Cheddi Jagan was born on March 22, 1918, and died on March 6, 1997. He was
intimately involved in the politics of this nation from his return to this country in 1943, after training as a dentist, until his death. Today we bring readers a souvenir of his life to mark the one hundredth anniversary since his birth.
By Desiree Wintz
(An edited version reprinted from Sunday Stabroek, September 13, 1992, page 11)
Cheddi Jagan said his mother Bachaoni was the financial wizard of the family. Even after she and other women relatives had served their indentureship they couldn’t afford to quit the eleven hours a day jobs in the field to mind her children. Every cent counted. Her husband earned a little more but they still had to scrape together to make ends meet. Cheddi remembered his mother tending the kitchen garden, livestock and the small patch of rice land whose produce was sold in the market on Saturdays.
There were eleven children to feed and as soon as they were old enough Cheddi said his mother taught them independence, putting them in charge of their own livestock or garden bed, then he joined the market day bustle. Cheddi was the oldest and his parents were determined that he not be caught up in the tangled skein called poverty and deprivation.
So, they broke their backs and skimped to get him an education at the elite Queen’s College for boys.
Georgetown was a ‘culture shock’ for a poor boy of the country. Not that he felt inferior to his moneyed classmates, but there were some things he had to get used to. For instance when the cows of the family with whom he boarded needed grass, he willingly braved the mud and cut it, a thing a normal QC boy wouldn’t have been caught dead doing.
When he graduated from high school there were no jobs open for him except menial plantation labour, a thing his father wouldn’t hear of. His father by then knew the managers of the estate since he spent much time gambling at cards on Saturdays with them. But persons of a certain class and complexion weren’t allowed certain jobs, and since the only avenue left was going abroad to study, he took it.
The two inevitable choices (being a doctor or lawyer) came up. Those were the only avenues out of the rigid class and economic systems, he explained. The civil service was closed. It was the only place the middle class blacks and coloureds could go and the number of places were limited. In that time, he said, there were the upper and middle class whites and the lower middle class coloureds and Indians. They were divided into the League of Coloured Peoples and the East Indian Association. The East Indian Association consisted of rich Indians who owned the shops, money and rice mills or had bought up plantations and were exploiting the majority who had to live off it.
Since at the time he was not outgoing and did not feel like expressing himself in open court he chose to be a doctor Also, for some time he had been envying the manner of District Doctor Kennard, and wanted to go into the medical field. He went to study dentistry in the USA, counting out England because he couldn’t work and study there, and besides, American education was cheaper.
The seven years he spent there formed his thinking forever, he said.
Schooling in Washington left him exposed to the colour barriers of a foreign country … But when he went to Chicago to continue his education where the school was top-rate and the people of a higher class, he got to mingle with whites and learnt their culture.
Summers he spent in Harlem because jobs were easy to get, and he stood and listened to the street debates on topics he felt strongly about. He also frequented the slums of Chicago because the food there was cheap.
The jobs he had to do to pay his tuition were both difficult and at times degrading. He was caught in the rush, so much so that when he contracted tuberculosis he attributed the tiredness to overwork. And in a sanatorium outside Chicago to which he was committed to rest, at a time when medicine was not as advanced, he had time to slow down and read. His literature included studies on how rich Americans made their fortunes, and books on socialism that opened up new horizons.
By the end of his studies he met Janet, a student who had given up her studies to train as a nurse so she could be involved in the Second World War when America entered in 1941. After they had known each other for less than a year they were married without the consent of both parents. Her father had threatened to shoot him and for his Hindu parents, marriage to someone on whom they hadn’t had a chance to put their stamp of approval was a thing just not done.
British Guiana when he returned home in 1943 had no political parties. There were just the trade unions (Critchlow Labour Union, Clerical and Commercial Workers Union and the Man Power Citizens Association) and the Coloured League and the East Indian Association.
He and his wife took part along with other radicals and intellectuals, in the discussions which took place regularly at the library, and wrote letters to the newspapers.
In 1946 Cheddi, Janet, Ashton Chase and Jocelyn Hubbard formed a Political Affairs Committee and published a bulletin. The next year he won a seat in the legislative assembly. In January, 1950 he founded the PPP and became its leader. In 1953 he was elected to government, was booted out by the British, and spent six months in jail with a few of his party stalwarts for breaking restriction orders. He was elected again in ’57, when the constitution was restored and had another opportunity between 1961 and ’64. He has since been leader of the opposition.
Cheddi feels the failed revolutions of ’53, the late fifties and early sixties were due to outside intervention. He no longer has plans for a Communist Guyana but intends to integrate the beneficial points of the ideology with a new national democratic programme.
He says East Indian economic dominance is a myth, since on the average East Indians are poor farmers…
On the subject of our national debt, he said he has already met the governments of the EEC, the IMF, World Bank and IDB and the majority of our creditors and discussed the fact that we can’t progress with such a debt. He has had responses of debt forgiveness, long term rescheduling, soft loans and grants.
He says Guyana needs a balance of an agricultural as well as an industrial economy. Since the war, he said, agricultural economies have been suffering because of the fluctuation of prices while the prices for manufactured goods were better since they were influenced by the North. A dual economy can boost employment and help local investors. The Agri industry could provide both food and raw material like jute for the manufacturing industry. And as more factories for the processing of food would be built, unemployed youth selling cigarettes on the streets would have an alternative.
On the question of under population Jagan says he’ll encourage the remigration of Guyanese abroad, invite West Indians to settle, and try to attract other ‘transients’ since there are people out there without land and water. He says he will also look at our migration laws that govern this.
Divestment of the sugar industry he does not believe in, he said, because he plans that every worker should have a piece of land where they could moonlight and grow their own food. Besides, he says, there are other ways to divest besides selling, like leases and management con-tracts. Also he believes the essentials like electricity and water should be in the hands of the people. He believes in free health and education and subsidised transportation but the reality of the country would have to be looked at.
Jagan said the lot of the Amerindians would be bettered once communication to the interior is improved. They will experience economic growth, he said, once they can easily transport their produce. Each village will be expected to work out their own development plan and develop their own projects, he said, since they are more au fait with their needs. Since they also know their areas the eco tourism will be theirs to develop and make a living off. Jagan says he will set up a Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, give them first preference to their lands arid allow them to market their craft.
He hopes the problem between Guyana and Venezuela will be settled amicably at the UN. He said Venezuela and Brazil could offer us much in the way of pesticides, machinery and fertilisers. He said that Guyana in turn could make a swap for food and the setting up of processing factories.
Why does Jagan feel he’ll win? He said that in over 40 years of politics a man should be able to judge the mood of the people. He said he’s tidied all the corners of ideology, including big business, academics, religion, faced the issue of race and is ready to run with the farmers and workers and the grassroots who have stood by him.
And besides, he says, the ruling party has lost the support of the big powers, the churches and the unions, the UF is dead and the political pundits are looking at him in a new light.