Remembering Janet Jagan
by Earl Bousquet
A piece of me died the other day…
In the middle of a deep sleep, I was awoken by a call from Guyana with the unwelcome but unavoidable news that “Comrade Janet” had died. “JJ” was my “other mother”. I cried.
I had known Janet Jagan for over three decades; and I worked side by side with her, in the same office and for the same causes, for six straight years (1993-1999).
A mother, wife, grandmother, aunt and mother-in-law, she was indeed a total family person. As First Lady, Prime Minister, President of the Republic and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, she was the ultimate political matriarch of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the PPP/Civic administration.
Janet was a political thoroughbred. She scored all the political firsts in the name of women in politics in Guyana and the Eastern Caribbean – one of the three first women elected to parliament, the first woman minister, first Deputy Speaker of Parliament, first woman Prime Minister and first woman President and Commander in Chief of Guyana.
Janet’s generosity knew no bounds. Frugal, humble, generous, kind to a fault, nothing was too much to do for anyone. She gave without taking. And she never forgot a friend or a child’s birthday. She was dedicated to the cause of all of Guyana and of all Guyanese. But she was particularly concerned about the fate of vulnerable groups – children, women, Amerindians, the rural and urban poor. She was the founder of the oldest women’s organization in Guyana, the Women’s Progressive Organization (WPO), Chairperson of the UNESCO National Commission for Children and a permanent defender of Amerindian rights.
Janet and I were very close. She ensured that while I performed my professional and political duties, my family was taken care of. She was the bridge between me and the party; I was a little bridge between her and Cheddi; and Janet and Cheddi were my bridges to the state media. They – and my other best friend, Moses Nagamootoo – entrusted me with enormous responsibility in the state media. Thanks to them, I served in leadership positions in the state media that allowed me to make contributions that have left their mark on the local media landscape.
But it is for our years together at the Mirror that I will remember Janet best. She was totally committed to ensuring the Mirror was published every week. No matter what else, that was her priority. In her latter life, she virtually took up residence at the Mirror, putting her writing and journalistic skills to work for party and people with as much passion as she deployed her political skills. Her journalism -- whether as Editor in Chief of the Mirror or Editor of Thunder (the PPP’s theoretical organ) or President of the Union of Guyanese Journalists (UGJ) – was as important to her as her politics.
I always knew that those who hated Janet simply didn’t know her. Unfortunately, she was the victim of a hatred that was planted in the minds of many from one generation to the next. They were blinded by the colour of her skin and the country of her birth. And they simply couldn’t understand why a 78-year-old white woman at the head of an Indian-based party, with a Black Prime Minister and Amerindian support, was able to win elections against the best they could present. They never understood – and they probably still don’t understand -- that it had nothing to do with Janet’s colour and everything to do with her historical role as an outstanding defender of all the people of Guyana for more than five decades.
Leaving Janet, the Mirror, the PPP/Civic, GBC, GTV and all my friends and comrades in Guyana to return home in 1999 was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. Telling Janet goodbye was my most agonizing task. That morning, before we left for the Cheddi Jagan International Airport for our flight back to Saint Lucia, Janet hugged my entire family at the Office of the President; and she reminded me, for the thousandth time: “You – all of you -- can come back, anytime!”
I did return to Guyana several times, the last occasion being for the PPP’s Congress last August, where I represented the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP). I was to interview her during that week to begin writing a book about her that we agreed to work on together. She had insisted she would not write an autobiography. She was more interested in preserving Cheddi’s legacy. Our deal was that she would secure Cheddi’s name -- and I would take care of hers. But the interview never happened. She collapsed at the Congress and had to be sent home to rest. I talked to her before she left the Congress Hall at Diamond on the East Bank Demerara, but I didn’t think it prudent to interview her at home on a sick bed. Big mistake! It was a fatal miscalculation. I never saw her again.
That’s why I cried the night she died. I cried, because a part of me had died. May Janet’s ashes spread far and wide...
April 20, 2009
by Rickey Singh
GEORGETOWN, CANA - An era of more than half a century in the robust politics of Guyana comes to an end Wednesday (August 8, 1999) with the resignation of President Janet Jagan and swearing-in of her 35-year-old Finance Minister, Bharrat Jagdeo, as the nation's new Head of State and Government.
This dramatic development, of which the Guyanese people will officially learn Sunday evening (last night) in a nation-wide broadcast by the President, resulted from a mild heart attack the 78-year-old widow of President Cheddi Jagan suffered last month, and amid lingering doubts about her physical fitness to maintain the heavy responsibilities of public office.
President Jagan, speaking to CANA in a telephone interview ahead of her broadcast to the nation, said that her "great hope for the future of Guyana is for peace, unity and progress".
She said she was "confident that my colleagues in Government and the party (People's Progressive Party) will be guided by what is the best at all times for the people of our beloved nation, and I sincerely hope that they will receive the cooperation from all sectors of the Guyanese society".
The American-born Jagan was one of four founding members of the PPP, one of the oldest of parties in the Caribbean, and has had a long history of struggles in the social and political life of Guyana.
She also served in previous governments as Minister of Health and Labour, Minister of Home Affairs and after editing the Mirror newspaper for some 20 years, became Prime Minister following the death of President Cheddi Jagan in March 1997 from heart problems.
She led the party to a bigger victory in terms of popular votes at the December 1997 election for the PPP/Civic to retain control of the 65-member parliament. But has had to face constant opposition, including violent protests, from the main opposition People's National Congress.
To fulfil relevant constitutional requirements of resignations and appointments for a smooth transition from Jagan to Jagdeo, Prime Minister Samuel Hinds of the CIVIC component of the PPP/Civic administration, will tender his resignation Monday as Prime Minister to the President. She will then appoint Finance Minister Jagdeo, who has previously acted as Prime Minister, as the new Prime Minister.
By Wednesday, when Jagan tenders her resignation to the Speaker of Parliament, Derek Jagan - who happens to be her brother-in-law- she would have appointed Jagdeo as the country's new President and, consequently Head of State, Head of Government and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.
President Jagan said that the choice of Jagdeo was "fulfilment of a public pledge of our A-team, with the Finance Minister identified as a successor should it become necessary during this term of the PPP/Civic Government".
What happens for the next general election expected in 2001 is a matter for the party to determine when choosing the leader of its list of candidates.
The four most prominent names as presidential candidates for 2001, according to party insiders are: Jagdeo, Ralph Ramkarran, a leading lawyer who chaired the Constitution Reform Commission, Dr Roger Luncheon, Head of the Presidential Secretariat and Cabinet Secretary; and Moses Nagamootoo, Minister of Information.
The process of changing the presidency this week, President Jagan explained, "had the full backing of the PPP's Central Committee and the group of Civic representatives in the Government with whom the issues were fully discussed and agreed upon".
Jagdeo, an economist, whose political career started with the PPP as a 16-year-old high school student, will then re-appoint Hinds, a senior Minister of the Government, as Prime Minister and subsequently consider new cabinet appointments and changes.
As Finance Minister Jagdeo, who as President will be the youngest head of state in the entire Western Hemisphere, was a principal negotiator for debt reductions and soft loans and grants.
He said yesterday he would prefer to withhold comment until his inauguration on Wednesday, but felt "very humble and very honoured at the prospect of serving the nation for whatever period as President".
"It has been my good fortune to have grown up, like a lot of my leading cabinet and party colleagues at the feet of Cheddi and Janet Jagan and together we intend to build on the foundation laid".
By Prem Misir
HAVING lived abroad for a good chunk of time, I have always cherished the thought of meeting Mrs Janet Jagan.
On my return to Guyana, I was blessed with the opportunity to sit with her at the Monday- morning meetings on the Mirror for several years.
From the little I saw and experienced, Mrs. Janet Jagan’s successful work career was a function of her resolute discipline. She also had tremendous courage for her convictions, and always stood her ground. It was a great lesson to watch her in action at these meetings as she debated the issues of the day.
I always liked engaging her in discussing issues of the day, because she always brought a novel perspective into play. These innovative perspectives in addressing and resolving developmental concerns are what would make Guyana a better place.
It was quite illuminating for me to see how Mrs. Jagan extrapolated Guyana’s political and social history to objectively interpret contemporary problems.
We talked a lot about my writings. And one particularly distinctiveness on her part was her unstinting willingness to pen a note in my book, ‘Ethnic Cleavage and Closure in the Caribbean Diaspora’, Publisher: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007; she wrote: "The late President of the Republic of Guyana, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, from his earliest observations and studies on the race question in Guyana, always sought to examine the subject in relation to class. His strong belief was always that people of similar living standards, working conditions and relationships have so much in common that they are bound together by class and should not be divided by race or religion."
