The editorial of Stabroek News and the letter by Clement Rohee in yesterday’s edition provide two of the most excellent tributes to the late Yesu Persaud that have been written. While the full scale of the contributions made by Yesu Persaud would require much more than a few articles, so monumental they were and so pervasively they impacted on the creation of the modern Guyana, at least they capture some of the significant aspects of his long and productive career which have shaped the ideals of modern Guyana. His very life story reflects the struggle of Guyana and the Guyanese people for a better life. Emerging out of a logie as an illiterate rat catcher on Bookers’ sugar estates, then scaling the heights of the business sector, transitioning from the private to the public sector, rising to a business titan and humanitarian, his story embodies the struggle, hopes and aspirations of every disadvantaged and oppressed person in the world. He is a Guyanese patriot whose principles and accomplishments surpass those of most others.
By the conclusion of the heavily rigged 1980 elections, the overwhelming sentiment was that Guyana was ready for transition from its authoritarian past. The proposed referendum in 1978 to facilitate the imposition of a new constitution invited an upsurge of civil and political resistance across the nation. The planned referendum triggered the formation of new organizational forms and structures designed to mobilise new forces which began to join the struggle for freedom in Guyana. These events did not occur in a vacuum. They were preceded by massive industrial unrest generated by the united struggle of sugar and bauxite workers for better wages and conditions, which had incurred intense intimidation, repression and violence by the security forces. The referendum was held in 1978, with an insult to Guyanese, the symbol of a ‘yes’ vote being a house and that for a ‘no’ vote being a mouse. 15 percent of the electorate turned out to vote but the official results showed that 71.45 percent voted and 97.7 percent voted ‘yes.’ The momentum of opposition continued in 1979, the year that the WPA designated as the year of the rebellion, with intense street protests. The rising crescendo of opposition was cut short with the assassination of Walter Rodney on June 13, 1980.
But the tidal wave of opposition was not halted. It merely receded. The resurgence in 1989, marked by the formation of GUARD, Guyanese Action for Reform and Democracy, was triggered by the obscene rigging of the 1985 election, the worst in Guyana’s history, and the worsening economic hardships facing Guyanese. GUARD was a mass movement and was possible only because of the groundwork laid by civil society formations in the 1977-1978 period to resist the referendum. Many other struggles had been taking place simultaneously, including the three trials of Arnold Rampersaud in 1977, 1978 and 1979 culminating in the dramatic acquittal of Rampersaud in 1979. The GUARD movement signified that the PNC had lost the middle class, represented by Yesu Persaud and Sam Hinds, an important element whose dormancy over the years had ensured a less than optimum struggle against authoritarian rule.
The personality of Yesu Persaud flourished in the era of freedom. It was in this period, unshackled from the political restraints that gloried only the leader, that Yesu Persaud could move forward on establishing the institutions that he conceived which today drive the vision that he had earlier developed. Cheddi Jagan relied on his advice and support, sought his help and gave him the full scope to develop his creative ambitions. He disagreed with Jagan on many issues, as he did with Forbes Burnham and Desmond Hoyte. He was a little man, but never a ‘yes’ man. He was never able to persuade Jagan that his personality alone was not enough to conquer corruption. Laws and institutions were needed. Jagan did not listen. He passionately urged Jagan to curb the powers of the President. He did not succeed.
I became very friendly with Yesu Persaud from about 1990 and we were in constant contact in relation to numerous matters, until both our capacities began to wane. I was a frequent guest on his television programme, ‘Eye on the Issues,’ on topical matters such as elections and the work of the Elections Commission, of which I was a member for many years, and on constitutional reform while I was Chair of the Constitution Reform Commission. Through this programme he contributed much to the debates on public and political issues for more than a decade.
He sought me out in December, a mere few weeks ago, and we met at his office in Camp Street. He was conscious of his age and the coming transition to the next generation. He wanted to reflect on the challenges such a transition might bring. In doing so he reminisced at length and in full flow. Our hour and a half meeting was full of laughter, anecdotes and achievements. At the end of the meeting, as always, he insisted in escorting me to the entrance of the building. He had slowed somewhat since I last saw him about a year before. But I was not unduly alarmed because Uncle Yesu was indestructible. I was wrong about his physical being. I am not wrong about his monumental works.