A Personal Tribute to the Late Dr. Ptolemy Alexander Reid
Posted September 24th. 2003 - by Festus L. Brotherson
(Dr. Brotherson is a former Editor of New Nation, Chairman of the Mass Media Committee, Head of the Division of Propaganda, Moderator of Action Line and Member of the PNC Central Executive Committee from 1977 to 1979. He served the PNC overseas from 1980 to 1985 in Los Angeles, California and again in Guyana from 1986-1987 before breaking from the party in December 1987 )
Humbly, I write to pay tribute to the late Deputy Leader of the PNC and Prime Minister of Guyana, Dr. Ptolemy Alexander Reid, whom I knew quite well personally and professionally and admired and respected immensely. I grew up next door to Dr. Reid in Bel Air Park, Georgetown, during the 1960s and got to know him, his departed first wife whom I called "Aunt Ruth" and his ambitious son Herman. Our families were close. Then, while overseas as a student from 1972 to 1977, and again from 1980 to 1985, Reid and I maintained contact. So did I with Prime Minister Forbes Burnham. Upon my first return to Guyana in 1977, both Burnham and Reid wanted me to work with them. Earlier, I had declined a sudden directive from Permanent Secretary (then I think) Winifred Agard, prior to leaving California, that I report for duties at the Guyana Consulate in New York.
On reflection, the final arrangement between Burnham and Reid about my work underscored the type of ebb and flow constancy, and permeable relationship they enjoyed. Amplified, it was one of respect for each other's skills undergirded by rare reciprocal trust, with Reid being unambitious for power. The rationale for the deal was not revealed to me directly but it was clearly blessed with savvy elasticity so that I would work directly under Reid and still perform duties for Burnham. The fact was that since teenage life and into early adulthood, I had worked near exclusively in the early 1970s for Burnham out of the Ministry of Information (under Peter Halder, Maurice Dundas and Victor Forsythe), and traveled the length and breadth of Guyana with him. Even before that, my first job out of high school was at the Office of the Prime Minister in 1966.
This preamble gives indication of the solid insights I possess into both men's political gifts and challenges, including their analytic capabilities and personalities. Reid was a closer mentor and for a longer period over many decades. Increasingly, though, we lost touch when I broke publicly with the PNC in 1987.
One enduring quality of Reid's was his literal love of land as the producer of food for human sustenance. Another was his profile of messianic certitude underscored with understanding of but impatience with obstacles. He was a true believer - somewhat of the type depicted by Eric Hoffer. Yet another charming quality was his dependability and protection if you were under his wing. This one is twinned with the fact that he unhesitatingly rebuked you personally and severely, so much so that you literally squirmed. I was on both the receiving and observation line as these leadership and personality traits were displayed. I deal briefly with them in tribute.
Evidence of Dr. Reid's wholesome love of the land on philosophical and pragmatic levels is abundant. Despite his enormously hectic political life, he maintained with the help of Aunt Ruth heavy personal farming activity that became a successful business. In private sessions, when relaxed, he would share his orientation and attitude about land. Indeed, during that formative Bel Air Park period of our relationship, his backyard had food growing everywhere - bananas, cassavas, eddoes, plantains, ochro, bora, squash, papaws and many other fruits. The entire area was exquisitely manicured and exemplarily maintained. My late father, Festus L. Brotherson, Sr., had also been no shirker of farming. He too had a passion for the land even though he was also very busy professionally as an attorney emphasizing land issues. A healthy friendly competition and sharing of information governed their relationship. There was no doubt that Reid won that rivalry over many years, and when the family shifted their principal dwelling to Supply on the East Bank of Demerara, Dr. Reid's appetite for farming ballooned while my father's declined.
