Letter from Guyana: Reclamations
Last March, when the body of Cheddi Jagan, former President of Guyana, lay in state near the tiny village where he was born, the crowds of villagers and sugar workers streaming past to catch a last glimpse of their leader were so enormous that the cremation ceremony had to be postponed. Almost 100,000 people crowded into the Albion Sports Center, in a country of less than 800,000. Finally, the next day, Jagan's widow, Janet Jagan, got on the radio and said to the country: "It's time. It's time to let him go and continue on."
Nothing better characterizes the problems facing Guyana, a lush country sitting on the tip of South America. For fifty years, Guyana has lived under the spell of charismatic leaders, hanging on to a past it needs to let go of. Now, with Jagan's death, Guyana -- however reluctantly -- must usher in a new era. Yet even this transition is being led by an icon of the past.
Nine months later, on December 15th, Mrs. Jagan was declared the winner in a presidential race, having pulled in 56% of the vote. Mrs. Jagan's victory was as much a homage to a political legacy, as it is an expression of nervous uncertainty about who will shape the country's destiny.
To me, Cheddi Jagan always loomed as an eerie, romantic alternative to my own father. They grew up in neighboring villages in the eastern-most region of Guyana, a muddy flatland where their grandparents toiled as indentured workers in the sugar plantations. As young, ambitious men, both made their way to the U.S., which transformed them. For Jagan, it was a journey of political awakening--into Marxism, which he brought back to Guyana; for my father, it was a journey of immigration, with all its possibilities of identity and mobility.
In September 1996, a few months before Jagan's death, I went down to Guyana for the first time. I found a place still living on old myths of political heroism and betrayal, having trouble finding its way into the future.
The Guyana of my imagination was frozen in time -- forty years ago, in the grainy black and white photographs my mother brought back from her stay in my father's village. Those were the days when Jagan helped found the country's independence movement, joining a glowing pantheon of elegant intellectual statesmen and socialist freedom fighters from the West Indies, like Eric Williams, C.L.R. James, and Michael Manley (who coincidentally died a day after Jagan). At our dinner table in Queens, New York, my father would offer misty recollections of what it was like to grow up under colonialism, where, "Indians and blacks, we were all in it together, fighting the British."
It was with this vision of shared struggle that Cheddi and his American wife Janet launched the People's Progressive Party (P.P.P.), a multi-racial coalition, in 1950. But that ideal foundered on the shoals of international cold war conflict and deep-seated local racial divisions. Guyana's population is roughly 55 percent Indians, 35 percent Africans, along with smaller numbers of Portuguese, Chinese, and Amerindians.
In 1955, the black leader, Forbes Burnham, split from the P.P.P. and started his own party, the People's National Congress (P.N.C.). Though the parties espoused almost identical political policies, the heady days of racial cooperation were over. While the P.P.P. won again in 1956, the British considered Burnham the less dangerous choice and were leery of Jagan, who unabashedly looked to Cuba and the Soviet Union as political models.
In the early 1960s, with independence imminent, President Kennedy threw the U.S. government's weight behind Burnham; it is well-known that the C.I.A. was behind much of the labor unrest and the civil strife that nearly tore the country apart at that time. Jagan's government was destabilized, and Burnham was voted into power in 1964; for the next 28 years, the PNC would rule through rigged elections. Jagan stayed on as leader of the P.P.P. all those years, pounding the opposition pulpit, surviving the worst of times.
Burnham, by all accounts, was a brilliant orator, a man who tried on ideologies like suits. The Cambridge-educated colonial of the fifties became a militant black leader and then a demented third world socialist, performing voodoo ceremonies in his presidential palace. Guyana was renamed a Cooperative Republic, as Burnham grew infatuated with the idea of large scale cooperative farms in the virtually uninhabitable interior.
