About the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre
Cherishing Cheddi by Larry Luxner
In the early 1960s, Washington considered him Public Enemy No 2, a dangerous Marxist following in the footsteps of Fidel Castro. Thirty years later, Guyana's Cheddi Jagan was being hailed by President Bill Clinton as a crusader for democracy and human rights.
And now, the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre has opened its doors in Georgetown to honour "Cheddi" - the eloquent dentist who co-led British Guiana to independence in 1966, headed the country's main opposition party for years, and finally served as Guyana's president from 1992 until his death in 1997 at the age of 79.
"We felt that this would be the best tribute we could make to him, to honour his ideas and what he stood for, as well as all his writings," says Jagan's widow, Janet Rosenberg Jagan. "The centre puts on computer all his papers and things related to his many years in the political forefront of Guyana. This allows students to do research about him and about the independence struggle, which was an important period in our history."
Janet Jagan, who became president of Guyana when her husband died, resigned three years ago for health reasons.
Now 81, she spends every morning at the headquarters of the People's Progressive Party, which she and her husband founded in 1950 in order to rid Guyana of British colonial rule. Much of her time is spent these days raising money for the research centre, which was officially opened on, 22 March 2000, by President Bharrat Jagdeo.
The Cheddi Jagan Research Centre is located at Red House, a rambling wooden structure on Georgetown's High Street that was the official residence of British Guiana's colonial secretaries, as well as the home of the Jagans from 1961 to 1964, when Jagan was the country's premier.
At the entrance, visitors are greeted with a larger-than-life, black-and-white portrait of the charismatic Jagan making a speech. The photograph is framed by two flags - that of Guyana on the left, and the black, red and yellow flag of the PPP on the right. Dozens of additional photographs line the walls, depicting stages of Jagan's life from the time when he was a struggling dental student at Northwestern University in Chicago, to his civil wedding (neither his nor his wife's family approved of the marriage), to his days as leader of the opposition, and finally to his inauguration as president of Guyana.
From the early days of his dental practice, which he established in 1943, Jagan questioned established standards and norms, becoming a champion of the working classes, particularly fighting for fair wages and conditions for workers on the sugar-cane plantations.
"I challenged the ruling class at every point and introduced motion after motion in the Legislature," he would later write in his memoirs. "But most of these failed. I attacked the government for abandoning subsidization of salted fish, salted and pickled beef, coca powder, split peas, condensed milk and flour; and challenged our rulers for the many other concessions made to planters and their supporters."
And towards the end of his life, Jagan's passionate voice was still heard. Supporting a "New Global Human Order." "We must elaborate a rational approach to development, not simply for economic growth, but also for human development. We need growth for social justice and eco-justice. There will be no solution to environmental questions, for instance, if the boundaries of poverty continue to expand."
On the research centre's second floor are encased documents ranging from the authoritarian to the sentimental - such as a 1953 decree from the governor of British Guiana suspending the Constitution, and a very touching 1957 letter from Chicago businessman George L Steiner to Jagan, which begins "Do you remember me? You were my room service boy at 211E Delaware Place while attending Northwestern Dental School."
There's also a sheet of paper entitled "Books You Cannot Read" - 22 categories of material banned by the British colonial government under the Subversive Literature Law. These included copies of Soviet Weekly magazine, as well as the books Hands off British Guiana, and Towards the Third World Trade Union Congress.
In fact, during the 1950s, the British sent Janet Jagan to jail for six months, simply for having a copy of Jawaharlal Nehru's acclaimed 1941 autobiography Towards Freedom.
"A lot of information is coming out now, about what the Americans and British were doing to undermine us," Janet Jagan says. "They were thinking of exiling me and my husband, and Kennedy might have been thinking of getting rid of him."
Yet both the British high commissioner and the US ambassador have been honoured guests at the research centre, which receives as average of two hundred visitors a month, and is just down the street from the US Embassy. Attesting to Guyana's friendship with the United States is a framed photograph of Jagan with former President Clinton, and a handwritten note that says: "To President Jagan - welcome back to Washington."
And at Jagan's death, Clinton would write: "President Jagan was a champion of the poor who devoted himself to alleviating poverty in his country and throughout the Caribbean."
Odeen Ishmael, Guyana's ambassador to both the US and the Organization of American States, was a close friend of Cheddi Jagan, and was with him in 1997 when he died of a heart attack at Washington's Walter Reed Medical Centre. He says the idea of a research centre came about many years before that.
"One day, while he was still in the opposition, Cheddi told me he had quite a lot of his writings in his house," recalls Ishmael. "So we began to talk about microfilming these papers, and we began negotiating with companies in the US. After he became president, that idea was put on the back burner."
The idea was revived following Jagan's death, and Red House - which had been sadly neglected for years - was rehabilitated, thanks to a generous grant from Malaysian timber giant, Barama Company Ltd
"There's no charge for anybody to use the facilities, and we don't ask for donations," says Janet Jagan. "But we do have continuous expenses. My daughter, Nadira, who lives in Canada, raises a lot of money from the sale of Cheddi's books and three months ago, we had a fabulous fund-raising dinner at which we raised G$1m. We keep our nose just above water, though I always worry because we don't have much in reserve."
Adds Dudley Kissoore, chief archivist at the centre: "We need funding. Right now, security is our biggest expense. We have to keep 24-hour security here, and that's eating up our budget."
The guards are needed to protect rare documents, as well as an assortment of gifts that include a silver plate from the Kuwait Chamber of Commence; keys to the city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia; a lucite map of California from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors; a painting from the president of India; a plaque from the Brazilian navy; a wooden drum from the prefect of French Guiana; and a soap stone carving of a Canadian loon from the Guyanese community of Winnipeg.
An audiovisual library on the third floor will eventually comprise over 120 videotapes of the late president's speeches and interviews, while his original writings are currently being scanned onto CD-ROMs. The period from 1942 to 1964 has almost been completed and is now available for public use.
An adjoining room has been fashioned as a replica of Jagan's office - right down to his large wooden desk, rotary telephone, briefcase, and jars of Planters' Nuts. "Those were his favourites," says Kissoore.
Finally, the conference centre, according to a brochure, "seeks to further some of Dr Jagan's deepest concerns, and its objectives include engaging Guyanese and other interested parties in an investigation of the consequences of Guyana's colonial past and its impact on development, nation-building, and the democratic process. It is a living institution, rooted in our past but ever responsive to the needs of our time."
And despite recent election-related unrest between PPP supporters and the opposition People's National Congress, Janet Jagan insists her husband was loved by all.
"I suppose his funeral would have given evidence of this," she says. "Thousands and thousands of people came to pay their respects. Political opinions vary, but everyone recognizes him as a true Guyanese hero."