To attempt the chronicling of the life and times of Cheddi Jagan within the inadequate confines of a single newspaper editorial, harnessed as it is by the constraint of brevity, is to court all sorts of risks. After all, the life and times of Dr Jagan have both shaped and been shaped by some of the landmark developments that have fashioned the socio-political history of Guyana itself, so that any such an undertaking requires, in essence, a perusal of much of the political history of the period in question.
That route is fraught with both the burden of extensive research and the risk of controversy, though such an eventuality will be no means be setting a precedent in so far as the various accounts of the life and times of Cheddi Jagan are concerned. After all, and for reasons that have to do with political differences of opinion and a bewildering array of interpretations, the years since his passing have witnessed a profusion of written offerings on the man and his place in Guyana’s history. These too, have sometimes served to set in motion robust discourses, even controversies that have endured (often to little constructive purpose) over protracted periods. Cheddi Jagan’s unquestioned intimacy with a great many of the landmark socio-political developments that have comprised the evolution of Guyana as a nation may be topics for intellectual discourse, though his perceptions of all of them may not be entirely unchallengeable as matters of historical fact. Contextually, in the matter of an evaluation of Dr Jagan’s contribution to his country and its development we can perhaps comfort ourselves in the knowledge that differences of political opinion do not always give rise to outright and unsubstantiated bias.
Nowhere was that truism more overwhelmingly and visibly demonstrated than in the spontaneous outpouring of national grief across the ethnic and political divisions that have so persistently defined our country, than in the throngs who came to view his remains at State House twenty-one years ago. That interlude, fleeting as it was, still, perhaps, points to the likelihood of what one might call a ‘better place’ in Guyanese political culture. As one political commentator remarked at the time, “the throngs that queued outside State House to file past his coffin were trampling on the strong ethnic and political divisions of our country and doing so unmindful of how their behaviour might appear to those who still could not let go of the feeling that mourning Dr Jagan’s death was necessarily some sort of partisan ritual.”
Cheddi Jagan’s place as one of the larger-than-life figures in Guyana’s political history is not even remotely in question, even among Guyanese who never embraced his political views. That is the mark of the man.
Dr Jagan’s more than half a century in the political leadership of the country included a role in the founding of the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) in 1946 and in the following year his accession to the Legislative Council. Less than three years later, on January 1,1950 Cheddi Jagan founded the People’s Progressive Party, fashioned out of a merger of the PAC and the then British Guiana Labour Party (BGLP) led by Forbes Burnham, the twinning of the political ideals of the two eventually being undermined by the post-war ideological paranoia of the West. The enduring consequence of that parting of political ways defines the political culture of Guyana to this day.
That reality, however unquestioned and regrettable as it may be, can neither obscure nor diminish Dr Jagan’s landmark personal and considerable contribution to sculpting of the political history of Guyana. His popular appeal was as much a function of his enduring ordinariness (and instinctive personal warmth) that derived, it seemed, from his working class origins as the grandson of East Indian indentured labourers as it was a function of his political advocacy, which espoused the social upliftment and economic advancement of the working class.
Abroad, in the West, perceptions of Guyana, an otherwise little-known South American British colony, were conditioned, overwhelmingly, by Dr Jagan’s embrace of communist ideology, so that Cheddi himself became a critical focus of Western foreign policy perceptions of the Caribbean. In those days, the environment of the Cold War served to galvanize Western perceptions of parts of Latin America and the Caribbean being ‘drenched’ in an ‘alien ideology’ ‒ communism ‒ so that Dr Jagan himself became, over time, cast in the role of the ‘free world’s bogeyman’ in the Caribbean.
It was this ‘strategic perception’ in the West of just what it saw as the likely fate of Guyana under Dr Jagan’s leadership that truncated his stay in office as Chief Minister in 1953 to a mere one hundred and thirty-three days, the British government having suspended the country’s constitution and simultaneously landed a detachment of British troops here to quell a non-existent civil uprising. That was to be the first intervention to deny him the leadership of the country.
Subsequent years of political frustration were to follow. Victory at the polls at 1961 earned him a truncated (three-year) premiership, from August 1961 to December 1964, years which were followed by loss of office. The period that followed, arguably, the most tumultuous and politically defining years in Guyana’s political history, saw the exaggeration of political divisions that metamorphosed into civil disturbances and at a later stage successive fraudulent elections that resonated far beyond the country’s shores. In effect, an enduring and widespread perspective on the political career of Cheddi Jagan amongst an audience that extends beyond his political followers is that of a man who had persistently and unfairly had his occupancy of political office truncated or else denied altogether, and that in effect he had been unfairly denied the right to reach the political heights which his contribution to the development of Guyana merited.
It is against this backdrop that some analysts of the life and times of Cheddi Jagan came to see the eventual culmination of his ‘long walk’ to the leadership of Guyana, this time truncated by his death, as more than a trifle anti-climactic. Some have argued that a period of less than a single full term in the highest office in the land amounted to a decidedly inadequate political reward for the extent of his political struggles, though history may well have come to see him as a man whose stature as a national icon does not depend on the prop of high political office. That, doubtless, is a debate which will persist way beyond the period of the centenary of his birth.