Remembering my friend, Desmond Hoyte By RM Austin Stabroeknews - Sunday, December 29, 2002



When Desmond Hoyte acceded to the presidency on August 5, 1985, he had made a remarkable journey from humble origins to the dignity of the highest position in the land. This consummation of his career was a direct result of hard work, discipline, commitment, vision and stamina.

Born on March 9, 1929, he grew up in Charlotte Street, Georgetown, the son of George Alphonso and Gladys Maria Hoyte. As he related to me on several occasions he grew up in a home in which the values of decency, courtesy, financial prudence and tidiness were inculcated. This was to have a lasting impact on the development of his personality. To the very end he was likely to lose his temper when confronted by sloppy work, untidiness and irregular habits. Desmond Hoyte brought the same sense of perfection to his writing and his work. Any document he was in the process of crafting could go through several drafts and occupy many hours before its completion. I have watched him put his papers, documents and files in good order before starting the working day.

The burning desire to excel ensured his excellence as a student. Attending St Barnabas School and Progressive High School, he studied hard and generally did work of the highest quality. By 1950, even though a member of the Civil Service he was awarded a BA external degree. The teaching profession beckoned. Desmond Hoyte taught at McAllister's Day High School and the Grenada Boy's Secondary School. By 1960, he was the proud holder of the BA and LLB degrees and returned to Guyana to serve. Desmond Hoyte has told me that there was no doubt in his mind that an education was the best instrument for service. Joining the firm of Clark & Martin, he defended several of the supporters of the PNC after the disturbances of the '60s. He advised the Guyana Labour Union (GLU) and the Clerical & Commercial Workers Union (CCWU). More importantly, he played a leading role in the Elections Petition which the PNC had brought against the then PPP administration in 1961. His performance won the admiration of the then PNC General Secretary, Dr Ptolemy Reid. Desmond Hoyte was involved in politics and Trade Unionism from the very inception.

His entry into formal political life is as amusing as it is interesting. Burnham, then a lawyer with Clark & Martin, had tried to inveigle him into taking an official position within the PNC. Mr Hoyte indicated that he was more interested in pursuing his career in the law. But Forbes Burnham was not a man to be denied. He waited patiently. And in 1969 when he was on his way to a Common-wealth Heads of Government Meeting and Sonny Ramphal, who was then Minister of Foreign Affairs and Attorney- General, was out of the country, Forbes Burnham asked Hoyte to accompany him out to the airport. As Burnham was about to leave, he indicated to Desmond Hoyte that he wanted to speak to him. On reaching where Burnham was, Hoyte was given a bundle of files, all of which pertained to the work of the Attorney-General Chambers and the Foreign Ministry. Mr Hoyte told me this story with great gusto one Sunday afternoon, laughing so hard in the process, his head tilted back, that I was afraid that he might hurt himself. Then he sat up and was serious again.

Mr Hoyte has told me that his first position in the Government was to act as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Attorney-General. Subsequently, he was appointed Minister of Works & Communication, Home Affairs, Finance, and Economic Development. Desmond Hoyte proved to be an efficient minister, much admired by friend and foe alike. Ill health or the greatest volume of work did not challenge his stamina. Desmond Hoyte therefore stood out in the Burnham cabinet as the minister who took his
work and the objectives of the government seriously. Later he told me that his guiding ambition was to play a role in ensuring that Guyana realise its potential as a prosperous country.

Desmond Hoyte wanted to see young people fulfil their ambitions and the old folks live a fruitful existence, especially after they had given service to the state. A detail should not escape us here. In 1978, when for some reason Mr Burnham could not persuade the then Minister of Finance, in grave economic circumstances, to read the Budget he turned to Desmond Hoyte. Pushing himself to unacceptable limits, as Mrs Hoyte was later to relate, Hoyte conceived and crafted a Budget in the shortest possible time and won Mr Burnham's respect and gratitude. As Hoyte moved up the ministerial ladder he acquired considerable experience on the International Financial Institutions and the politics of the Caribbean Region, having served as Guyana's representative on the Inter-American Bank (IDB) and spokesperson on sugar for the Asia Caribbean & Pacific (ACP). Desmond Hoyte was well prepared for the presidency. Moreover, he came to the office with a vision. Desmond Hoyte wanted to see Guyana prosper and its citizens happy. It is an abiding vision.

Desmond Hoyte was a complex man. He was at different times comradely, stubborn, sensitive, prudent, and impatient - but always disciplined. Different people therefore saw these aspects of his character. One particular feature dominated his being: he was a man of remarkable courage and tenacity. After he became Leader of the Party, at the next General Council of the PNC he took on the old system frontally. He told his audience that under his presidency, there would be no "sacred cows." Any policy or procedure that stood in the way of the development of the country would be abolished. There would also be no "soul brothering" in the field of foreign policy. Policy, domestic or foreign, would be based on Guyana's national interest. For that time this was heady stuff.

