Who was the Father of the Nation of Guyana?
In the last few months, I have begun an obsession with Guyanese Politics which I feel I have to share here. I have some opinions on what I have found which I think are valuable as a third party with no particular interest in Guyana. I would like to say that my opinion of guyanese politics from 1950-2000 is obviously unwarranted, but the characters are stark and the conflicts are huge.
Guyanese politics in a modern sense can be seen to start following the Second World War, where colonial power began to be challenged and British rule over Guyana started to weaken. Guyana is a country dominated by two ethnic groups: Indo-Guyanese at the time were descendents of indentured workers, mainly working in rural areas and in agricultural professions (such as the sugar industry), making up approximately half of the population. Afro-Guyanese, making up approximately a third of the population, were predominantly based in urban, coastal settings and worked often in more industrial professions. Afro-Guyanese were mostly Christian, whereas Indo-Guyanese had a variety of faiths. On this backdrop, we encounter the three main contenders for Father of the Nation.
A charming, Indo-Guyanese lower class man who had been educated in America as a Dentist, Cheddi was from the humblest rural background of the three and would be approximately one third communist, one third marxist and one third socialist. This man was incorruptible, an idealist with no further objective than the independence of Guyana and the improvement in the wellbeing of its citizens. However, he was idealistic to the point of fault and would abuse people who disagreed with his opinions.
A mainpulative, ambitious man who cared only about his own personal power, the Afro-Guyanese Burnham came from a middle-class urban background and had been educated as a lawyer in London. This pragmatistic man was also left-wing, but more authoritarian and softer left economically.
This American Jewish lady shared her views and her life with Cheddi Jagan, and married him in 1943. She was the one who first exposed Cheddi to marxist political ideas, and pushed him towards politics. As a politician, she did not have the charm of Jagan nor the naked ambition of Burnham.
So, let’s look at the facts. All three were founders of the PPP, the most important political party in Guyana by most accounts. The three would compose three of the four first presidents of Guyana.
Anyway, the drama begins in 1953. Up until this point, the three were sitting quietly in the PPP, independence beckoned and the British were quiet. They won the first election in British Guiana, and then the three founders started causing trouble; or, more specifically, Cheddi started causing trouble. The policies proposed were too left-wing for the UK, and Cheddi and Janet were basically communists, so Churchill himself intervened and shut their government down after less than 6 months. This is where the trouble all started; this intervention would change Guyanese politics forever.
First, Burnham split, creating a racial divide between African and Indian which continues to dominate Guyana to this day. He was actively encouraged and spurred on by horrible US and UK governments who wanted Guyana to be as not-communist as possible. The racial violence got very bad, very quickly. With a majority of ethnic population, the Indians predictably won the elections until the fateful meeting between Cheddi and JFK in 1961.
What was said at that meeting, I do not know. By all accounts, nothing untoward happened. However, immediately afterwards JFK took a very strong interest in stopping Jagan from ever coming to power. There is a famous photo of Jagan pointing at Kennedy in an accusatory fashion. If I were to guess, Jagan did not treat Kennedy with any degree of respect, him being the firebrand American-educated hothead who is sure that his political views are correct. He didn’t like Kennedy because of his political views, and for his part Kennedy did not like Jagan because he was not treating Kennedy with deference and because he was clearly very, very left-wing. This would then culminate with some words being spoken which neither of them would reveal, and Kennedy being deeply insulted in a way that no other foreign leader had done. This is why Kennedy took a special interest. His adviser Schlesinger would later say the report of the meeting was “incomplete”. Interesting indeed.
Anyway, Jagan sealed his country’s fate, as JFK shoehorned Burnham into power and started a Burnham dictatorship (predictably) that would last for 21 years. What a mess.
Anyway, Here are the points as I understand them. The true decisions that made Guyana were the following.
-Jagan deciding to be an idealist and a leftist, which would then lead to international intervention
-Janet Rosenburg bringing Jagan into politics and Marxism in the first place
-Burnham deciding to be selfish and accept american assistance against Jagan.
-Burnham and Jagan deciding to put their own political goals first instead of calming racial division between the two main ethnic groups.
So. Who was the father of the nation? All three. Without any one of them, I do not see Guyana becoming the country it is today. But of the three, I think Jagan has to be the most important. I think without that left-wing attitude, Guyana would have received independence earlier and without the racial tensions precipitated by the British and by Burnham and Jagan.
But, who could blame him? Jagan is just a man, and his vision was not something he was willing to comprimise. He was not born with the ability to look into the future, and therefore he would never realise (until it was too late) what his views would do, what they would lead to- intervention rather than independence, and leader of the opposition rather than leader of the country.
But if, in 1953, you were to show Jagan what his actions would lead to in the future, I think things would be very different. No matter what Jagan’s political views were, I believe that he would put Guyana first, and make significant changes to his attitudes.