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By Rickford Burke (Personal Assistant to Hoyte)
Today December 22, the Guyanese nation commemorates the anniversary of the death of Hugh Desmond Hoyte, former President of Guyana, Opposition Leader and Leader of the People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR). As we memorialise this great son, I roll back the curtains of treasured, lingering memories to reflect.
Benjamin Franklin wrote that “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing.” Hugh Desmond Hoyte did both. Even in death, his life has been living history, and the eternal flame lit at his passing would never be extinguished!.
As I reflect on this momentous chapter of Guyanese history, I sense a fluttering veil of melancholy meandering through my being like weary waves of blues. I am still saddened. Not only by his sudden passing but from my mournful gaze I see that dark, somnolent cloud of trepidation, which blew in upon his death, still hovering over Guyana – as I reflect and remember!
This was my tribute delivered at his Memorial Service at the Hanson Place United Methodist Church, Brooklyn, New York, on January 5, 2003..
On Sunday, December 22, 2002, we were awakened by a telephone call from Gordon Mosley, a Guyanese journalist. “I am calling to get your reaction to the bad news,” was his salutation. What news, I inquired? “I don’t know if you heard but Mr Hoyte died this morning at about 8:30,” was his stunning reply.
Overwhelmed by disbelief, I immediately telephoned the Hoyte’s home in Georgetown . I was shaken; a dark day had befallen Guyana . The Chief, as I called him, was dead. Speechlessness and melancholy consumed me, and the inner hollowness felt like a dagger in my soul. I had lost a father figure, trusted friend, role model and personal hero. Instantly, I reflected on the countless golden moments of my years of association with him, as a leader in the PNC Youth Arm and during my tenure as his Special Assistant.
That moment became surreal as indelible memories flashed by. I remembered the (9:00 a.m.) morning briefings, those midnight to wee early morning strategy sessions at Congress Place, our speechwriting sessions and our long travels throughout the length and breadth of Guyana . I conjured visions of his voice and his laughter and summoned up the breathtaking jokes and stories he related about life, politics and his early experiences at the bar. I was crushed in a crescendo of sorrow and mournful emotion.
I remembered when I saw him last. He had traveled to New York to attend my wedding on Fathers’ Day (2002) where, not to be outdone, he charmed our guests with his awesome humor and wit. Then, he counseled me on the virtues of a good husband. I left the United States that evening. Upon my return, he was still in New York , having stayed on to rest and for medical checks. My CGID colleague, Leslie Gill, and I, treated him to dinner that night before he left for Guyana . Our conversation was awe-inspiring and historic. Had destiny portended this would have been our last visit, we would have tarried with him a little longer.
I recall that in his office, in his absence, his close staff endearingly and reverently referred to him as – Desmond! “Hoyte” connoted his formal self. Today, it is the “Desmond” in Hugh Desmond Hoyte upon whom I reminisce. Born in Georgetown, Guyana on March 9, 1929, he taught high school in Guyana before teaching at the Grenada Boys School . He later obtained B.A. and LL.B. degrees from the University of London. A British trained Barrister-at-Law, he was called to practice at the Honorable Society of the Middle Temple, London . He wore silk as a member of the Inner Bar, having been sworn Queen’s Counsel (QC) in 1969 and designated Senior Counsel (SC) in 1970 when Guyana became a Republic. His practice at the bar led to unprecedented rulings and case law, some of which are today instructed at the UWI School of Law.
Desmond Hoyte entered Guyanese politics in 1968, as a member of Forbes Burnham’s People’s National Congress (PNC) government. He was a close confidant of Burnham’s, who served as Minister of Home Affairs from 1969 to 1970; Minister of Finance from 1970 to 1972, Minister of Works, Transport and Communications 1972 to 1974 and Minister of Economic Development from 1974 to 1980. In 1980 he was appointed Vice President and Deputy Prime Minister for Finance and Economic Planning.
It was in this capacity that he began to gray rapidly, earning the name “Silver Fox.” When then Prime Minister Dr. Ptolemy Reid, retired in August 1984, Desmond Hoyte was appointed Prime Minister of Guyana, a post in which he served until the death of President Burnham on August 6, 1985, before consequently ascending to the Presidency of Guyana, to become Guyana’s third President. On October 5, 1992 , his party, the PNC , lost the general elections after a 28-year rule, and he became Guyana’s third Opposition Leader, a position which he held until his death.
Desmond was multifaceted and complex – a man extraordinary and of a high calling. He had a profound presence. When he entered a room, a majestic silence prevailed. Everyone felt the presence of the man known to them as President Desmond Hoyte! He was penetrating and engaging. The awesome responsibility of leading his people and his country stood out on his shoulders.
He was intolerant of ineptitude, indiscipline and corruption. He was a disciplinarian and a stickler for truth, critical thinking and precision planning. A man of unchallenged integrity and unimpeachable virtue, one can count on Desmond Hoyte on being always very formal. He conducted himself with dignity and finesse. He at all times followed the rules, protocol and principle. He was a punctuality “fanatic” who never, without good reason, kept anyone waiting. Moreover, he was a philosophical and constitutional formalist, who was addicted to the rule of law.