Mrs. Jagan has always been in the forefront of wanting to provide assistance to the vulnerable, especially women and children, clearly evidenced in her founding of the Women’s Progressive Organisation (WPO) and her numerous writings on children. She believed that Guyanese children need books which reflected their own realities, and wrote several children’s books about Guyana’s struggle for independence.
Mrs. Jagan was a symbol of the establishment of women in the forefront of Guyana's development, since she was the first elected woman to the City Council, the first elected President, the first Prime Minister; clearly establishing her as a champion in representing and promoting women's issues and concerns.
During her Presidency, Janet Jagan was an advocate for the full emancipation of women in Latin America, including equal education, equal housing opportunities, equal pay for equal work and free maternity leave. She made fundamental contributions in politics, trade unionism, the women's movement, the rights of the child, journalism, the arts and health, all essential for Guyana’s development.
Guyana should not lament her death, but celebrate her life and times; the woman for all Guyana.
by William Steif. Aug 4, 2005
At 85, former president Janet Rosenberg Jagan is still going strong.
Janet Rosenberg Jagan, an 85-year-old Jewish grandmother born and raised in Chicago, is an unlikely power broker in this remote country of 740,000 on the northern rim of South America, yet voters in Guyana are asking repeatedly who she will support in the presidential election set for early 2006.
Janet Jagan was elected president in 1997, shortly after the death of her husband, former President Cheddi Jagan, a lifelong Marxist. She resigned from office after less than two years after suffering a heart attack, and despite her worsening diabetes, she’s up and around these days, attending to business at her central Georgetown office.
"My allegiance is to my party," Jagan said. "It will decide who my candidate is."
She and her husband founded the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) in 1950, when Guyana was still a British colony known as British Guiana. Her office is on the second floor of PPP headquarters, a wooden building called Freedom House.
Jagan ducks a straight answer to the question of her support because some speculate that her son, Cheddi Jagan Jr., also known as Joey, will be a candidate. That would pit him against current President Bharrat Jagdeo, 41, who was Janet Jagan’s finance minister, and took over when she retired. Jagdeo was elected to a five-year presidential term in March 2001.
The odds of Jagan heading Guyana figured about a billion to one in 1920, the year she was born on Chicago’s South Side. Her father, Charles Rosenberg, was a plumbing and heating salesman. Both anti-Semitism and the Great Depression took its toll, Jagan says.
"Business was awful. My father could not make a good living," she recalled. But he did her an important favor. "He took me to the public library once a week. He got me reading a lot."
The family moved to Detroit during the Depression, enabling her to go to Detroit University, Wayne State and Michigan State, and in 1942 she was a nursing student at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. She was a stunning brunette, and at a party one night, she met a handsome dental student from Northwestern University. He was a young man from British Guiana named Cheddi Jagan.
They fell in love and married, despite opposition from both sets of parents. In 1943, Cheddi returned to British Guiana to set up his dental practice. Janet stayed in Chicago, earning money as a proofreader for the American Medical Association and joining Cheddi in late December 1943.
They quickly became involved in politics. Plantation workers "always called on Cheddi" when they had problems, Jagan said, and soon they found themselves involved in the trade union movement. By 1947 workers came to her husband in hopes that he run for Parliament. He ran and won. Together, they helped sugar workers and bauxite workers in long strikes and after founding the PPP, Janet Jagan edited the party’s newspaper and was the first woman elected to the Georgetown City Council in 1950.
In 1953, Rosenberg Jagan was elected to parliament and her husband was chief minister. The British "kicked us out after four and a half months," she says, "the Constitution was suspended and British marines were brought in."
Cheddi, of East Indian heritage, felt the heavy restrictions slapped on by the British rulers in early 1954. He was jailed for six months for traveling out of town. The day he was released, his wife was imprisoned "for attending a Hindu religious ceremony. The British called it a political meeting."
She spent almost six months in jail, though that did not shake her convictions.
"Cheddi and I always have believed in socialism. To us, that meant getting rid of oppression so the poor man can get out of this poverty and enjoy the fruits of the country," said Jagan.
The former head of state is one of the few white people in a country dominated by racial issues. About 48 percent of Guyana’s population is of East Indian descent. Another 36 percent are Afro-Guyanese, descendants of slaves brought by the Dutch before the British takeover. About 7 percent are Amerindian and the rest are Portuguese, Chinese or mixed.
