Remembering Janet Jagan
by Krishna Persaud
With characteristic selflessness, Mrs Janet Jagan has passed the torch. The diminished vigour she cited as the reason for her resignation has prompted few statesmen to relinquish power at the height of their popularity. The only other notable example of this magnanimous gesture, is of course Nelson Mandela, who like the Jagans, fought for decades to win democracy for his country.
It is inevitable that the end of the era of the Jagans would be tinged with sadness and nostalgia. The resignation of Mrs Jagan as President of Guyana has ended more than five decades of political struggle by Cheddi Jagan and Janet Jagan; their political careers having spanned the post-war colonial era, the Burnham and Hoyte dictatorships, and the period from the restoration of democracy in 1992 to her resignation on August 8, 1999. With the fullness and added perspective of time, historians will be able to measure the national, regional, and indeed, international impact of these rare and remarkable individuals. But even at present their legacy is beginning to emerge.
Such was their moral authority, that unsolicited apologies were proffered by the Americans (through Arthur Schlesinger), and by the British by way of the press, for destabilizing Dr Cheddi Jagan's democratically-elected governments. There could be no greater vindication than one's opponents freely admitting, by way of an apology, that they were forced to compromise themselves morally.
Although cheated of power for twenty-eight years, and having had to witness the inexorable degradation of their country during that time, the Jagans harboured no rancour or bitterness in or out of office. They simply bent their wills to the task of rebuilding Guyana and creating a society in which all Guyanese could pursue their freedoms as they saw fit. Simply put, in 1992, they started where they left off in 1964.
Perhaps most important of all, it should not be overlooked that the Jagans saved Guyana from a bloodbath. With the largest and best organized party in Guyana, and enjoying majority support, they did not exhort their supporters to violently overthrow the PNC regime, as lesser leaders would have done, but instead fought to democratise Guyana. And similarly, Mrs Jagan exercised considerable restraint when Mr Hoyte incited his more unruly supporters to riot in order to "make the country ungovernable", as he callously put it. The repressive machinery of the state, honed under Messrs Burnham and Hoyte, lay at her disposal, but she declined to use it. And her selfless dedication to the national interest was further demonstrated when she agreed to forego two years of her mandate in order to give the Herdmanston Accord a chance to bring about peace.
Mrs Jagan's entire life has been a class act. One notes that from an early age she was instrumental in shaping the political future of Guyana. She was a founding member of the Political Affairs Committee (1946) and the People's Progressive Party (1950). Her contribution to public life and service included being in cabinet as well as having a parliamentary career that spanned fifty years. Moreover, she was a source of courage and inspiration to a grief-stricken nation when her husband, Dr Cheddi Jagan, died; having stepped into the breech to fill the void created by his passing.
In office, her Presidency was defined by a sense of vision and wider purpose. While consolidating on the gains made by Dr Jagan in the fields of health, education, rural electrification, housing and the provision of potable water, Mrs Jagan boldly pursued a policy of continentalism, fostering ties with Brazil and Venezuela, making overtures towards members of the Mercusor and Andean Pacts, while maintaining Guyana's traditional links with the Caribbean Community.
Abstemious in her habits, she remains indefatigable in the pursuit of a better life for her people. Essentially, she is a true humanitarian. While Mother Teresa, (another great and noble soul), saw human suffering as bringing one closer to God, Janet Jagan saw suffering as a blight, on the human landscape, which should be eradicated.
Her successors, indeed, those on both sides of the political divide, will be measured by the exemplary standards she espoused and practised. Her integrity, altruism, and dedication to Guyana's working masses will be a source of inspiration forever. That she embodies all that is best and most enlightened in Guyanese life may be her most enduring legacy.
The nation is grateful comrade. And happy retirement.
by Donald Ramotar
On Saturday October 20, 2001 Mrs Janet Jagan will celebrate her birthday. We express best wishes to her on this most happy occasion.
Janet Jagan has led an exemplary life and, like her late husband, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, played a leading role in the struggles of the Guyanese people for independence, democracy and social progress. Indeed, since the mid-1940s she stood at all the important historical junctures and helped to shape the direction of our movement and the country as a whole.
