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Cheddi Jagan

Father of the Nation

By Gary Girdhari

". . . and strange that an article like sugar as sweet and necessary for human existence should have occupied such crime and blood shed." Eric Williams.

"... most of us are conscious of one common denominator in our lives. And that is sugar. It is there that our history is rooted with blood and brutality. And bitter it has been." Cheddi Jagan.

The Honorable Cheddi B. Jagan, late President of the Republic of Guyana, has been called by many names — the ‘fire brand’ Marxist-Leninist socialist, communist, popular leader — but most appropriately, the Father of the Nation and Dean of (Caribbean) Socialist Politics.

On March 6. 1997, Dr. Cheddi Jagan died at the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. after suffering from complications arising out of a heart attack. He would have been 79 years old on March 22, 1997.

Jagan spent almost all of his adult life in politics, fighting relentlessly for the poor, disenfranchised and downtrodden — against many odds, including the might of imperialist Britain, USA and their local Guyanese reactionaries. Fully aware that the problem in Guyana politics is not racial but has a historical and class basis, he strived arduously to educate the people and especially those around him to understand the politics of race and class.

Cheddi Jagan was born on the 22 March, 1918 on the sugar estate of Port Mourant, Corentyne, Guyana. His parents were indentured immigrants from India, arriving in British Guiana at tender ages in 1901. His mother, Bachoni, remained illiterate and his father, Jagan, showed leadership qualities that enabled him to be promoted to ‘head driver’ or foreman.

Like other estate children, Cheddi Jagan spent his early days as a ‘normal’ child. He attended the Port Mourant Primary School followed by Persaud’s Secondary. His brilliance qualified him for the premier school, Queen’s College, in Georgetown, having won the highly competitive County Scholarship. There, he obtained the Oxford and Cambridge Certificate.

At Port Mourant, he apprenticed as a tailor and at Queens College he excelled in cricket. His parents must have been progressive since they sent him off at age 18 to the USA with $500.00 for further studies — this kind of act was rare if not unknown for the sugar workers.

He enrolled at the ‘black’ Howard University for pre-dental studies. In 1938, he moved to North Western University in Chicago, graduating 1942 in dentistry. Concurrently, he did a Bachelor’s degree in the Social Sciences. Cheddi met and fell in love with Janet Rosenberg, a nurse and medical proof-reader. They were married during a simple ceremony in August 1943 amidst protests from the parents of both newly weds. Shortly after in October that year, Cheddi returned to Guyana (Janet to follow after ‘sweet soap’ of his parents) to set up a dental practice which was established at 69 Main Street, Georgetown. He was an superb dentist and he excelled in his profession for the next six years.

Jagan’s experiences in the USA left permanent impressions on his personality. He observed the problems of blacks, poverty, discrimination; and his ‘eyes were opened’ to the problems of the working people of British Guiana, for he soon became actively involved.

In 1946, together with his wife Janet, Trade Unionists H.J.M. Hubbard and Ashton Chase, the Political Affairs Committee was formed. The P.A.C. which was the precursor of the Peoples Progressive Party was the first structured political organization in Guiana with the primary aim of looking after the interests of the working class.

In 1947, Jagan contested the general election as an independent candidate and won a seat (Central Demerara district) in the Legislative Council, the halls of which he graced for 50 years. He became the President of the Sawmill Workers Union in 1949. In 1950, the People Progressive Party, a broad-based mass party, was formed, the leading members, all young and radical in their outlook. Cheddi was Leader, Janet, General Secretary and Forbes Burnham (deceased) of international notoriety was Chairman, usurping the position of Ashton Chase. Very shortly after, the P.P.P. agitated and won Adult Suffrage (after the Waddington Commission). At the 1953 general election, the P.P.P. acquired an overwhelming majority (18 out of 24) of seats against the mainly East Indian and African upper and middle class adversaries.

The rhetoric of the young, vibrant and progressives in the P.P.P. became a cause for concern, and the height of the Cold War evoked the wrath of the Colonial Powers. After 133 days in office, the British government, ably encouraged by the local reactionaries and ‘stooges’, suspended the constitution of British Guiana. The P.P.P. Ministers were removed from office. House arrests and jail became common place as the member broke the unreasonable and unfair restrictive orders. It was during this time that Martin Carter penned his revolutionary Poems of Resistance. Many were jailed, including Cheddi and Janet. Gunboat diplomacy was the order of the day and British soldiers ‘kept the peace’. The imposed Interim Government established an ignominious period of ‘marking time’.