At the end of the General Council I asked for an appointment to see him. I hastened to his residence on North road. Mr Hoyte was in an armchair, relaxing after a hard day. I expressed my concern about what he had said. Desmond Hoyte merely responded: "I mean everything I said." As is well known, he proceeded to dismantle an economic system that had become inhibitive of economic growth. It was the beginning of the process that led to the ERP and the holding of free and fair elections and the restoration of Guyana within the comity of democratic nations. To achieve this, he drove himself mercilessly, outflanking his enemies, and I wondered then as I do now, if these sustained labours, the toll of three election campaigns, and the complex task of holding a party together in opposition, were not simply too much for one man. One day the stout heart would fail. It did on December 22, 2002.

Desmond Hoyte's political and economic philosophy was not forged overnight. It resulted from a long process of thinking and reading about the relative merits of the liberal democratic system and the socialist one. There was no doubt that he might have thought at one time that the socialist route was the road to salvation. But certainly as I got to know him better in the early '80s, it was clear that he had reservations about what socialism could achieve. I remember distinctly on one occasion that he had in his hands the book by Rudolph Bahro The Alternative to Socialism in Eastern Europe. I pointed out to him that the book had concluded that socialism would fail. He chuckled and said: "I know."

And let me say here for the record that it tends to be forgotten that before Desmond Hoyte took his radical measures against the existing socialist system, he had had a long discussion in 1983 at the MMA with the then President Burnham during a Heads of Mission Conference at which no one else was present. It was a time when even President Burnham was forced to do major rethinking and had mandated the then Minister of Finance Carl Greenidge, to mend fences with the IMF. President Burnham had pointedly interrupted the proceedings of the Heads of Mission Conference so that he could speak to Desmond Hoyte in private. It is generally believed that at that meeting President Burnham and Desmond Hoyte discussed alternatives for Guyana. Later during our rather long friendship, I asked him what was said at that meeting but could get nothing out of him. This was so typical of the man; reticence was often an effective armour. Now both men have taken that particular secret to their graves.

The period after Desmond Hoyte demitted the presidency was a difficult one. He had taken the decision to separate the party from the state and as he settled into the position of opposition leader, the full consequences dawned on him. One day sitting with him in his office, when he was not in the best frame of mind or mood, in 1994, he told me that holding the party together was the most challenging task he had undertaken. Desmond Hoyte wanted the PNC to be a self-sufficient and self-sustaining force, and as Opposition Leader, he felt strongly about representing his supporters effectively.

I know from talking to Desmond Hoyte that he had absolutely no fear of death. He was quite stoical. We often discussed the subject, especially when a close colleague had gone to the shades. When Kester Alves died in June of this year, Desmond Hoyte, who had known him for a long period of time and had been a colleague of his, had remarked on the fact that death could be unexpected and sudden. He said to me: "If you had asked me who among us would suffer from a heart attack, Kester would have been the last person I would have thought of." This stoicism made him almost immune to threats against his life. In 1992, he brushed off the tearful entreaties of his wife and the anxieties of the security services to attend a 'Thank You' meeting at the Well in East La Penitence. The talk at the time was that he would be assassinated at that meeting. I am therefore sure that he met death Sunday last with typical fortitude and resignation.

There was also courage of another kind. Once you had earned Desmond Hoyte's trust, he would never let you down and would even take you into his confidence about matters which were close to his heart. And once that trust was established he showed his respect for friendship in numerous ways. He would always bring back a CD or a book that I had mentioned during a previous conversation that I had sometimes already forgotten. And then one day as I rose to leave his home after a long talk, he placed his right hand on my shoulder and told me to take good care of myself. And so in spite of the faults he had as any human being would, I respond to the memory of his death with thoughts which are rich, abiding and made tender with myriad acts of kindness.

Taken in the round, Desmond Hoyte was a sophisticated politician, a cultivated and ascetic man, whose activities in the political and personal domain were governed by deeply held principles. He was a devoted husband who was ever grateful for the healing and stable environment provided by his wife. Joyce Noreen Hoyte was a tower of strength behind her husband. She once gave me the clue as to how he survived so many ups and downs in his life, so many difficulties and challenges. I asker her once how he coped with these situations. Her response was revealing. Mrs Hoyte said that whatever mood of life her husband was in, whatever challenges and problems were exercising his mind, "he always slept like a baby."