It appears that the PNCR is again headed for yet another leadership showdown. In a number of articles in the New York-based newspapers, Caribbean Impact, I have noticed Van West Charles, son-in-law of the PNCR founder leader L. F. S. Burnham, promoting himself as a replacement to Corbin.
And recently, I have read a few articles in SN, where Mr. Charles gave some vague interviews regarding his political aspirations. So my question is: Is Charles serious, or is he merely attempting to be another thorn in Robert Corbin’s side? If he is serious, there are obvious challenges and realities he must face.
Firstly, he must know, since he was a member of the Burnham hierarchy, that Burnham has nurtured the PNC in such a way that its membership has strong allegiance to the leader. Both the PNC and the PPP have this culture, and both Burnham and Jagan could have never been replaced as leader of their parties unless they decided that they should. The PNCR and the PPP today have not deviated from this culture. So that is the first hurdle for Van West Charles, a hurdle which he helped to foster.
The membership of the party is not likely to switch support to Charles or anyone, unless the current leader gives that membership an indication to so do. Potential party leaders or those with their own personal aspirations and ambitions are therefore expected to wait in line and contribute to party, and demonstrate to the membership that the party is paramount.
Moses Nagamootoo’s relationship and action is a good illustration of this culture. Despite Nagamootoo being a long standing and respectable member of the PPP, he knows that he cannot successfully challenge the leadership of the PPP unless he remains in the party and contribute to its development. By so doing, he is likely to gain more support from the rank and file.
This is the parties’ concept of discipline and respect for organisation. So Moses knows that his day will soon come, since he is undoubtedly gaining more and more support amongst the members and the supporters of the PPP.
Secondly, Charles will have a difficulty, particularly with the hardcore members, to whom he will have to explain his long absence from party activities and his migration from Guyana soon after Burnham died. From what I gathered, Charles left Guyana more than 20 years ago and never had any real contact with the PNCR. In fact, he only renewed his membership a year or so ago, when he decided that he wanted to become party leader. The members will not give him a free pass on this.
For this reason, Vincent Alexander would be in a better position for leadership than he. Even Carl Greenidge would get a better welcome and more support than Charles. Despite Greenidge working outside Guyana, I learnt that he has maintained regular contact with the party, and attended many party functions throughout the years, and offered advice and support whenever necessary. So the rhetorical question “where he come from now?” will not be thrown at Greenidge, but will be a real sore point for Charles.
Thirdly, if Charles plans to run for party leader based on the fact that the late Burnham was his father-in-law, he will have to explain to party members why he allowed the PPP to tarnish Burnham’s image and reduced his contribution to Guyana to nothing more than the
nation’s worst dictator. Why did Charles not respond to many of the cruel claims made against Burnham by the PPP? Was he thinking about his own political survival, or is it that he agrees with the PPP?
The “PNC Burnhamites” will not let him get away with this. Hoyte took a lot of beating for this, as members and supporters felt his government did little to promote Burnham’s legacy. Fourthly, there is this issue of political baggage, of which Corbin’s rivals accused him of being laden, but Mr. Charles will have his own baggage to deal with, and it would take him more than five years for people to lift the question mark off of him. Corbin, one can argue, has been on the scene long enough for the baggage issue to wear off. In his case, any mention of the barge is like an overused expression that no longer has much effect.
So what are some of Charles’s biggest baggage? Well, top of the list is him being at Burnham’s bedside when the man passed away. Controversy remains as to who ordered that Burnham be operated on with a supposedly defective machine, when the man had a working machine at his house. Did this Minister of Health order that Burnham be operated on?
And why was Burnham’s daughter, the doctor, so angry with Charles when she got to the hospital? And is it true that this situation caused a major rift in Burnham’s family? There are many misconceptions and questions which are likely to be raised with Charles announcing his bid for the PNCR leadership, and this will be a major baggage for him. The question as to his competency as a doctor will surely also take centre stage.
So, now that Van West Charles’s name comes up, after more that 20 years, he will have to answer many questions; and clearly, Mr. Charles will have an uphill task to become leader of the PNCR, the members will not give him a free pass.
He should have learnt from those who went before him, and he should have adopted a more integrated approach, where he works closely with the current leadership of the party before he launches any leadership challenge.
So what might be his next move? Having seen that the PNCR leader position is realistically blocked, Charles might want to form his own party. Now, here his challenge will be even more pressurizing. Since he is Burnham’s relative, there will be outright rejection by many Indo Guyanese, who were led to believe that Burnham was out to make them suffer.
How will he explain to those people, after so many years, that the PPP propaganda about Burnham has no basis? These people will see him in the same light in which they saw Burnham, and will brand him as one of the enforcers of the Burnham dictatorial policies.
How will he defend the claim that his father-in-law rigged elections since 1964? How will he explain to those people that he was against the banning of flour and dhal? Charles’s complete silence on these and other issues for decades will make him look aggressively patronizing if he attempts to now defend or condemn them. And how will he convince these people that he had no part to play in those “Burnham elections”?
Let’s face it: Corbin has already passed these tests after years of public ridicule and scrutiny. In the press reports, Charles seems to be also introducing himself to the public as former Minister of Health in the PNC government. This line can be most troubling for Charles, since there are perceptions of him being a most incompetent Health Minister, but remained in the position for the fact that he was Burnham‘s son-in-law. In fact, it is argued that it was because of his incompetence that the late Desmond Hoyte refused to appoint him to a Cabinet position in 1985.
So Charles will have to defend these claims, and point to those significant achievements, if any, he was responsible for while he served as the Health Minister. The question as to whether he was aptly qualified for the job, or whether he was appointed based on family relationship to the leader, would be another interesting test.
Further, the PPP will take the opportunity to remind Indo Guyanese about the man Burnham, and draw a clear connection between Van West Charles and the PNC founder leader. So Van West will have to deny Burnham or accept that he was part of the problem. Whatever his position, there will be consequences. If he denies Burnham and discredits him, the PNCR troops will despise him more. If he admits he was a perpetrator of the wrongs committed by Burnham, the Indo Guyanese will reject him. So he should rethink his strategy. Corbin has already been established, has worked amongst the Indo Guyanese.
Look at how they responded to him when he visited during the massacre, floods etc. No denying, he has done some amount of bridge building. So what the PNCR needs now is not another detractor, but a genuine concerted effort to unite to stop the PPP from destroying Guyana. Should the likes of Mr. Charles and others consider what is at stake, they will work to consolidate the PNCR rather than to continue to deflect vital resources from the party.
A truly concerned member will consider the facts and work within the party to bring about the change needed to develop stronger leadership and good governance. I believe Nagamootoo’s strategy is a recommended one; it is wise, and sensible, and demonstrates that the man respects the organisation that made him what he is. I do believe he will soon be leader of the PPP/C, he would get my support.
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