with Ambassador Young in August 1977 he had spoken to the press about the possibility of a program for Guyana in the neighborhood of $12,000,000.4 On the basis of the latest figures available it is apparent that our program will far exceed that estimate.5 I drew to the Prime Minister’s attention the fact that we were concentrating our program in the agricultural sector which was quite in keeping with the agricultural policy he had set forth for the nation during his address at Black Bush Polder in December of last year.6 It was obvious to me that this was the first time the Prime Minister had seen in concentrated outline a full resume of the current U.S. aid effort in Guyana. He was very interested in it and I suspect that he will be discussing it in detail with the members of his Cabinet in the days to come. He took particular note of our rice modernization loans and the seed farm project stating that these two specific efforts were of great and obvious value to Guyana.

Political Developments

Having been absent on leave when the July 10 referendum was held, I asked the Prime Minister about local political developments and particularly whether or not the opposition parties, specifically Dr. Cheddi Jagan’s People’s Progressive Party (PPP), would be participating in the work of the Constituent Assembly.7 The Prime Minister was [Page 690] somewhat disdainful of the opposition generally. He opined that they would “probably” participate in the work of the assembly, but gave the impression that in his view it really didn’t matter. He said he had spoken to Cheddi Jagan about the PPP’s participation and Jagan had responded by stating he would have to “discuss the matter with my advisers.” Burnham observed that “for the leader of any political party in Guyana to make such a statement is pure ‛bullshit.’”

The Economy

The Prime Minister went on to say that the economy rather than domestic politics was his principal problem. He is very concerned about meeting the IMF “targets” in the last quarter of 1978. He informed me that he had told the members of his government as well as labor leaders that any belt tightening which had gone on previously was nothing to what the country would be obliged to go through by the end of the year. (Though he did not mention it during the conversation, he has just appointed a committee to be headed by Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Ptolemy Reid to oversee the country’s economic performance with particular reference to the matching up of foreign exchange availability with the acquisition of essential commodities.)

Problems in the State Corporations

I told the Prime Minister that since my return I had noted that he had been paying visits to various of the state corporations. He said that these “inspections” were necessary in order to keep the management of these various enterprises on their toes. He went on to say that though Guyana did have some highly intelligent managers there were serious gaps at the middle management level and he was not at all sure how these lacunae could be filled. He recalled his visit of December 1977 to the principal generating plant of Georgetown and how he had observed at that time certain practices which seemed to him likely to cause trouble in the future. (This indeed did happen in early April when there was a week-long blackout in the capital.) He said he had warned Minister of Trade, George King, about the practices at the plant but despite his warning corrective measures had not been taken and a disastrous failure had occurred.

We spoke briefly of the two new turbine generating units which had been purchased from the British as a result of the April failure.8 I asked the Prime Minister whether there would be qualified people to operate these units and he replied that the British Ministry of Overseas [Page 691] Development would be supplying supervisory personnel for the first several months after the units went into operation. I said I had heard that these sets had a “champagne taste” in terms of the fuel required to run them. The Prime Minister replied that Sir Lionel Luckhoo,9 who had headed an investigative commission to look into the April power failure and the operations of the General Electric Corporation (GEC), had assured him that though the units did require a more expensive fuel than that consumed by diesel units they would operate more efficiently and thus the extra fuel cost would not be prohibitive.

Foreign Investment Code

In view of Guyana’s great need for foreign exchange, I asked the Prime Minister whether or not progress was being made in drafting and issuing a private investment code. He replied that the government had hoped to issue the code before the end of 1977 but had failed to make that deadline. The government is now polishing up a final draft of the code and he told me there would be a meeting on Thursday, September 21, to discuss the latest draft. He is not optimistic that the issuance of a code will result immediately in any important inflow of foreign capital; however, he feels it would be useful to have a document which potential investors could refer to. The principal “hang-up” on the draft, according to Burnham, is the political problem of dealing fairly with Guyana investors. Obviously, they cannot be offered the same incentives and terms as those to be made available to foreign investors; nevertheless, something must be done for them.

Labor Unrest

I told the Prime Minister I had noted that he had met on Wednesday, September 13 with a group of labor leaders to discuss the new regulations covering employee contributions to the Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund, specifically that significantly higher payments would be required of the workers. I asked Burnham if the labor leaders had sought a “show” meeting merely to give the impression to the rank and file that they were discussing the matter with government so that they might be prepared to answer criticism at the upcoming meeting of the Council10 now set for the week of September 25, or was it a spontaneous reaction on their part to the new rates. Burnham felt that the leadership was frankly concerned. He said the Cabinet had carefully considered these rates before putting them into effect and had even spent a total of ten hours on this subject alone at the final Cabinet meeting at which they were approved. Burnham said that he had told [Page 692] the labor leaders to do their own rates and schedules and that if they could come up with a better solution he was prepared to discuss it further. However, he is of the opinion that they will not be able to challenge the government’s computations. As another possibility he had also offered a cut-back in government assistance and subsidies to other social programs in order to reduce the contributions required for the Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund, and had identified free public education as one such program. At this suggestion one of the labor leaders responded by bouncing up and shouting “Good Christ, Prime Minister, No!” The Prime Minister allowed as how it was the first time anyone had ever called him Christ or implied that he was particularly good. The point was, according to Burnham, that something else would have to “give” if the scheduled payments for the Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund were reduced.

