This month, May 26 to be precise, marks 52 years since Guyana attained political independence from Great Britain. It is also coincided with the birth centenary of Dr. Cheddi Jagan who is regarded as the main architect of our national liberation struggle.
I propose in this letter to focus on the role played by Dr. Jagan in the struggle for a free, democratic and independent Guyana.
It is necessary however to situate Guyana’s independence struggle within a broader international context, namely the end of the Second World War and the defeat of Hitlerite fascism. The victory of the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of the USSR in 1917 also gave fresh impetus to the decolonization struggles in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
It was however the return to the colony in 1943 of Dr. Jagan and his American born wife Janet that really set in motion the struggle for independence. As a student in the United States, Dr. Jagan had been following intensely the independence struggles in India and a few other states in Africa such as Kenya and Ghana and lent his active support both politically and morally to these national liberation struggles. It was the support for the independence struggles offered to Ghana and Kenya under Jomo Kenyatta that was partly responsible for the overthrow of the PPP in 1953 following the suspension of the Guyana constitution. Dr. Jagan had been a strong supporter of the Kenyan struggle for independence. It was not accidental that he was invited to celebrate with the Kenyan people when independence was eventually granted to that country.
One of the first tasks that Dr. Jagan set out to do on his return from the United States was to raise the level of political awareness of the Guyanese people regarding the need for internal self-government and ultimately that of political independence. He found common cause with several others including Mr. Ashton Chase, HJM Hubbard and his wife Janet who together formed the Political Affairs Committee in 1946. This was the forerunner to the People’s Progressive Party which was formed on January 1, 1950.
It was the formation of the PPP in 1950 and the eventual victory of the Party in the 1953 elections that set the stage for sustained assault on the colonial edifice and the eventual granting of political independence. Independence did not come on a platter but featured lots of political drama and theatrics on the part of Britain and the United States. Dr. Jagan and the PPP became a formidable political force to reckon with and every effort was made to emasculate the PPP and its influence on the Guyanese masses.
Dr. Jagan for his part was unrelenting in his advocacy for national independence. In fact, he was the only colonial leader that was allowed by the United Nations to mount a petition for independence after prolonged foot dragging and other delaying tactics by Britain to grant independence despite an earlier commitment to so do.
It was the embarrassment caused as a result of the petition that resulted in the fixing of a date for independence even though the British government defaulted on an undertaking to grant independence to a government that emerged victorious from the 1961 elections. Instead, independence was granted on May 1966 but only after the PPP was removed from office in what a former British Prime Minister, Mr. Harold Wilson described as ‘a fiddled constitutional arrangement.’
Despite being cheated and manipulated out of office in 1964, Dr. Jagan in a true spirit of magnanimity and patriotism attended the ceremony at the Queen Elizabeth Park, which was renamed the National Park on the conferral of independent status. The emotional embrace between Dr. Jagan and Mr. Burnham as the Golden Arrowhead replaced the Union Jack would forever be etched in the memories of Guyanese but it masked a deeper narrative of treachery and betrayal by Britain, the United States and other local reactionary forces which included the PNC and the United Force.
In his independence speech in Parliament during the handing over of the instruments of independence by the Duke of Kent representing Queen Elizabeth to Prime Minister Forbes Burnham, Dr. Jagan lauded the conferral of Independence even as he lamented the manner in which it came about and the political climate which obtained at the time.
But it was the fear and trepidation of a reversal of the democratic and economic gains expressed by Dr. Jagan during his speech that brought out his perspicacity and visionary qualities. As predicted, the true meaning of independence was negated in fundamental ways by the erosion of democracy, rigged elections, incompetence and denial of basic human rights. For nearly three decades the country languished under the yoke of authoritarian rule until democracy was finally restored on October 5, 1992. Dr. Jagan, after twenty eight years in the political wilderness was elected as the duly elected Executive President of Guyana.