Guyana: My First Love
Pursuing the ideal of just, wise and best governance in ones country of birth or wherever one resides is a duty.
by Paul Nehru Tennassee
Guyana Journal, July 2008
Each of us has a story to tell. I am pleased that I was invited to share a few memories. I salute all Corentyne High School (CHS; now Chandisingh
) graduates on this seventieth anniversary. Together, we embrace the extraordinary contribution of J.C. Chandisingh.
Politicization of childhood
My first exposure to politics was in 1953 when the British invaded Guyana. British troops raided my familys store on James Street, Albouystown, located under the house of Dr. Lachmansingh, a well known political figure. At the time, my father was in the Essequibo, engaged in political activities. The soldiers occupied our store and took me and my mother to our home on Hill Street. They searched our home allegedly for subversive literature. On a cue from a Guyanese policeman, my mother was able to take the political literature to the outdoor toilet.
Subsequently, my family moved to Bartica and continued in business. I often accompanied my father who also used a boat with an outboard motor to sell goods in the interior. This provided an opportunity to meet Amerindo-Guyanese. In the process, I developed a fascination with the Essequibo and frequently attended political meetings there. I met many political leaders of those years. My family exited Bartica following a tragedy. We moved to Kitty from where I often visited Wismar-Mackenzie.
CHS: Curricula & co-curricula activities
During 1960-1964, I attended CHS when we lived at Whim, Alness and Kilmarnock. I was a debater at CHS Literary & Debating Society. (This stood me in good stead in 1970 when I spoke at the Oxford Union Debating Society and obtained life membership.) During my latter year at CHS, I was appointed Youth Secretary of a political party at Strand Hotel in New Amsterdam and participated in the 1964 elections.
I was a bit rebellious at CHS but, as I recalled, I reformed. Ms. Sankar assisted me, free of charge, for extra lessons at her home opposite Mootoo photo studio at Rose Hall. It contributed to my success in obtaining three subjects at GCE, a year ahead of the time slated for our final examination.
At Alness, I was frequently in the company of my father (he is a graduate of CHS) and my foster grandfather. They successfully organized a local government election for Alness-Ulverston-Salton with a multiracial team. It included Grey, Crawford, Harnarine and others. I loved going to the village office where my father was the overseer, and my foster grandfather, the chairman of the council. I memorized many of the local government by-laws.
There was also a big, violent clash between a village gang and citizens. One night, on the major road, there was a decisive physical battle with quite a few casualties. The citizens defeated the gang members and they exited the villages. The citizens-villagers also organized a multiracial Home Guard to ensure that during the racial strife of the 1960s, outsiders did not enter the village to set fire under houses of one or other race group in order to incite inter-racial violence.
A letter that made a difference
In 1969, I was one of three Guyanese awarded scholarships to study in Venezuela. I did not know a word of Spanish. In later years, I wrote a book on the history of the Venezuelan Petroleum Workers & Their Struggle for Democracy and lectured at the Central University. Together with the scholarship, my father gave me a letter of introduction to Emilio Maspero, an Argentinean, who was Secretary General of the Confederation of Latin American Workers (CLAT) headquartered in Caracas.
Emilio became my mentor, friend, continental leader and a decisive influence at an important conjuncture in my development. I worked tirelessly with him and others since 1969 to advance the interests of working families, Latin American and Caribbean nationalism and advocated for a Latin American-Caribbean Community of Nations. My Guyanese patriotism was deepened and placed in a larger geo-political context.
He facilitated my training with a generation of trade union leaders from Mexico to Chile, who today are all leaders of their organizations and I continue to be their friend and advisor on labor and global governance institutions. He also supported me to be elected to the CLAT Executive Committee in Argentina in 1989 and Brazil in 1993; General Secretary of the Caribbean Workers Council in 1984 in Antigua & Barbuda; and Deputy Director of the Caribbean Institute of Social Formation in Curacao. These offices opened opportunities for me to train numerous trade union leaders in twenty-five countries in the English, French, Spanish & Dutch speaking Caribbean. Many today lead their organizations and keep in touch.
Additionally, we dedicated to building bridges between the Caribbean and Spanish/Portuguese Latin America. The CLAT unflinchingly supported our cause for free and fair elections in Guyana during 1982-1992.
Back to the homeland
In 1979, I was in Canada pursuing a PhD. There, I co-founded the Guyanese Research and Representation Services/Front for Democratic Trade Unionism and edited the Guyana Forum. We also organized groups in New York and Washington DC. As I taught and studied in Toronto, GRRS/Guyana Forum led campaigns for democracy in Guyana. Overseas Guyanese played a very important role.
In 1982, I abandoned the PhD Program and returned to Guyana to accept a job at UG. Within two months, my contract was terminated. On April 15, 1982, I co-founded a socio-political movement that attracted majorly young people and a significant number of older folks. They were very courageous, idealistic and committed to Guyana. We campaigned locally and externally and mobilized in the grassroots for free and fair elections in Guyana.
Dr. Festus Brotherson wrote (based on a conversation with Robert Corbin) that we received double figures in the 1985 elections, though this was not reflected in the official results in an election in which the military seized the ballots. Before and after the 1985 elections, we called for a United Front.
A few days after the 1985 electoral fraud, we prepared an analysis of United Fronts in Latina America and the Philippines and lobbied the then opposition political parties to adopt a new strategy. We advocated for a consensus candidate and argued for a paradigm shift from the cold war mode of capitalism vs. socialism to free and fair elections vs. dictatorship. The Patriotic Coalition for Democracy (PCD) was founded in 1986 on a single issue: free and fair elections. It remains the longest political united front in the history of Guyana. Many political parties contributed to its success.
The positions I held in the CLAT during these years provided me with mobility, access to leaderships and networks across the Americas, Europe and the world. These assets were invaluable for our effective national and international campaigns for free and fair elections.
There were many very distasteful experiences during 1982-1992. One that stands out occurred in 1984. I was detained at the airport until late at night, blindfolded and taken to a cell and interrogated for five days and nights. Young leaders of our movement fearlessly picketed the Commissioner of Polices home. They were locked up and beaten badly. We received very significant international solidarity.
In my life, I continue to nurture a deep emotional attachment to Guyanese across our land-space and in various parts of the world. Pursuing the ideal of just, wise and best governance in ones country of birth or wherever one resides is a duty. However, one should not condition ones contributions to demands or expectations for personal rewards or political office. Commitment to a pure ideal will not betray anyone.
My ancestry is traced to India and Ireland and/or Scotland. My foster paternal grandfather was W.V. Tennassee. My natural, paternal grandfather was David Shields who I met for the first time in 1970. He told me his story. My maternal, great grandfather returned to Chennai, India. while my maternal grandparents (Joe and Chinmah Peters) left Enmore plantation in April 1924 and moved to Whim Village on the Corentyne. This bi-racial ancestry confirms the thesis of Jose Vasconcelos that a cosmic race is emerging in the Americas. In my mind and psyche, I am originally from Guyana.