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Remembering Janet Jagan

Janet Jagan - Guyanese Woman of the Century

by Dr Leslie Ramsammy


At the end of this year (2000), the Twentieth Century comes to an end. Already in many countries and the world at large, people have been debating the issues of the greatest man or woman or the greatest person for a particular country or for the world. Time Magazine has named Albert Einstein as the greatest person of the second millennium. Names such as Mahatma Gandhi, Mandella, Watson and Crick, William Gates etc. have been mentioned as candidates for the Person of the Twentieth Century. I do not wish to join this particular debate at this time although I have given much thought to the subject.

 I am more intrigued at this particular time by the discussion of who is the Person of the Century for Guyana. For me, the task is quite simple - the Guyanese of the Century is Cheddi Jagan. I am certain that this unequivocal pronouncement will generate some thought and even a healthy (hopefully not an acrimonious) debate. While I do not for a transient second think that this is a debatable issue, the fact is that Guyana's politics, social and cultural reality, indeed, combine to make this a debatable choice. A survey ran by a Canadian Newspaper earlier in 2000 for the Caribbean Man of the Century chose Cheddi Jagan. An E-mail survey conducted by a Barbados newspaper also earlier in 2000 (which would effectively exclude most Guyanese and in a sense rigging the process of selection) chose Forbes Burnham as the Caribbean Man of the Century. The irony of the Barbados newspaper's preference for an E-mail survey that limits Guyanese participation (effectively rigging the process) is that it ended up choosing a man best known for rigged elections.  

 In considering the subject and in making a list of the men and women who might qualify for discussion, it became evident that the candidate for Guyanese Woman of the Twentieth Century is unequivocally Janet Jagan. No other candidate comes close to offering any challenge to Janet Jagan as the Guyanese Woman of the Twentieth Century. Anyone who dares to offer another choice can only do so because of sheer bias and grudge. This in no way denigrates the contributions of a large number of Guyanese women to Guyanese development. Women such as Andayie, Lynette Dolphin, Celeste Dolphin, Winifred Gaskin, Ms. Jarvis, Kowsilla, Philomena Sahoye Shurry, and many others have all made tremendous contributions and Guyana must find some worthwhile manner of recognizing the contributions of these women. Janet Jagan and many other women have paved the path for women of the present and future generations to play even greater roles in the development of the Guyanese nation.

 Janet Jagan has made an impact on Guyanese life for over fifty years. She has had an impact for each of the more than fifty years that she has served the Guyanese cause. Her contributions span six of the ten decades of the Twentieth Century. In each of these six decades, Janet would have been a candidate and would have emerged as woman of the decade. In fact, her contributions qualify her for being one of the illustrious candidates for the Guyanese Person of the Century, although I have chosen her husband at the top of the list. Whiles she has made important contributions to the upliftment of Guyanese women, her contributions have served to uplift the entire nation. No woman has made such a sustained contribution in so many diverse areas for such a long time. Her contributions have not only been sustained and spanned a period that has accounted for more than half of the century, but her contributions have qualitatively impacted on the Guyanese society. She has made vital and pivotal contributions in politics, trade unionism, the women's movement, the rights of the child, journalism, the arts and health. In each of these areas, Janet Jagan has made important contributions and any analysis of developments in these areas will reveal that all had positive impacts.

 Janet has played a pivotal role in the political development of Guyana. In naming all the persons who played a leading role in Guyana gaining independence, Janet ranks as one of the major player. She was an important member of the fraternity that was the architect of Guyana's fight against imperialism and colonialism. From the time she arrived in Guyana in 1943, she joined with her husband, Dr. Cheddi Jagan to agitate for independence from Great Britain. She was a founder member of the Political Affairs Committee (PAC, 1947) which was the forerunner of the People's Progressive Party, the first mass- supported, grass root political party in Guyana. Janet served expertly as the Editor of the PAC Bulletin. She was the first General Secretary of the PPP when it was formed in 1950 and served in this capacity until 1970. Fifty years after the formation of the People's Progressive Party, she is still a senior member of the Party's executive. In the early days of the struggle against colonialism, she was beaten and jailed, but her determination and commitment to the struggle never swayed. She remained indomitable throughout the struggle. When independence finally came in 1966, twenty three years after the struggle begun, Janet was still a major personality in the struggle to bring independence.  