Eventually, Burnham ran up the worst foreign debt in the Western hemisphere, sealed off the economy, and turned Guyana into a paramilitary state. By the mid-seventies, Guyana had become a place of danger, crime, and robbery, shady dealings, and "choke and rob" gangsters stalking people on the streets of Georgetown. Everyone knew its elections were rigged--even "overseas Guyanese" could vote. I remember a man knocking on our door in Queens, telling my father and American mother they were on the list. "But we're not even citizens!" they protested. "No matter," the man replied.
During the Burnham years, nearly half of the Guyanese population settled overseas--in the last decade, this tiny country was responsible for the fourth largest immigrant group in New York City. "The whole country was waiting to leave," Bernadette Persaud, a Guyanese painter, told me, "We didn't care about the country, we let it go, the roads deteriorated, we put out garbage right out on the streets. We were filled with self-contempt, and that became our justification for leaving."
In 1985, when Burnham died, inflation was a raging 70 percent, GDP growth a laughable .4 percent, and the government couldn't pay its bills. When his successor, Desmond Hoyte, took over as president, he began slashing the country's bloated, centralized bureacracy and selling off government-owned companies. Companies like Reynolds Aluminum, driven out during the heyday of third world nationalization, came back to Guyana to do business. The 1992 elections were monitored by the Carter Center, and the People's Progressive/Civic party was declared victorious, having garnered roughly 54 percent of the vote--almost all Indian. The 1992 elections were a historical watershed: for those in the P.P.P., this was their moment of historical justice, with their wronged leader rising from the ashes. For others, it meant more of the same in a country dominated by two racialized parties and two charismatic personalities.
On my first morning in Guyana, I was hustled into a mini-van to accompany a group of visiting delegates who were there for the fiftieth year celebration of the Rice Producers' Association (R.P.A.). The event was an odd mix of 4-H country fair and political rally. New tractors and combines sat in a rutted, muddy field, while farmers packed the cramped benches inside a freshly painted school house festooned with crepe paper banners. The only black people in the room were the steel drum players of the Guyana Police Force Band.
The speeches were stiff, old party style exhortations, as if this was a revival meeting of apparatchiks. A sense of vengeance crackled in the air, like static electricity, and an anniversary celebration quickly slid into P.P.P. boosterism.. "Gone are the days of P.N.C. and their incompetent government!" "We have survived! Fifty years of resistance, we have endured! Long live the R.P.A.!"
Cheddi Jagan ascended the podium and was lavished with garlands from three young girls before launching into his speech. Jagan reminded me of a bright, elderly professor, eager to assimilate new concepts like "diversification," "global economy" and "downsizing" into his well-worn lectures.
I could imagine the old Cheddi, campaigning in these coastal villages years before. In the old days the rhetoric was about class struggle. Now the message was efficiency and high quality crops so Guyana could compete with other rice producers on the world market. The rural audience seemed frozen in another era: riveted on their children's benches, passive, listening to their leader as he wove a story that connected them to the larger world.
That night, however, the time warp broke and forty years of cultural influences poured in. A Caribbean fusion band took the stage, strumming out a mix of hip hop and chutney-calypso. The benches were packed with families, while in the back teenage boys were whooping it up; they might have been on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, with their homeboy jeans and hightops and NY tee shirts. In 1992, when Jagan was elected, another change arrived: TV, and with it, all the new fashions and music. Globalization of culture was well underway.
Georgetown was exactly as I had envisioned it: long, broad avenues, white wood houses with exquisite lace lattice work and jalousie windows. The British had built a Garden City from which they mean to rule.
But the Georgetown I encountered was also a capital ravaged by war--a war of politics and neglect. The houses were fallen down wrecks, the roads rutted and impassable. One could stroll along a busy boulevard and a moment later disappear into a dangerous, burnt out pocket.
Yet there were stirrings of change. Outside my hotel, Main Street was being repaved--part of the government's commitment to restore Georgetown's roads by the end of the year. Next door was a persistent banging, as workers renovated the lemon-colored National Library. Donkey carts trundled side by side with new Lexus cars. Down the street, every night at the Palm Court Restaurant, groups of men mingled, flashing cellular phones, drinking, while the DJ spun the latest remixes of soca hits. It was unmistakable, this atmosphere of a country coming out of hard times, renewing itself.