In 1992, a quarter-century after Guyana achieved independence, Cheddi Jagan won a free and fair election as president, and Janet was named Guyana’s ambassador to the United Nations. When he died five years later, she became president — making her the first Jewish head of state in South American history.
Jagan believes there has been "lots of improvement" in Guyana in the last decade, though she notes "heavy migration" tends to hurt the country. "But we have to live with it," she says, referring to the Guyanese diaspora in which educated Guyanese go for "better jobs" to Canada, the United States and the Caribbean’s English-speaking islands. Proudly, she notes that the Guyanese are "99 percent literate."
She is especially proud of one of Cheddi Jagan’s programs, under which the government has provided about 60,000 housing lots for the poor at US$300 to $400 per lot. She noted that "education has improved tremendously" in recent years, the infant mortality has dropped and the country’s water supply is much safer.
Meanwhile, her 56-year-old son Joey — a dentist like his father — is starting his own political movement, the Unity Party. If the party takes off, Guyana could once again have a Jagan as its head of state, though Janet Jagan declined to speculate on her son’s chances of winning the next election.
"My son and I do not discuss these things at all," she said with a smile.
By Dharamkumar Seeraj, M.P.
In l946, the Father of the Guyanese Nation, in equal partnership with indisputably the greatest frontline fighter for women’s rights in this country – the indomitable, inimitable Mrs. Janet Jagan, along with Messrs. Ashton Chase and Jocelyn Hubbard formed the Political Affairs Committee (PAC).
1946 also saw the formation of the Women’s Political and Economic Organization (WPEO) – the predecessor to the WPO, led by Mrs. Jagan, Ms Winifred Gaskin, and Frances Stafford. These were intrepid women indeed, because they challenged the old order, and the bastion of male supremacy that dominated within the dictates of societal norms. The WPO, which evolved from the WPEO, is the original and primary women’s organization in the nation. In local parlance “Any other is a mock.”
As we say farewell to this champion of women’s rights and of human rights, I humbly take the opportunity to pay homage to the woman whom has truly loved and mothered this country and its people – first out of love and loyalty for her husband, then for their own sakes.
Time does not permit that I detail the perils and travails she endured in pursuit of social rights and justice, which included six months of hard labour in prison, separation from her babies, curtailment of her freedoms in diverse ways, lifelong threats and attempts on her life – Michael Forde martyred his life to save hers and the lives of countless others when he grabbed a bomb and deflected it from exploding in Freedom House. When, out of the love, commitment, dedication, and the supreme loyalty she has always demonstrated to her husband, and by extension his people, she fulfilled his last request and accepted the presidency upon his demise, she was witch-hunted out of that office by the very nation for which she fought all her adult life; yet she never advocated retaliation against any section or community, but always extended forgiveness with grace. Her love for this nation and its people was paralleled only by that of her husband.
If married women can today work in public institutions, we have to thank Janet Jagan; if Guyana’s women have a voice against abuse - in all its myriad forms, we have to thank Janet Jagan; if women can vote today, we have to thank Janet Jagan; if women can stand today in equal partnership with male counterparts in the highest law-making and policy-making forum in the land – the Legislative Assembly, we have to thank Janet Jagan.
And today we humbly say “thank you “ for pioneering the way of the freedom we today enjoy in our homeland.
I also want to acknowledge the wonderful man who brought this amazing woman to this land and gifted her, with absolute generosity, to this nation.
Beyond their public personas, the romance of Dr and Mrs Jagan was an ode to love that transcended all the divides to emerge sublimely pure and indestructible – a transcendental experience that reached out to gather within its embrace the entire Guyanese nation – and even beyond these shores, as was demonstrably exemplified in Dr. Jagan’s New Global Human order,” in which he argued for a restructuring of the global economic and social dispensation so that poverty and hunger can be eradicated and the human dimension to development would supersede all other considerations. Both Jagans were strong advocates for the empowerment of the vulnerable – with a special focus on women, and Dr. Jagan exemplified and encapsulated all the best qualities of a son, a father, a husband, a grandfather, a leader of men and of nations, but in fulfilling every one of these duties his wife stood in equal partnership resolutely and unwaveringly by his side.
