GUYANA UNDER SIEGE
Modern Martyr and Exemplar of the New Caribbean
|by Tim Hector|
Dr. Cheddi Jagan (and his wife Janet Jagan) had already been paid tribute by me, on Friday September 24, 1993, when I saluted them on their 50th wedding anniversary on August 5th, 1993 I wrote then, this:
"There are few inter-racial couples anywhere in the world celebrating 50 years of marriage. That in itself is notable. That the Jagans were and are an amazing couple, living symbols of undying love, a love made deeper by their undying commitment to social justice makes them a model in an age riven with strife, of which they themselves have seen more than enough, and have themselves been victims. Especially so, where divorce is the rule rather than the exception, an inter-racial marriage surviving what the Jagans have survived, with love undiminished, and the partnership stronger than when it began is cause for universal rejoicing."
Jagan was by far and away one of the most significant individuals, and equally by far and away one of the most amazing political figures, not just in the history of the Caribbean, but in the world.
Few men, anywhere in this great globe, have suffered more than Cheddi Jagan at the hands of the Great Powers, the United States, the United Kingdom, and I will surprise you, the Soviet Union, more than has Cheddi Jagan. He found the world, in East and West, arraigned against him, and yet he never wavered. Always soldiered on. He was a partisan of socialism soviet style. He apologised for the Soviet Union even when it was unkind to him, and did not come to his rescue. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed, Jagan did not collapse, his faith in "socialism" as he saw it and understood remained as firm as ever, even in the face of capitalist triumphalism.
But I wish to come to another point. After being twice removed from power by the British and the Americans, after mind you, winning free and fair elections, there was not the slightest trace of bitterness or recrimination against those who had harmed him grievously. I hold the view, that Jagan, like so many of us in the Caribbean had a deep respect and regard for the Americans and British, despite their unrelenting anti-Caribbeanism, and their particular cruel hostilities to him. I will substantiate the point more fully. For now let me say, that Jagan's model for most of the things he had done were not things Soviet, but always events and things American or British. I hasten to add, it is not a contradiction. It is Caribbean, in and of itself. Britain and America have exercised most influence upon us historically, and it is to that history we turn and return, whether Indian or African. I shall briefly elaborate later.
Now a personal anecdote. I participated in a session in Guyana in a preliminary meeting for the Sixth Pan African Congress. One of the young black leaders of the Caribbean, (who shall remain nameless) taunted Cheddi Jagan to the point of ridicule, because he was going to contest the upcoming rigged elections. He was made out to be a fool, a Sisyphian fool, rolling a big stone up a huge hill knowing that the stone would roll down again. And he would have to start all over. Jagan took it. In the laughter aroused, no one bothered to answer Jagan's question in rejoinder: What was the alternative?
I walked away from the meeting, rushed to the bathroom, and for one of the few times in my life since a grown man, I cried. I cried because my own Afro-Caribbean people, who had known much suffering, more than enough of injustice of the bitterest kind, had conspired with the British and Americans to destabilise and ruin a fine man. Worse my own colleagues were taunting this historical figure, the butt of American and British cruelty, for having been denied his just due - victory in an election. Democracy itself was mocked. And here we were, the most conscious, the most advanced, ridiculing the victim - Cheddi Jagan. Jagan through it all kept his head erect. There was no intemperance, though hurt.
Jagan did not even bother to respond to those hot-heads, who using popular jargon of the time, without thought, but sounding hip, urged "armed struggle" as the only solution to overcoming the rigged elections. Jagan knew that such "armed struggle" would begin and end as a race war.
He had no alternative. Face every rigged election, win, and have the victory aborted by the machinations of external powers allied to internal agents, exploiting black, not racism, but racialism. That is, the appeal to support one's own race in all things, however wrong. Jagan endured. In the end after 28 long years in the wilderness, he triumphed. It is a monument to more than non-violence. It is the result of an unbreakable belief in the justice of his own cause. And more startlingly so, Jagan had this belief in the justice of his own cause at a time when, it was intellectually fashionable for intellectuals of all stripes to mock the idea of 'causes'. Jagan had a cause, and saw it through, after 28 years in the wilderness.