On my second evening I attended a party on the lawn of State House, the presidential home. Though my hotel was only three blocks away, I was warned to take a taxi, since the streets of Georgetown are still dangerous. At the party, I asked a man who was temporarily serving as Attorney General how Jagan had managed to remake himself from a Marxist to a moderate liberal courting foreign investors. Had the Guyanese people followed him in this shift?
"The people of Guyana are not ideological," the man replied. "Ideas are for the metropolis. Guyanese follow a leader."
"And what happens when there isn't a leader?" I asked.
"There's a saying in the Caribbean," he laughed. "One rasta dies and another springs up."
The question of leadership was a thorn that pricked every conversation. At the time, Mrs. Jagan had just recovered from a heart attack. Even for those who are critical of the Jagans, her illness was disturbing. It reminded them of the vacuum of leadership their deaths would leave. "An era is about to pass," I was told many times.
Guyana lost an entire generation--those in their thirties and forties, who would have moved up in the ranks, challenged their elders. Instead, most educated professionals settled in Toronto, New York, and London, making new lives as immigrants. The hemorrhaging of young, educated Guyanese means the two major parties ossified, leaving little room for change or fresh ideas.
When Jagan first came into office, he called on overseas Guyanese to repatriate, invest in the country. Some did--including several who became ministers in his cabinet. Business people also came. Within months, many got disgusted and left again. The reasons given were low salaries and inefficiencies in the infrastructure. Beneath these obvious explanations, though, lurked another tension: that between insiders and outsiders.
The die-hard, loyal "comrades" who stuck out the really bad years with no flour on their shelves, who lost their jobs or were jailed for belonging to the wrong party or race, resent the expatriates who made their way back home. Raymond, a recent college graduate who returned to run a food relief program, told me, "There's still an ideological taint, coming from a capitalist country like the States." Another man, a consultant in his thirties (there are many "consultants" running around Guyana these days, though it was hard to pin down what they do) talked about how he had to pay respect to the old-timers for their sacrifices in order to get anything done.
There is, essentially, one road in Guyana--the highway that runs roughly parallel to the sea wall. I was struck by this when I finally arranged for a car and driver and set out for Letter Kenny village to find out what happened to my aunts. Most of Guyana lives on a slender strip of reclaimed coastland, made possible by an ingenious system of canals and dams built by the Dutch in the 17th century. The land was flat as the eye can see, with huge gold-stippled fields of cane and rice.
Throughout my childhood I was haunted by the photographs of our family home in this part of Guyana: the large white house on tall stilts, the carved shutters and imported European furniture. Our house was a symbol of my family's proud rise: we were the first in the village to convert to Christianity; my father and uncles were the first to pass the Cambridge overseas exam; and one of my aunts was the haughty, local Sunday school teacher.
I had somehow pictured the village to be a quaint grouping of houses, a central square with a church and schoolhouse. But we nearly whizzed right by Letter Kenny, for the entire village was lined up along the highway--everything from the Justice of the Peace's office to the gas station to the rice mill. The one-room schoolhouse where my father had gone to school was boarded up, goats ambling through the weeds.
Rain was falling heavily I got out of the car to talk to a gas station owner. When I mentioned my family name, his eyes clouded over and he muttered, "Everyone's dead." He pointed vaguely ahead. "There's just the plot of land."
When I finally located the family lot, I found that our house no longer stood. In its place was a rough wood shack, a new welding shop. The men working on jacked up cars watched, curious and nervous, as I picked my way through the rubble, looking for some artifact of my family.
The story I eventually learned was disturbing. Standing in a muddy cemetery, where all my aunts and uncles and grandparents were buried, I listened to a neighbor pour out the tale of my family's demise. As my aunts grew more dotty with age, villagers would slip inside the house and steal from them. They took the beautiful, handsewn dresses, the embroidered pillows, the diamond ring and gold bangles. The money we sent them somehow never made it to their hands. The stairs fell off the stilted house until my aunts were marooned in one room, dependent on the kindness of good neighbors who would climb the ladder, bring food, chase away the intruders.
