Desmond Hoyte: Celebrating a life lived By Tyrone Ferguson Stabroeknews - Sunday, December 29, 2002
When l got the call last Sunday informing me of Mr Hoyte's passing, so many memories and thoughts quickly flashed through my mind. The one above all that saddened me related to two conversations that I had had with him, first in 1995 and again in 1996.
I had been concerned since October 1992 about his final place in Guyana's history. I had advised him that it was time to leave politics; he had done his historical part with great distinction and he could leave contented. In fact, it would have been better for him to leave in October 1992 or shortly thereafter. I believed then that he could have left on the basis of that beautiful piece entitled Desmond Hoyte, statesman that had been done by Ian McDonald on October 11, 1992 in the Stabroek News.
I told him that if he stayed on he risked having his legacy seriously tarnished. I recalled what the Nigerian Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, had written about one of his country's presidents - that, when the story was told of that period of Nigerian history, all the president would deserve would be the dot in the exclamation mark in a footnote! Admittedly, I was exaggerating to make a case. I wanted to drive home a message. Alas, he never heeded my concern.
The basis for that concern was the nature of Guyana's politics and its political discourse. Guyana's political culture has spawned a politics of deformation and degeneration, manifested currently in a politics of extreme partisanship, pettiness, retribution and vindictiveness. Sadly, in most instances, the political discourse today mirrors this quality of politics. In such a context, Mr Hoyte could only ultimately be diminished.
Then, I got a call asking me to do this obituary. I immediately asked myself: what is an obituary all about? I really have never seen it in terms of the dictionary definition as a notice of death. Rather, I see it as the celebration of a life lived.
It was then that the following words of Martin Carter in the poem Death of a Comrade also came to mind:
Now from the mourning vanguard moving on
dear Comrade I salute you and I say
Death will not find us thinking that we die.
For eighteen months between April 1991 and October 1992, I was privileged to be closely, centrally and intimately involved in the grand project of political and economic transformation that President Hoyte had launched. Both then and in the subsequent years, I spent numerous hours alone with him and clearly saw his aspirations for Guyana and its people, as well as some of the personal driving forces that influenced the way he went about the awesome challenge of national regeneration.
He was all too human. That is not meant as a criticism because ultimately in real life, we are all imperfect human beings, prone to make mistakes. But I want to argue that, in the final reckoning, his imperfections, his inadequacies, his human frailties wither away in face of his larger selfless contribution to national purpose and regeneration that marked his tenure as President.
And it is with Hoyte the man that I would like to start today.
This was an incorruptible man. This was a man who sought neither honours nor monuments. This was a man for whom the material luxuries of life held no enticements. This was a moral and honourable man. This was a simple man, a man of culture and taste. And this was a man driven by the highest ideals of national service and sacrifice.
He sought to balance the call to national service with his deep and passionate commitment to family. As we all know, tragically he paid the heaviest price of all between these two transcending powerful forces.
It was not easy to form intense personal relations with Mr Hoyte. He himself admitted that he was instinctively a private and introspective person. And that is why my many intimate private conversations with him have been and will continue to be taboo. I will honour him by fully respecting his privacy.
Invariably people found it extremely difficult to be socially comfortable around him. The thing is that ironically he was a fairly good raconteur with a good sense of humour. He would regale you with stories and jokes at the drop of a hat.
He had a temper - an explosive temper at that. While there was general agreement that over the years he was less and less prone to eruptions of anger, it still happened on occasion. These could be particularly ugly moments and many public officers and his political colleagues felt the whiplash of his tongue in open forum to their utter chagrin and embarrassment.
There was another unflattering side to him. There were those who crossed him so terribly that they incurred his animosity for good and in such instances he could be especially petty.
He was intolerant of, and impatient with poor performance, incompetence and inefficiency. He demanded the highest standards of performance.
He insisted that the work environment should be aesthetically pleasant. He was observant of the smallest unpleasing detail and he made sure that you were aware of it.
