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A Handful of Dust: Return to Guiana

In the early 1930s Evelyn Waugh traveled into the interior of British Guiana, on the old Spanish Main. There were three Guianas then, British, French, and Dutch, wedged between Venezuela and Brazil. British Guiana was the largest of the Guianas. It was 80,000 square miles, about the size of Great Britain, but with a population of only half a million. Much of this population—mainly East Indian and African—lived on the Atlantic coast, where the big plantations were. Inland, just a few miles from the colonial coast, was South American wilderness, going back to Brazil: hardwood forests, Amerindian villages, boulder-strewn rivers, falls: and, after that, the laterite savannahs, with giant red anthills, and palm trees marking the course of occasional shallow rivers.

It was on that savannah that the betrayed Waugh hero of A Handful of Dust (1934), looking for forgetfulness after his English travails, found a horrible form of social extinction: kept a prisoner on the almost empty savannah by the head of a dominant Anglo-Amerindian tribe, and made to read aloud the works of Dickens again and again.

Guiana has always been a land of fantasy. It was the land of El Dorado; it was the site of the Jonestown commune. But what is remarkable about the Waugh fantasy is that two years after the book was published a young man from the plantation coast of Guiana started on a journey that was to echo the destiny of Waugh’s hero.

In 1936, when he was eighteen, Cheddi Jagan, the grandson of indentured immigrants brought from India to work on the coastal plantations, left British Guiana with five hundred dollars to go to study in the United States. He stayed in the United States—in Washington, New York, and Chicago—for seven solid years, until 1943. He did various jobs while he studied: he finally became a dentist. Toward the end of his time in the United States he married a beautiful American woman. He also had a Marxist illumination.

When Cheddi Jagan returned to Guiana in 1943 (his American bride following soon after, to astound the Jagan family), it was as a man with a fixed political cause. Whatever he may have thought about his Hindu or Indian or Guianese background, whatever historical or social bewilderment he may have grown to feel, was submerged in his Marxist ideas of surplus value and the universal class struggle. That was vision enough. And for fifty years, like a version of the Waugh figure—through the ending of the war, the reemergence of Germany and Japan, the winding down of the European empires, the disintegration of black Africa, the coming and going of the cold war, the end of European communism, through the independence of Guyana itself (spelt after independence in this new way, for no good historical or etymological reason)—Cheddi Jagan has sat waiting for his moment.

Almost from the start he had “the oppressed sugar workers as his base”—to use words from the back cover of the 1966 East German edition of his autobiography, The West on Trial. After nearly fifty years, those workers (or their descendants) are still there, more or less. And it may be that the very purity of Cheddi Jagan’s Marxist view has helped to freeze people in their old roles.

Success came early to him. In 1947 he became the youngest member of the colonial Legislative Council of British Guiana. In 1950 he and others launched the People’s Progressive Party. This was an extraordinary alliance of the two main racial groups of Guyana—the Africans (as they were called), descended from the slaves, and the East Indians, who had replaced the Africans on the plantations. In 1953 this party came overwhelmingly to power. It seemed then that Jagan was about to become the first leader of the first communist state in the New World. (Fidel Castro was to emerge five to six years later.) Jagan and his wife, Janet, became very famous. For a time they were demon figures in the British popular press, filling this journalistic hot spot somewhere in the interim between Mossadeq of Iran, who nationalized his country’s oil, and Nasser of Egypt, who nationalized the Suez Canal.

But British Guiana was not Iran or Egypt. British Guiana in 1953 was only a colony. After three months in office, the Jagan administration was dismissed by the London government, the colony’s constitution was suspended, and British troops were sent. Under this pressure the PPP split easily into its African and Indian components. The African and Indian populations of Guyana were almost evenly balanced. Below the Marxist words on both sides Guyana went back to its more instinctive racial ways.

The Indian vote returned Jagan to power in 1957 and again in 1961. But it was the African party that—with American help, and after serious racial disturbances—won the preindependence elections of 1964. Ever since then, through a series of rigged elections, Cheddi Jagan and his Indian followers have been kept out of power, while—until 1984—Guyana followed a kind of Marxist-African way and became a “cooperative republic.” For the last six years there has been a turning away from “cooperative” principles; but Guyana is now as wretched as any place in Eastern Europe.