It was a painful story, yet it gave me a telling image of Guyana during the bad political years: these proud Indian aunts, trapped in another era with their colonial airs, hostage to their wreck of a house as it was looted and destroyed around them. But there are signs of hope. On top of the rotten boards, something new has been built: a welding shop, signs of a new energy and wealth. If my past is gone, perhaps a new Guyana is being born.
Before meeting with Janet Jagan, I was nervous. I expected to meet a severe, tight-lipped party ideologue. But the woman who greeted me in an empty sitting room was plump and grandmotherly, dressed in purple stretch pants and a polyester print blouse. She fussed about the cat, brought me a glass of soda, chatted about her family. When I asked about some current political struggles, she waved her hand, dismissing them as "momentary." Behind Mrs. Jagan's softness, though, I detected an unswerving and willfull intelligence, able to guide the conversation in the direction she wanted.
Calmly she ran over the accomplishments of the PPP/Civic government: the restoration of democracy--"Parliament was a farce before that"; their commitment to education; the selling of new house lots to the poor; their efforts to establish racial harmony. On this last, she blamed the PNC for igniting the race issue all over again. Mrs. Jagan complained, "When we expose corruption, it gets switched into race. The PNC plays a nasty game."
While we were talking, President Jagan returned with one of his aides from a PPP fundraising event at the races. "I couldn't bet," he admitted sheepishly, "because I didn't bring any money." Mrs. Jagan giggled, remarking that Cheddi had never been the one in the family to take care of the money. "Now that he's president he doesn't do anything like shopping. So he doesn't have any money to gamble."
This moment--so quaintly domestic, making the President seem like a sweet, preoccupied husband--was telling. There was an endearing down-to-earth simplicity to the Jagans. One could see how easy it was to accept their version of things, become their fond allies. The impulse to mythologize them was in me too, for they were like reassuring, modest parents that anyone would wish to have.
Yet one of the harshest criticisms of the PPP/Civic government is exactly this--that it runs the country like a family. Sensitive political problems, like government appointments and corruption investigations, are handled behind the scenes, like a family crisis discussed after the children have gone to bed. Though the PPP/Civic advertises itself as an inclusive party, and there have been no violent reprisals against blacks, the party draws from a largely Indian vote, and the government appointed largely Indian boards and ministers.
No one doubted Cheddi Jagan's own integrity. There was a spartan idealism to both him and Janet that was a welcome relief after Burnham. But surrounding them were the murkier waters of the party.
"There is no Guyana," Sam, a black engineer told me bluntly as we sat in the hotel restaurant in Georgetown. "The feelings of nationalism and patriotism in Guyana are gone. The people are living here, but they're not living here."
Since 1961, Sam has lived the quintessential post-colonial, transnational life, working in various places in the Caribbean as a consultant. He talked about what lies behind the veneer of shiny new automobiles, concrete houses with carved balconies and high gates: cocaine money, gangster money, narco money. "You see more fancy motor cars," Sam told me bitterly. "But the quality of the roads is the same. Education hasn't improved. Our human social index is way down."
Sam's anger was palpable--he barely touched his drink, and he had an air of agitation and paranoia about the current government. To him, the botched road projects, the appointment of largely Indian boards, were part of a larger scheme to keep the black side of the country down. For Sam, the history of the country boiled down to race: the story of a larger, richer Indian block threatening an imperiled African community dependent on the state for its livelihood. "How are you going to get an underpaid civil servant to police a rice magnate?" he asked. "It won't work."
I felt unprepared for Sam's bitterness as he argued that "the owners of capital are East Indians. Africans do not have sustainable communities because we have not gathered capital. So the concept of a country doesn't exist. East Indians will rewrite it from a position of capital. Like the Jews in America."
I realized that he saw me as an Americanized Indo-Guyanese. But the other part of my identity, less obvious--Jewish--suddenly rose to the surface; tears pricked my eyes. Sam registered my discomfort, abruptly said his good-bye, and walked out of the restaurant.