I am not done on this theme yet. CARICOM, the late great Michael Manley inclusive, watched Burnham rig election after election in Guyana. It did not even occur to them, that this undermined CARICOM itself altogether. For any community that cannot discipline its own members, to abide by basic principles, and which community allows breaches of its own most basic tenets - free elections - loses its own integrity as a community. That Burnham was not put out of CARICOM, compromised CARICOM. They accommodated ceaselessly to the degeneration which Burnham brought about in Guyana. History will not absolve them.
Jagan was to return to the councils of CARICOM with malice towards none. That is truly amazing. More than that, despite all the humiliation that Burnham heaped on him during his 28 year sojourn in the wilderness, not even his worst enemies, have ever accused him of acting vengefully to those who had rivalled him, and Guyana as well. He sought no revenge. He jailed no one. He prosecuted none. Even prosecution would have opened old racial wounds, and created new ones. Like Mandela he chose reconciliation over settling scores. Few have accorded this most deserving accolade to Cheddi Jagan.
Nor is this to be mistaken for tolerance of Burnham's corruption. The opposite is true.
Ian McDonald, one of the most sensitive men in the region, a writer and poet of a high order, had this to say in an Editorial in Starbroek News: Cheddi Jagan "was at all times, without compromise, a man of the people, completely free the taint of corruption, dedicating his life to the cause. He will be remembered by us all as an honest, decent man, lacking in pretentiousness and malice, available always to the simplest and humblest, happy in his dedication. It was a noble life."
It was not just a noble life, but in historical terms, Cheddi Jagan deserves the title: Modern Martyr and Exemplar of the new Caribbean.
That categorisation puts Cheddi in a very special category of Third World figures. It ranks him with Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala, Moussdegh of Iran, Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic and Salvador Allende of Chile. Political figures democratically elected but overthrown by the United States or Britain, or both. Allende, rather than go down in defeat, shot himself in a most heroic gesture. Jagan however heads the class, because he was overthrown while he was fighting to free (British) Guyana and gain independence. Jagan heads the class, because twice overthrown, twice he returned to power - the last time after more than a quarter of a century in the wilderness. It is an unimpeachable record of faith, patience, strength of mind and invincibility of character, all executed with the most admirable, but unpretentious dignity.
There are those always out to mock Third World figures who claim it is mimic even comic that Jagan the 'Soviet socialist' died at the American Walter Reed Hospital. They behave as if Cheddi had a choice to go to 'socialist' Moscow but chose 'capitalist' Walter Reed in America. The truth of the matter is, that Jagan's unmatched political integrity compelled the mighty United States to do some small penance for its horrible crimes against Cheddi Jagan and Guyana, and so they made the gesture of offering him Walter Reed Hospital at his end. He had shamed mighty America and exposed that they were not about promoting Democracy abroad, at all. For whatever else Jagan was, his democratic instincts and conscious democratic practice were deep, abiding and thorough-going. No one ever associated him with repressive legislation. On the contrary, he could always be associated with legislation which expanded democratic space. In fact, it was not Jagan who was anti-American, it was America which was anti-Jagan and anti-Caribbean in its anti-democratic policies, promoting racialist demagogues and abominable and military pintos as bulwarks against social justice. Jagan then, like the great Indian Chief Hatuey of old, is a martyr and exemplar of a new Caribbean still struggling to be born after a long, too long gestation. He is eternal proof of the titanic obstacles put in the Caribbean's way, and of our refusal to surrender, regardless. He was not the end of an era. He is a foundation pillar for the beginning of a truly Caribbean era, in a Regional State.
Who then was this man Cheddi Jagan. He says of himself "I know very little about my ancestors of India. I presume they were no different from the millions of other peasants to whom it did not matter whether this country was ruled by a Hindu Raja, or a Moghul Nowab, or the British Government."
Then again Jagan says: "My mother relates that she had to work from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. manuring sugarcane in the fields for 8 cents per day, and also three times per week from midnight to 6 a.m. fetching fine bagasse into the factory for 4 cents for the 6 hour period. Her total take home pay was about 60 cents per week. She often recalled how difficult those days were: "Bhaiya, ahwee proper punish" (Brother, we really suffered). My mother had a way of calling me by the all-inclusive term "brother" a common practice among Indians."
