The revocation of the lease for the Red House and the events which followed that, have caused a bruising of ethnic sensitivities when the issue, while a little delicate, perhaps, could have been dealt with far more rationally and with minimal repercussions. The government only has itself to blame for now making the matter unduly troublesome, and for inflicting quite unnecessary damage on itself.
The issue has several dimensions. The first is the legal one relating to the status of the lease of the building which the court will decide in February, and it therefore need not detain us here. Legal questions entirely apart, it can still be remarked that it was highly improper for the PPP/C government to lease a state-owned heritage building which had been repaired at public expense at a peppercorn rent to a private company ‒ the Cheddi Jagan Research Institute Inc (CJRI). Furthermore, it does not help its ethical case either that even after that, the staff who worked there continued to be paid by taxpayers, and not by the privately run institute.
From the lectures which have been advertised as being held in Red House, in addition to what has been written and said about the CJRI, it would seem that its functions leant more towards the hagiographical than the historical. One suspects, for example, that Dr Clem Seecharan would not have been the institute’s first choice to give a guest lecture, given that he would have provided an entirely different perspective on Dr Cheddi Jagan’s premiership than the one which constitutes the received wisdom of the PPP.
As such, one wonders too, who it was that was permitted to research there, and if only party stalwarts and sympathisers were granted admission. Having said that, of course, one has to acknowledge that in a country like this it would be very difficult to get either of the two major parties to disentangle political myth from a historical approach, and in the interest of history adopt a detached professional attitude to their material when bona fide researchers apply to have access to it.
Strictly speaking, state institutions ‒ as opposed to private ones ‒ which are custodians of records should take an objective line and not be concerned about who comes in to consult their papers; most of all they should not be imposing any view about the contents of their holdings and judging research applicants by how they view those contents. The case of Red House is ambiguous, because although technically private, it perhaps could be argued that it was a quasi-state institution in so far as the building was maintained by the state, and CJRI staff were paid by the state.
There is too, the matter of the institute’s collection per se. From a strictly historical point of view, the different portions of the stock are probably of differing historical value. Exactly how many original documents, photographs and papers which are not available anywhere else are deposited in Red House is something only those who have researched there, together with the curators and the Board know. A significant proportion of the material, one suspects, does not fall in that category. What cannot be denied, however, is that the CJRI has preserved the most historically important material in its care, and that any original papers or other material it holds must have been similarly well kept prior to that. Conservation, after all, should be its primary function, since no matter which side of the political trench one falls, or in whose custody the collection is, it is still part of the national patrimony.
This is not something the PPP itself has always recognized when the boot was on the other foot, so to speak. Among other things, the destruction of the collection in the old Ministry of Information following the PPP/C’s advent to office, was not its proudest moment as a custodian of public records.
Be that as it may, the present government certainly started out on the right path, by deciding to negotiate with the Board of the CJRI about the occupation of the Red House. What was unfortunate was the fact that the administration did not appoint an experienced negotiator – with diplomatic experience, perhaps – to represent it at the talks. For an exchange of this kind, Attorney-General Basil Williams does not evince the requisite attributes of patience, cultural sensitivity, evenness of temperament, fastidiousness of language and a capacity to avoid abrasiveness.
The government nevertheless put forward what would be considered anywhere else a reasonable suggestion, viz, that Red House should accommodate the papers of all the early presidents. The CJRI was strongly opposed to this, partly because of lack of trust, one supposes – and they will now justifiably feel themselves vindicated on this score by what has happened – and partly for hagiographic reasons, the obverse of which is total and indiscriminate condemnation of the PNC presidents. In other words, to treat Red House as a repository for the papers of PPP and PNC presidents, even if there were safeguards about the separate nature and management of the collections, would require a more historical approach than it would be easy to persuade the PPP to commit to.
Furthermore, Red House itself is associated with the defining period in the PPP’s history, from which its narrative of victimhood stems. It was when Dr Jagan lived here as Premier that the sequence of events occurred by which he was eventually manoeuvred out of government. That, together with the 28 years of PNC government which followed – 24 of them as a consequence of rigged elections – has seared itself into the consciousness of the party, and the actual building of Red House itself, therefore, has acquired for them a certain iconic status.
It might be noted that according to Mr Hydar Ally in his affidavit to the court, the representatives of the Management Committee of the CJRI discussed with Mr Williams the abridgment of the term of the lease of Red House and the payment of an increased rental. The latter said he would convey the proposal to his principals and report back in due course. Mr Ally went on to say that no response had been received, and then he read that on December 29, 2016, President David Granger had ordered the revocation of the lease and that the occupants should vacate the property on December 31.
If Mr Ally’s account is correct, why were the negotiations suspended unilaterally when there was an active proposal in play which had not been answered? If the PPP was not prepared to give way on the government position, there were other options which could have been explored, including variations on the one the institute put forward. Or even if no accord could have been reached on the use of Red House, there could have been a civilized arrangement arrived at between the two sides for vacating it. But no, the President, presumably on AG Williams’s flawed advice instead gave 48 hours’ notice for the evacuation.
That in itself is totally unacceptable, more especially when there are historical materials involved in the first instance, and in the second, when the remainder of the holdings is of such sentimental, ethnic and political party significance. How can an entire collection be moved out at 48 hours’ notice without putting it at risk? As others have pointed out, even the humblest tenant in the city’s worst slum gets more notice than that.
But it got worse. A day before the lease expired there was the crude pantomime outside Red House with men in shirts carrying the MOTP logo breaking down and stamping on the signpost, and changing the padlock, among other things. (Whoever knew that Ministry of the Presidency workers now had a uniform?) Minister Joseph Harmon was later to deny that he had sent them, and if he didn’t, then who did since the workers there are answerable to him? Apart from anything else, why were the men sent on December 30 and not December 31? That in and of itself is nothing less than a case of bad faith.
As mentioned above, one does not put the security of historical records at risk with this kind of operation, and the violence of the men in breaking down the signboard conveyed the message that the holdings potentially could have been at risk.
The other curious detail is that the men were sent after the conclusion of a court case where the Management Committee had applied for an interim order in relation to the eviction notice. One can only presume that for some reason the AG did not anticipate that the CJRI would go to court, and furthermore, that he did not expect it to be granted a conservatory order. If a Ministry of the Presidency press release on the evening of December 31 is to be believed, the AG does not seem to have been aware that the Chief Justice had issued a conservatory order in the case. Is this the reason the men were sent after the conclusion of the court hearing? (It still would not explain why the men were there on the wrong day, unless someone was confused about dates as well.) Laypeople can only marvel at how an Attorney-General appears to be less well informed about the outcome of a court case in which he was involved than everyone else there.
All the government has succeeded in doing is stirring up the proverbial hornet’s nest of ethnic and political accusations, along with allegations about trying to destroy Cheddi Jagan’s legacy, etc, etc. Whatever else the government has done, it has certainly breached trust, which will not be restored easily for the duration of its term.
One can only hope that following the outcome of the court case in February, reason descends on all the parties concerned.