Race is everywhere in Guyana--it shades every perception of the past, the present, and the future. And yet race is nowhere, since officially, under a unity government, it doesn't exist.
The next day I flew with Beni Sankar to see his rice growing and milling operations. The Sankar family owns thousands of acres of rice fields in two different parts of the country and a major mill in Essequibo. From the small, humming plane, I could see all of Guyana laid out below, with its neat squares of rice fields, the wide brown rivers flowing into the Atlantic Ocean, dense green forest behind, rolling all the way to Brazil.
We landed in the Sankar's complex in Essequibo, where the sorting machines hummed with efficiency. As the evening sun slanted across the fields, a parade of rice farmers were still bringing their trucks, piled high with grain, into the mill compound to be weighed. Down the road, I could see the mandir of a freshly painted Hindu temple, a huge green cricket field. There was a sense of serene prosperity in this part of the country: children bicycling home, pots clattering in the kitchen, people calling on the road. This was the Guyana that people, through all the political troubles, hold dear: a rustic, simple warmth, a country that should not be in debt, that is ample and rich enough to feed its own people. Here is what I had wanted so badly, what I had hoped to find in Letter Kenny village. For the first time, I realized, I was happy here.
The mood was not to last long. I returned to Georgetown, started phoning around and was soon exhausted. More and more I became aware of the limitations of my own identity, such that my connections kept leading me back to the Indian side of this country. I tried to reach several names I'd been given--women activists, members of the P.N.C. opposition, ministers, but it never worked out, with different schedules and bad phone connections. There was an inaccessibility, an insularity, which, after only two weeks, had begun to take its toll. I was depressed, listless.
I decided to take a walk through the Botanic Gardens. During the Burnham years, Bernadette painted a series of paintings of the gardens: eerie, ghost-like silhouettes of soldiers with bayonets imbedded in the lush foliage. It was the only way she knew to express her outrage at the dictatorship.
Now there were no soldiers, but the sense of menace remained. The entire time, I was uneasy, not sure if this was safe for a woman. A man whizzed by on a bicycle and shouted, "What are you doing here alone?" I couldn't tell if this was an expression of concern or a threat. In the heat, the utter stillness of the gardens, the limp tropic glades, my senses had grown dulled; I dragged my feet back to the hotel and braced myself for another day of frustating phone calls. I felt that I had walked in on a place swimming in its own murky waters, still caught in its squabbles, unable to see to the outside.
When I finally sat down to talk to Cheddi Jagan in his office, I was disappointed. He was less engaging and personal than I'd hoped. A week before, when we'd met on the State House lawn, he had laughed, patted people on the arms, made jokes. Hearing that I was a writer, Jagan's eyes had lit up as he told me that he too wrote. His writings are sold everywhere in Guyana: his autobiography, The West on Trial, his defense of his political record, Forbidden Freedom, his pamphlets and stapled Xeroxes of his speeches.
Today he was all dry business, giving me a rote rundown of his policies, emphasizing that he was pro-capital, pro-foreign investment, but not at the cost of the social state. The picture Jagan painted was one of a feisty, independent country talking back to the might of capital. "We have told all the businesspeople who are coming here they have to respect two things," he explained. "The worker's rights to have trade unions and to bargain collectively. And they must respect the environment."
He summarized the achievements of his administration. He'd raised salaries as high as possible under the austere conditions--roughly 15% since 1993. The country had gone from 82 percent inflation in 1991 to 4.5 percent and experienced the highest growth rate in the region. He had slowly privatized certain industries yet resisted the World Bank's recommendation that Guyana raise interest rates to spur the economy. He was firm on one point: "Give us debt relief!" Warmed up now, he added, with a flourish of rhetoric: "We must walk very skillfully, with facts and figures, between conformism and transformation."