And then there was this which stunned me from Cheddi Jagan, "My parents were married in 1909 when my father was about ten years old and my mother slightly younger .... they continued to live separately until about the age of sixteen, when my mother moved in, as was the custom, with her in-laws. For my mother this was a step to slightly higher status - midway between a room in the plantation range and a separate home. Home in this case meant a house of two rooms, with two windows and a door, a mud floor, and a troolie grass roof. Khatiyas (plaited ropes on wooden cross-bars and legs) and boards were the improvised beds".
It was against such a man, born in so humble origins on March 22, 1918, that the almighty power of the United States and Britain was hurled, not once, but twice at least. This earnest, handsome man, had nothing but the tenacity of his own firmly held beliefs to stand against such crushing power. He was not crushed, and if crushed, he rose. And not once, but twice. Once in 1957 and again in 1992.
But pause a while. I want to suggest to you that the essence of Cheddi Jagan's being - was his peasant origin. He had a peasant's tenacity in the face of flood or drought.
Secondly, born dirt poor, he was intent on eradicating poverty. He embraced socialism, for it and it alone, is the only theory produced in humankind's long sojourn beneath the stars which aims at eradicating poverty, not by welfare and charity, but by the poor inheriting the earth and the fruits thereof. Cheddi Jagan shares with Michael Manley - born to privilege and ease unlike Cheddi - the accolade that they were the two English-speaking Caribbean leaders, most intent, persistent and consistent on eradicating poverty. Jagan knew too, what it was, to leave secondary school in 1935 with all the requisite qualifications, and not be able to get a simple civil service job, which was his due by merit, because he was Indian.
Thirdly Cheddi shows in the autobiographical passages quoted above that however disrupted the civilisation that spawned him was by Indian indentured labour, it persevered in its settled ways in the Caribbean. His mother and father were married at age ten (10) as "was the custom" down the ages. Cheddi himself was to rebel against this settled way of being and behaviour and himself marry, a white, Jewish American, not by arrangement, but by choice and for love. The man who had inherited the tenacity of the tenacious Indian peasantry since mediaeval times and before, was also a thoroughly modern person, capable of breaking absolutely with old ways, when they did not meet the litmus test of reason. He was a West Indian romantic, and rebel, incorporating into himself the highest ideological traditions of western civilisation.
He lived in the United States during the McCarthy Inquisition. He saw many suffer, and he saw at first hand the cruel contradiction of the ideal of freedom of thought, and the totalitarian drumming of all American citizens into line, which the McCarthy era symbolises. To differ from the ideology of the 'Market', was to be unpatriotic, indeed, in the word of the time "un-American". Cheddi, as a democrat, repudiated this root and branch.
Especially for the young I want now to point out the policies and programmes which Jagan pursued, in Guyana, in 1953 and 1961 in particular which led to his removal by the British and then the Americans under Kennedy.
In his 133 days in power in 1953, before the British used force to remove him by gun-boat, Jagan's PPP sought to bring all schools under the supervision of government and local education committees; to reform local government, so that voting was without property qualifications and replace it with universal suffrage; to appoint working people to government boards and committees; to revise the fees of government medical officers in order to make medical care more available to the poor; to provide more scholarships; to bring about social security and workmen's compensation; to improve drainage and irrigation; to make available uncultivated lands for cultivation, to repeal the Undesirable Publications Act, in other words, to promote freedom of thought.
On the very day that British troops landed in Guyana, Thursday, October 8, 1953, the Labour Relations Bill, by which employers in Guyana were to be required by law to negotiate with the trade union or unions enjoying majority support of the workers was being debated. This simple measure, common practice today in the Caribbean, was deemed "communist". As was all the other reforms which Jagan initiated deemed communist. Only in a backward plantation society were they even reformist. Jagan was quick to point out that this majority support by workers was to be determined by a procedure "modelled upon that of the U.S. National Labour Relations Act." America was always the model. I could quote innumerable examples where the justification for anything Jagan did was never the Soviet Union, but always, America, Britain, or sometimes Canada.
