Obituary: Cheddi Jagan

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The Independent Online
Cheddi Jagan was the last of a generation of pre-Independence Caribbean leaders that includes Norman Manley, of Jamaica, Grantley Adams, of Barbados, Eric Williams, of Trinidad and Tobago, and L.F.S. Burnham, of Guyana.

He was born in 1918 at Port Mourant, a sugar plantation in the county of Berbice, in Guyana, or British Guiana, as it was then; British Guiana became independent in 1966 and changed its name to Guyana. He was a descendant of Indians who were brought, under a system of indenture, between 1838 and 1917, to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean. It was his plantation upbringing that imbued in him a lifelong passion to free his people from the hardship and injustice of colonialism and oppression.

Despite hardship and poverty, Jagan's parents saved enough money to send him for studies in the United States, where he first entered Howard University, an African- American school, and later the Dental School at Northwestern University in Chicago. During his years in the United States (1936 to 1943), Jagan did not only qualify as a dentist; he became exposed to a variety of revolutionary literature including Marx's Das Kapital and the writings of Jawaharlal Nehru and other Indian leaders who were in the final stages of their struggle to win independence for India. Perhaps the strongest influence on Jagan was that of Janet Rosenberg, a Jewish-American woman whom he later married.

His revolutionary readings and contacts that he made in the US, combined with his observation of inequalities in American society, particularly the plight of African-Americans, and the memories of his plantation upbringing to strengthen Jagan's passionate desire for freedom from colonial rule and oppression.

He returned to Guyana in December 1943 and immediately threw himself into the freedom struggle. He had little time for existing organisations such as the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA) and the Manpower Citizens Association (MPCA) and in 1946 formed his own group, the Political Action Committee (PAC), along with his wife, and Jocelyn Hubbard and Ashton Chase.

In 1947 Jagan successfully ran for a seat in the Legislative Council which was then the ruling body in the country with a British Governor as chief executive. His advocacy of the working class in the Legislative Council remains a lasting mark of Jagan's commitment and courage in opposing all odds in his pursuit of freedom and democracy.

The bulletin produced by the PAC became Thunder, the newspaper of the People's Progressive Party (PPP), formed in 1950 under Jagan's leadership.

Meanwhile, as the movement for decolonisation gathered steam in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, Guyana was given universal adult suffrage for the first time in elections in 1953. In these elections the PPP won 18 out of 24 seats; but after only 133 days, the PPP-led administration was dissolved by the British Governor Sir Alfred Savage, allegedly because of the Communist dictatorship under the PPP. Several PPP leaders including Jagan were jailed.

Between 1953 and 1957 Guyana was ruled by an interim govenrment consisting of nominated members. During this period as well the PPP split when L.F.S. Burnham, the party chairman, led his supporters to form another party that was later called the People's National Congress (PNC).

This split is perhaps the most tragic event in Jagan's career and the modern history of Guyana, for it laid the basis of racial polarisation, by encouraging Afro-Guyanese to support the PNC and the Indo-Guyanese to support the PPP. At any rate, in new elections held in 1957 the PPP won, as it did again in 1961. But by this stage, in addition to the problems of racial division that he faced internally in Guyana, Jagan found himself denounced internationally as a Communist agitator in cahoots with the Soviet Union.

After the decline of European empires after the Second World War, there emerged a Pax Americana in which the United States regarded itself as a defender of the "free world" against a Communist threat from the Soviet Union. Jagan was caught in the middle of this Cold War conflict, and it was largely due to American influence fuelled by this tension that the British government changed the electoral system in Guyana to one of proportional representation for new elections in 1964. Although Jagan's PPP won a majority of seats, two other parties, the PNC and the United Force (UF) were able to join forces and form a government.

Here came another lasting mark of Jagan's dedication: his resolute continuation as Opposition leader during 28 years (1964-92) despite charges of fraud, corruption and rigged elections against the ruling PNC.

Not until 1992, at the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union had fragmented, and American fears of Communism had disappeared, did Jagan's PPP, this time in coalition with a community group called CIVIC, at last have an opportunity to form the government of Guyana.

Jagan's contribution to his country, his region and politics of decolonisation is inestimable. His commitment and energy could scarcely be believed. In addition to his political activism, he was the author of several books and countless pamphlets and speeches. His The West on Trial (1966) is largely autobiographical and is probably the best work of political autobiography by a Caribbean leader.

But when all is taken into account - his passionate championing of the underdog, his fearless opposition against all odds, and his superhuman energy - what Cheddi Jagan will most be remembered for is his incorruptible integrity. Never, in his half-century of involvement in politics, has anyone been able to point a finger at him, while charges of financial corruption, sexual misconduct or electoral fraudulence have been levelled at most of his contemporaries.

Frank Birbalsingh

Cheddi Jagan, politician: born Plantation Port Mourant, Berbice 22 March 1918; Member of Legislative Council, British Guiana 1947-53, Leader of the House and Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Mines May-October 1953, Chief Minister and Minister of Trade and Industry 1957-61, Premier and Minister of Development and Planning 1961-64, Leader of the Opposition, National Assembly 1964-92; President, Co-operative Republic of Guyana 1992-97; married 1943 Janet Rosenberg (one son, one daughter); died Washington DC 6 March 1997.