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
News
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
businessUber, Snapchat and Facebook founders among those on the 2015 Forbes Billionaire List
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
News
Homer’s equation, in an episode in 1998, comes close to the truth, as revealed 14 years later
science
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003