While I was his Head of the Presidential Secretariat, I found our post-work Saturday encounters especially good. This was when we avoided work, when we did not talk shop, when we spoke on personal and other matters. It was when he would let down his guard a bit and when I got somewhat of a glimpse into his carefully guarded persona. It was when a level of touching humanity was revealed.
He would comment, for instance, on how proud he was at the way I carried myself; he would notice if I had on a new outfit. This was the Hoyte that not too many people knew or, for that matter, knew about. It was a side of him that he rarely revealed.
Mr Hoyte was a lover of sport, music and literature. He was a well-read man, his literary tastes roving far and wide. I pride myself on being a connoisseur of world literature, but he opened many new literary vistas to me.
Every week he wanted to know what new book I had read and while we didn't have the time for any extended literary discussions, on occasion we did indulge. It was he who pointed me to Japanese literature when he introduced Murasaki Shibuki's classic The Tale of Genji.
It is thus no accident that one of his lasting legacies to Guyana and Caribbean artistic creativity is the annual Guyana Prize for Literature which he was instrumental in introducing in 1987. I believe that the words of the American President, John Kennedy, aptly sum up the role of the arts in Mr Hoyte's case: "When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment."
He was a master of the English language and insisted on precision, correctness and style of usage. At a time when we can only lament the poverty of the written and spoken word at all levels of Guyanese society, his oratorical skills, while not of the spell-binding kind, while not of the uplift of a Burnham, were of top quality.
When Mr Hoyte offered me the post of Head of the Presidential Secretariat (HPS) in early 1991, he clearly stated the qualities he wanted in his HPS. He wanted the best professional public officer to run his office, to lead the public service reform programme that had just started and to set the highest and most impeccable standards of technical competence and efficiency for the new public administration that we were embarking on.
A few weeks into my stewardship as HPS, as we got to know each other better and became more comfortable with each other, he told me the following story which was to my mind so instructive of the fundamental new departures he envisaged for the public service. He had consulted with several of his colleagues at cabinet and party levels to get their views on me as a suitable candidate for this most demanding of jobs. Many of them strongly opposed my appointment on the grounds that I was no friend of the PNC, in other words, that my politics were questionable.
The fact that he nonetheless went ahead and made the offer speaks volumes about where he stood on this matter. In fact, as I have had occasion to state before, when he offered me the job, he laid on me a fundamental stricture in terms of my functions. He told me unambiguously that I had no political role, that I should not be politically influenced in the performance of my duties.
Yet we still hear the nonsense about the existence of party paramountcy in the Hoyte era. This is part of the degenerative politics of the times - the dishonesty and myths of political discourse. Party paramountcy, as associated with the PNC, was dead by the time I became HPS. President Hoyte had killed it.
The person occupying the position of HPS has to enjoy the fullest and unqualified confidence of the President. It is a position of tremendous influence - and a position of power for anyone driven by power urges. All he wanted was the best professional officer. Mr Hoyte did not care about your politics once you were prepared to serve professionally in fulfilment of the larger national purpose.
But, this outlook went beyond me. Over that period, I would hear repeated criticisms of the so-called three Doctors - Kenneth King, Cedric Grant and myself - who were said to be the key influences around him. We in fact represented his earnest search for the best minds to help in his programme of reform.
We had merely joined such excellent officials as Carl Greenidge, Winston Murray, Keith Massiah, Barton Scotland, Winston King and many others - by then my friend and colleague, Rashleigh Jackson had already left - and were to be joined by others such as Rabbian Ali-Khan, Paula Mohamed, Cheryl Gopaul, Nigel Gravesande, Noel Adonis, Claudette Moore and so many others.
I know he courted many more highly qualified Guyanese for service, but alas, and understandably, so many people worried about Guyana's politics. His doors were readily open to young and bright people.
He was always excited to meet with Stanley Ming who he felt was so full of ideas and energy. Similarly, he had a deep respect for Stanley's friend Eric Philips whom he always met when he visited Guyana. This was what his powerful vision of Guyana involved - the enlistment of the best and brightest in the challenge of political-economic reform.