Jagan (in the company of Burnham) traveled to India to seek comfort, guidance and assistance. They visited the U.K. to present their case for the removal of the restrictive orders and a return to a parliamentary state.

The strategy of ‘divide and rule’ was adopted by the combined powers and ‘race’ was injected into Guiana politics. Burnham sold out. When some leading members of the P.P.P. were incarcerated, Burnham sought to take over the leadership at the infamous ‘Metropole’ meeting. Despite many overtures by Jagan for rapprochement and cohesiveness, Burnham remained adamant; and he engineered a split in the P.P.P. which eventually came to full fruition in 1955. The "opportunist, racist and demagogue" Burnham led a Burnhamite faction and Jagan the Jaganite faction of the P.P.P.

In the 1957 election, Jagan won 9 out of 14 seats. Again in 1961, he received an overwhelming mandate against his main opponent, Burnham who by now had formed the Peoples National Congress. The working class base was thus shattered and this resulted in the demise and ruination of Guyana — very well orchestrated by local and foreign interests.

Cheddi Jagan’s primary focus was political independence for Guyana. The wind of change was blowing across Africa and the Caribbean. However, Britain and the USA opposed granting independence under the "pro-Communist, Marxist" with a "socialist economy"; hence, a complicity among Britain, USA and the CIA saw destabilizing efforts to remove Jagan from office — at all costs. A number of strikes, riots, burning and looting were finagled and masterminded by foreign-backed unions — using scapegoats of the "budget" in 1962 and the "labour relations bill" in 1963. By this time, Peter D’Aguiar, representing business, had formed the United Force, and joined Burnham (the incongruity of an arch capitalist and a born again ‘socialist’) to rout Jagan regardless of the consequences. Jagan’s yearning for independence encouraged him to participate in the Constitutional Conference in London when the dishonorable Duncan Sandys refused a date for independence and instead imposed a new system of proportional representation (PR) — especially designed to disadvantage and remove Jagan. The P.P.P. nevertheless obtained the highest percentage of votes but with no outright majority. Thus, the unholy alliance of the antipodal Burnham/D’Aguiar nexus formed a Coalition government because of their combined majority of seats. Burnham became the Prime Minister of the independent Guyana in 1966.

Forbes Burnham continued to ‘win’ a series of elections after elaborate and shameless frauds and riggings, all with the full knowledge and compliance of the powers that supported his rise to power. He was successful in creating a demonizing system where fear and coercion, ‘wire taps and physical surveillance’, and political intimidation reigned high. He postured as a power drunk monster dictator. He and the P.N.C. wrecked Guyana during 28 years of misrule, corruption and squandermania (thanks to Duncan Sandys and other operatives), and made most Guyanese the laughing stock of the Caribbean, losing their worth and self-esteem.

"For a man to fight and come back after all this time mean that he gat more guts than calabash’ was the voice of an elderly Black man during a roving TV interview in Guyana covering Jagan’s death. The ‘come back kid’ politician Cheddi and the P.P.P. won the election in 1992 at the end of the Cold War era, when a fair election was overseen by American advocates like President Jimmy Carter. Jagan was vindicated. Secret documents detailing how his early government was subverted by the so-called liberal Kennedy are still kept sealed by the State Department in Washington, although the documents should be declassified after 30 years — presumably because the "papers are a smoking gun" not "worth the embarrassment". Historian and former advisor to John F. Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger apologetically recanted that they "misunderstood the whole struggle down there," that he (Jagan) was not "some great menace" and "wasn’t a Communist".

Jagan persevered, resolute, honest, fair, popular, never deviating from his underlying conviction to fight for the poor, to eradicate poverty, disease and illiteracy.

His short tenure as President of Guyana saw tremendous changes for the better. Self esteem and confidence returned. His ‘lean’ government and pragmatic approaches in governance have paid off. Infrastructural developments, production in all aspects of the economy are on the rise, and corruption is approaching zero.

Some say that Cheddi Jagan mellowed in later years. But his dialectic approach, after the end of the Cold War, suggested pragmatism, constrained, as we know, by heavy debt burden inherited from the previous regime. He was instrumental in obtaining debt write-offs and placed Guyana once again on the road to economic recovery. Regrettably, he needed more time to have accomplished his dreams and ideals. "The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it." And one day, history will record Cheddi Jagan among the really great men of our times.

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