When Jonestown was about a South American border dispute, not mass death

The Washington Post/July 28, 2015

By Nick Miroff

Then as now, Guyana's border dispute with Venezuela was simmering in 1974 when leaders of the former British colony thought they had found a solution to the conflict with their more-powerful, oil-rich neighbor.

A wealthy, well-connected American preacher wanted to set up a socialist commune in their country, and he was willing to put it right next to the boundary with Venezuela. He was the Rev. Jim Jones.

Impoverished and recently independent Guyana had little means to defend itself then, and it had already faced a bloody secessionist uprising in another area of the vast Essequibo jungle region claimed by Venezuela.

Venezuelan fortune-seekers were crossing the border to hunt for gold, timber and other minerals, with no one to stop them.

Now came this messianic American preacher, bearing gifts, avowing communal socialism and conveniently offering to act as a deterrent to the Venezuelans, who might think twice about future incursions if the consequences meant potential harm to a colony of U.S. citizens.

That's how the "Peoples Temple Agricultural Project" — Jonestown — brought short-lived detente to the Essequibo conflict in the mid-1970s.

Today the dispute is flaring up again, with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro vowing to annex the Essequibo — an area that encompasses two-thirds of Guyana — and a special meeting of South American heads of state planned for next month to address the dispute.

Last week, Guyana's newly elected president, David Granger, visited Washington and met with Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for the Western Hemisphere, appealing for help.

"Guyana is facing a challenge to its survival by a larger state," Granger told an audience at the Defense Department's Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies.

"The present threat, if not resolved promptly, if not resolved permanently, if not resolved peacefully, could lead to deterioration of the security situation in the entire Caribbean and on the northern tier of the South American continent," he said.

The Essequibo dispute has a long history, but it has been whipped up at periodic moments of political opportunity. It's happening now because Exxon Mobil just discovered oil off the coast of the Essequibo through a deal with Guyana, and Granger's win unseated the leftist political party in Georgetown that had been an ally of Maduro and his late predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

In the Jonestown era, it was triggered by Guyana's 1966 independence from Britain.

After recognizing an 1899 arbitration ruling in Paris that essentially gave the Essequibo to British Guyana and granted Venezuela unchallenged authority over the more-valuable Orinoco River basin, the dispute was effectively settled for six decades. But Venezuela challenged the ruling in 1962 at a moment of swelling nationalism, with its neighbor on the verge of independence.

Ironically, it was Caracas at the time that was wary of the leftist Guyanese leader Forbes Burnham and his authoritarian version of socialism, the same thing that made Guyana appealing to the fiery preacher from the San Francisco Peoples Temple.

Jones leased the land, which had poor soil and no water access, from the Guyanese government in 1974. But its location far from Guyana's capital, Georgetown, gave him free rein to set up his own "state within a state," and his cult followers poured in, along with weapons and drugs.

Although he's remembered today as a madman and embodiment of 1960s counter-culturalism gone bad, Jones was a major public figure in California at the time, praised by politicians for his vision of racial integration and equality.

A fire-and-brimstone-spewing revivalist from Indiana, Jones settled in San Francisco and deployed his small army of followers to help get George Moscone elected mayor in 1975 and Harvey Milk as city supervisor. He was rewarded by being named head of the city's housing authority.

Over the next year, Jones met with the likes of Walter Mondale, Dianne Feinstein and Rosalynn Carter. He wore dark sunglasses at all times and traveled with a large security detail.

In 1976, Jones was honored at a San Francisco banquet, with then-Assemblyman Willie Brown toasting him as "a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein and Chairman Mao."

But Jones was under scrutiny from criminal investigators, the IRS and reporters, who were learning from cult defectors what was really going on. Jones left the Unites States for good in July 1977 to build his kingdom in the Essequibo, bringing hundreds of followers.

During the next year, Jonestown grew to nearly 1,000 residents as it morphed into a deranged South American cult-camp, then descended into mass murder and infanticide.

According to some accounts, Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez had been planning to visit Guyana and make a stop in Jonestown in October 1978, at a moment of improving relations and renewed optimism for a negotiated settlement. But Perez canceled the trip, and a month later, the Jonestown kitchens were brewing vats of cyanide-laced fruit punch.

The 914 Americans who died Nov. 18, 1978, at Jonestown and the nearby airstrip — including Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.) — constituted the largest one-day loss of U.S. civilian lives before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

And, astoundingly, it wasn't the end of Guyana's attempt to create a buffer in the Essequibo.

A year after the Jonestown massacre, U.S. groups and the Guyanese government hatched a plan to resettle the camp with anti-communist Hmong refugees from the wars of Southeast Asia.

That plan was abandoned, as well, and the Jonestown site was once more left to the Essequibo jungle.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.

Educational DVDs and Videos