In the latter years, myself and other Caribbean leftists would anticipate every Jagan speech, knowing that it was steeped through and through in a painstaking analysis of American policy starting from the Marshall Plan, the Good Neighbour Policy, the Alliance for Progress, down to CBI and up to NAFTA, with reference to large policy and minor details. It was America more than anything else, and by no means the Soviet Union, which had shaped Jagan's being, perceptions and practices. It was America that made Jagan its adversary.
And now I will not end as others have. Some self-imposed silence has prevented all eulogists from mentioning the Burnham years. Apparently, us Afro-Caribbeans want and need to pretend that it did not happen. It did. As in Antigua, officialdom hailed Jagan, and the wordsmith carried on waxing meaningless on his hillock of words. They forgot they banned Jagan from coming here, no doubt because their friend Burnham had rigged elections against him. They forgot too, that they gave the Americans the green light to make Jagan scream "uncle". He never did.
Burnham not only rigged elections, not only transformed nationalised property into a cesspool of corruption, he degraded Guyana, and with it the Caribbean. I call to the witness stand, none other than one of the greatest of all witnesses to the human condition in the Caribbean. He is the non-pareil Martin Carter, poet laureate of the Caribbean struggle.
In bearing witness Martin Carter said that Burnham's party, "The PNC's method of ensuring self-perpetuation in power consists of indulging in a deliberate policy of degrading people. And the reasoning behind this is that degraded people are incapable of effective resistance."
Martin Carter then proceeded to itemise some of the ingredients in this recipe of degradation, the rigging of elections, the reduction of normally honest people to a norm of cheating and lying, the regime's monopoly control of:
"Mass media in which the very language used is perversion; facts falsified; threats against individuals and groups openly advertised; internal events of significance ignored; local events of significance suppressed, all contributing to the whole process of assault on moral and intellectual honesty, one end of which is to make mental independence a crime, and mental subservience to the regime the highest qualification in the land."
The formula was to appear elsewhere in the degraded Caribbean. Need I say more, or where?
This degradation had reduced people to the point where, as Martin Carter with remarkable poetic economy, wrote:
We fail to curse. Our fury pleads."
But poet Martin Carter hoped that
"In the shame of knowledge
of our vileness, we shall fight"
Jagan fought, and fought, and fought.
But there was one great failure. Jagan failed to unite the PPP with Walter Rodney's WPA. He missed the only opportunity since 1964 to re-unite the races, Indian and African, after the CIA induced tumult of race rioting in 1963-64. In consequence his party, the PPP, did not renew itself, after its entire front ranks had deserted to Burnham in the years of vileness. To be fair, my friends, colleagues, brothers and sisters in the WPA no doubt made differences into irreconcilables. An historic opportunity was missed. Ah! The pity of it.
And now finally what? The races are as far a part as ever in Guyana. Structural adjustment, no doubt, intensified the competition between the races for a larger slice of a greatly reduced cake. Racialism intensified.
No doubt too, Cheddi wanted to justify and vindicate himself and the PPP and would not extend himself beyond the PPP "civic" whom he thought were far more malleable than the WPA. An historic moment was missed. Will his death re-open that new possibility?
I took little interest in what Cheddi Jagan's administration did coming to power as he did, required to continue an IMF Programme. I had hoped that he would have seen the alternative. The establishment of one industrial co-operative, one service sector co-op, and one agricultural co-op involving Indians and Africans in whatever ration at the start. Even on the Robert Owen model, the co-ops could have been a new departure. Cheddi himself would have had to bring his enormous prestige, his character "completely free of the taint of corruption, his "unpretentiousness without malice", his "availability to the simplest and the humblest" to that great enterprise. Had he done so he would have laid unshakeable foundations for Guyana to become the first truly Co-operative Republic in the hemisphere. But that was not to be.
Cheddi Jagan however, lived a noble life, personally and politically (and for him and Janet, the personal was the political, in the best sense of that term). Whatever his failures, it remains a fact incontestable, that Cheddi Jagan, the martyr and exemplar of the new Caribbean, lived a noble life. Of few, if any, that can be said in the Caribbean, among those who held state power. The big names of the western world, Winston Churchhill and Harold MacMillan, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Dean Rusk had all conspired against him backed by their enormous Intelligence and military machines. Jagan resisted, retreated but never surrendered. Hail the Man among men.
|March 11, 1977||[Reprinted from|
© 2001 Guyanaundersiege.com