As part of the political development of Guyana, Janet contested general elections in 1947 in Central Georgetown. Although she lost, Janet had not only made an important statement for women, but for Guyana as a whole also. She had shown that the Guyanese people were willing to challenge the establishment and that restricted rights to vote will not deter Guyanese from entering elections. In fact, Janet was to become the first elected woman to the City Council in 1950 and followed this up by being elected to the National Assembly as the representative for the Essequibo constituency. As a member of the National Assembly, she became the first woman to serve as the Deputy Speaker of the House. Janet served as the Minister of Labor, Health and Housing in 1957 and as Minister of Home Affairs in 1963. It was during her tenure as the Minister of Health that the extensive network of health clinics that Guyana has today started.

 When Guyana was mired in the clutches of dictatorial rule and sunk into the abyss of economic and social destruction, Janet was in the forefront in the struggle for restoration of democracy. Together with Cheddi, she tirelessly, relentlessly represented the cause of the Guyanese people in every nook and cranny of the country and internationally. During those difficult years, her resolute fighting spirit was severely tested as she served as an Opposition Member of Parliament (1973 - 1992). Janet was a leading contributor to the campaign when the opportunity for free and fair elections came in 1992 after President Jimmy Carter had helped to broker an agreement with Desmond Hoyte and the PNC. With victory and the restoration of democracy, she played important roles in the new Government. Among other roles, she served for a period as Guyana's representative at the UN. The remarkable thing is that during that time (1992 - 1996), she was ailing, but her commitment to Guyana and its development remained undaunted.

 Following the death of Cheddi Jagan in February 1997, Janet became the first woman Prime Minister of Guyana (March 17, 1997) and when the PPP/CIVIC won the elections in 1997, Janet became the first woman President of Guyana. She became the second woman to serve as President in the Americas (President Chamora of Nicaragua being the first). In assuming the role of President, she became the first woman to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the Guyana Defense Force.    

Her role in Trade Unionism and specifically the Enmore martyr's story is well documented. In fact, Janet's trade union activities began as soon as she arrived in Guyana for the first time. She collaborated with Labor Union hero, Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow to organize domestics. Later she was to become involved in the East Coast Demerara sugar strike that resulted in the famous Enmore Martyr's story. She played an active role in the formation of and in the struggle for recognition of the sugar Union, the Guyana Agriculture Workers Union. Janet Jagan has maintained abiding interests in workers rights and an active interest in the development of Guyana's most successful Union.

Her contribution to the development of the women's movement is as impressive as her role in the political movement. She founded the Women's Political and Economic Organization in 1946 and has been President of the Women's Progressive Organization  (WPO) for decades. Throughout her career, Janet has played many important roles in representing and promoting women's issues and concerns. Certainly, being the first elected woman to the city council, the first elected President, the first Prime Minister etc. played vital roles in establishing women in the forefront of Guyana's development. In so doing, she gave impetus for women's development throughout the Caribbean region.

 It is an amazing fact that Janet was able to do so many things. With all the political activities, she found time to work as a Journalist and writer. Her journalism career was initiated with her becoming the Editor of the PAC Bulletin. Later she became Editor of Thunder and of the Mirror (1973-1997). Janet served as President of the Union of Guyanese Journalists between 1970 and 1997. Between 1970 and 1992, she served at a time when freedom of speech and freedom of the press were severely restricted. As a writer, Janet has published many important booklets documenting the History of the PPP and rigged elections. She has also written several books of children's stories. 

 She is a champion of the arts. Today she serves as Chairperson of the Management Committee of the National Art Museum (Catellani's House). Her dedication to the promotion of Arts can readily be seen as one observes her presence at virtually every kind of book-launching, art exhibitions etc.

  For all her accomplishments, Janet has been recognized both locally and internationally. She is the recipient of Guyana's highest award - the Order of Excellence (OE). She has also been recognized by the University of Guyana as a Woman of Achievement. Most importantly, Janet Jagan became the first person of the Americas to be awarded the UNESCO Gandhi Gold Medal for Peace, Democracy and Women’s Rights in 1997.