The Jagans set high standards in ethics, integrity, and morality, and there is a dire need for a restoration of democratic principles that should govern our society. Even more so, there is a supreme need for honour to become a facet of our interaction and interrelation with our counterparts. To deal justly with the vulnerable, and even help to empower them, should hallmark one’s philosophy for human interaction. It is only by striving for universal respect for each member of society – man, woman, or child, can we create a better world for future generations, which was the ultimate aim of the first couple of this land.
They tried to inculcate these values into the society that they nurtured by living their lives well and by empowering and encouraging others to do so.
In recognition of the contributions, and in further tribute to the mother of the Guyanese nation, I would like to read a poem. It spells the name “Janet Jagan.”
J- is for justice, for which she fought lifelong
A- is for always, her spirit is so strong
N- is for never to lawlessness she surrendered
E- is for endurance, as this land’s defender
T- is for the tribute and homage we needs must pay
J- is for the Jagans, who fought hard, come what may
A- gainst imperialism, colonialism, and an unyielding man
G- is for gratitude – to the mother of this land
A- dvocate for the poor, and for peace and liberty
N- ational heroine of this land, you helped to set us free
Mrs. Jagan became Guyana’s first Prime Minister and First Vice-President on 17th March 1997. She was subsequently sworn in as the first woman President of the Republic of Guyana.
UNESCO awarded the Mahatma Gandhi Gold Medal to Mrs. Jagan in recognition of her outstanding achievements in the struggle for peace, democracy, and the promotion of women’s rights.
A representative of UNESCO presented the prestigious UNESCO Gandhi Gold Medal, which is awarded to an elite group of select world figures of outstanding merit, to Mrs. Janet Jagan on Monday 4th August 1997.
The Guyana Rice Producers Association, of which I am General-Secretary, extends condolences to the Jagan family, the PPP family, and this entire nation on this irreplaceable loss of the woman who left the shores of her homeland to carve a destiny for the Guyanese people alongside her life-partner. May their souls forever rest in peace, and may all they have aspired for our nation, and the world, fructify into a new global human order where the family of mankind can find eternal peace and prosperity.
‘If married women can today work in public institutions, we have to thank Janet Jagan; if Guyana’s women have a voice against abuse - in all its myriad forms, we have to thank Janet Jagan; if women can vote today, we have to thank Janet Jagan; if women can stand today in equal partnership with male counterparts in the highest law-making and policy-making forum in the land – the Legislative Assembly, we have to thank Janet Jagan.’
by C. Majeed
Please allow me some space in your valued columns to express my view.
At this historical juncture when we are observing significant milestones, it behoves us to pay tribute to the doyen amongst our womenfolk, namely Ms Janet Jagan.
She was instrumental in the formation of the first political women's organization in Guyana (WPO), having been one of the founding members and its first head. Due to the positive impact of her numerous achievements and contributions on the lives of her fellow Guyanese, she can best be described as the most influential women ever to have graced the political landscape of her adopted homeland.
Since the early days she, along with her world-renowned husband Dr C Jagan were viciously persecuted and harassed by the colonial regime because of their progressive ideas and for advancing the cause of the colony's independence.
The ruling party (PPP) which had been founded in 1950, by Cheddi and Janet among others, was robbed of political office in 1964. Subsequently a puppet clique was arbitrarily installed by traitors and their foreign paymasters.
During the PPP's celebrated term in office as the democratically-elected government of the people (1957-1961), Janet Jagan excelled in her portfolio as Minister of Labour, Health and Housing, which helped propel Guyana towards the zenith of its prosperity and potential.
Nine years ago on October 5, 1992, the PPP recorded a major victory, when the PPP/Civic coalition won the first free and fair polls since 1964. Through the preceding years, Ms Janet Jagan had proven herself to be not only a tireless fighter for furthering the cause of women's welfare and social upliftment, but also for the restoration of democracy which had been blatantly raped in the 1968 general elections, by the minority opposition.
In the run-up to the polls when Janet Jagan took over as Head of State following the 1997 elections, she was constantly vilified and ridiculed on account of her country of origin and ethnicity and declared unfit to be President by her notorious opponents; but this outstanding woman never lost resolve and continued the struggle successfully, thereby carving an indelible niche in the chapters of the nation's history for herself.
Veteran fighter and seasoned politician that she is, it is high time that we show due recognition, respect and gratefulness to her for her pioneering role in the political life of our country.