Every important industry—bauxite, rice—was taken over by the African-controlled government; and the government gave jobs, or created jobs, for its supporters. So the Communist-style tyranny of the state was also a racial tyranny; and the corruptions, petty and big, had a further racial twist. Everything became rotten in this state; everything began to lose money. More and more money was printed; in the racist state, the Guyana currency, once on a par with the currency of a place like Trinidad, became almost worthless. Imports were regulated, many items banned. Guyanese of all races began to pine for certain simple and cheap foods they had grown up on—New Brunswick sardines, Canadian flour, Canadian smoked herrings and salted fish. At a time of plenty in neighboring Trinidad (because of the oil boom of the 1970s), Guyana was experiencing want. Guyanese began to leave, legally and illegally, Indians at first, and then others; they went to Trinidad and Canada and the United States. More than a third of the Guyanese population now lives abroad.

Georgetown, the capital, once one of the most beautiful wood-built cities of the world (with the great hardwood forests just a few miles inland), weathered and decayed. Over the run-down city there now rises, at the end of one of the principal avenues, an extraordinary, mocking monument of the Cooperative Republic: a giant African-like figure, long-armed and apparently dancing, with what looks like cabalistic emblems on its limbs. This figure of African reawakening is said to honor Cuffy, the leader of a slave revolt in Guyana in 1763; but there are black people who believe that—whatever the sculptor intended—the figure was also connected with some kind of obeah working on behalf of Forbes Burnham, the Guyanese African leader. Mr. Burnham is believed to have, in the end, mixed his Marxism with obeah, and to have had an obeah consultant.

In the Georgetown Botanical Gardens—one of the many such gardens, of experiment and scholarship, established by the British in various parts of the empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—there is another, complementary monument of Mr. Burnham’s rule. It is the mausoleum that was put up for Mr. Burnham after his death in 1984. It is a spiderlike structure, with a low central pavilion with an outer colonnade of concrete brackets that look like spider’s legs. The intention was that the founder of the Cooperative Republic should be embalmed and displayed for ever, like Lenin; but something went wrong and the body decomposed before it could be treated.

Through all of this—Marxism and racial tyranny, and economic death, and obeah—Cheddi Jagan has sat at his post, the leader of his party, always there, the possessor of a purer Marxist way, waiting to be called. His support has always come from the Indians, but he has never accepted that he is just a racial leader. In the hardest times of African oppression he has supported whatever legislation came up that could be seen as socialist or Marxist. So, to some, out of the very purity of his Marxist vision, he has conspired against both the interests of his supporters and his own political success.

He is seventy-two now. With the disappearance of communism in Europe, and now that it no longer matters to the United States or Russia what happens in Guyana, the elections coming up may be free: and Cheddi Jagan may at last win. But times are now very hard indeed, with interest rates of 34 percent, with the Guyana dollar worth an American cent, and with worthwhile foreign money staying away. All that a rational government could do is to reverse the nationalizations of the last twenty-five years. So that power, if it does come to Jagan, seems likely to end in failure, or the undoing of his legend.

Cheddi Jagan’s party headquarters, Freedom House, is an old white wooden building in a bazaar-like street. I went to meet him there. He was gray, with glasses, but brisk. He was in a short-sleeved slate-blue safari suit. It revealed a certain fleshiness about his waist, but for a man of seventy-two he was in remarkable shape; and I felt that this was important to him as a politician.

He said he had no illness: every year since 1966 he had had a check-up in one of the “socialist countries.” He spoke the now old-fashioned words without hesitation, so that in the little upstairs room of Freedom House, with the easy chairs and the coffee cups and all the papers, and with a view, through the open door, of the inner office with a framed black-and-white print of a drawing of Marx and Engels and Lenin, it was as though, whatever had happened outside, nothing had changed here.

I wanted to know how he had endured since 1964, what internal resources he had drawn on, why he hadn’t given up, like many of his followers. He appeared not to understand the question. He spoke instead of the past, of the beginnings of his movement, and the great years from 1948 to 1964. He spoke with his old vigor, and in his academic, public-meeting way, ticking off points on his long fingers, and managing complete sentences that were full of facts and names and references.

He telescoped the twenty-six years since 1964. Then, answering a question of his own, rather than one I had asked, he said that people had often asked him why he hadn’t gone in for “armed struggle.” He called to someone in the outer office to bring him some papers. When they were brought, he took one which dealt with the Guyanese deficit. This sheet, smudged and printed on both sides, had been rolled off an antiquated “duplicator,” and it had the acrid, oily smell of the duplicator ink. The graphs, not easy to read, showed that the Guyanese deficit had grown from 4.2 million Guyana dollars in 1965 to 1,309 million in 1988. The point he was making—and it was almost as though it was part of an old political strategy—was that it was better for the government to be undermined by its own stupendous deficit rather than by armed struggle, “which you were bound to lose.”

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