Glimpses of the early life of Hugh Desmond Hoyte

History This Week No. 48/2010


By Clyde W Thierens

With the demise of President Forbes Burnham in August 1985, Hugh Desmond Hoyte ascended to the presidency of Guyana. He became president at a time when Guyana was faced with many serious challenges. The country was in dire financial straits because its economy had been seriously ravaged as a result of unsuccessful economic policies instituted as part of the socialist experiment undertaken by Mr Hoyte’s predecessor. Additionally, the society was divided along ethnic lines, primarily as a consequence of ethnic polarization along political lines which had plagued Guyanese politics for decades. Much of the ethnic tension was based on the idea that Forbes Burnham and the PNC had indulged in questionable activities in order to remain in power. Mr Hoyte’s rise to the leadership of the party and the country surprised many who did not see him as the natural successor to Forbes Burnham.

President Hoyte pursued his task with energy and focus. He charted his own course and demonstrated a willingness to break with the past. While many admired his approach to governance, there were others, even within his own party, who were apprehensive about his strategies as they believed that these posed serious threats to the status quo. Undaunted, Mr Hoyte set out to deal with the issues of the day. He resolutely pursued policies designed to bring social cohesion and economic stability. He also attempted to win international approval and support for the country and for his administration.

Even while engaged in these apparent ‘transformative’ undertakings, there were a number of critics who argued that many of the actions taken by Mr Hoyte were taken primarily because force was being applied from many quarters. Reference is made to the changing geo-political environment of the time, the application of diplomatic pressure by regional, hemispheric, international and financial institutions and, very importantly, the increasing demands emanating from local political opponents who, over time, were able to successfully lobby the local and international community for support in their efforts to dismantle the system that Mr. Hoyte represented.

While facing these arguments, Mr Hoyte also had to deal with contentions that much of what he did actually demonstrated not a departure from, but instead a continuation of, the economic and political policies of Forbes Burnham. Others argued that the changes were not being made quickly enough. Reference was made to the conduct of the 1985 elections, called early by Mr Hoyte, which followed the trends of previous elections, as an example of the continuation of questionable Burnham/PNC electoral practices.

Additionally, Mr Hoyte faced difficulties within the ranks of his own party. The argument has been made that his succession to the leadership of the party, over the more popular Mr Hamilton Green, helped to create a rift in the PNC with some party members coalescing around the new leader, while the more ‘militant Burnhamites’ grouped around Mr Green. The apparent rift added to the development of internal party tensions that demanded the attention of Desmond Hoyte, even as he grappled with the issues that he had to confront at the national and international levels.

President Hoyte demonstrated determination, bold decision-making and a willingness to take what seemed to be the best course of action in any given situation as he set out to steer the country in a new direction. His impact was felt in almost every sphere of national life. The end of his tenure of office in 1992 saw what was hailed as ‘the return to democracy’ for the country. This article seeks to shed some light on the early life of Mr Hoyte as, it may be argued, his upbringing in no small way helped to prepare him for the role that he eventually played in Guyana’s history.

Hugh Desmond Hoyte was born in Charlotte Street, Georgetown, Guyana on Saturday, March 9, 1929 to Gladys Marietta Hoyte and George Alphonso Hoyte. He attended the St Barnabas Anglican Primary School, at the corner of Regent Street and Orange Walk, which was a relatively short distance from his home. He received his secondary education at the Progressive High School where, driven to excel, he diligently applied himself to study. His efforts were rewarding as his school work was “of the highest quality.” In addition to the regular subjects such as English Language, English Literature, History, Latin and Mathematics, Desmond Hoyte took a serious interest in business subjects. He undertook studies in bookkeeping and, venturing into an area not usually associated with male students, he studied shorthand.

In 1948 Desmond Hoyte left school and started work in the Civil Service as Commodity Control Officer in the office that was responsible for the issuance of import and export licences. Later, he worked as a clerk in the Police pay office. While working he continued to study diligently so that, in 1950, he passed the external examinations of the University of London and thereby earned himself a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Literature.  Mr Hoyte then entered the teaching profession. Firstly, he taught in Guyana at the Mc Allister’s Day High School. In 1955 he travelled to Grenada to teach Latin and History at the prestigious Grenada Boys’ Secondary School. Later, we see Mr Hoyte again in the role of teacher as he taught History in Georgetown, in the late 1960s, at evening classes organised by the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA).

Mr Hoyte related that he grew up in a home that taught values such as “decency, courtesy, financial prudence and tidiness.” These are qualities that Mr Hoyte took with him throughout his life in all of his different endeavours. He was thorough in his approach to everything that he did.

The same high standards that he set for himself he also expected in others. This contributed to his refusal to countenance work that was sloppy or untidy. As a result of the training that he received at home, Mr Hoyte demonstrated a disciplined work ethic throughout his academic career, and his private, professional and public life.
Mr Hoyte’s stint of teaching at the acclaimed Grenada Boys Secondary School was testimony to the recognition of his intellectual abilities. Patterned after the typical English type of Grammar School, the Grenada Boys Secondary started out as the St George’s Grammar School in the country’s capital in February, 1885. As was the practice throughout the British West Indies at that time, only those who were recognised as being educated to a high enough standard were allowed to teach at such prestigious institutions.

Mr Hoyte’s period of residence in a sister British West Indian territory is said to have been a positive one and helped to sow the seeds of his later ideas on Caribbean integration. This saw him being self-described as “an unrepentant integrationist” and serving with distinction in a number of important capacities on behalf of the region when he entered into public life.

While initially setting his sights on pursuing a career in management, Mr Hoyte was convinced by one of his mentors, Sir Donald Jackson, to pursue studies in law instead. In 1959 he completed studies for the attainment of his LLB and, upon completion of his professional examinations that very year, was called to the Bar at the Honourable Society of Middle Temple. In 1960, Mr Hoyte returned to British Guiana and entered into private practice.

A perusal of Mr Hoyte’s educational pursuits to this point clearly indicates his serious view of the relevance and usefulness of education. He believed that education was not simply the means for the acquisition of qualifications, but was necessary for principled life that was based upon service to others. In this regard one may discern part of Mr Hoyte’s philosophical foundation. In terms of living a principled life, it has been attested to that Mr Hoyte, in his various areas of personal, professional and national engagement maintained a reputation as a “man of integrity and rectitude.”

Mr Hoyte’s learning was not confined to any one particular area but, instead, was related to many diverse fields. These included areas of law, politics, economics, philosophy, religion, history, geography, language, literature, and the arts, inter alia. He was renowned for his ability to be conversant in numerous areas. In this regard he has been described as “formidable classical scholar.” In addition to this, it has been pointed out that, for Mr Hoyte to have been a repository of such a magnitude of knowledge, he must have been a prodigious reader.

Implicit in the evidence relating to Mr Hoyte’s early years is the idea that, having learned at home the values that one needed in order to achieve success, he held fast to them and applied them to every undertaking. It is evident that he had great faith in those values because, as he applied them, he experienced tangible results. These were the values and the attitudes that empowered to attain the highest position in the country.

Mr Hoyte’s upbringing significantly contributed to his development of a methodical approach in carrying out his various assignments. He was neat and organised, and endowed with the ability to work hard. These were qualities that he developed as a scholar as he undertook studies in a wide variety of areas. Whether engaged in personal writing or in a work activity, he spent many hours rigourously reviewing any document that he was preparing, making a number of drafts before completion.

Mr Hoyte’s serious and disciplined approach to his endeavours was reflected in his personality. Described as “cultivated and austere”, he presented an imposing figure. In some ways, just as his interests were wide and varied, his persona too reflected the multi-faceted nature of his makeup. While numerous persons have asserted that Mr Hoyte could be more engaging than most, it has also been said of him that “few could be more dismissive of others with whom he disagreed.” In this regard, to many, Mr Hoyte seemed aloof. It has been speculated that he was dismissive of those whom he may not have considered as his intellectual equals.

What is clear is that there are those who would have described Mr Hoyte as arrogant while many others would reject such a view in the light of their personal experience.

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