Courteousness, honesty, meticulousness and the “patience of Job”, rounded out his disposition. His impeccable character, quiet dignity and humility as well as his mature, even temperament – coupled with his penchant for being resolute and, at times cutting, caused him to be loved by the masses; misunderstood and feared by some; underestimated by others and disliked by a few. But beyond that public facade of a serious, intimidating statesman, as some conjured up; Desmond was an introverted, compassionate human. He valued other people’s well-being, opinions, service and plight. He always lent a willing ear to anyone who needed his assistance. Most importantly, he delivered. His word was not only his bond, it was his gospel. He lived by it and kept it to the letter.
Desmond Hoyte was selfless. He cared deeply for others. He had a supernatural memory, and a fondness for sending thank you notes or birthday, get-well or sympathy cards. He attended the funeral of everyone he knew to comfort and give hope to the bereaved. He valued people’s service. At Christmas, he gave a gift to each member of his staff, his colleagues in government and politics as well as to close friends.
He was steadfast, resolute and of enormous courage. He always rose to the occasion. To the end of his life, he pressed forward conquering, in spite of obstacles, tragedy and crisis – never losing focus. His life was an embodiment of rapid elevation, personal tragedy, awesome responsibilities, remarkable successes and challenges, and political ingenuity. Providence and destiny guided his life and he relied on an inner faith to see him through.
With obligation to family and duty to country paramount in his mind, Desmond Hoyte, then Prime Minister of Guyana, masterfully navigated a personal and emotional minefield in May 1985. His entire family, traveling in advance to hear him deliver the May Day address in the town of Linden, was dealt a fatal blow on the evening of April 30, 1985 . Their vehicle crashed, killing his only two children: Amanda and Maxine, his sister-in-law and his driver. Only his wife, Joyce, survived.
Fraught with grief, Desmond Hoyte mournfully attended to his family misfortune but simultaneously mustered the strength to discharge his ministerial duty. He went on to deliver the May Day address the next day. As a child, I distinctly remember listening to the live broadcast on the radio with my parents. It was a somber, inspiring speech which gushed from his mountain of anguish and deep affliction.
One December night of 1997, during the election campaign, he delivered one of the most crushing retorts in Guyanese politics at a rally in Linden, in response to the PPP’s Gail Teixeira, who had accused him of not crying at his daughters’ funeral. As we drove back to Georgetown, I said “Chief, that was tough.” He replied “There is even a limit to dirty politics. They ought not to mess with my children. They are dead.” I sensed it. I heard his trademark preamble chuckle. He was in that cutting mode, which usually sent everyone around him scampering.
The Chief was an extraordinarily private man of little words, unless he knew you well. But especially, he did not speak of his daughters’ tragedy. That night, he recounted to me and his chief of security, the memories of losing his daughters. Referring to his famous 1985 May Day speech, he said in a chilling monotone, “My friend, I had to deliver that speech. You know, I had gotten an inner strength which was inspiring. It was a remarkable thing!” As I listened quietly, I thought and understood. His supplications to God had produced an imbuement of serenity and courage to fulfill his duties and to rest his destiny in divine providence. This was the essence of the man.
President Nelson Mandela once posited that “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” Desmond had one last great hill to climb. Three months later, national tragedy struck again. On August 6, 1985 , the founding father of the nation and President of Guyana , Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, died suddenly. Again, the nation’s attention focused on a man of valor – the then Prime Minister, Hugh Desmond Hoyte. He was entrusted with the Presidency of the nation. Tragedy and triumph had met at a crossroad, and a new era dawned in Guyana .
Desmond Hoyte was a visionary who brought to the Presidency of Guyana a myriad of prudent economic, political and social policies that drastically transformed national life. He conceptualized and implemented the Economic Recovery Program (ERP), a model blueprint for economic growth. The ERP spurred a renaissance of the economy and restored Guyana’s creditworthiness in the international community. He created a free market economy, with private enterprise as its engine of growth. This attracted record foreign investments; including OMAI Gold Mines, the largest in the Hemisphere. Hoyte’s policies and good governance restored confidence in government and the productive sectors of the economy, stimulated unparalleled economic growth and led Multilateral Financial Institutions to project Guyana as a model in the developing world.
His vision for a philosophical, political and economic rebirth predated the global wind of change that swept through Eastern Europe and other parts of the world in recent history. Guyana ‘s economic revitalisation, social rejuvenation and political renewal, won him and our country international acclaim. He espoused a foreign policy hinged on private enterprise and investment, symbiotic bilateral relations, economic and environmental diplomacy, enhanced regional integration, preservation of national sovereignty and an unswerving commitment to the United Nations processes, international organizations and international law. This dynamic foreign relations posture was unmatched in the Caribbean region.