A Remarkable Woman
She has been a tremendous positive influence and together with Dr. Cheddi Jagan, was most responsible for the social progress we have made so far.
Undoubtedly, she is a truly remarkable woman. A patriot of Guyana, a true internationalist and one of the outstanding fighters of the working and oppressed people in Guyana and the world.
The Great Depression inspired Janet to work for the poor
Mrs. Jagan was born in Chicago, in the United States. During her early life she lived through the period that was known as the Great Depression. No doubt, she must have witnessed a lot of sufferings, during that period. Chicago was one of the rapidly growing industrial states in the U.S. and the depression had hit it very hard.
Thousands of workers lost their jobs. The struggle of the trade unions and the progressive political parties became intense as they tried to protect jobs and to work towards alleviating the suffering caused by the economic crisis.
That period made a great impact on young Janet and made her a friend and fighter for working people ever since.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, Janet, who was trained as a nurse contributed to the fight against fascism. She was active in the left movement and was a member of the Young Communist League in the U.S.
Among the jobs she did in the U.S. during that time was proofreading for the publications of the American Medical Association.
In 1943 she married the young Cheddi Jagan who was studying dentistry and economics in the U.S.
Janet and Cheddi had a lot in common
They had a lot in common, particularly in politics. By that time the young Jagan had a good grasp of the politics in the colonies and was already convinced that a fight had to be mounted against colonialism.
Like other fighters for national and social liberation at that time, both Cheddi and Janet were greatly influenced by the major and leading role which the Soviet Union played in defeating Hitlerite fascism.
Joined her husband in BG in 1943
The young Janet Jagan came to join her husband in the then British Guiana at the end of 1943, fifty-eight years ago.
Together with Dr. Jagan, Janet quickly became deeply involved in the social, economic and political life of the colony.
Janet was a Founder Member of the PAC
In 1946 with Dr. Jagan, Ashton Chase and Joslyn Hubbard she founded the Political Affairs Committee (PAC), which was the forerunner of the People's Progressive Party (PPP). The PAC began publishing a weekly bulletin for circulation in the country. Janet's training as journalist came into good use, as she became the Editor of the PAC Bulletin.
WPEO formed -- Janet as General Secretary
In that very year, she founded the Women's Political and Economic Organisation (WPEO). Winifred Gaskin and Frances Stafford were the other founding members of this organisation, the first political women's organisation in our country.
Janet became the General Secretary of the WPEO and mainly through her dedication and hard work, it made a great impact in the political life of the colony.
Those were not easy times. The political life was dominated by a British Governor and officials from the Sugar Producers Association, who were all British, and by a few rich local people who were closely tied to the colonial officials.
PAC leaders challenged Colonial Power
The young leaders in the PAC challenged the powers that be on every issue which related to national life and working people's interests. They boldly declared that one of their objectives was to win political independence for British Guiana.
The PAC made a great impact and the next year, 1947 Janet, Cheddi and Hubbard contested constituencies at the elections.
Janet won GT Constituency
Janet, who was extremely popular, contested the Georgetown seat. She was widely known and loved by workers and trade unionists. She was the Organising Secretary of the British Guiana Clerks Unions (BGCU).
She was pitted against Percy Wight, who at that time owned the Argosy papers; he was Mayor of Georgetown and also a member of the Legislative and Executive Council of the colony and a staunch supporter of the colonial power.
When it became clear that Janet would beat him, the whole group that supported the establishment ganged up against Janet. They moved to get John Fernandes to contest after seeing the writing on the wall for Percy Wight.
They used everything against Janet, including invoking the anti-communist bogy, religion and money. Janet barely lost and that was no doubt partly due to the limited franchise.
Dr Jagan won EC Constituency
The Jagans and the PAC's reputation kept growing. Dr. Jagan had won a seat in the Legislative Assembly, representing the East Coast Constituency.
Janet, by that time, had distinguished herself as a fighter, a very good organiser and an able administrator.
She was involved closely with the labour movement. She helped the Guiana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU) organise among the sugar workers.