 Whatever the political affiliation each one of us has, the facts are irrefutable. They might not be palatable for some of us, but the facts remain stubbornly in place. The facts say that Janet Jagan is indisputably the Guyanese Woman of the Century. In fact, her credentials are such that Janet Jagan qualifies as a candidate for Caribbean Woman of the Twentieth Century. Here, too, Janet Jagan is likely to be favourite candidate to be chosen as the Caribbean Woman of the Century. While this is an honour to be proud of, I am certain that Janet Jagan would perhaps take greater satisfaction from the fact that she has paved the way and provide the inspiration for young women today to believe that there is nothing that they cannot set their sights towards. The many young women who today graduate from high school and university whose ambition is to become President is testimony to the fact that Janet Jagan has not only contributed to the material well being of our country, but has had an impact on our attitudes and minds. It is a fitting tribute that Guyana’s Parliament has amended our constitution to ensure that there would be greater participation for Guyana’s women in our parliamentary democracy. Congratulations Janet Jagan.

 

Janet Jagan:  An Important and Complex Political Legacy

Cary Fraser teaches at Penn State University, and is a regular contributor to the Trinidad and Tobago Review.
By Cary Fraser


The death of the former President Janet Jagan signals the passage to a new era in Guyanese politics. Mrs. Jagan’s death brings to an end her role as caretaker of the People’s Progressive Party and mentor to a generation of party leaders who have been the heirs to the careers and accomplishments of Cheddi and Janet Jagan.  Her adult life was dominated by politics and her passing will have significant consequences for both the party and Guyana. With national elections due by 2011, the PPP will be entering an election for the first time in its history without either of its two key architects whose appeal provided both automatic legitimacy and electoral appeal over the course of the party’s history. The next election will also be a test of the party’s resilience and of the quality of the current generation of leaders. Mrs. Jagan had been the key organizer for most of the party’s history, and her mastery of tactical politics within the ranks of the party had played a decisive role in ensuring that Cheddi Jagan’s charismatic appeal was the anchor of the party’s survival and its longevity. The 2011 elections will also provide a glimpse into the legacy of both Jagans for the PPP and for Guyana.

Mrs. Jagan’s career was a reflection of her own personal commitment to a politics of change that had its roots in her early involvement in radical politics in Chicago. As a young Jewish woman of Eastern European origin in Depression-era America, embracing radical politics was not unusual, but marrying outside of her culture and voluntarily alienating herself from her community of origin marked her as a free spirit. It was that quality that led her to marry Cheddi Jagan and to follow him when he returned to British Guiana in 1943. Her willingness to adapt to the culture of the rural Indo-Guyanese community in which Cheddi was reared, and her role in the 1940s in encouraging him to adopt Marxism-Leninism as he became a political activist and nationalist leader after establishing his dental practice in Georgetown, were an indication of her willingness to pursue a radical vision of change for herself and for her adopted country. For Janet Jagan, the personal was political and it was this characteristic that would define her life’s trajectory, including her election as the first female, and fifth, President of Guyana.

For much of her career, Mrs. Jagan proved to be both a catalyst for change and a polarizing figure in the politics of British Guiana/Guyana. As a young American white woman who embraced the “natives” in British Guiana, she was a transgressor of the colonial order and the segregation that underpinned it in the 1940s. As a woman of Jewish origin championing the cause of colonial “subjects,” her political activism triggered hostility among British colonial officials and their American counterparts in the Caribbean. While much has been made of her affinity for radical politics, the anti-Semitic undercurrents of the hostility that she encountered, and that no commentator on this period has properly acknowledged, should not be discounted. On the other hand, for the colonial subjects in British Guiana, her advocacy of their cause – as well as her courage in marrying the son of sugar plantation workers – was a statement of her identification with the cause of the disadvantaged and they reciprocated through their admiration for her.  Further, her willingness to work as a journalist and party official in building the PPP as a national force, offered an alternative to the traditional roles for women in the colony. Even before the founding of the PPP, she had been a founder member and General Secretary of the Women’s Political and Economic Organization that was established in 1946. Her status as a full partner in marriage and politics was a powerful statement about the role of women in the emerging national movement.

