Guyana's aged Marxist left to pick up pieces

THE WHEELS of history have turned exceedingly slowly for Cheddi Jagan, who was sworn in yesterday as President of Guyana at the age of 74. He assumed an office that did not even exist when he last won an election, three decades ago. Then he was Premier of British Guiana, a colony on the verge of independence, sparse in population but rich in land and natural resources, and apparently with every prospect of enjoying a prosperous future.

Things did not quite work out that way. Jagan was honest, or naive, enough to make no secret of his Marxist beliefs at a time of Cold War paranoia, and he paid a price that kept him in the political wilderness, and his country in purgatory, for a quarter of a century. His own bright future is now almost all behind him.

It was ever thus in this remote corner of empire. In the 1860s the novelist Anthony Trollope described the region of the colony, then known as Demerara, as 'the Elyssium of the Tropics, the one and true Utopia of the Caribbean Sea'. The reason was simple enough: Demerara became synonymous with sugar and the colony was one big plantation.

It was a low-lying coastal strip secure behind dykes built by the Dutch - who ran the territory until 1814 - to keep the sea at bay, and cultivated by an inexhaustible supply of indentured labourers from the Indian subcontinent. They came in their hundreds of thousands between the ending of slavery in 1833 and the First World War; among them was the grandfather of Cheddi Jagan, who was himself born on a plantation in the Berbice region of Eastern British Guiana in 1918.

Jagan was one of the first East Indians to break into colonial politics. He founded the People's Progressive Party in 1950 as a multi-racial alliance dedicated to social reform and independence. His closest lieutenant was Forbes Burnham, a young, British- trained Afro-Guyanese barrister noted for his spellbinding oratory. But the harmony was short- lived. Jagan became Chief Minister in 1953, in the first elections held under universal suffrage. But London soon discovered a 'communist plot', suspended the constitution and put Jagan in jail for six months.

Within two years Burnham had led a breakaway that became the People's National Congress (PNC), a predominantly black organisation. The pattern of racial politics that has bedeviled the country ever since had been set in place. The PPP came to represent the East Indians, accounting for slightly more than half Guyana's 800,000 inhabitants, while the PNC was the party of the Afro-Guyanese, who make up about 30 per cent.

The native population - that is what the blacks regard themselves as - have been outstripped numerically and economically by Indian immigrants brought in by the British. But the minority has managed to deny political power to the majority by a combination of manipulation and crude force.

Between 1957 and 1964, Jagan's PPP won three elections in a row, but it was Burnham's PNC that led British Guiana to independence as Guyana two years later. Jagan was an admirer of Castro, and visions of a communist pincer movement in the Caribbean caused nightmares in London and Washington. But a combination of Whitehall machinations and CIA money put paid to him.

Conservative Colonial Secretary Duncan Sandys decided that Burnham was a reassuring social democrat, and the PNC was invited to form a coalition with a minor right-wing party. Jagan was shut out, Burnham was in.

Within four years Burnham had declared Guyana a 'co-operative republic', which in practice was a sleazy mixture of state socialism and crony capitalism, dominated by a cult of personality around Burnham that made Kim Il Sung of North Korea seem unduly self-effacing.

The PNC's control of an all- embracing state sector, not to mention the army and police, was underpinned by political thuggery that reached its nadir in 1980 with the assassination of Walter Rodney, a distinguished Afro-Guyanese historian who had been incautious enough to challenge Burnham's political monopoly. Guyana was broke and once-elegant Georgetown had become shabby and rundown. When money for flour imports ran out, the PNC denounced bread as 'imperialist' and claimed that rice flour was the true 'food of revolutionaries'.

After Burnham's death, his successor Desmond Hoyte did his best to dismantle some of the worst excesses of the imperial presidency. Over the past three years he has introduced a programme of free-market reforms.

Things are beginning to look up; there are even some environmentally sound tropical forestry projects planned. Jagan, by now a very mellow Marxist, will do nothing to upset all this. He takes office on a floodtide of international goodwill that has made the ideological conflicts of the past seem like a distant memory. But he will need energy and determination beyond his 74 years to repair a social fabric torn to shreds by 28 years of one-party misrule.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Chef

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Chef is required to join one of the largest ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor