Thursday 22nd May, 2008

Sat Maharaj
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My role in saving Caricom

  • Guyana elections regarded as fraudulent.
  • New President had to deal with fractured country.
  • Spent two hours in talks with President Hoyte.

In January 1986, I played a minute role as a private individual in preventing the collapse of Caricom. There was public debate in the Caribbean media that a number of regional Prime Ministers were refusing to attend meetings in Georgetown, Guyana, where the secretariat was located.

The elections in Guyana were regarded as a fraudulent exercise and even the BBC (television) in London ran a series on bogus overseas voting.

Overseas Guyanese nationals were permitted the right to vote in the elections of Guyana but the BBC with its camera crews visited many World War II bombed-out sites, which were given as addresses. A number of Guyanese appeared on the voters’ list and were permitted to cast ballots although the houses did not exist.

W Hugh Desmond Hoyte (President of Guyana, 1985-1992) was selected by the People’s National Congress (PNC) to succeed Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham (President of Guyana, 1980-1985) as President of Guyana in December 1985.

Burnham ruled Guyana with an iron fist, after he betrayed the country’s legitimate political leader, Dr Cheddi Jagan. Britain and the US regarded Jagan as a communist attempting to create a Soviet outpost on the South American mainland.

The British colonial authority forcibly removed Dr Jagan and his wife Janet from power and installed Burnham instead.

Janet Jagan was a woman most vilified and regarded as an unrepentant communist because her brother, Julius Rosenberg, was convicted in the US on the charge of spying for the Soviet Union. He was executed in June 1953.

When Desmond Hoyte assumed the Presidency of Guyana, on Burnham’s death, not only did he meet an empty national treasury but he also had to deal with a country badly fractured along racial and ideological lines. He inherited the almost impossible political task of taking one of the most backward Commonwealth countries into a fast-changing world.

I first met Hoyte at a Hindu function in Guyana’s capital city, Georgetown, in September 1985. He was then the Prime Minister in the Burnham administration.

I was invited by the Guyana Pundit’s Council to formally open a Hindu temple in honour of the deceased Pundit Deodath Sharma. He was my friend for many years and his son, Pundit Gowkaran Sharma, continued that relationship.

In my address, I reminded the audience: “We Hindus in Trinidad and Tobago are able to freely purchase Hindu pooja material, that is, articles of worship necessary in the performance of our spiritual rites and rituals. But you in Guyana are denied these articles of faith.”

I continued: “We in Trinidad and Tobago are able to live out our cultural lives without state interference. This includes having an abundant supply of wheat flour to cook our roti and an endless supply of yellow split peas to make our cherished dhal. But you in Guyana are forced to eat foods that are not culturally part of you.”

And I reminded the audience that all this stems from an accident of history:“My grandfather took a sailing ship in the Howrah harbour of Calcutta that brought him to Port-of-Spain, while your grandfather unfortunately took another sailing ship that delivered him to Georgetown in Guyana.”

I told my Hindu brothers and sisters in the audience that we remain related and inseparable. Their depravation and denial of fundamental rights and freedoms remain an attack on all of us in T&T.

The next day I was invited by the Prime Minister to his office in the city, where I spent more than two hours discussing some of the things I said the day before. Hoyte insisted that “moong” (green dhal) was more nutritious than split peas (yellow dhal) and that local ground provision, like yam, dasheen and cassava, were all healthier foods.

I, however, remained adamant that the State cannot legislate for taste and in any event, wheat flour, dhal and other prohibited foods are flowing into Guyana from Trinidad and across the Venezuelan and Brazilian borders. His government is encouraging an industry of illegal smuggling because no Hindu wedding or pooja remains without these important religious and cultural foods and articles of faith.

I remember Hoyte telling me that it will cost approximately US$18 million a year just to import wheat flour. I responded by saying that is a cheap price to pay to ensure people, his people, enjoy a happier life. It would later transpire that other Caricom leaders encouraged and assisted the Guyanese Government in providing relief in the area of food imports.

In April, Sir James Mitchell, former Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, delivered the inaugural Hugh Desmond Hoyte memorial lecture in Georgetown. He referred to the part I played in reconciling the major differences among Caricom leaders that could have caused the expulsion of Guyana from Caricom and the possible destruction of Caricom itself.

Part II next week

n Satnarayan Maharaj is the

secretary general of the

Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha

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