Under Aunt Ruth's management, the Reids sold eggs (chickens too I think), fruits and vegetables to a long list of clients. And so it was that Dr. Reid lived life according to his compatible personal and public ideologies. More indication of this trait involved the naming of a Ministry of National Development and PNC industry the "Knowledge Sharing Institute" or "KSI" as it was generally called. This far-flung business sold scarce commodities to ease ongoing shortages of foodstuff and other commodities. Much of what was obtainable there was produced locally. Was KSI successful in meeting its teaching by example objective? I have mixed views. But this brings me to another leadership and personality trait - the true believer phenomenon
A humorous event will suffice to make the point. It was revealed to me shortly after it happened. The context was that period of unrest when rice flour was mandated to replace wheaten flour in search of "preparing citizens for tomorrow" by breaking their dependency on foreign foods and saving foreign exchange while developing local replacement industries. Reid not only promoted the switch to rice flour exuberantly, he also led by example in his household. On one occasion, the family came into possession of wheaten flour and Aunt Ruth baked a cake with some of it. Dr. Reid went ballistic. He sternly thundered that such a thing must never again happen. The cake went uneaten and wheaten flour did not reappear in the home.
Reid was also not amused with a bawdy song that won the calypso competition during one Mashramani celebration. The lyrics claimed that, "Santa Claus dead because he eat rice flour bread." The truth be told, Dr. Reid was one of very few leaders who held to this high standard of ethical probity on this policy about rice flour replacing its traditional wheaten counterpart.
My recollections of protection, dependency and rebukes are many, with some of them being humorous in retrospect. A major cause of rebukes was my persistent maverick ways. Once, when he was acting Prime Minister, he contacted me directly via our hot lines (special telephones) and simply said, "Come and see me now." As soon as I entered the office, he hotly scolded, "You cause many unfortunate things to happen! What is this I hear about blah, blah, blah. (I feel obliged not to reveal the issue of disagreement.) Your problem is that you don't follow orders completely." He was not at all surprised when I politely responded that while I remained loyal to the Party and revolution, I did not surrender my brains to it. We had had this conversation three years earlier in 1975 when I had been brought home in July/August, along with scores of other foreign-based students, for an orientation programme about national policies. Then, I had publicly questioned in a plenary, some particular aspect of domestic policy that I cannot now remember.
The authoritarian culture of the "vanguard party" required unquestioning total obedience to the highest leadership ranks. But I received complete protection from Reid in many instances of serious disagreements with others in the hierarchy of leadership, including late former president Desmond Hoyte, Mrs. Viola Burnham, and Senior Minister Hubert Jack. On other occasions, when I made miscalculations and other mistakes, Reid's protection was unswerving even the though the scoldings were quite severe. There was only one occasion where I did not receive his backing and that was a complicated matter of rivalry between former Minister of Information Frank Campbell and I over mass media policy about the now defunct Caribbean News Agency (CANA). I almost resigned over this quarrel after Burnham had ruled in Campbell's favor. However, I was strongly dissuaded from doing so, within hours of the humbling defeat, by former Commissioner of Police Laurie Lewis who had been my good friend and a closer confidante of Burnham. I'll briefly tell these stories because they paint a portrait of Reid (and Forbes Burnham) as towering leaders with great gifts for analysis and for plotting strategies and deftly executing tactics.
At a certain meeting of the Central Executive of the PNC, which Dr. Reid was chairing in the absence of Forbes Burnham, many persons were after my scalp over mass media issues. I was in the dark over a plan to discredit me at that meeting which was attended by heavyweights like Kit Nascimento. I need not reveal the protagonists. But after my customary report to the gathering, then Senior Minister of Economic Development Desmond Hoyte spearheaded the assault. He had only gotten off about three sentences and received nodding heads from those involved in the effort, before Dr. Reid interjected and simply said, "We don't have time for this now. Let us keep to the agenda." Case closed. Afterwards, Malcolm Parris revealed to me what had been afoot and voiced admiration for this dependability aspect of Reid's persona. That event, more than any other, sowed seeds of future conflict between Hoyte and myself over many years despite efforts on both our parts to end the tempestuous nature of our relationship.
