Dr Cheddi Jagan

Today is the birth anniversary of Dr Cheddi Jagan, who was born in 1918 and passed away in 1997. As such, his life spanned some of the epochal events of the 20th Century. Starting with the “Great War” that ended in 1917, it ended with the Far Eastern financial crisis of 1997 as a consequence of capitalism’s latest phase – financialisation.
Jagan would have appreciated the historical bookends as much as the intervening “pages” that saw his native Guyana tossed by global forces like so much flotsam and jetsam in the clash between the contending ideologies of capitalism and communism. The year before his birth – 1917 witnessed two epochal events – giving birth to Cheddi, as it were, since they shaped his life. The first was the end of Indian Indentureship on March 12, by the British that exploited labour as a bridge between slavery and the so-called “free labour” dispensation that still enmeshes our bodies. In slavery, human beings were literally property – “chattel” – with absolutely no rights. Indentured labourers had to provide labour for a fixed period under defined conditions enforced by a penal clause that, in effect, “bound” them to the plantations.
The second event was the Bolshevik October Revolution that saw the monarchy of Russia violently overthrown and replaced by a Communist “dictatorship of the proletariat”. As the USSR, it presented itself as an alternative to the capitalist world system that had evolved from the mercantilist colonial Empires and of which Guyana, in the “West”, was a part.
Jagan’s parents were both indentured children brought by indentured single mothers to Guyana and experienced first-hand, the exploitative system on Plantation Port Mourant in Berbice. His father was a “Driver”, which would have placed him in the middle strata on the plantation between ordinary workers and the Overseers. But as he recounted in his book “The West on Trial”, he witnessed the wretched conditions of the former as compared with the latter. As Jock Campbell, later Chairman of Bookers and owner of the neighbouring Plantation Albion, noted, the stables of the estate mules were like palaces compared with the logies in which the sugar workers lived.
Jagan’s parents were able to send him to a local private high school and then in 1935 on to Queen’s College in Georgetown to complete his secondary schooling. There he would encounter all the racial and economic prejudices that typified the urban middle class whose children he interacted with. He left for college in the US in 1938 during the Great Depression, which had driven down wages in the sugar belt and precipitated riots across the Caribbean.
In the US, while qualifying to become a dentist, and augmenting the hard-earned money sent by his parents in Guyana, Jagan was influenced by the racism against African-Americans and their lack of democratic freedoms. His political awareness was sharpened as he married a leftist student nurse, Janet Rosenberg and then returned to Guyana in 1943. Here, WWII had sharpened the contradictions of colonial rule and the Moyne Commission’s Report of 1939, had already recommended opening up of the political space.
The radical Jagan was elected to the Legislature in 1947 under an expanded but still restricted franchise, the same year India and Pakistan won independence, and spurred efforts here to achieve that status. After universal franchise was granted, elections were held in 1953. Under Jagan as Leader and Forbes Burnham as Chairman, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) won overwhelmingly. And the modern period of Guyana’s political history was launched.
Unfortunately, it was a history of betrayal by Burnham as Britain and the US used the bogeyman of Jagan as a “fellow traveller” of communism and Moscow, to oust the PPP from office and install Burnham. The People’s National Congress (PNC) would rig elections and maintain a dictatorship for the next 28 years.
Jagan, to his credit, maintained a democratic alternative and the PPP was returned to office in 1992 after the communist threat collapsed.
His party is back in office upholding his democratic tradition.