Of palaces and luxury
June 14, 2002
Articles on stuff
There has been a fair amount of debate in our letter columns recently about `palaces' and `limousines' during the period President Burnham was in office. It even caused two former First Ladies (one of whom is, in addition a former Executive President) and an erstwhile Prime Minister to enter the fray.
The discussion probably got sidetracked because the issue of the illegality of the government of the time got confused with notions of extravagance. Of course for 24 years the PNC Government was not legitimate and of course citizens paid heavily for a misguided economic policy, among other things. And of course, there was corruption under the PNC, and of course funds were misspent and of course there was discrimination against those who were perceived to oppose the administration. There are correspondents who have taken exception to the late Mr Burnham's style - not without reason - but were his living arrangements palatial in any sense of that term?
Now that the `Residence' as it was previously known, has been converted to Castellani House a broad cross-section of the public, potentially speaking, can have access to it. Anyone who has been within its portals can attest to the fact that a `palace' it could never be. A long narrow house, the original design was by Caesar Castellani, but since it was erected in the first instance for George Jenman, the temperamental Director of the Botanic Garden, he too had some input into its architecture. In fact, he refused to move in until certain alterations had been made. The house, therefore, from its inception was never intended as a grandiose residence and given its limitations, could never have been converted to such without pulling it down altogether and starting anew.
This is not to say that it was not an attractive structure, simply that it was not, and could not be palatial. Latterly during the colonial period, it was the home of the Director of Agriculture - certainly not the most senior official in the Government of the time. For his part, Premier Jagan elected to live in the Red House, the former home of the Colonial Secretaries. Although a more spacious building than the Residence, it was light years from being a palace either.
The most gracious building from the point of view of space and comfort, was State House - in earlier times Government House. While it boasted expansiveness and the necessary appurtenances, it too was not palatial. In any event, the former President Burnham never elected to live there after l980, although for the ten years prior to that it was the residence of former President Arthur Chung.
Mention has been made of the cost of repairing it under the present administration; it might be noted that in order to preserve it, that was absolutely necessary. Former President Hoyte never moved out of his private home on North Road, and only used State House for public functions. Unoccupied for the most part, therefore, it inevitably deteriorated. It is to the credit of both the late President Jagan and the present President Jagdeo that they decided to live there; it really is the only house in the country which is suitable for a president, and which could in any sense become symbolic of the presidency over time.
All these accusations and counter-accusations need perspective. In terms of the material things in life, no one could accuse the former President Hoyte of an extravagant style. And in terms of the material things of life, no one could say that the late President Jagan was anything other than a simple man either. His wife too when she became President followed her husband's lead in this regard.
While the late President Burnham gave no evidence of being disposed to a puritanical existence, his lifestyle while a considerable way above that of the ordinary Guyanese could not in any way be described as luxurious. The bitterness which the whole issue has generated relates largely to the illegality of his government and all that that implied, and the fact that when President Burnham was comfortable, the bulk of the population by the 1980s had been deprived of the basic necessities. However, as heads of state go - whether elected by free and fair elections or not - he by no means lived in splendour.
Guyana has never had a palace, and still does not.