Cheddi Jagan whose birth and death anniversary is being observed this month is described as a man of the people. Ever since he entered the political stage on his return from the USA to pursue studies in dentistry, he immersed himself almost totally in the struggle for a better Guyana. In those days, there were no mass-based political parties. He identified himself with several trade unions and by so doing was able to understand firsthand the pains and sufferings of the ordinary people.
It did not take long before Dr Jagan gave up his dentistry practice and dedicated his entire life to the cause of the Guyanese people, more particularly the working people. For him, he wanted to cure the ills of the entire society and not simply limit himself to a few dental patients. This was a very noble act on his part as many of his colleagues in the dental profession were literally minting money off their dental practices.
He recognized how easy it was to develop that sense of snobbery that had consumed so many professionals of the period. Indeed, he thought it was highly unfair for dentists like himself to earn by a single extraction what an ordinary worker earned in an entire day. He soon found himself at loggerheads with others from the dental fraternity whose fees were much higher than his.
Dr Jagan was never interested in a fancy lifestyle and in his words, big bank accounts. He assisted all of his siblings to pursue studies abroad with the full support and encouragement of his wife Janet. It was the generosity of spirit and his ability to subordinate his own aggrandizement for the greater good of the people as a whole that sets him apart from others and really endeared him in the hearts of so many people.
In all of that, Dr Jagan found in his wife Janet a partner who shared his modest lifestyle and also his world outlook. I believe that it was that convergence of thinking on fundamental issues of politics and governance that made them such a formidable force, both individually and collectively. Dr Jagan was a rebel, even though he could not recall any rebel from his family tree. And Janet Jagan was named by the prestigious Time Magazine as one of sixteen of the world’s most rebellious women of all time.
It was, however, rebellion with a cause. That cause was to bring an end to exploitation and degradation of the working class and to create a free and just society.
It was a struggle that was long and hard but one which he was prepared to relive once again should the need arise. He was jailed, humiliated and harassed by the colonial power and by the undemocratic and authoritarian PNC regime, but his spirit remained unbroken. If anything, it served to strengthen his resolve to bring about an end to exploitation and undemocratic rule.
Having defined the nature of the problem his next task was to establish an organized assault against the exploitative system. It was Lenin who said that once the political line is defined, organization is everything. The formation of the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) in 1946 and the PPP in 1950 resulted from the recognition by Dr Jagan that the only possible way of confronting the establishment was first to raise the level of political consciousness of the
working class and then to organize and mobilize them into political action.
It was not accidental that Dr Jagan and his PPP won a landslide victory in the elections of 1953, the first to be held under universal adult suffrage. This was the first time that a leftist government won political office in this hemisphere through constitutional means. That victory preceded the Cuban Revolution and it understandably generated much angst in the capitalist world, in particular in Britain and the United States.
There are some who felt that Dr Jagan erred politically in not giving due prominence to the geo-political and geo-strategic realities which were largely responsible for the suspension of the Constitution in 1953 and his subsequent removal from power in 1964.
I beg to differ. I believe that every leader is the product of his or her time. Dr Jagan understood and on the basis of that understanding successfully defined the situation and charted a way to wrest power from the ruling oligarchy.
Put in a different way, he rode the wave of a popular struggle against colonialism, neo-colonialism, exploitation and bondage. Those were strong and powerful undercurrents which were sweeping the continents of Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean and which resonated with the broad masses of people who were yearning for change. To do otherwise would have been a betrayal of the trust and confidence that was reposed in him by the broad masses of people and it was something that Dr Jagan was not prepared to do regardless of the consequences.
What is conveniently ignored by those who level criticisms against Dr Jagan for ignoring geo-political realities was the fact that he was essentially a democrat and someone who believed in constitutional rule no different from what obtained in Britain and other western democracies. It was not his fault that he was manipulated and cheated out of office by the bigger powers who acted in concert with their local associates. It is analogous to blaming the victim and not the bandit for an act of banditry committed on the victim.
Dr Jagan was too principled a politician to betray the cause of the working people. He was a true man of the people. Power for him meant nothing unless it could advance the cause of ordinary people.
Cheddi Jagan Research Centre