Her emergence as a major influence in the party’s development created a dynamic that would affect the PPP’s stability over the course of her career. Her unflinching commitment to Cheddi Jagan’s leadership protected him through all of the crises that he confronted from the early split of the party into the Jagan and Burnham factions in 1955, through the subsequent departures of Sydney King, Martin Carter, and Rory Westmaas; the Anglo-American plan undertaken to oust the PPP between 1962 and 1964; and the marginalization of the PPP through PNC-managed fraudulent elections until its return to power as a result of the 1992 election monitored by the former American President, Jimmy Carter. The partnership between Cheddi and Janet effectively allowed them to control the party’s business on a day-to-day basis, as well as the deliberations of its General Council and Party Congress. It was a structure that facilitated tight control of the party and effectively limited the range of internal debate and dissension. Ultimately, many talented people departed from the party and the constant haemorrhage of talent has produced a PPP government that, in recent years, has been tainted by damaging allegations of tolerance of, if not complicity with, the penetration of the state and the party by criminal networks.

This centralization of power within the party was a key factor in its marginalization over the period 1964-1992 as the ruling PNC could invoke the ideological leanings of the Jagan to circumscribe the challenge from the PPP. Given long-standing American hostility, and the support of other hemispheric states for the containment of the PPP, the Jagans were in a constant state of siege both at home and abroad. The lack of ideological pluralism within the PPP was a critical factor in the reputation for ineffective opposition that saddled both the Jagans and the party. It is perhaps arguable that Mrs. Jagan’s tight operational control over the reins of the party’s governance structures limited the PPP’s appeal at home and abroad. It is also arguable that her roots in American radical politics and its propensity for  factional conflict may have had a subtle influence on the PPP’s internal culture. The centralization of power became a mechanisim for pre-empting internal ideological and political challenges, even as vitriolic campaigns of character assassination against dissident voices within the party created levels of alienation that fed a constant exodus of activists and supporters from the PPP to the PNC, to the WPA, and to migration abroad. Even as the PPP complained about the lack of democracy and free and fair elections in Guyana after 1964, its own internal politics of representation and democracy provided no assurance that there was respect for intellectual pluralism as a guiding principle.  Any assessment of Janet Jagan’s political legacy will require a fuller examination of her role in creating and sustaining this culture within the party from its inception.

Over the course of her career, Mrs. Jagan had demonstrated the ability to be an effective political force in her own right even as she was a key partner for her husband who was recognized as the charismatic leader of the party. While much attention has hitherto been focused upon the role and influence of Cheddi Jagan in the national politics of Guyana, it would be important for Mrs. Jagan’s accomplishments to be more closely examined to provide a clearer assessment of her incontrovertible contributions to Guyanese political life. Hers was a singular career and life, and she deserves no less than the equality that she championed as a woman and an advocate of a politics of radical nationalism.

 

JOURNAL OF LATIN AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGY

Film Review

Thunder in Guyana, 2003. A film by Suzanne Wasserman. 50 min. Colour. Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, 5th Floor, New York, NY10013; phone (212) 925-0606, e-mail [email protected],http://www.wmm.com.

Percy C. Hintzen, University of California, Berkeley

In December 1997, an American-born Jewish woman was elected President of the Republic of Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America.  She was the first American-born woman to be elected President of any country in the region.  For members of her Jewish family in the United States, the event was a time of reflection on her life and their attitudes to it.  She left them in 1943 when she was just 23 years old to accompany her Guyanese, East Indian, Hindu husband, Cheddi Jagan on his return to his country of birth.  Suzanne Wasserman spent 10 days with her during her Presidential campaign in Guyana.  It was the first time in the 53 years since Janet Jagan had moved to her adopted homeland that any member of her family in the United States had visited her.  The result is a documentary that is partly an historical and somewhat sympathetic account of the nationalist movement of Guyana and partly a quest for understanding a member of the family who elicited profound and concern, even though clearly disapproving but adoring attention.