Desmond Hoyte was a pioneer in championing the cause of the environment, and was a partner to the Commonwealth Human Ecology Council. He authored the publication “Development and human ecology,” July 1989. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Kuala Lumpur , Malaysia , in 1989, he dedicated to the United Nations, 1 million acres of pristine rainforest for ecological investigations, thereby architecting the Iwokrama International Rainforest Project. As the CARICOM Head with responsibility for ecological matters, he delivered the region’s position on the environment at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992.
Hoyte’s pragmatic policy agenda, adept leadership and shrewd management propelled Guyana to the threshold of economic prosperity and modernization. He got Guyana moving again. He brought violent crime to a halt with the reintroduction of the death penalty and strict security measures. He united the races and forged a harmonious society with his inclusive governance. This inspired Guyanese East Indians to name him “Desmond Persaud.” His Presidency and leadership touched the life of every Guyanese and imbued them with a sense of pride and belonging.
Our leader’s footprints are embedded in the political life of our nation. He was a political craftsman who executed his strategies with exactitude and dexterity. His political philosophy was influenced by personal conviction, the national interest and ever-changing trends of the global environment. He was a realist.
Demonstrating immense courage, on assuming the Presidency, he quickly fortified the democratic process. He significantly strengthened our democratic institutions and arrested the political decay that permeated the society. He inspired political regeneration with constructive changes to the political culture and transforming the role of political society in government. He fashioned a national ethos of discipline, inclusiveness, mutual respect and harmonious co-existence of all peoples. His reform initiatives engendered a free, open, cohesive society. He single-handedly charted a new course for Guyana.
Desmond Hoyte had an ultimate vision for Guyana , which he espoused in his Address to his Party’s Congress in August 2002. He said: “For far too long our people have been bereft of happiness. The culmination of our efforts must be to return the smile to their faces, the spring to their steps and the joy to their hearts. Ours must be the task to fashion a vibrant and wholesome society, at peace with itself and at peace with its neighbours. We must fashion an economy that creates wealth, spurs development and provides continually expanding conditions for all of our people to live comfortable fulfilling lives. Then we must fashion a state resting squarely on foundations of democracy and social justice where, within ever enlarging bounds of human freedom, the rule of law reigns unchallenged.”
He never lived to see that promised land, but claimed his full share of great mountains, and indeed lived a fulfilling life. He was a genuine scholar who was versed in every field; law, politics, education, economics, philosophy, religion, history, geography, language, literature and the arts, among others. He influenced every sphere of Guyanese life. His passing has left a sprawling void in our nation. Who can fill the void of that introvert who emerged as one of Guyana ‘s greatest political minds? There will never be another Desmond Hoyte but the struggle for the ideals he espoused must go on!
Desmond Hoyte’s contribution to the development of Guyana is supreme. His legacy is indelibly etched into the annals of history and in the hearts and minds of every Guyanese. His character is worthy of emulation. One was always assured that Desmond Hoyte will do what was right, ethical and moral. When the PNC lost the 1992 general election I saw him smarted by stinging criticism but he never flinched. He was convinced that he did the right thing by ensuring a free and fair election. And he lived with the consequences. It was an experience that gave meaning to the words of Canadian writer, Laurence J. Peter, who proclaimed that “Democracy is a process by which the people are free to choose the man who will get the blame.” But even in defeat, he was graceful and elegant.
When this chapter of our national life is written, Desmond will be recognised as one of Guyana’s two greatest Presidents. We will revere him as a legal scholar, foremost member of our class of literati, consummate politician, eminent statesman, noble patriot, distinguished gentleman and national hero! Yester-year, we said goodbye. Today, we commemorate his life and ignite an eternal flame, that his legacy and memory will live on forever.
The American author and political commentator, Walter Lippmann, coined the axiom “The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men, the conviction and the will to carry on.” As new generations of Guyanese emerge, we must work to realize the vision and ideals Desmond Hoyte espoused; live out his dream for a new Guyana; rise conquering to the challenges of our time and “fashion a state resting squarely on foundations of democracy and social justice where, within ever enlarging bounds of human freedom, the rule of law reigns unchallenged” – Desmond Hoyte August 2002 . His words and his thoughts will forever be in our hearts. As we come together to memorialize this hero, we must rekindle the spirit of oneness and national pride which he personified. In his memory we invoke his friend and comrade, Martin Carter’s words: “Death of a Comrade:”
“Death must not find us thinking that we die, too soon, too soon, our banner draped for you. I would prefer the banner in the wind, not bound so tightly in a scarlet fold. Not sodden, sodden with your people’s tears, but flashing on the pole we bear aloft down and beyond this dark, dark lane of rags. Now, from the mourning vanguard moving on dear Comrade, I salute you, and I say, Death will not find us thinking that we die.”
Hugh Desmond Hoyte, this erudite son of Guyana, former teacher in Grenada and late Life Senator and a member of the Supreme Presidency of the International Parliament for Safety and Peace, was a quintessential Caribbean man and a world class statesman. He has earned himself a place in the historic pantheon of great Caribbean icons. May his name, legacy, voice and laughter, indeed his memory, burn brightly in our hearts like an eternal flame that we may never forget!