Divided societies like Guyana suffer from a phenomenon whereby historic events which, when they occurred, gave rise to allegations of ethnic bias, never seem to go away. The West Indies Federation, which lasted from 1958 to 1962, is one such. It is an historic event which is hardly relevant to contemporary Guyana today. Yet the debate on Jagan’a attitude to the Federation rages, as if the event occurred yesterday, and not more than 50 years ago. It is contextualized to the current ethnic controversies, one of which is to seek to continually paint Jagan as a racist, or at least to allege that he was motivated by ethnic considerations. His role in the establishment of the University of Guyana has become another. But that is for another time.
An editorial in the Stabroek News of December 19, 1986, on ‘Regional Integration’ stated that ‘…others, notably Eusi Kwayana (then Sydney King) attributed Jagan’s opposition [to the Federation] to his unwillingness to be swamped in a predominantly African grouping. C.L.R. James is also reported to have made a similar assertion. In response to the Stabroek News editorial, Jagan replied as follows:
Cheddi Jagan returned from studies in the United States to a British Guiana in 1943 that was a cauldron of poverty. The report of the Moyne Commission, which investigated poverty in the region in the 1930s concluded that “for the laboring population, mere subsistence was increasingly problematic.” The report was so explosive that it was not published until 1945. It weighed heavily in subsequent developments. In 1946 Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, Jocelyn Hubbard and Ashton Chase, the latter two of whom were active trade unionists, formed the Political Affairs Committee (PAC). In 1947 Cheddi Jagan fought and won a seat in the Legislative Council.
The cauldron of poverty was being stirred by decades of intensified industrial unrest, prompted by the new found strength of organised labour. The British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU) was the first to be registered in the British Empire in 1922. The Man Power Citizens Association (MPCA) was registered in 1937 and represented sugar workers. The Transport Workers Union (TWU) was established in 1938 and superseded the BGLU as the largest and most militant in the city. In 1947 bauxite workers went on strike. In 1948 the successful Teare Strike led by the TWU, stopped the trains and boats and closed down the country for two weeks – unprecedented in a colony. In 1949 the Enmore strike of sugar workers took place during which five sugar workers, who became known as the Enmore Martyrs, were shot and killed. This heightened labour activity was also a feature in the Caribbean region and was prompted by a decline in sugar prices on the world market which further exacerbated poverty.
Bharrat Jagdeo’s incumbency as General Secretary of the PPP and Opposition Leader makes him the most authoritative figure within the PPP. The ease with which he swatted away the dominant influence of Donald Ramotar, Clement Rohee and Komal Chand in serious decision-making within the upper reaches of the PPP after the loss of the 2015 elections, testifies to his now enduring control of the direction of the PPP, last manifested when he secured the nomination of Donald Ramotar as the presidential candidate in 2011.
Komal Chand had always been a vocal and independent minded leader within the PPP. This was derived more from his inclinations than from the power base he held as General Secretary of GAWU. The need for restructuring of the sugar industry arose at around the time of Mr. Jagdeo’s accession to office in 1999. Mr. Chand’s positions in debate, particularly in relation to the sugar industry, became more pointed and vocal as time went on, especially during the 2006 to 2011 period when serious problems began to surface. But the problems which have been emerging in the sugar industry and the length of time for which Mr. Chand has held leadership office in GAWU – since about 1985 – have weakened his grip. Thus, he lost his position as a member of the executive committee of the PPP after the 2016 congress of the PPP. Composition of this body is determined by a select few a day or two before the vote and a sufficient number of members of the central committee, which elects the executive committee, are given the word as to who to support. Mr. Chand’s orchestrated loss would have told him that his time in the leadership of the PPP and GAWU was drawing to an end.
A recent exchange of six letters took place between Tacuma Ogunsaye and Clairmonte Lye, contributed to by Mansoor Nadir, in SN between the June 22 and July 2 triggered by Mr. Ogunsaye’s claim that Dr. Roger Luncheon’s alleged withdrew an offer made by Dr. Cheddi Jagan to Professor Clive Thomas to be the Minister of Finance. Much of what is below is already well known and some of it has been in the public domain.
Prior to the elections of 1992 discussions on a joint slate for the elections took place between members of the Patriotic Coalition for Democracy (PCD) of which the WPA, PPP and DLM, and others, were members. Agreement could not be reached on the composition of the list of candidates and post-election allocation of seats in the National Assembly. In addition the WPA and forces outside the PCD, insisted that Dr. Jagan should not be the presidential candidate. It was alleged that he would not receive the support of African-Guyanese. Dr. Jagan’s offer of Dr. Roger Luncheon as the PPP’s presidential candidate was rejected.
As expected, the events at Babu John attracted wide attention and media coverage. A front page photograph in SN of President Ramotar belting out Bob Marley’s ‘Let’s Get Together’ was in striking contrast to the accusation by Dr. Bharat Jagdeo that during the 2011 elections, the Opposition APNU had sent drummers around calling on their supporters to ‘let’s get the coolies out,’ or words to that effect. Observers heard these two discordant notes, one a plea for unity in song, the other a divisive rant, and several others this past week.
The accusation against the PNCR created a storm and at press appearances, Dr. Jagdeo sought to defend his remarks. The PPP’s complaint is that it is treated unfairly. The media, it claims, focuses on the PPP and ignores the PNC’s historic appeal to racism. The fact is that when either political party appeals to its supporters to vote for its party, in whatever language, it is an appeal that is alleged to be directed to one ethnic group. In Guyana the appeal can easily appear to be overtly ethnic or be interpreted as such. It is the PPP that has borne the burden of these accusations. But if the PPP is guilty, so is APNU. Both parties have relied on, and sought to ensure at every elections, its solid bloc of ethnic support, while publicly encouraging cross over voting.