Active in the Labour Movement
During the strike of 1948 she was very active in organising relief for the strikers and speaking at meetings to keep up their morale.
When the workers were shot, Janet was one of the first prominent persons to arrive on the scene to give leadership and protect and comfort the workers. She, together with other leaders of the PAC and the GIWU, led the funeral procession from Enmore to Georgetown.
In 1980, she repeated a similar feat. In showing her and the PPP's revulsion at the PNC's murder of Dr Walter Rodney she marched from Buxton to Georgetown in the protest procession with his body.
General Secretary of PPP
By the time the People's Progressive Party was founded Janet was certainly one of the most outstanding leaders of our country. Because of her organising ability and her administrative skills Janet became the General Secretary of the Party.
She held that position until 1970 when the organisational structure of the Party was changed.
Editor of Thunder
She also became the Editor for the Party's Organ, the Thunder. As a leader of the PPP Janet distinguished herself in several important struggles that brought credit to the Party and our country.
Through her popularity, she won a seat in the Municipal Council
In 1950 she won a seat in the Municipal Council of Georgetown. She was the first representative of the working people to grace those chambers. She was the only successful candidate of the three PPP candidates. The other two were Burnham and Cheddi Jagan. This showed how popular Janet had become and her reputation for hard work was already becoming legendary.
Universal Adult Suffrage Under Janet
She was part of the PPP's delegation to the Waddington Constitutional Commission which gave us an advanced constitution in 1953. It was here among other places that the PPP pressed hard for Universal Adult Suffrage. This was a major victory.
Janet became Member of Legislative Council
Recognising her dint of hard work, the Party put her in charge of and the Candidate for the West Demerara, Essequibo Coast in the 1953 Elections. She won handsomely and became a member of the Legislative Council in 1953. She won that seat again in the 1957 Elections and made those areas PPP strongholds.
Great achievements in three Ministries
Janet's portfolio as Minister of Labour, Health and Housing between 1957 to 1961 was indeed outstanding. It was the achievements which she made in that period that helped the Party to win the 1961 Elections.
Under her leadership, malaria was practically wiped out in the colony. A mass campaign was launched to wipe out filaria and children throughout our country were inoculated with anti-polio vaccine. An anti-typhoid scheme was also launched. New health centres were constructed. Cottage Hospitals along with maternity and child welfare clinics were established in all parts of our country.
It was under her guidance that pure water supply was spread throughout the countryside.
In housing great progress was made both in towns and country areas. The logies on the sugar estates were eliminated. The Rent Restriction Ordinance covered the whole country.
Under her leadership working people made rapid progress both in wages and conditions of work. Domestics, watchmen, quarry workers, rural cinemas, groceries, etc., were protected by the Ministry. People, to this day, continue to speak of her phenomenal performance in that period.
She fought against all odds
All was not smooth sailing in her political life in Guyana. Janet had to fight against tremendous odds. She was attacked because of her race. The League of Coloured People (LCP) had launched a racist campaign against Whites as early as the 1947 Elections. Joyclyn Hubbard who had done quite a lot for Labour faced a terrible racist campaign led by the League. He lost the 1947 elections to Dr. Nicolson as a result.
Ms. Frances Stafford, one of the founders of the WPEO, was also attacked by the LCP. They spread the lie that she, a White Guyanese woman, had kicked an African Guyanese servant down her stairs.
Janet, Cheddi banned from the Caribbean
Of course, Janet faced the same attack by those who wanted to exploit the working people. In 1949 she was declared a prohibited immigrant in St. Vincent. In 1952 she and Cheddi were the first post-war prohibited immigrants in the Caribbean. Trinidad and Grenada banned them.
Jailed in 1954 through fabrication
The British press had launched a campaign to demonise her and they jailed her in 1954 under fabricated charges.
In the 1960s, the PNC, following the tradition of the LCP also heaped slander upon her. They spread rumours of all sorts trying also to demonise her. They repeated their strong racism tactic after the 1997 General Elections. Racism had always been among the PNC's most effective tool in its politics.
But, of course, Janet the fighter brushed those attacks aside. During the anti-dictatorial struggle she fought on several fronts.