Janet Rosenberg was a product of the conflict between the promise of the United States and its harsh reality.  She was Jewish and a woman born in 1920.  Her Jewish parents were conservative Republicans who held tightly to the racial binaries, cultural exclusivity, and gender typifications that still continue to trouble the country even today.  Her father, in an effort to escape the implications of his Jewishness, changed his name from Rosenberg to Roberts in order to secure work.  His daughter, Janet, possessed all of the qualities that defined white American (and male) superiority.  She was a world-class swimmer who took flying lessons and rode horses.  She was the ideal American beauty.  And she was an intellectual.  She met Cheddi Jagan while enrolled as a student at WayneStateUniversity in the early nineteen forties.  Clearly, she was aware that the promise of America was not available to her, something that she was unwilling to accept.  Her Jewishness, she believed, came with the perpetual condition of being the underdog.  Rather than accept the limitations of American society, she chose to leave and to create the conditions of her own dignity and the dignity of humanity elsewhere.

While campaigning for the Presidency of Guyana in 1997 Janet Jagan was asked to described herself.  After hesitating out of embarrassed modesty, she declared herself to be a “freedom fighter.”  This is the most profound insight captured by the documentary.  Her response serves as a trope for the dangerous and vicious misunderstandings and misrepresentations that are attached to her life.  It describes her profound commitment to freedom and to its pursuit whatever the personal costs.  But to American and Western ears, her self-description evokes the spectre of freedom’s diametrical opposite.

The sympathetic airing of Janet Jagan’s story by Wasserman, the daughter of a first cousin who was clearly enthralled with her life, is rooted in the personal and the familial.  It has the quality of a journey of redemption for a family who rejected most of what Janet Jagan did and stood for.  And there was much to reject.  She openly challenged the capitalist status quo in the 1940s.  She dated and eventually married an equally radical Asian Indian from Guyana who was studying dentistry at NorthwesternUniversity.  Their relationship was transgressive in every way.  He was Hindu and he was foreign.  Her father refused to meet him because, in his racially jaundiced eyes, he was “Black.”  He threatened to “shoot him on sight.”  Her grandmother had a stroke when they married.

Despite the sympathetic treatment of her great aunt, Suzanne Wasserman cannot escape the American lens through which her interpretation of Janet Jangan’s radicalism is filtered.  She succumbs to the use of the “Marxist” and “Communist” labels in describing the ideology of the Jagans and the government that they formed in the fifties despite their own rejection of these labels.  These were the very justifications used by the United States and Britain to oust them from power on two occasions, in 1953 and 1964, the latter in a campaign that Janet Jagan predicted, correctly, would lead to a future of endemic violence and turmoil for the country.

Wasserman’s concern with the familial and personal leaves gaps in her understanding of the relationship between Cheddi and Janet.  They were extraordinary in their similarities, a point that can be missed when viewed through obscurantist racial, national, cultural and religious lenses.  They were both extraordinarily attractive physically.  Both were born into societies from which they were excluded on religious and cultural grounds.  They both possessed profound and critical intellects.  And both managed to overcome the strictures and limitations that their respective societies placed on them.  One could sense the profound chemistry in their relationship and the reason for their singular pursuit of freedom and human dignity for everyone.  They returned to the English colony of British Guiana soon after they met and married.  Immediately, they mounted challenges to the colonial status quo by organising the most dispossessed: the sugarcane workers and she the domestic workers.  This catapulted them to the leadership of the nationalist movement.

