The National Trust Act was bypassed when Red House was leased

Dear Editor,

In the wake of the recent controversy over the eviction of the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre  (CJRC) from the heritage property that is Red House, I am professionally and personally obligated to provide some clarity on the issues.

Firstly, it needs to be made clear that Red House, known otherwise as Kamana Court, had a full history before Dr Cheddi Jagan resided there as premier in the early to mid-sixties.  While no date is given as to its original construction, the architecture suggests late 19th century and as the scant information provided by the National Trust website informs us, “The Colony of British Guiana acquired the Red House in 1925. Sir Eustace Woolford, a Speaker of the Legislature, was one of the early owners of the house. Between 1925 to1953, numerous Colonial Secretaries resided there. Dr. Cheddi Jagan also lived there from 1961 to 1964 while he served as Premier of British Guiana. Subsequently from 1965 to the early 1990’s the Red House was used as government offices e.g. the Public Service Ministry.”

Its historicity and heritage value were therefore not, as the PPP would have us believe, primarily established by Cheddi Jagan’s short time there but preceded and followed it due to the building’s longevity, its distinctive architecture, and its function as government offices up until the time of the PPP coming into office in the early nineties, when it was abandoned as a functional space.  In 2000, a decade after that abandonment, the PPP then comes in to ‘rescue’ the heritage building standing on three lots of prime real estate by repurposing it as a shrine to Jagan’s memory run by a thinly disguised management committee standing in for the PPP, with the staff and utilities paid for by the state.

As is typical of the party, the century-old history of Red House is erased and reduced merely to Jagan’s four years’ residence there (1961-64) and the shoddy establishment of the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre (2000-2016).  By comparison and to offer some perspective, LFS Burnham spent twenty years (1965-1985) residing in Castellani House, the building that now houses the National Art Collection, a property built in the late 1800s by Cesar Castellani.  Were the PNC to appropriate this heritage site and lease it to a thinly disguised front company for 99 years at $12,000 a year and turn it into a shrine for Burnham, the staff costs and bills of which were paid for by taxpayers, it would be offensive to our citizenry as a whole and the PPP would have been up in arms, even had said lease been properly effected.

That established, we can now go on to the legitimacy of the ‘lease’.  At the time of the

founding of the CJRC, Red House was already qualified and listed as a national heritage site and therefore subject at all material times, from 1999 onwards, to the management of the National Trust and the provisions of its establishing Act, Cap 20:03, Laws of Guyana, specifically Section 3 (Establishment and Constitution of the National Trust), which begins, “There is hereby established a body to be known as the National Trust which shall be a body corporate with power to do all things necessary for the

purposes of this act except that the National Trust shall not transfer, mortgage, lease, charge or dispose of any land without the approval of the Minister.”

The Attorney-General has rightfully addressed the ‘lease’ as executed under the Lands Department Act, Cap. 59:01 simply because this was the instrument under which control of Red House was supposedly ceded to the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre, Inc.  However, in dealing with this issue, the specific provision of Cap 20:03, Sec. 3, and the spirit of the rest of the National Trust Act are what matter since they override any normal course of business with regard to land transfers by it offering specific protection to properties designated as heritage sites.  In brief, Red House and its adjacent lands, being collectively designated a heritage site, could not then and cannot be now leased without express permission from the President or a designated Minister authorizing the National Trust to do so, and any agreement would have to be between the lessee and the Trust as guardian of said property.

I suspect the recognition of this quandary by the principals of the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre is what stymied the formal transfer of ‘ownership’ of the property until 2011, after which the myth of the invincibility of the PPP was laid bare by their only gaining a minority executive.  It should be noted that while Donald Ramotar as CJRC principal would have made application for permission for a lease to Jagdeo (who refused to grant it) in 2006 under Cap 20:03 Sec 3, he did not himself as President grant that permission to the company CJRC Inc in 2012.

