Cheddi Jagan was human, and like all of us, he had his faults
Growing up in Berbice, I share a vivid childhood memory of the glass-framed black and white photo of Cheddi Jagan, crowned with a flowering acorn mala, majestically lying next to the photo of Mahatma Gandhi in our living room. Like most Guyanese who grew up in the halls of Cheddi’s “doctor politics” and powerful charismatic appeals, we were mesmerized and captivated by his almost divine presence. His words were evangelical and should not be questioned. He was revered, his image perpetually preserved in the annals of our memory. Yes, absolutely, the man who dedicated himself to saving the world from its inherent imperfections was endowed with a certain spiritual grace, agility, and essence of presence that intermittently woven into the fabric of its social character.
The problem with some of Jagan’s supporters, the Indians in particular (who knew little about Marxism) and, now, our learned UN diplomat, Bertrand Ramcharan, is an understandable desire to hold on emotionally to the premium accorded to l global humanism of Jagan. Paradoxically, and simultaneously, they display a very deep reluctance to critically examine Cheddi’s leadership or acknowledge his political recklessness. Caught in the melting pot of Cold War politics, Cheddi became obsessed with a worldview dominated by an alien ideology. He was a willful and shameless lackey of the former Soviet Union and a thunderous promoter of international proletarianism. This has always been his Achilles heel – a dogmatic fixation with Marxism established since the late 1940s – a fixation devoid of any real pragmatism or introspection in his political imagination. There was plenty of room for political maneuvering, and Cheddi could have led British Guiana to political independence. Perhaps we could have avoided the dreaded “28 years”. But he remained intrepid, inflexible in his utopian mission. Jagan’s comprehensive quest for a new world order had to be achieved at all costs, even if the well-being of the poor and the helpless who supported him was held in check by the sacrificial political altar. The man was human, and like all of us, he had his faults.
I never intended to present an alternative point of view on Cheddi. Rather, it is a point of view that has been embodied in the evidence presented in public records, released from MI5 files and FRUS documents, now available for public consumption. More importantly, it is a reality that is constructed from the testimonies of not only Jagan’s accomplices, but his VERY OWN words. The former UG chancellor shared a number of emotional references based on his personal interactions with Cheddi (SN, November 29, 2021). We all have such treasured memories, but some of us are able to separate the myth of a flawless character from the facts. Dr Ramcharan summarily dismisses Naipaul’s observation that Dr Jagan “conspired both against the interests of his supporters and against his own political success” because, according to him, Naipaul lived a “cloistered life in England” devoid of any “struggle for justice”. for the poor. Then, that the real protagonists of this political saga and the diplomatic corps, for whom we suppose that Dr. Ramcharan shares a fraternal respect, speak about the recklessness in question. Since Stabroek News with its limited space is not the forum for long speeches or disputes in our history, I will focus on one specific event – Jagan’s meeting with Kennedy in October 1961 – which was perhaps the most important interaction of his entire political career. But first, I repeat what I said before, concerning the revelations of the archival documents: “Cheddi could have come out triumphant. He held the political aces at a crucial turning point in Guyana’s turbulent history: Britain had pledged to grant independence in 1962, the United States was ready to work with Jagan before he met President Kennedy in 1961… and his party had the electoral machine to win elections. . “
Although he had many enemies during the Cold War, inside and outside Guyana, Jagan’s political recklessness dates back to 1953. He had apparently learned nothing from the British suspension of the war. constitution in October 1953. By January 1961, with the election of a liberal American President, he had shown even greater deference for his recklessness. He seemed to have shown little understanding of the vicissitudes of realpolitik and the historic nature of American political power in his own backyard. Kennedy had taken office a few months before the elections of August 21, 1961 in British Guyana. He faced a huge political backlash for April’s botched invasion of the Bay of Pigs off Cuba’s southern coast to eliminate Castro. So it’s no understatement to suggest that Kennedy has become obsessed with banning the emergence of a “second Cuba” in the Western Hemisphere. A telegram from the US Secretary of State to the British Foreign Secretary dated August 11, 1961 (ten days before the election) found Jagan’s rise to power “inconvenient”. But Cheddi still had influential friends in high places.