Their challenge was not merely to colonialism but to capitalism itself.  In 1953 the People’s Progressive Party, which they founded won office in the first elections held under universal suffrage.  Cheddi became the colony’s first Premier and Janet its first woman member of the cabinet.  She also became the Deputy Speaker of the colony’s parliament.  Quickly, the Jagans became lightening rods in the cold war anti-communist crusade by North America and Western Europe.  And Janet Jagan, as the white American woman who had stepped out of line, became cast as the evil genius behind a gullible husband.  The British ousted their Party from power in 1953.  The Jagans were both imprisoned.  They survived, unbowed, to be elected to national office once again in 1957.  Cheddi Jagan became Chief Minister with Janet holding the important cabinet post of Minister of Labour, Health, and Housing.  They Party remained in office until 1964 during a period when the country saw its greatest achievement in education, agriculture, health, welfare, and economic development.  But they could not survive the U.S. interventionism that intensified after the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961.  The United States collaborated with Great Britain to change the constitution.  Despite receiving the largest percentage of the vote, the Party suffered an electoral defeat orchestrated by the machinations of Great Britain (the documentary incorrectly states that the Party received a majority of the votes, which it did not).  Janet and Cheddi Jagan had become poster children in the international campaign against communism.  But the ire of the anti-communists was directed particularly at Janet.  She was labelled as one of the most dangerous communists in the hemisphere and was compared to Eva Peron by the New York Times.  Both Jagans got special attention from Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy for whom they had become objects of derision.  In the propaganda campaign Janet was identified, erroneously, as related to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Cheated out of office, Janet and Cheddi continued their campaign for freedom and civil rights until, in 1992, their Party, the People’s Progressive Party, won the first free and fair elections held in the country since they were ousted in 1964.  With Cheddi Jagan as President, they picked up from where they left off, turning the country’s economy around and restoring stability.  When Cheddi Jagan died in office in March 1997, Janet was persuaded to run for the Presidency.  She won and spent 20 months in office until a heart attack forced her resignation.  In 2003 when the documentary was released, she was still working at the Party’s Headquarters.  She was 83 years old.

Janet Jagan’s life is defined by its struggle for freedom against all barriers to human dignity: those of coloniality, race, class, culture, gender, etc.  She sacrificed much in her quest, relinquishing her American Citizenship in 1947 and being declared persona non grata by the United States Government in the fifties and sixties.  Her successes have much to do with her fearlessness.  She declares in the documentary that “nothing much frightens” her.  She is not bound by orthodoxy or convention.  When asked, for example, about the possible reaction to her whiteness by the electorate of Guyana, a country in which 95 percent of the population is either East Indian, black, or mixed, she expressed surprise: “People do not see white when they look at me.”  It represents her successful transcendence of racial boundaries in a country that is driven by racial conflict.  It is erroneous, therefore, to characterise her as a white Jewish American, as does the documentary.  She has transcended normalised and fixed labels of identity to become truly the “Mother of the Country” in her homeland: the Republic of Guyana.

Throughout her life, her family ties remained strong.  She reconciled with her father who died during the period when she was restricted from travelling by the British.  Tellingly, the only regret she uttered in the entire documentary was that her father and husband never met.  Today, Janet Jagan is no longer an anachronism.  While in office, the relationship between the government she headed and the United States was friendly and cooperative.  And while she was reluctant to label herself, her daughter in law, Nadia, made the observation that she was “more Guyanese than most.”  Perhaps she has become the epitome of what all Guyanese should be.  And certainly a beacon of hope for the United States.  She is a woman who not afraid to think the unthinkable.

 

In Radical Matrimony

  by Baz Dreisinger (printed in The Nation)

Suzanne Wasserman's documentary Thunder in Guyana, which airs on PBS's Independent Lens series at 10 pm on February 22, is the first in-depth look at Janet Jagan, former president of Guyana. Attribute that to the subject's obscurity: Guyana is roughly the size of Britain, but as an economically strapped country whose population grazes 800,000, it's a blip on America's radar.

Or attribute it to the subject's enormity: Jagan's life story is so much larger than life, it's almost too cinematic for cinema. That story delivers dramatic narrative tropes--rebellion, revolution, racial tension--in operatic proportions. It begins in 1943, when Janet Rosenberg, a pretty Jewish girl from Chicago, immigrates to the land of her new husband, Cheddi Jagan, the son of East Indian sugar workers in what was then the colony of British Guiana. It ends in 1997, when 77-year-old Janet Jagan takes the helm of what is now Guyana--to become the only American-born woman elected president of any country.

Guyana's story, like Jagan's, is familiar yet fantastic, at once a typical postcolonial ordeal of independence and creolization, and a grotesque hyperbole of these things, punctuated by crises--race riots, rigged elections, political paranoia--that make our 2000 election woes feel like, well, a blip on the radar.