Prospects for Sugar and Rice

I then asked the Prime Minister whether or not he thought the sugar and rice harvests would be adversely affected by the weather conditions which had been prevailing. (The rains which normally stop in mid-July have continued and, as a consequence, the sugar harvest has been seriously delayed and the rice fields in many areas are still too wet to work though the grain is ready for harvest.) Burnham felt that rice might be a problem, but he was still hopeful that they would be able to get an acceptable harvest. As for sugar, the director of GUYSUCO (Guyana Sugar Corporation) had told him they could prolong the harvest season into late December and make up most of the shortfall that they had experienced in the first few weeks of the harvest.

The Case of Pastor Tidemann

I then raised with the Prime Minister a matter which had come to my attention since my return from home leave and consultation. An American Lutheran missionary named Paul Tidemann, who had been working in Guyana for some years, had recently been notified by the Ministry of Home Affairs that his visa would not be renewed. Tidemann and his wife are currently in the U.S. and the order would mean that they would not be permitted to return to Guyana to pick up their effects and pay their farewells to their parish. According to information available to the Embassy from unofficial sources the expulsion order on the Tidemanns was motivated because of his political efforts against the referendum held in July. (At the time he was Secretary of the Guyana Council of Churches which had actively opposed the referendum.) As such he had participated in many of their protest meetings, particularly an acrimonious one the group had had with the Deputy Prime Minister, during Burnham’s absence in Russia and North Korea in May.

[Page 693]

I outlined my understanding of the problem to the Prime Minister. I told him that I was not personally aware of all of Paul Tidemann’s political activities in the pre-referendum period. I felt, however, that the summary fashion in which the expulsion order had been issued could do potential harm to the relationship between our two governments, particularly if it were to receive wide publicity in the U.S. Furthermore, I said it was my understanding that the Tidemanns had done some excellent work since their arrival in Guyana both for their congregation and beyond that in terms of an extension program with which Paul Tidemann had been involved. The Prime Minister listened attentively to what I had to say. He admitted that the decision to issue the expulsion order had been cleared at the political level and mentioned that the Deputy Prime Minister had been particularly exercised as a result of his meeting with the Guyana Council of Churches. Burnham strongly implied that he had acquiesced in the issuance of the order due primarily to the Deputy Prime Minister’s insistence. He said that he would look into the matter personally and see what might be done. I told him that it was my understanding that the Tidemanns had planned to complete their mission in June of 1979 and that ideally they should be permitted to do that. However, if circumstances of which I was unaware dictated otherwise, at the very least they should be allowed to come back into the country to wind up their affairs and say a proper farewell to their congregation.


The discussion then turned to recent events in Nicaragua which obviously interested Prime Minister Burnham a great deal. I asked him what he thought of the situation and he replied that one of the difficulties for the opponents of Somoza was the absence of any clearly identified leader. There was no strong individual comparable to Castro in the opposition movement. Furthermore, he felt that Somoza had been wise in developing a loyal militia over the years whose fate was so closely associated with his own. Presumably, if he falls they do too. “Why did he have to be so greedy?” observed Burnham in reference to Somoza. “Couldn’t he have taken just a modest amount in terms of money and lands and have been satisfied with that? Why couldn’t he have shared just a bit of it?” I told the Prime Minister that I had had no experience in Central American affairs and that my acquaintanceship with the situation in Nicaragua had been derived principally from journalistic sources over the years. I observed, however, that if President Somoza were as intelligent and supple as the Prime Minister, he might not now be in the position in which he finds himself. At this, Burnham burst into laughter and with obvious reluctance, ended the session. (He had already kept his next appointment, the participants to the Commonwealth Science Conference, waiting for over fifteen [Page 694] minutes.) As he walked me to my car, he suggested that we get together soon again.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850157–0707. Confidential; Limdis. Drafted by Burke on September 19.
  2. The Israeli-Egyptian talks at Camp David began on September 17.
  3. Viron P. Vaky assumed his duties as Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs on July 21.
  4. See footnote 2, Document 279.
  5. Guyana received $26.75 million in total economic assistance from the United States in FY 1978, an increase from $6.33 million in FY 1977. (USAID Greenbook)
  6. In his speech, Burnham announced that the Guyanese development strategy would shift emphasis from infrastructure projects to diversification of agriculture and exploitation of Guyana’s natural resources. (Telegram 3313 from Georgetown, December 22, 1977; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770478–0666)
  7. The Embassy reported the results of the referendum on a bill to amend the Constitution, which the government won by 97 percent, in telegram 2273 from Georgetown, July 14. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780289–0194)
  8. In telegram 3250 from Georgetown, October 4, the Embassy reported that, in response to widespread power outages in April, the Guyanese Government purchased two high-speed turbine generators from the British. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780409–0575)
  9. Sir Lionel Luckhoo also represented Jim Jones and the People’s Temple.
  10. Trades Union Council. [Footnote is in the original.]