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
News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
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

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?