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)