Dr. Cheddi Jagan
Founder of the People's Progressive Party
Father of the Guyanese Nation
The year was 1918, when on March 22, in a rural Guyanese village called Port Mourant, the remarkable life of an ordinary sugar worker's son began.
His name was Cheddi Jagan and before his time would be over he would change the course of his country's history by first liberating it from British colonial domination, then by waging a twenty-eight year long struggle for the restoration of freedom and democracy, and finally by ascending to the Presidency as Guyana's first democratically elected Head of State.
Just the year before, labour migration from India to British Guiana (now known as Guyana) had ended. Sugar plantation companies which dominated the political, social and economic life of the colony had drawn their labour force mainly from British India. Jagan's parents were among them. He was born on a sugar plantation and his early life was dominated by his parents struggle to ensure that he would not remain on one.
Intelligence and hard work marked him out as an able student. After attending primary school in his home village, he began at the age of 15 years to attend Queen's College, the leading boys' school in the capital, Georgetown. Leaving two years later, having passed the school certificate examinations, his father wanted him to study law but the expense of studying in England put this beyond his reach. Economic realities suggested Howard University, Washington DC, and dentistry. The seven years he would spend in the United States transformed him from someone with a romantic view of politics, an interest in the writings of Gandhi and the independence movement in India (the land of his grandparents), into a Marxist.
His two years in Washington DC doing his pre-med studies opened his eyes to the condition of African Americans and the realities of legally enforced segregation in the south. Living in Chicago, where he attended Northwestern University, and briefly in New York City, studying social sciences and the writings of socialist thinkers broadened his education. He qualified as a dentist in 1942 by which time he had met his wife, Janet Rosenberg. Neither of their families approved of their marriage in 1943. He returned to Guyana in October 1943 and Janet followed him a few months later.
In Guyana, he was immediately concerned over the economic and social conditions of the people and saw the need for political change. His search for broader political involvement took him to the post of treasurer of the Man-Power Citizens' Association, effectively the first trade union for sugar estate workers. However, internal differences led to Jagan founding the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) in 1946 with his wife and two young trade unionists, Jocelyn Hubbard and Ashton Chase.
In 1947, contesting as an independent, Jagan won a seat in the Legislative Council. The absence of organised political parties and a restricted franchise meant that there was limited opposition to government policies much influenced by the big British sugar and Canadian bauxite companies.
Jagan's experiences confirmed his belief that major changes were necessary, and in 1950 he and his political associates in the PAC formed the People's Progressive Party (PPP), the first modern mass party in Guyana.
The legacy of slavery and indentured immigration had created a population divided between those of African and East Indian descent. The PPP tried to unite these two groups within a radical anti-colonialist party and, in an attempt to foster unity asked Forbes Burnham, an Afro-Guyanese lawyer recently returned from England, to become chairman with Jagan as leader.
In the first elections under adult suffrage in 1953, the PPP, with a manifesto appealing to a broad base of Guyanese society, won easily.
Jagan's first term in office lasted only 133 days, from the opening of parliament of May 30 to the suspension of the constitution on October 9 and the arrival of British troops. A reformist programme, had proved too much for the British government to bear, and heavily influenced by Cold War politics, labelled the programme as communist. The constitution was suspended and the PPP Government removed from power by the British colonial rulers. Restrictions were placed on leaders of the PPP, many of whom were imprisoned. Jagan himself was imprisoned for refusing to obey an order restricting him to Georgetown.
It was while the British ruled Guyana with the aid of an Interim Government that Burnham made a bid to seize the leadership of the PPP from Jagan. Burnham's first attempt to take over the party before the elections was defeated but in the aftermath of October 9, he tried again and ultimately split the PPP in 1955. He founded the People's National Congress (PNC) party in 1957, helped by the British who supported what they believed were his more moderate politics.
Jagan's PPP, meanwhile won both the 1957 and 1961 elections and embarked on welfare programmes in health, education and housing. These programmes were highly popular and they had an immediate effect on improving the standard of living of the people.
By this time, too, the PPP stepped up its campaign for political independence of Guyana. After the 1961 elections, Jagan, now the first Premier of Guyana, believed that the British would honour a commitment to allow the victor to lead the country to independence. Two things prevented this: by 1961 the PPP had been identified as the communist party by the West in contrast to the socialist PNC. The US, after the Cuban revolution, was alarmed by Jagan and his party. Also, by 1961, the anti-Jagan forces had made it clear that they were not prepared to let Jagan lead an independent Guyana. The opposition forces were provided with covert and overt support by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the effort to overthrow Jagan and his PPP Government.
From early 1962 to mid-1964 strikes, riots and murderous political and ethnic conflict set Guyanese against Guyanese, postponing independence. British troops returned once more to help quell the disturbances. Then in 1963 at a constitutional conference in London, the British, giving open support to the opposition forces led by Burnham, and following the orders of the US Government, changed the electoral system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation for the 1964. Elections were ordered for 1964 by the British who reneged on a previous agreement to grant independence before any further elections. The change was designed to keep Jagan and the PPP out of office. This duly happened, and Burnham's PNC, in an unlikely coalition with the anti-communist and pro-capitalist United Force, joined together to form a coalition Government even though the PPP won the elections with the highest proportion of votes.
Burnham, now in power, was to show little respect for rules until his death in 1985. When independence came in 1966, Jagan was leader of the opposition. In the 1968 elections, Burnham was able to get rid of his coalition partner with defectors from the PPP and hold an election rigged both internally and externally with non-existent overseas voters overwhelmingly supporting the PNC. The formula worked again in 1973 and 1980 for Burnham and, in 1985 for his successor Desmond Hoyte, each time reducing the support for the PPP, at least in official figures which hardly anyone believed.
In 1969, the PPP declared itself a Marxist-Leninist party. But Burnham turned out to be even more committed to a version of Marxism (laced with opportunism) which won him support from the communist camp. Guyana became a republic, and Burnham asserted the paramouncy of the ruling party over the government, and his government nationalized the foreign owned sugar and bauxite companies and the banks and ended up with control of over 80 per cent of the economy. All this apparently progressive activity led Jagan and the PPP to offer critical support for the PNC government. While some Guyanese at home and increasingly abroad, felt that opposition rather than support was needed, the repressive and lawless nature of the government being obvious, the PNC itself condemned the PPP for being more "critical" than "supportive". Some leading members of the PPP agreed and defected to join the PNC.
The new constitution of 1980 (backed by a rigged referendum held in 1978) gave Burnham enormous powers. Symbolically, Jagan's title changed from leader of the opposition to minority leader. In the next few years, violence from the state would accompany worsening economic conditions and increasing emigration.
The death of Burnham himself in 1985 saw the more pragmatic Hoyte as president. And with the fall of the Soviet block, the US was prepared to accept the possibility of Jagan's return to office. By now, the PPP was emphasizing its belief in a mixed economy and democratic politics. However, an intense struggle had to be waged by the PPP and other opposition forces to force Hoyte to agree to electoral reforms and to hold free elections. The intense lobbying by Jagan in the international arena, helped to influence Jimmy Carter to help broker an arrangement for Hoyte to agree to electoral reforms.
In the first free and fair elections since 1964, Jagan was elected President of Guyana on October 5, 1992. Exactly 39 years after he had first been removed from office, Cheddi Jagan was sworn in as President of Guyana on October 9, 1992. He returned to office in a country demoralised by years of misgovernment, its population depleted by massive emigration, a huge international debt with consequent International Monetary Fund/World Bank restructuring policies in place, and an education system, once among the best in the Commonwealth Caribbean, in ruins.
The problems facing the newly elected President Jagan and the PPP were enormous: the civil service had collapsed and the ministers were untried. Yet things improved: debts were cancelled, the infrastructure rebuilt, new and newly rehabilitated schools and health centres went up nation wide, and agriculture, long depressed, began to boom again.
Despite his long years in the opposition before 1992, Cheddi Jagan maintained his stature as an international figure of renown. Following his Presidential victory, he firmly established himself as a world statesman, and his ideas for a New Global Human Order are winning support in all corners of the world. His proposal for a Regional Integration Fund for the smaller economies of the Americas has already won the total support of the CARICOM and Central American nations.
He wrote four books, Forbidden Freedom, The West on Trial, Caribbean Revolution and The Caribbean -- Whose Backyard?. He also penned numerous papers on social, economic and political issues.
Cheddi Jagan dedicated his life to politics, supported by the firm belief, even during the long years of opposition that "History and time are on our side". Despite the adulation which he was held he remained the most approachable and modest of politicians. Among his most endearing characteristics were his openness and his willingness to believe the best of nearly anyone.
He taught the Guyanese people about the value of independence, the value of each and every human being, and the value of struggle to realise these objectives. To the very end, this most unselfish and unassuming man became the very symbol of Guyanese politics, always educating the people and never abandoning the people's struggle for economic and social dignity, and for democracy. He was devoted to the affairs of government, he was never disloyal to the aspirations of the Guyanese people for dignity and a better way of life for over fifty years. His words of political wisdom spread throughout the Caribbean, and many intellectuals would testify as to how much their ideology and values have been shaped by the ideas and ideals of Cheddi Jagan.
Even those who disagreed with him admired his tenacity, his endurance, his incorruptibility and his patience. He demonstrated that he was not merely interested in political power; service to the people was more important, and he waged a relentless struggle on their behalf in Parliament and at the grass-root level.
Cheddi Jagan has left behind an unblemished political career. He earned a reputation as a man of honour and decency. He fought the imperialists with great vigour and sought to form global alliances that he thought would make life better for all Guyanese. Because of his political dominance and fiery rhetoric, his spirit will continue to be with all Guyanese for a long time to come. No Guyanese can claim that they were not touched by this master politician -- this true son of Guyana. He will forever remain the Father of the Guyanese Nation.
(Cheddi Jagan suffered a heart attack on February 14, 1997 but despite treatment at the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington DC, he died there on March 6, 1997. He survived by his wife, Janet and their son and daughter).
This account was compiled from articles on the life of Cheddi Jagan appearing in the London Times, the Guardian (London), the New York Times, the Toronto Star, the Trinidad Guardian, and the Trinidad Express.
(Published on the PPP/Civic Home Page)