Guyanese-born attorney-at-law Colin Moore, and long-time supporter and admirer of Cheddi Jagan told a New York audience of two hundred: “If Jagan only knew what is happening in Guyana, he would be turning in his ashes.”
The event was a commemorative service to celebrate the lives of Cheddi Jagan and Janet Jagan, both former presidents of Guyana. The event was held on Saturday night, March 26, at the Nereesa Palace in Ozone Park, Queens, NY. This section of Queens is home to the largest concentration of Guyanese outside Guyana.
The event was organized by an ad hoc group called the ‘Cheddi Jagan Memorial Committee’ and timed to coincide with the 14th death anniversary of a man considered to be the father of the Guyanese nation. The members and supporters of the ACG-NY (PPP support group) led by Dr Rajendra Singh were conspicuously absent.
Attorney-at-law Kawall Totaram, long considered to be the chairman of President Jagdeo’s NY-based kitchen cabinet, was also notably absent. One organizing committee member also told me President Jagdeo was in New York, so why wasn’t he here? “He would be too ashamed to show up here,” said this long-time supporter of the PPP.
Colin Moore had long been known to be a supporter of the PPP going back to the 1950s, and over the last 15 years I had seen him numerous times attending events in this largely Indian-Guyanese community. (I had last seen him two years ago at a memorial service for Prakash Gossai.)
Mr Moore for the first time revealed the connection between his family and that of Cheddi Jagan, going back to the early decades of the 1900s. Colin’s grandfather, Jacob Ralph, had been the headmaster of a Canadian Mission School at Rose Hall and had taught young Cheddi at primary school. Jacob Ralph and Cheddi’s father had been great friends hanging out at weekends, attending the race track; they both loved to ‘knock the bottle’ and when they left home on Friday afternoons, they very often would not return home until Sunday evening. One day, in the early 1930s, Cheddi’s father told Jacob Ralph, he had to speak to someone in the sugar estate to get a job for his son, whereupon Jacob remarked: “Man, you can’t let this boy go to work, this boy too bright, he has to go to Queen’s College.” Cheddi’s father must have understood the message and the meaning of Queen’s College, “for shortly thereafter young Cheddi did indeed enter Queen’s College – and the rest is history as they say.”
Mr Moore also gave a brief narrative of his formal meeting with Cheddi Jagan in 1953, when Cheddi, now campaigning for his first nationwide office, the premiership of Guyana, under a limited self-government constitution, dropped in at his grandfather’s house in New Amsterdam. While Colin Moore’s grandfather would not support Cheddi because of differences in “socialist ideology,” Colin Moore later would become an admirer and supporter of Jagan’s future campaigns for high office, and did work for him even into the 1960s on various projects, one being the launching of the History and Culture Week programme. Mr Moore said he had to leave Guyana in the early 1960s for England to start a new life after the Burnham government took office in December 1964, and he became a target of various acts.
Mr Moore then capped his all-too-brief talk with this memorable statement: “Cheddi Jagan is uncorrupted and incorruptible. If he only knew what is happening in Guyana today, he would be turning in his ashes.”
Driving home the few blocks to my house in what we have come to regard as a Guyanese village, I couldn’t help but ponder with sadness the unravelling of Jagan’s true legacy. What has become of Jagan’s “uncorrupted and incorruptible” ethos of running a government? Today Jagan’s ruling party led by President Jagdeo gave a (medicinal) drug-import monopoly to a friend of the President, as a consequence of which millions of dollars of windfall profits were reaped.
These are the kind of practices we saw in Marcos’s Philippines and Suharto’s Indonesia, but which could never have happened under the rule of President Jagan.
This is but one example of many such practices that have taken place under the current regime.
Cheddi Jagan is still widely perceived as a non-racial politician, in spite of the culture of ethnic politics that developed over the last 55 years. It is still a deeply held belief by many people that his successor would have been an African-Guyanese, as a way to demonstrate that his party is non-racial. With his passing this hope had also gone by the wayside. The politics of his current successor, Mr Jagdeo, are widely perceived as all about promoting triumphalism, with the party currently on the path to nominate another Indian to take over the leadership. Isn’t this supposed to be a multi-racial party that Jagan strived so hard to mould? And, doesn’t the party feel the need to change the ethnic perception of the party and try to win a minimum threshold of ten per cent of the African vote? The ruling PPP in these past elections derives practically all its support from Indians and Amerindians (the PPP has a lock on the Amerindian vote) – with practically no support from the Africans who make up 30 per cent of the population.
Ever since my activism for free and fair elections in the New York area (1990-92), and given the way Indian and African people have voted in all elections since 1992, namely straight race, I have always maintained that what passes in Guyana for democracy is nothing but a mirage – all fake. A mandate based overwhelmingly on a single ethnic group could never be a legitimate mandate to govern a multiracial country like Guyana.
Commemorating Jagan’s life this night, I can’t help but worry that his legacy, however defined, is all in tatters.