On another occasion, I had made Mrs. Viola Burnham unhappy because I had dared to go against party policy and, as editor of New nation, criticize in the weekly organ the reintroduction of the coal-pot as a fire hazard despite whatever merits it might have had as "appropriate technology" to cope with gas shortages. Mrs. Burnham did not deal with me directly but indication of unhappiness came at the very next Administrative Meeting where she was absent. My old friend Senior Minister Cammie Ramsaroop chaired that meeting and roundly scolded me for insubordination. He called upon me to issue a retraction and also to apologize to Mrs. Burnham. I said I would do neither. I reported to Dr. Reid and he said nothing. No scolding came from Forbes Burnham either and the passage of time made the issue less and less important. I knew however that Dr. Reid, while he did not agree with my action, had quietly brushed off efforts to sanction me. The unusual way in which I worked under Burnham and Reid was helpful in this instance. Mrs. Burnham handled the matter with the same dignity that informs her behavior today as an ex-major player in national affairs. One day, Senior Minister Hubert Jack stormed into my New Nation office, terribly exercised over an editorial of mine that was highly critical of the United States. I would not have written it just then had I remembered that the Americans had days earlier given us a sizable amount of aid for some urgent projects. This was a genuine mistake on my part. Jack said he was speaking on behalf of Forbes Burnham and demanded that I write a retraction. Well, that was not how Burnham operated in the agreement he had with Reid about my functioning. I decided to simply bide time. When Dr. Reid called the next day and said that a retraction/apology was necessary, I wrote and published it. It did not go far enough for Hubert Jack. He telephoned and bluntly said so, adding that more of an apology had to be made. I received no word from Reid so I also knew that Burnham was no longer unhappy. Nothing more was added and no untoward consequences developed.
Finally, a fight with Minister of Information Frank Campbell had been brewing for several months as I slowly but surely took over the role of authoritative monitoring of all branches of the mass media. A special committee had been set up with the approval of the Central Executive of the PNC to facilitate the quiet coup. Persons like former broadcasting executive Terry Holder and that icon of an editor and writer, Carl Blackman, wisely cautioned me and voiced their disapproval of the development. Campbell was livid and formally complained to Burnham who promptly summoned us to his Belfield residence. I consulted Reid. He refused to speak directly to the issue and this gave me a sense of foreboding. I had called for the banning of CANA and Campbell was opposed. But I knew that both Reid and Burnham had become frustrated by what they (I too) had perceived - CANA was now more than a news network but a biased critic of PNC government policies. Thus it was that I still expected to prevail at the Belfield meeting which lasted over two hours. Present were Dr. Reid and former PNC General Secretary Ranji Chandisingh (I think), along with Burnham, Campbell and myself. I was genuinely stunned and vexed when Burnham announced, while staring straight at me and pointing to Campbell, that he was ruling in favor of Frank.
Then a funny thing happened when I left Guyana a few months thereafter to pursue graduate studies. Over time, Campbell was made to implement all of the controversial media policy initiatives I had submitted at that meeting, including the banning of CANA. It was then I understood why Laurie Lewis had urged me not to resign. I had actually won that fight but Burnham and Reid had made a decision to cut me down to size and I had indeed been humbled. This was extremely clever political leadership that showcased the skills of both men in dealing with a maverick like myself. It was a lesson well learned. Many years later, I issued a nation and Caribbean-wide apology for my role with the mass media and for achieving the banning of CANA.
As I close, many more matters and examples spring readily to mind, including my refusal to do volunteer work at Hope Estate. Instead, I worked in my office on those days. Reid personally investigated this brewing controversy and backed me on grounds of my ill health. The experiences all have one thing in common - a grateful Festus L. Brotherson, Jr. for the excellent role model Dr. Reid was for me, and for the fine mentoring he provided. Looking back, had I followed his sage advice, General Secretary Ranji Chandisingh and I might not have parted company as bitter enemies. I had wronged him and Desmond Hoyte had supported him but I refused to budge. However, I have since grown to admire qualities Chandisingh shared with Reid - not being a publicity hound and conducting himself with great dignity. I am only certain of this though because of the patient tutoring provided by Dr. Ptolemy Alexander Reid to whom I dedicated my doctoral dissertation in 1985 and will forever respect.
To grieving Dr. Herman Reid and the extended family, I offer heartfelt condolences joined by my wife Lurline and son Leonard, as well as my brother George Brotherson and sister Felicity Morrison.
END OF TRIBUTE