Editor of Mirror
She was the Editor of Mirror and played a leading role in the defence of the press. She led protests against the banning of flour and other essential food items among other struggles.
She returned to Parliament in 1980 at a time when the Party was sending its best to take up the fight in Parliament, after the third successive rigged elections by the PNC regime.
Her book exposed PNC rigged elections
She also used her pen to expose the PNC government. Her book on the 1973 rigged elections is still the best exposé of violence perpetrated on the Guyanese people by the PNC. In the opening sentence she stated frankly and dramatically, "in Guyana the word "elections" has become synonymous with "fraud."
Another notable feat was her examination of National Service in Guyana. This was at the time that the PNC was flirting with socialism. Janet showed that under the PNC regime, National Service was used to oppress, discriminate and to militarise the country.
Throughout all her struggles she has always been a great caring and loving human being with tremendous strength and courage. Events have often pushed her to the fore even though she would like to be more private. In the West on Trial Dr. Jagan captured her personality when he wrote. "...(Janet) (is) somewhat of an introvert. She does not like being in the limelight. Nor does she care about possessions and is always willing to go out of her way to help others ... It took a great deal of persuasion before she consented to stand for the Georgetown seat ..." (referring to the 1947 Elections).
It also took a great deal of persuasion to get her to be our Presidential Candidate in the 1997 Elections. Party leaders worked hard in days of meetings to get her to stand. She never craved power, for its own sake, but only to advance the cause of the working people.
New era in Caribbean politics
It was therefore not difficult for her to handover the Presidency to Bharrat Jagdeo when she felt that due to her health she could not discharge her duty to the country to the maximum, as she would like. In so doing, she opened a new era in Caribbean politics.
First female Parliamentarian, Prime Minister and President
Despite the tremendous achievements for the people of our country and personally being among the first female Parliamentarian, the first female Prime Minister and the first female President in Guyana, she is still extremely modest and very easy to talk to.
Janet is loved by her party; has no personal envy
The political struggles she led sometimes created a lot of hostility mainly engineered by the PNC. However, I do not think that she has a single personal enemy. She is loved by the whole Party and the overwhelming majority of people in Guyana.
There are many other facets of Janet Jagan's life that can be dealt with, her internationalism for instance. But all cannot be told in a short article.
Today, I wish Comrade Janet Best of Health and a very Happy Birthday!
By The Hon. Clement Rohee Minister of Home Affairs
Born in America!
Yes, Born in America!
On October 20, 1920
And no doubt inspired by the familiar and famous words in the Declaration of Independence of the United States;
"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness".
Cde. Janet’s life was motivated by a strong, caring concern for people; and the driving passion of her politics was the pursuit of their rights, particularly those of the poorer marginalized classes.
Captivated by Cde Janet, whom he described as "exceedingly beautiful" Janet and Cheddi entered into an abiding relationship that was sparked by "love at first sight" and which produced two children, Cheddi Jnr. and Nadira. Janet Jagan arrived on the shores of the then British Guiana in December 1943.
It was a mere four months before on August 5, 1943 to be exact, that Cde. Janet was married to Cheddi Jagan in a simple ceremony at the Chicago City Hall, Chicago, USA. It was probably with the same eagerness she exhibited to serve as a nurse in the Second World War that she came to British Guiana. Little did she know nor did she suspect that she would be called upon to fulfill so many noble tasks in this country and to serve a people she embraced as her own.
By 1945, two years after she arrived, Janet and her husband were already in the maelstrom of political debate and controversy. The two were inseparable. Eventually they became household names as the proponents for change that would lead to the betterment of the oppressed and downtrodden.
Cde. Janet made a name for herself in those early days in her advocacy for birth control and family planning, interestingly enough. She saw for herself how large unplanned families were an albatross around the necks of the poor of the logie lines
According to Dr Jagan:
"Janet did not care about possessions and is always willing to go out of her way to help others"
By 1946, she was one of the founder Members of the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) and the PAC Bulletin. Later in that same year, she was the principal architect behind the formation of the Women’s Political and Economic Organization, the WPEO.