Considering the grand scale of her subject, first-time filmmaker Wasserman--a cousin of Janet Jagan's and associate director of the CUNY Graduate Center's Gotham Center for New York City History--had her work cut out for her. Recounting the life of a politician is itself a challenge, because it means striking a compelling balance between two narratives that threaten to overwhelm each other: history and (in Jagan's case) her story, public and private. When these two halves of the saga are as sensational as they are here, achieving this balance is more than a challenge; it's an all-out battle between competing narratives. Thunder in Guyana navigates that battle, but just barely. Its goal is lofty, particularly for a fifty-minute documentary: to give us public and private--not just Janet Jagan but Janet Rosenberg.

Set during Guyana's 1997 election, Thunder in Guyana is a deftly edited fusion of newssreel footage, photos and interviews with Janet Jagan, her two children and her political allies. The film is narrated by Wasserman, who embarks on an odyssey to flesh out the cousin she knows via weathered photographs and family gossip. It lands her in Georgetown, Guyana, where Jagan pilots her campaign headquarters with grandmotherly repose. Wasserman voices the skepticism that her cousin clearly lacks: "I wondered if the Guyanese people would really elect a 77-year-old American-born Jewish woman for president." The film is thus framed as a question: How did Rosenberg become Jagan, and how did Guiana become Guyana?

It began, we learn, as a love story. Beautiful, athletic, fiercely intellectual Janet Rosenberg met dental student Cheddi Jagan during her college years in Chicago. Both were fervently committed to Marxist politics and, soon, to each other. To Janet's family, Cheddi was a triple blow--"a foreigner, a person who wasn't white, a person who wasn't Jewish," Jagan says--but by 1943, an undeterred Janet ("nothing much frightens me," she shrugs) had married Cheddi and was off to rural British Guiana, where she found her rightful place: not in the kitchen with the women but in political trade unions with the men. In 1950 Janet, Cheddi and London-educated lawyer Forbes Burnham launched the People's Progressive Party (PPP), which propounded ardent socialism in a newsletter titled Thunder.

The PPP represented more than national unity. A country that naturally confounds categories--geographically, it is South American; culturally and politically, it is Caribbean--Guyana is known as "the land of six peoples" because it's a postcolonial pilau, born of Amerindian natives, European colonizers, African slaves and indentured servants from China, Portugal and East India, imported to work the plantations after Britain abolished slavery in its colonies in 1833. An alliance between the Indo-Guyanese Cheddi and the Afro-Guyanese Burnham was thus an alliance of Guyana's principal ethnic groups. Although Janet eluded any such category, in 1953--when Cheddi was elected the first Marxist leader in the Western Hemisphere--she became Guyana's Minister and Deputy Speaker of Parliament. In the American press, she was likened to Eva Perón and vilified as "the ablest Communist organizer in the Western Hemisphere," adept at spreading "propaganda among the hungry, ignorant natives."

As Cheddi's story takes center stage, then, Janet's is never just its footnote: A bright-red expatriate, she attracted all the attention her husband did. It was not the right kind of attention: 133 days after Cheddi assumed office, Winston Churchill sent troops into Georgetown to topple a so-called Communist regime. It was the end of a golden era, because it was followed by a racial rift that now defines Guyanese life: Burnham moved far to the right of Jagan, founding an opposition party--the People's National Congress (PNC)--that appealed directly to Afro-Guyanese voters, exploiting their fears of Indo-Guyanese domination. Gang-style political warfare erupted in most Caribbean countries, but thanks to its uniquely diverse population, Guyana (like the similarly populated Trinidad and Suriname) added race to the mix and bred a monster: apanjaat, or divisive racial politics. Afro-Guyanese endorsed the PNC; Indo-Guyanese stood with the PPP; exceptions to that rule were scarce.

