Guyana's Jagan Has Ideals but Few Deals

Many Wish Leader Were More Practical on Privatization

By Jonathan Friedland
Staff Reporter of

GEORGETOWN, Guyana - President Cheddi Jagan of Guyana is the last of the anticolonial liberation leaders still on the job - and at age 78, he's as fiery as ever about ridding the world of injustice.

He has proposed a "New Global Human Order" to lift the developing world out of poverty by using cuts in arms spending and taxes on pollution and speculative cross-border investments. He has touted his utopian plan at the United Nations, at Non-Aligned Movement meetings, and even to President Clinton.

But while Guyanese appreciate Mr. Jagan's visionary goals, many wish he would come down to earth and do more to cut red tape, pave the country's horrendous roads and get the electricity to work for more than a few hours a day. Probably no one feels that way more than Cheddi Jagan Jr., who left his thriving Brooklyn dental practice to return home in support of his dad, who in 1992 was elected president after 28 years in the political wilderness.

Rebuffing Demands for Privatizing
In May, the 47-year-old Mr. Jagan, known as Joey, got up on stage and threw a tantrum when a power outage halted an independence day show put on by his wife. A month later, he lay down in the doorway of the state-owned Guyana Electricity Co., demanding the company pay for imported dental equipment fried by power surges.
The elder Mr. Jagan is unmoved by his son's antics. Earlier this month, he rebuffed demands, by the aid donors on which Guyana depends, to privatize the electric company. The president, the son of indentured plantation workers from India, contends that foreign investors have a sorry record in Guyana, a resource-rich nation of 780,000 on the northern rim of South America.

"If the working class do not dominate, they will be dominated," says President Jagan, a Northwestern University dental school graduate whose office features a pair of mounted cricket bats, a plaque of appreciation from the Seventh-Day Adventists and books by Lenin. "And I am here to defend the interests of the working class."
The electric-company privatization has become a bellwether of Guyana's future. After three decades under socialist management, the company is much like the country itself: short of skilled workers short of cash and, in the words of one banker, "held together by baling wire." Aid officials say that in order to survive on its own, the company needs to slash staff, raise rates and come up with about $150 million in new investment.

Moving Away From Self-Reliance
Mr. Jagan's predecessor, Desmond Hoyte, moved Guyana away from self-reliance so extreme that at one point the government banned wheat-flour imports, forcing locals to conjure bread from rice. Mr. Hoyte, who took office in 1985, lowered import barriers, freed the exchange rate and welcomed foreign investors.

These policies have triggered one of the best economic-growth rates in the Caribbean. But while Mr. Jagan has grudgingly accepted most market reforms in order to keep aid flowing and to cut the country's $2 billion debt, he still thinks the state should be in business. In fact, he argues the electric company is run just as well by the government as it would be by the kind of foreign investor who would be attracted to the hemisphere's third-poorest country.

Mr. Jagan may have a point. In 1991, a British businessman bought the state- owned timber company and within days sold it for a l0 million pound ($15.6 million) profit to a Dutch concern that promptly went out of business. Guyana's government has had to scramble for a new owner, this time a Singaporean group, to keep it running.
"We've had enough of carpetbaggers," Mr. Jagan says.

Still, donors and businessmen here say privatization is probably the only hope for turning around the electric company and that such serious U.S. investors as Leucadia National Corp. in Utah and Florida Power & Light Co. have shown interest.
Privatization would also be "the best signal the government could send about making the private sector the engine of growth," says Charles Greenwood, representative of the Inter-American Development Bank here.

Richard Ousman, a local businessman, says more investors would come if the government would only get its priorities straight. The duty-free import of a four-wheel-drive vehicle for his travel agency was considered in not one but several cabinet meetings before it was approved he says. Mr. Jagan's government "should be focusing on dollars and cents, on making this place work not on ideology and all that other garbage " Mr. Ousman says.

Joey Jagan apparently agrees. Having come home, settled his family and established a new practice, he's now talking about pulling up stakes once again. "I'm out of here, man," he says. "I just don't think I can take it anvmore."