This leads me to consider Mr Hoyte, the public man. For more than three decades, he was actively and centrally involved in Guyana's politics. I do not intend to spend time reviewing his public service credentials and record. I am sure others will do so.
He was a politician, I believe, not by choice, but by the call to duty imposed on him by President Burnham. But once he accepted that call, he gave it his all, devoting his energies, his talent, his time and ultimately his life in service to Guyana because I know that he would have been alive today hadn't he felt compelled to remain at the helm of his party at this dangerous historical moment.
Mr Hoyte was not a natural or normal politician as were the other two pre-eminent leaders of post-colonial Guyana, Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan. He wasn't a politician, in Lamming's words "with a taste for crowds" - the politician's natural habitat. He couldn't work a crowd; he looked awkward kissing the kids; he was too aloof and unapproachable to elicit the passionate allegiance of the masses. There was always more of an intellectual force and quality to his public speeches, appealing more to reason and strength of argument, as against the emotional inducements of the charismatic or messianic political figure.
But, paradoxically, this was no weakness or limitation. In fact, I am profoundly convinced that he was the man for our season, for Guyana's season; that he was ideally suited for the imperative of societal renewal.
I do not believe that any of the available leaders then or now had it in them to do what he did. I do not believe that any of them had the qualities of vision, boldness, single-mindedness of purpose, steadfastness and the will to personal political sacrifice that he displayed and that are so necessary to the task of national regeneration.
It was these qualities that led then Prime Minister John Major of Great Britain to praise him in a letter of June 20, 1991, in these words: "You have shown great resolve in implementing the programme (ERP) under difficult circumstances."
It is clear that Mr Hoyte assumed the presidency in 1985 with the firm conviction of the necessity for wide-ranging change. The dramatic and encompassing scale of what he embarked on is effectively captured in McDonald's piece Sharing the future in the Stabroek News of October 5, 1993: "The new policies signalled the end of paramountcy, the return of pluralism of opinion, windows of opportunity for private enterprise, the easing of victimization, a return to international respectability, the start of economic recovery and an intention to reinstitute discipline and accountability in public affairs and moral standards in private behaviour. The new course also opened the way at last to electoral legitimacy."
I know from my numerous conversations with him that that was what drove him above all. He committed to it; he initiated it and he marvellously sustained it without deviation for the duration of his tenure as President. And that was truly amazing for various reasons.
The pitfalls and setbacks are many and in most cases unexpected; the pressures are intense and come from so many directions, both internal and external; the opponents are legion; the praise, if any, is faint and generally silent. Support is rare. But what you can be assured of is that at minimum your party will be hardly in the vanguard of public endorsement and more likely will do everything in its power to subvert your efforts.
While he was mindful of the serious internal opposition within his party to his new policies, he fought it off and to Guyana's benefit he continually deepened and expanded the scope of national renewal.
It is to be recalled that Mr Hoyte faced a public challenge - unprecedented in the history of modern party politics in Guyana - to his leadership of the PNC in 1991. For those of us who were there and privy to what was happening, we were aware of serious forces within his party constantly yapping at his feet and seeking to derail the reform process, particularly the democratization aspect.
It was so bad at the time that some of his officials felt physically threatened. Mr Hoyte, however, held firm and resolute. I think those of us around him in whom he confided were a source of great support and encouragement, continually reinforcing his strong conviction as to the rightness of what he was doing.
I have argued elsewhere that Mr Hoyte was a national politician. In the normal course of things, like all of us individually, politicians have to decide what to do with the hand that the fates have dealt them. In Mr Hoyte's case, he was dealt the hand of a society deeply polarized on the basis of race, an economy in tatters and protracted crisis and a severely aberrant political culture.
The decision to definitively confront the political and economic crises was no easy one. By the nature of the case facing him, that decision had potentially sweeping existential and survival implications for groups in the society.
And it is here that Mr Hoyte showed his transcendent national purpose. From both the political and economic angles, by virtue of the nature of the structural features of Guyana's political economy, the twin reform process carried to its logical conclusion could only have resulted in the political dispossession of the PNC's racial core base and in a worsening of its economic fate.
