How much have we learnt from Feb 16?
Freddie Kissoon column
February 17, 2007
Yesterday was February 16. On this date in 1962, Georgetown experienced its worst nightmare in the history of this country. It was a day that saw an orgy of violence swallow up Guyana . Fires and violence were everywhere.
All that I have learnt about February 16, 1962 came from pages 215-221 of The West on Trial, by Cheddi Jagan (revised edition, Seven Seas Book, 1972).
Jagan described how his budget was the excuse the opposition parties -- PNC and United Force -- the trade union movement, and the business class used as the pretext to create violence and mayhem to topple his government.
As I type this article, I have those pages in front of me. I want to believe what Dr. Jagan wrote about February 16, 1962, but I know in my heart that Dr. Jagan was only putting his side. There was another side – the truth about what was inside the mind of Cheddi Jagan in 1962 when he passed his budget.
Many days, I wonder what Cheddi Jagan would have said about me if he was to write part two of The West on Trial. If Jagan was alive and was the President of Guyana and I had led a volcanic UG protest in the streets of Georgetown that had turned ugly, and he had to mention me in his book, how would he have painted me?
I know the answer: I would have been classified as a wild adventurer who didn't want the PPP to have any say at UG and I used the protest to undermine the government. There would have been no mention of the violations of UG's academic integrity by the PPP.
I always reflect on what Jagan would have written about the opposition to his party after 1992, if he was still in power in 2005, when his party had gone on a corruption binge. It isn't hard to imagine the contents.
Nothing would have been told about the high level salaries for party hacks. Nothing would have been said about kleptocracy. Nothing would have been written about the incestuous domination of the party. Rewind the tape to February 16, 1962, and that is the Cheddi Jagan you see.
Cheddi Jagan painted all those that rejected his budget on February 16, 1962 as anti-government conspirators. You read the pages mentioned above and Jagan comes across as a good leader whose government was wrongly and helplessly assaulted by the business class. Had I not met with Cheddi Jagan and got to know him and observe his tremendous insecurities, weaknesses and selfishness, I would have believed every single line of the West on Trial.
Yesterday was the 45th anniversary of that infamous day in 1962. How strange life is. The PPP is in power, and the economic programmes of the PPP Government, in an eerie way, remind one of February 16, 1962.
We are in the middle of a budget debate; just as on February 16, 1962. The trade union movements and the business community were never consulted. So why should they not show their vexation? The VAT mistakes were not acknowledged. Instead, the business community was made into the culprits. When the consequences of the mistakes appeared frightening, the backtrack occurred.
For six consecutive years, the workers in Government's employ have had unilateral wage and salary increases imposed on them. These are the things that cause you to question what Cheddi Jagan wrote about February 16, 1962 in the West on Trial.
Questions arise not only on the disturbances of the sixties, but the entire period of Guyanese history. I am not going to analyse the faults of The West on Trial in this article; I have done that so many times. But it is important that historians and commentators understand these periods in Guyanese history because, in looking back at the truths of history, we can avoid the lies of tomorrow.
In my heart, I hope this country never sees another February 16, 1962. But I would be lying to myself if I tell myself that such a possibility does not exist. With every passing year, I sense that the seeds of the sixties have not been completely buried.
If any politician should learn from the mistakes of the past, and internalise them, it should be those from the PNC and PPP. The PNC is out. The PPP is in, and has been in these past 15 years. Yet, what has that party learnt from the disturbances of February 16, 1962?
It would be useful to quote from The West on Trial about what Jagan had to say about his budget that led to the riots of February 16, 1962. “The taxes under the budget were likely to hit hardest the expatriates' companies and the wealthy Portuguese and Indians. Indeed, the African working class would have benefited most since revenues derived from the taxes were aimed at financing industrialisation in the urban areas where Africans are heavily concentrated.”
Fast forward the tape to 2007 and this is what the PPP tells us about all their budgets, yet Guyana is the second poorest country in CARICOM after Haiti . We haven't had growth rates since 1997. Salaried employees of the state are treated with contempt. They bear the burden of the tax system. They are heavily taxed, yet they have to pay more with VAT. Jagan told us in his book that the budget was designed to help the working class, just as we are told about VAT. But look at the basic food items that were tax-free then, they were “Vatted.” Poor people have suffered the most from VAT, even though I welcome VAT for different reasons.
One can just imagine Cheddi Jagan telling the workers on February 16, 1962 that his budget was a working class budget, yet they did not see the benefits. Forty-five years after February 16, 1962, the PPP is telling the nation the same thing. Which PPP budget since 1992 is not in favour of the working class? All of them have been! This is what they would like us to believe.
But look who collects the sweets of the IMF-dominated economy: the expatriate firms that pay no taxes. How do you like OMAI saying it didn't make profits during its long stay here? But it went and invested in bauxite, and is still looking for more gold in Guyana . The foreign logging companies are making a killing out of our forests.
Now here is one for you: the working class government of the PPP took eleven years, since 1992 when it was returned to power, to remove the sugar levy. Let's hold a permanent candle in our hearts and hope this country never sees another February 16, 1962.