Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham were terrible, failed leaders
Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan have cast deep, dark and foreboding shadows across this land. The racial strife, social animosity, defunct political party structures, dismal leadership, economic stagnation, criminality, cronyism and ethnic politics that cripple this country are their legacies. That any country could be visited in the same era by two leaders who absolutely squandered their natural talents is staggering. That this happened to a poor backwater country is even more devastating.
Cheddi Jagan was an ideologue. Communism dominated his thought patterns, life and decision-making. Forbes Burnham was a megalomaniac. The pursuit of personal power was his dominant life philosophy. One was all about the ideological cause, while the other was all about himself. These two themes that consumed the two men wreaked destruction in Guyana.
Guyana paid a terrible price for their misgivings, inadequacies and derelict personalities. While they were academically brilliant, I do not consider Jagan and Burnham as intelligent leaders. Both were slaves to foreign ideologies (communism and socialism) that ironically, were crafted in the very West that they condemned. They both failed to read and disregarded the economic realities and desires of the populace before imposing foreign ideologies like communism and socialism. Their leadership led to Guyana’s economic decline from 1957 to present.
Instead of expanding and improving an existing capitalist model, they sought to introduce and impose foreign ideologies on an economy that was unprepared to handle it and lacked the financial support to implement it. It is more expensive to change an entire economic model than it is to perfect an existing model. Furthermore, it is virtually impossible to achieve communist or socialist utopia in a poorly populated society further divided along racial lines.
These ideologies required the embrace of the entire population to economically work. In addition, the Guyanese people had a natural propensity for capitalist entrepreneurism and commercialism. In fact, what Jagan (from 1957 to 1964) and Burnham (from 1964 to 1985) did was to cripple the natural Guyanese inclinations to wealth creation, commercialism and capitalist energies by establishing state-controlled economic structures.
In Burnham’s case, the costly experiment with state-dominated socialism from 1964 to 1985 led to the complete destruction of African entrepreneurism and capitalist endeavours, which led to further impoverishment and economic marginalization of Africans. If Cheddi Jagan obtained power in 1964, Indians would have suffered the same fate under a Jagan communist government. Ironically and shamefully, these men are still celebrated by their ethnic constituencies as legends.
Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan lacked situational and strategic intelligence and realpolitik awareness. They were bull-headed and hard-headed. They did not think of the nation first, but of ideology and self before nation. Burnham lapsed terribly by not profiting from his relationship with the USA after it helped him to power in 1964. Burnham forsook the opportunity to build a capitalist society backed by massive American capital and investment for a socialist shell of a country wracked by poverty, malnutrition and despair.
Jagan did not learn from the resistance of the West when he was Premier from 1957 to 1964 and instead of adapting and adjusting, he became emboldened with his communist philosophy and was rudely awakened in 1964. The real powers in Guyana, the West, was not on trial in the ensuing 28 years. The owners of the law do not go on trial and the West owned the law in Guyana in 1964.
It is the ideological dunces who miss the cues; who not only go on trial, but put an entire voting constituency on trial. Similarly, Forbes Burnham and his successor (Hoyte) failed to change the debacle of the PNC 1980 Constitution before 1992 and it has been relentlessly used in the past 20 years by the PPP to abuse the nation.
Jagan and Burnham were too consumed with communist and socialist ideology and their quest for personal power to comprehend these fundamental truths about their own country. In fact, many facets of Burnham’s rule were closer to communism than socialism. I strongly believe that despite the opportunity presented by the Americans to infuse massive capital into Guyana, Burnham chose socialism over capitalism because it was easier for him to gain maximum power through the state-command structure of socialism. Capitalism would have made Guyana wealthier, but also would have made Burnham more vulnerable politically. Socialism was a means to greater personal power for a megalomaniac like Burnham.
The most frightening legacy Burnham and Jagan have left us with is racial division. They openly practiced Apaan Jhaat and African power politics and were the chief agitators in the nation’s most terrifying period of racial strife in the 1960s. This scar continues to run deep within Guyana. It does not help that their backward economic policy-making has perpetuated the poverty racism needs to remain a menace.
The sickening state bureaucracy rooted in party paramountcy is another symptom of the disease Burnham and Jagan left with us. The fat cat salaries the PPP pays its own at the Office of the President is a reminder of this atrocity. The party paramountcy of Burnham and Jagan suffocates this country. Rank incompetents with no skill, brainpower, decency, integrity or qualifications get contracts and plum positions just for having a party card and nothing between their ears.
Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan have left us political structures that practice no internal democracy and demonstrate no accountability or transparency. Their parties are still rigging internal elections, voting by Stalinist show of hands, suspending constitutionally-required congresses and handpicking their own candidates.
They soil soiled this country. They were followers, not leaders. They just happened to be around when the British decided it was going to transition to independence. One was a brilliant orator and the other had the human touch. Beyond that, they have left us nothing to be proud of and in my opinion, have contributed nothing of substance to this country. They have done nothing any other leader of that generation in power from 1953 to 1999 would not have done or could not have done better. Our shameful existence today is testament to the failures of these two men and the horrendous legacy they left us.