Correlatively, it was the racial core of the PNC's major political opponent that stood to be the main beneficiaries. It was not for nothing that Mr Hoyte was sarcastically renamed Desmond Persaud by so many of his detractors in his own party. But, he set out on this dangerous journey and he persevered to the end.
At the highest level of national purpose and achievement, Mr Hoyte's enduring legacy will thus be associated with his courageous enterprise of democratic and economic transformation. And for those who wanted a mea culpa from the PNC with regard to the nation's affairs, Mr Hoyte was big enough to give it.
He did so in various ways for all those who wished to hear and see. What could be clearer than these words in his July 18, 1991, address on Freedom, Democracy and Development in Guyana: "Inevitably, we have made mistakes... What is most important, however, is that during this period of time, we have learnt from our experiences, and we have shown that we have the intelligence and the will to correct our mistakes and chart new and more appropriate courses."
His legacy is also etched in other significant ways, including the Guyana Prize for Literature. There is one other area that I feel stands out in this regard. This is Iwokrama.
His concern for environmental sustainability is seen in his association with the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council and the role he played as CARICOM spokesperson on the environment in the early 1990s. But it was his initiative on Guyana's behalf at the 1989 Commonwealth Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to set aside a significant portion of the country's rainforest for an experiment in sustainable tropical forestry management and biodiversity conservation that led to the Iwokrama International Research Project that attracts a place of historical recognition in international environmental councils.
Unlike Forbes Burnham, Mr Hoyte did not pay that much attention to diplomacy. He did not revel in diplomacy nor did he have a hands-on approach to its conduct as Burnham did. This is not the same as saying that he neglected Guyana's diplomacy. That would be far from the truth.
It was more a matter of priorities. His priorities were economic and political renewal. But, because he had Rashleigh Jackson at the helm of the nation's diplomacy for much of his presidency, this relative disengagement was not that important.
Guyana's diplomacy remained of the highest calibre during his administration. In the councils of the world, in our bilateral enterprises, in our regional and Third World diplomacy, Guyana remained active, influential and highly respected. And, above all, Guyana's diplomacy continued in the same vein as during the Burnham era to defend and protect our national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The presidency is essentially a profoundly and intensely lonely position from the perspective of the many tough decisions and choices that have to be made on a virtually daily basis. For ultimately while you can live politically and personally with the consequences of a wrong decision, presidential decisions affect everyone in one way or the other. They have effects and impacts on the entire nation and national well-being - and that is an exceedingly high burden to bear.
Because he was temperamentally a 'loner' the burden was doubly compounded for Mr Hoyte. As I know from my conversations with him, he was always sensitive to the pain and sacrifices that the reform process entailed for the Guyanese people and his supporters, but he was convinced that it was necessary. He simply steeled himself against the harsh criticisms that he had to endure.
But, as President he cared immensely and passionately about the Guyanese people and he wanted to make things right for them. He was therefore prepared to serve and fulfil that mandate even at the risk of incurring their momentary hostility and displeasure because he believed that it would turn out right at the end of the day.
This was a perspective of the presidency that perfectly understood the loneliness and responsibility of the office, but at the same time saw the necessity for courageousness and steadfastness of policy and action. He rejected pandering to the plaudits of the crowd. He understood clearly that ultimately those plaudits are ephemeral and could just as rapidly dissipate in times of stress and discontent.
I firmly believe that his personal tragedies represented a great fortifying influence on him in this regard. He could say with the American poet, Robert Frost, that he was "one acquainted with the night." That gave him the inner steel, the fortitude and the philosophical equanimity to undertake and sustain the challenging reforms despite all the hostilities, the opposition, the criticisms and - fatalistically - the prospects of certain political defeat staring him in the face.