Cde. Janet was growing in stature as a political strategist, visionary, perceptive and practical.
According to Comrade Cheddi she was " a good administrator and a hard worker"
Cde Janet’s association with the Trade Union Movement was unmatched.
She was Field Secretary of the British Guiana Clerks’ Association, Secretary of the Union of Moulders and Mechanics, and a principal national figure in the Enmore Sugar Workers’ strike and the Bauxite strike in the 1940’s.
She succeeded in securing an increase in wages for town council watchmen and successfully defended the cause of town constables. She fought for the right of quarry workers to have meetings with their Union representatives at Quarries.
She was in the forefront of the struggle for better conditions for domestics, and played a key role in organizing successful May Day Parades displaying the tremendous unity and solidarity of all Trade Unions in British Guiana. After all, Janet Jagan was an avid Trade Unionist. A little known fact was that she and her husband were friends of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow.
As the political struggle intensified in the colony and as people became more aware of their political and economic rights, Janet Jagan decided to contest the Georgetown Seat in the 1947 general elections, as an Independent.
As a close associate of the Leaders of the Transport Workers’ Union she was given their full support to her contesting the Georgetown Seat.
This is how Cheddi described the scene at one of Cde Janet’s campaign meetings in Georgetown;
"At Janet’s first Public Meeting at the Christ Church School it seemed clear that Percy Wight would lose. Almost everyone who mattered in Georgetown from high to low was there. Janet made a magnificent speech".
"Although she was the more popular, Janet lost largely due to the limitations of the suffrage"
Obviously, there was the need to widen the suffrage.
Three years after the 1947 elections the People’s Progressive Party was formally launched with Janet Jagan as General Secretary.
At the first Congress of the newly founded Party, held one year after, she had this to say;
"The aim of our Party is one firstly; to win for our country complete and absolute independence; secondly, to externally unite our country with people of other colonial and semi-colonial territories in a common struggle. She ended with the slogan: "Support the Party! Build the Party! Follow the Party!"
In 1948, Cde Janet was in the forefront of the Party’s efforts in providing food and lodging to seventy (70) Canadian seamen belonging to the Canadian Seamen’s Union who were stranded in British Guiana due to a sit in by the crew of one of two Canadian Bauxite Ships as a result of a strike by their Union.
Cde Janet stood as the Party’s candidate for the Municipal Elections held in 1950. She won and became the first representative of the working class to enter the Georgetown Municipal Council where she served for a number of years.
In the 1953 General Elections, Janet Jagan contested and won the Essequibo and West Demerara Constituency, thus contributing to the victory of the PPP, which won 18 out of the 24 seats.
She brought to the elections campaign a bustling energy that was matched by an easy grace of persuasive eloquence.
Following the 1953 elections she became the Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Assembly.
With the PPP in Office for only 133 days, the Constitution was suspended and the movement of Cde. Janet and other prominent leaders of the PPP was restricted to Georgetown.
Cde. Janet was imprisoned for six months in 1954 and was released on January 18, 1955.
Where lesser spirits would have been broken, this lady of substance, Janet, showed remarkable resilience and courage that would inspire and embolden Party colleagues nation-wide.
When the split took place in the Party in 1955, Janet Jagan was at the eye of the storm. She stood her ground with other Party stalwarts against those who for opportunistic and personal reasons sought to capture the leadership of the PPP.
It was only after the publication of the Robertson (1954) Report it became known that; "it was largely because of the efforts of Dr Jagan and Mrs. Jagan that the PPP was kept united."
A great achievement and one that offers a bright promise for the future was the 1957 elections victory of the PPP winning nine of the fourteen seats with the Essequibo/Pomeroon being won by Janet.
During that term, she made her mark as Minister of Labour, Health and Housing. Many signs of her achievements are visible up to the present
Later, following the victory of the PPP at the 1961 elections and the passing of the sitting Minister of Home Affairs, Cde. Janet was appointed Minister of Home Affairs and remained there up to June 1, 1964 when she resigned in protest, because her efforts were frustrated due to the non-cooperation of the local Police Force and the complicity of the Colonial authorities.
Hers was a principled act of protest.