Despairing of a frank interview, I nearly shut off the tape recorder. But after a while, I realized that underneath the speechmaking, there was a certain charming earnestness to Jagan. His enthusiasm, his lively energy, was infectious. While others might see Guyana as a scruffy, obscure country, Jagan viewed it as a beacon for the rest of the world, and a humane example for all third world countries trying to control their destiny. Eyes sparkling, he boasted that when it came to increases in public wages, Guyana was far more advanced than Israel and all of Latin America. After all these years, I discovered, Jagan had lost none of the glow of idealism; he was a man who lived for abstractions.
As I left the President's office, I knew that the real legacy of Cheddi Jagan was not his specific policies. What Jagan gave people was hope. Even his enemies, who despise the P.P.P., had to admit there was something genial and good-natured about Cheddi Jagan that touched people. This was why thousands lined the coastal road as his coffin was brought to rest; why the crowds were so immense, the outpourings lavish with emotion.
Even though Cheddi incarnated another era, his personal integrity gave the country time to heal, and may have laid the foundation for the country's reconstruction. In choosing Janet Jagan, once again, the country is relying on a figure from the past to buy them time in defining the future. Yet the P.N.C. refused to accept her victory, denouncing the elections as rigged. Politics in Guyana continues to be about family: like aunts and uncles dwelling on an old, painful family feud, Guyanese rehash the dates of political betrayals as if they happened yesterday. Whereas Burnham appealed to the Afro-Guyanese fears as an endangered family, the Jagans appealed to the Indian sense of clannishness and self-preservation. Yet it's this division, this history that is preventing Guyana from developing a democratic culture and trust in political institutions.
On my last evening I attended an informal a "bottom house" meeting in Buxton village, a very poor black area that has witnessed terrible violence and unrest over the years. I was driven out to Buxton by an Indian taxi driver I had befriended during my stay. On the way out, we talked about whether the country was doing better. He insisted it was, though change was taking too much time. He commented that he'd started to see black families buying housing lots in predominantly Indian villages. Yet as we neared Buxton and turned down the rutted roads, I sensed his nervousness; he made some remark about how the people here don't even bother to clean their own yards, what can you expect from them?
We were met by two young men who took me down a narrow path to the rear house of a local herbalist, to the bottomhouse--the space underneath the stilts. The men who had gathered around a rough-hewn table were discussing a broken sea wall reinforcement, inadequate water pumps for the village. These were the same problems the Buxton villagers struggled with a century before when they were trying to free themselves from the grip of the large plantation owners.
A man passed out photographs of a sea wall reinforcement. One could quickly see the shoddy workmanship, the seams so crooked they didn't match up. From his pocket he brought out two small chunks of concrete which he rubbed together. They immediately started to crumble, trickling a white powder. "This," he said dramatically, "this is what is being used to protect us from the pounding, pounding sea."
I admired these men, dealing with the pragmatics of poverty; how, in the wake of a small disaster, they had taken it upon themselves to get to the bottom of a problem, taking photographs, writing letters to the authorities. Others may talk vaguely about the need for a "culture of accountability" but these men were simply trying to make their village function--getting decent drinking water that comes out of the pump at the same hour every day; using their own wits to make the authorities accountable to them.
Months later, it is the image of those men I keep returning to. Guyana, a lush patch of land sitting under sea level, was reclaimed by the Dutch and their ingenious canals; reclaimed again by the descendants of slaves and coolies, once more from a ruinous dictatorship by the immigrants who are coming back, the multinationals who see the natural worth of this country. These villagers must now again prepare for the next assault of capital, rumbling on a not so distant horizon. Some will prosper; some like Buxton, dependent on public wages, will surely sink.
When I heard news of Jagan's death, I felt a strange, eerie disconnection, as a chunk of the world, that small muddy country I'd heard about my whole life, had disappeared beneath the edge of my knowledge. But perhaps this is what it's all about: these cycles of loss and reclamation, the condition of migration and memory, an old leadership giving way to the new. Yet I cannot stop thinking of those men, huddled around their rough wood table, scraping two lumps of concrete together as they brace against the massive changes they know lie waiting on the other side.