By Raffique Shah
April 04, 2018
He was the most sincere, humble, decent political leader I’ve known, Of course, mere mention of sincerity, humility and decency as being the foremost character traits of any politician, especially when he was the leader of a main party in any country, axiomatically infer that he was also a failure if success is measured by winning elections and holding on to power.
All of the above were true of Cheddi Jagan, Guyana’s first Chief Minister (in 1953, when the colony was named British Guiana), a patriot whose birth centenary passed very quietly on March 22. In fact, I, who considered Cheddi a friend and comrade, would have not remembered the occasion had my columnist colleague Ricky Singh not written about it.
Ricky noted that the pettiness that has always undermined Guyana’s politics was alive and as nasty as ever: incumbent President David Granger, whose grip on office is by the narrowest of margins—one seat—vetoed the issuance of a commemorative stamp to mark the birth of this gentle giant whose disarming smile and ease of immersing himself among the masses spanned 50 of the 79 years he lived, 28 of them walking in the wilderness of opposition.
One of the tragedies of our colonial history is that it is written or rewritten with unapologetic distortions such that heroes are portrayed as villains and self-serving egomaniacs who enriched themselves and their friends whilst wielding power are made to look like selfless patriots.
Worse, because we neither know nor care about our own history, most Caribbean people who belong to the post-Independence generations have no idea who freedom fighters like Jagan were. Hell, they know little or nothing about Dr Eric Williams or Dr Rudranath Capildeo, and the few of us alive who remember Caribbean stalwarts who fought for universal adult suffrage and independence—whether or not we liked them or agreed with their ideologies is immaterial—have already morphed into dinosaurs even as we live our last few years.
But back to Jagan: rising from poverty that was endemic to most colonies, he returned from studying in the USA and graduating as a dentist in 1943, and rather than focus on his profession and amassing wealth, which was easy to do, he almost immediately plunged into fighting for better living and working conditions for the poor. He formed the Political Affairs Committee whose members included his wife Janet and trade unionist Ashton Chase, and in 1947, he won a seat in the legislature as an independent.
He went on to woo other “freedom fighters” into forming the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), among them young lawyer Forbes Burnham and teacher/activist Sydney King (later Eusi Kwyana), forging a truly multi-ethnic, ideologically diverse party that swept the polls in 1953, winning 18 of 24 seats.
That Jagan and some of his comrades were self-declared communists at a time when Marxism was fashionable mattered not to the electorate. But it provoked a sledge-hammer response from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who sanctioned armed intervention by British troops, the suspension of the Constitution, dismissal of the 133-days-young Government, and the detention of several frontline PPP members.
Thus began an active campaign by British and US intelligence agencies to exploit the division of the Guyanese people along race-lines, a strategy that was widely employed in the Empire, but which had devastating effects in Guyana. The Afro- and Indo-Guyanese who had joined to give the PPP a commanding mandate in 1953, descended into a cauldron of ethnic strife and bloody violence that dealt a death blow to Jagan’s quest for unity.
Burnham broke with Jagan and two factions of the PPP contested the 1957 elections that were marred by racial violence. Jagan’s faction polled 47 percent of the votes and nine of 14 seats while Burnham’s faction secured 25 percent and three seats. So the British were again saddled with Jagan and the PPP. To cut a long story of electoral gerrymandering short, Britain introduced proportional representation in 1964 that enabled Burnham’s People’s National Congress to join with the obscure United Force to oust Jagan.
Robbed of his rightful place, Jagan would endure 28 years in opposition. He never lost his composure or succumbed to bitterness. Instead, he catalogued the sins of the US State Department, the CIA and Britain’s MI6 in a book “The West on Trial”, accusations that were later confirmed when secret documents were declassified, and he stoically bore his banishment from power as he traversed the region promoting the interests of the country he never ceased to love.
He would eventually win the 1992 elections convincingly (53 percent to the PNC’s 42 percent), and become President. But ill-health had set in and he died in office in 1997.
In his long political life, he was never accused of dishonesty or corruption, such was his integrity in public and private life. The same cannot be said of his foes, especially Burnham, and his PPP successors, many of whom stand accused of amassing personal wealth. In fact, there is hardly another politician in the entire region whose integrity is comparable with Jagan’s.
He and I disagreed over ideology: he was orthodox Marxist, almost slavishly loyal to the Kremlin, and I considered myself a New Age revolutionary with a free spirit anchored in the Caribbean. But I had enormous respect for Cheddi, for the simplicity of his lifestyle, his aversion to opulence, his dogged determination to engage even the superpowers in the battle for a better, prosperous Guyana.
A general salute for you, my friend.