She displayed as well an involvement in the Arts and Literature which spoke of the well-roundness of her personality, and which, later, was to lead to her authorship of stories for Guyanese children, and the acquisition of Castellani House as the home of Guyanese painting and sculpture.
From 1964 to 1992 with the PPP in the Opposition, Cde. Janet displayed much strength of character, grit and determination.
Her contribution to Parliamentary debate was characterized by precision in language and a practical wisdom.
She was at the forefront of the struggle for free and fair elections. She served as a member of the Elections Commission from 1968 to 1979 and exposed the State-sponsored rigging of the 1968 and 1973 elections.
It was during this period that Cde Janet helped, guided and mentored a number of young Comrades who had joined the Party.
It is no exaggeration to say that the People’s Progressive Party is a living monument to the vision, discipline, energy and organizational skills of Janet Jagan.
As Executive Secretary of the Party she made a tremendous contribution to the strengthening and consolidation of the PPP while working for the unity and cohesion of the Party at all levels.
And yet year after year, since 1948, she never missed attending the events that commemorated the martyrdom of the Enmore Five, nor the assassination of Michael Forde. This was no political posturing, but a public display of heartfelt sympathy for and solidarity with those who suffered the criminality of colonial officialdom.
Moreover, It was during this period while she was International Secretary, the Party extended its international connections with fraternal parties, National Liberation Movements and Peace and Solidarity Organizations around the world.
Activities related to these international connections would lead to Cde. Janet being awarded the Golden Medal for Peace, Democracy and Women’s Rights. A fitting tribute to the contribution she made in these areas and particularly her strong advocacy for Women’s Rights in Guyana.
Following the victory of the PPP in 1992, Cde Janet became First Lady, a role she filled with dignity, charm and simplicity.
However, desirous of a change from the demands of the role of First Lady she went on to serve as Ambassador to the United Nations during the 48th Session of the UN General Assembly from 1993 to 1994.
After the death of her husband and Colleague Cde Cheddi on March 6, 1997, she was sworn in as Prime Minister of Guyana.
With the advent of the 1997 elections, Cde Janet became the Presidential Candidate of the PPP/C and won the elections receiving a larger percentage of the votes than in the elections of 1992. With that victory she became Guyana’s first female to hold the highest office of the land from December 19, 1997.
But it was to be one of the most painful periods in her political life, and that of the Party.
If the 1950s and 1960s had their difficulties for her and the PPP, the 1997 to 1999 period was even more testing.
For it was during this period that the vilest and wickedest forms of protest including public recourse to obeah, political manoeuvres and subterfuges were used to dislodge her from office eventuating in the reduction of her term by two years. This undoubtedly contributed to her illness. But she bore the indignity with dignity, the insult with courage, and the gamut of indecency with resilience. Such was the nature of the woman!
For a woman who struggled all her life for the advancement of our country, our people and for future generations, to have been treated in that manner, the only decent thing for those who are guilty of these acts to do would be for them to offer her, even in death, an apology in their quiet moments for what they did to her while she was alive.
And, as for those who, to this day, never ever recognized her Presidency only history would prove otherwise.
Held in high esteem by her Party, its members, supporters and all well wishers coming from every nook and cranny and from every stratum of her beloved Guyana, the country which Cde Janet unreservedly and devotedly held as her own; sugar workers, farmers, and other working people, Janet Jagan’s memory will be enshrined in their hearts. Here was a woman, human, simple, feisty as her Mirror editorials indicated, industrious, committed, dedicated to the cause of the advancement of her people’s welfare. What would she want to say to us today? I believe that she would want to use the words of her beloved friend, Martin Carter to say, with that characteristic twinkle in her eye:
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.
Dear Comrade, if it must be you speak no more with me
Nor smile no more with me, nor march no more with me
Then let me take a patience and a calm
For even now the greener leaf explodes
Sun brightens stone and all the river burns.
Now from the mourning vanguard moving on
Dear comrade, I salute you and I say
Death will not find us thinking that we die."
Farewell, JJ, friend, colleague, patriot and thank you from all of Guyana.
March 31, 2009