He was a man of prodigious physical energy. For eighteen months, I fought to keep up with his unending schedule of formal meetings, appointments with groups and individuals - and he saw virtually everyone who requested an appointment - our daily one-on-one meetings, his travel schedule throughout the length and breadth of Guyana, drafting speeches for his numerous public appearances, his inevitable and unavoidable social schedule (the area where I cheated a bit), his numerous overseas travels - and bear in mind I had my own professional schedule to do as HPS. It was non-stop activity and action, constant motion.
As I observed him then on a daily basis, I became increasingly concerned about his physical health. I believed that for him, health was never uppermost in his mind. I always incurred his grumblings when I would use the occasion of his overseas visits to arrange medical check-ups. I never consulted him on this because I knew he would say an emphatic "no."
I courted his displeasure some time in late 1991 or early 1992 (as I write this, my records are not immediately at hand) when I conspired with Mrs Hoyte to arrange for him to go off on leave for some much-needed and well-earned rest and recreation. I wanted him to go abroad and I wanted him to spend at least two weeks.
In face of his evident displeasure, I had to compromise. He agreed to go off for one week, but not outside Guyana. He spent those days in the interior with Mrs Hoyte. I never contacted him once and I am sure that it was Mrs Hoyte who ensured he never contacted me once.
I believe that the failure of his successors to match his strong commitment to a national-oriented purpose was a source of profound disappointment to Mr Hoyte. The descent once again into the politics of partisanship and retribution over the past decade has been a betrayal of his national vision and the political sacrifices he incurred on behalf of national regeneration.
It is to this last period of his national service that I would now like to turn. As I stated earlier, in my view this was a major mistake on Mr Hoyte's part. He should have withdrawn from national politics in my mind ideally in October 1992, but at least in 1995. The degenerative politics of this period could only have diminished him, as far as I could see. It is not a politics of transcending national essence; it is not demanding of high ideals, of elevating ethical standards and of selfless commitment to service.
In my view involvement in that politics was the worst thing that could have happened to Mr Hoyte. It took him to a level that required unstatesmanlike politics. It contradicted all that he had sought to achieve between 1985 and 1992. He did not need that. Nor did Guyana need that. It could only have brought out unattractive parts of his political character.
For this non-violent man to be accused of encouraging his supporters to engage in acts of violent destruction, and for this race-blind man to be accused of instigating racial conflict had to be the most hurtful things for him. I vividly recall being with him in his office at Sophia one day after the 1997 elections when a major PNC-led demonstration was taking place and he got news that East Indians were being attacked in Georgetown. And I saw the collapse of his body and the pain on his face. That was not what he stood for nor what he was about.
For this man who could in no way be seen to be power-driven to be accused of staying on too long was particularly galling. Why did he court such indignities? I believe in his own way he rationalized it on the grounds of national service, that Guyana and his party and his supporters needed him. I suspect, however, that deeper hurts and disappointments impelled him in those last years. He had to be hurt by the public vilification to which he was constantly exposed, to the realization that his political sacrifice was all for naught, the sense that those sacrifices were placing his supporters in increasing jeopardy and dispossession.
One of my greatest disappointments in my relationship with Mr Hoyte had to do with something that I desperately wanted him to do. I said to him that he had a wonderful story to tell and I implored him on many occasions to tell that story. I offered to help him in such a project. But he always found a reason not to do it - and none of those reasons were ever convincing to me. I believed that it was in the nature of the man himself, that in his view he had more transcending projects of great national purpose and consequence. I never agreed with him then and I still do not agree with him now.
But I take comfort in the certain knowledge that, notwithstanding the naysayers and detractors, it is largely because of Mr Hoyte that Guyana has not descended into the abyss of destructive ethnic conflict. We can only hope that, as the nation ponders on and mourns his passing, the elevating national purpose that he personified in life will inspire a new politics.
My final tribute to Mr Hoyte is encapsulated in the words of the Wisdom of Solomon:
"But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.
In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery,
And their going from us to be utter destruction: but they are in peace.
For though they be punished in the sight of men, yet is their hope full of immortality.
And having been a little chastised, they shall be greatly rewarded: for God proved them, and found them worthy for himself."
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