Instead, the National Trust Act was absurdly bypassed altogether when CJRC principal, Ralph Ramkarran, still then a PPP member, would ‘successfully’ – a few months after the 2011 election – apply for a lease under Cap 59:01, a manoeuvre which, while clever, could only be validated if either there were explicit ministerial permission granted (from either Ramotar, or Anthony as designated by him) under the NTA, or the Red House was at some point stripped of its national heritage site designation and could no longer be considered protected under the NTA.

It should be noted that none of the PPP’s legal luminaries, Anil Nandlall in particular, have dared to mention the issue of Cap 20:03 since it is inherently fatal to whatever public argument they are trying to make, and certainly would be to any such representation in a court of law.

Whatever the mechanism, the transfer of a national heritage site to a political party’s front company was a massive betrayal of the National Trust, the entity responsible for built heritage preservation, and the national trust, since the implicit responsibility of government is to protect national patrimony.  This deceit did not merely include PPP as a party but also government officers whose responsibility was to uphold the tenets of both.  Jagdeo might have refused to offer his permission under the NTA because he does not like to get his hands dirty, but to the extent that he did not quash the original application outright, he is complicit.

Gail Teixeira, whose failures as a Minister of Culture are increasingly apparent, however well-disguised, would have been the responsible Minister under whose tenure this travesty was originally perpetuated.  Her effective successor, Dr Frank Anthony, under whose incompetent watch we saw the accelerated degradation or outright destruction of prime built heritage sites, from City Hall to the Umana Yana to the New Amsterdam Hospital, was the sitting Minister at the time the 2012 lease would have been issued.  And Donald Ramotar of course, at all times being a party to this travesty, is equally responsible.

Most insidious however, would be the role of Dr James Rose. At the time the CJRC would have been established, Rose was serving as Executive Chairman (1999-2000) of the National Trust.  At the time that Ramotar as director of CJRC would have been applying for Jagdeo to sign off on a lease agreement between the National Trust and CJRC management, Rose would not only have been a principal of that entity, but would also have been simultaneously serving as Chairman of the Board of the National Trust.  At the time the 2012 lease would have been issued to CJRC Inc, he would have been serving as Director of Culture (DOC), operationally responsible not only for the National Trust, but for heritage protection and preservation policy in general.  Herein we have a textbook conflict of interest operating as business as usual, something that should have resulted in Rose’s immediate dismissal as DOC since this issue was first raised over a year ago, an oversight that has fortunately since been corrected.

The illicit transfer of Red House, a national heritage site sitting on several lots of prime real estate, has nothing to do with perpetuating the memory of a man known for his frugality and humility.  It has everything to do with the Jagdeoite PPP using that memory as a fig leaf for the appropriation of valuable state property at the expense of national patrimony, something the current administration would have failed to recognize when it entered into ‘negotiations’ with CJRC/PPP over a year ago.  While I was in disagreement with that approach, I applaud President Granger on now taking swift and decisive action in not only retaking control of Red House but in assigning it to house the National Trust, the very institution that was deliberately bypassed in this fiasco.

I believe, going forward, that the state should support the establishment of a Cheddi Jagan Research Centre in an apt location, whether a new facility funded by his successors or as part of a general complex dedicated to our past presidents.  Any negotiation at this point with the PPP however should simply be about taking precautions in moving Dr Jagan’s papers and other artefacts to a safe and suitable location in a timely manner so as the facilitate the movement of the National Trust into Red House – I’m sure there is adequate temporary space in Dr Jagdeo’s seaside mansion compound.

In closing, for the record, while I understand the PPP’s desperate false opprobrium vigil/protest, predictably led by Jagdeo and Teixeira, any counter-protest involving opposing political party supporters is not only a recipe for disaster but it does precisely what the PPP wants, which is to obfuscate the issues at hand and project this as some extension of the apparently eternal struggle between the PPP and the PNC.  This does a disservice to the decision taken by President Granger and diminishes what is the sort of strong, moral, ethical presidential action his critics have accused him of not engaging enough of in the first place.

Yours faithfully

Ruel Johnson

Cultural Policy Advisor

Government of Guyana

 

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