His political fate being at stake, depended a lot on Jagan’s interaction with President Kennedy. With the British still sympathetic and committed to independence by 1962, John Hennings, the colonial attaché at the British Embassy in Washington, prepared Jagan for the Kennedy meeting on October 25, a meeting of White House officials. deemed “delicate and controversial”. On October 24, 1961 (the day before Jagan’s meeting with Kennedy), in an address to the National Press Club in Washington, Jagan, courting political disaster, presented his political philosophy to the Americans: “I believe that the economic theories of scientific socialism [Marxism-Leninism] promise a dynamic social discipline which can transform an underdeveloped country into a developed country in a much faster time than any other system ”. Much to Hennings’ disappointment, Jagan’s presentation was devoid of any circumspection. On October 25, 1961, Jagan visited the White House for the historic reunion. He would again ignore the advice of British lawyers to tread carefully and avoid fully exposing his Marxist rhetoric. The 90-minute meeting (quite long by any standards) left no doubt in Kennedy’s mind that Cheddi was impressed with Marxism, the revolutionary leaders, and the Soviet system. Arthur Schlesinger recalled that if Jagan was “pleasant and fluid”, he was “endowed, it seemed to those of us present, with an indomitable romanticism and naivety”. Jagan would later admit to John Hennings that “to say too much was a grave sin on his part.”
Lloyd Searwar, the deputy chief of government information services, who accompanied Jagan to the White House, also warned Jagan against his socialist rhetoric. Reflecting on what turned out to be a disastrous encounter for Jagan, spurred on by his own actions, Searwar noted: “I was with Cheddi when he met Kennedy in October 1961. Kennedy had Pierre Salinger with him. [press secretary] and Arthur Schlesinger [special assistant]…, Arthur Schlesinger and I had to produce some kind of press release; but we had difficulty agreeing on a form of words… Cheddi was naive; he never acquired the sophistication of a statesman. He never really left the plantation ”. Neither Searwar nor Hennings succeeded in convincing Jagan to temper his socialist rhetoric. As a footnote, it would be revealed by MI5 files that Cheddi and Janet’s longtime ideological mentor and confidant was Billy Strachan, a Jamaican-born Communist who was a leading member of the Communist Party of Britain. .
Jagan’s own words and actions revealed his attachment to Marxist fundamentalism. Much like Forbes Burnham, he was ready to take out anyone who got in his way. Its Marxist intellectuals defected, the most notable of which was Harvard-trained Ranji Chandisingh, who, after 18 years in the PPP, joined the PNC in 1976, a year after the PPP declared its critical support for the PNC, probably at the request of the Cuban faithful. . Lloyd Best, the Trinidadian economist who worked with Cheddi from 1962 to 1963, revealed that “Cheddi always saw Guyana in the context of the Cold War. All its references would be drawn from outside Guyana. You cannot understand Cheddi’s mistakes and stubbornness unless you understand it. He saw the world in two camps, and he was in one camp [the Soviet or communist]. There was nothing you could do to get him to take a different perspective. ‘… Jagan was rigid. There was no intellectual life in the Party. It was all tired dogma. As Kwayana observed, if Cheddi had been more grounded in his Hindu / Indian heritage, he might have been less persuaded to accept the “fundamental truths” he discovered in Marxism as the gospel. Marxism, which became the source which filled the void of its fragile cultural identity, was the agent of its salvation.
I have no reason to doubt that Dr Ramcharan, given his vast diplomatic experience, which he generously shares with us, is driven by a genuine desire to seek the best for our country. By questioning the existence of a “tribal curse” in Guyana, he arouses a curious curiosity. In his extensive writing in Stabroek News during this year, he never failed to make reference to Guyana’s racial dilemma. For example, on May 12, 2021, under the headline “Historical Diagnoses of Guyana’s Plight”, he noted that “Guyana urgently needs historical studies and analyzes of its predicament” to assist the country to “face its central problem”. Perhaps Dr Ramcharan, who spends his time traveling “between Geneva and New York”, may need to be more anchored in Guyanese political culture. I leave the good diplomat with this quote from George Orwell: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and erase their own understanding of their history.”