The US government, for its part, regarded apanjaat as a way of weakening Cheddi Jagan, and worked covertly to encourage this shameless race-baiting. Re-elected in both 1957 and 1961, he confronted a hostile media in Britain and the United States, where his socialist convictions made cold war leaders shudder. "Where do you stand on this fundamental division in the world today, between Communism and Western democracy?" an O'Reilly-like anchor asks him on Meet the Press, in language eerily reminiscent of President Bush (news - web sites)'s evocation of a world starkly divided between the forces of "freedom" and those of "terror," between us and them.

While the PPP's mission statement--"to build a just socialist society, in which the industries of the country shall be socially and democratically owned"--was clear enough, Cheddi refused to take sides in the cold war: "I don't like this sort of either Communist or West, you know? I think this tendency toward black or white is a tendency which can lead to a lot of harm," he tells a reporter. America, however, turned a deaf ear to this reasoning, determined as it was to avoid another defeat in the Caribbean after the Bay of Pigs. So the CIA (news - web sites) committed what Kennedy adviser and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. later admitted was "a great injustice" against Cheddi Jagan, funding strikes and race riots in Georgetown in an effort to destabilize his government. (Schlesinger's apology, delivered to Jagan at the Nation offices in 1990, was the subject of the magazine's June 4 lead editorial that year.) As the violence spread, scores of people died, Guyana's economy was crippled, a state of emergency was declared and, by tweaking Guyana's electoral system (Britain replaced popular with proportional representation), the West got its wish: In 1964 Burnham became Guyana's president. And in 1966, with the country still in a state of emergency, Guyana became independent.

Burnham is hardly seen in Thunder in Guyana--no PNC advocates are interviewed--but he is the film's villain. After taking office he turned sharply to the left and, much to America's dismay, out-Jaganed Jagan, nationalizing the bulk of Guyana's industries. As Guyana became the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, the PNC retained its power by rigging elections until the 1992 presidential race, when the Carter Center arrived in Georgetown as monitors--and Cheddi Jagan ended Burnham's run.

Janet Jagan ran for office after her husband died of a heart attack, but the results were so disputed her victory was not declared until days after the election. The "eureka" moment of victory was thus never quite there for Wasserman's camera to capture; after winning Jagan heads home to rest. Still, her level-headed triumph is the crescendo of the film. Her presidency may have been short-lived--because of health problems, she stepped down after twenty months--but it was the climax of Janet Rosenberg's transformation into Janet Jagan.

Such is the plot of Thunder in Guyana--and it is hardly impartial. In fact, there were gaffes on both sides of the political fence: Afro- and Indo-Guyanese parties relentlessly used their respective realms of influence--the public-service sector and the agricultural sector--to sabotage each other's agendas. And while Burnham was indeed a corrupt dictator, he is not Guyana's principal villain. That dubious honor goes to race itself: a synthetic system of biases that Guyanese and Western politicians consciously milked, engaging in what Cheddi Jagan, in his book Forbidden Freedom, called "the familiar imperialist game of divide and rule." Professor Ralph Premdas concludes his study of Guyana with a grim diagnosis: The country suffered--and still suffers--from "ethnically inspired collective insanity."

It is a surreal plot twist that at the crux of this racial "insanity" sits a woman who confounds race altogether. Who--what--was Janet Jagan? To the Western media she was a dangerous Jew misidentified by journalists as a relative of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. To Burnham she was a "stupid American" (he allegedly addressed her as such during sessions of Parliament). To many Indo-Guyanese she was simply white: "They used to call me a blue-eyed bouchie," Jagan recalls ("bouchie" is a brother's wife; "brother," here, is Cheddi). Rolling her eyes, Jagan shrugs. "I'm not even blue-eyed."

It's one of the few moments in the film where Jagan addresses her racial identity; another is prompted by an Associated Press reporter who directly inquires about it. Jagan replies, "I don't know if people see white when they look at me--except, you know, the diehard politicians. But maybe I am living in a dream world.... I don't feel anything like being a minority." She pauses and adds that perhaps her identification with the underdog was a product of growing up Jewish in America.

It's a plausible explanation, as well as a familiar one. Janet Jagan is one in a long line of Jews--from 1920s-era musicians George Gershwin and Mezz Mezzrow to civil rights martyrs Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and hip-hop Hebrews the Beastie Boys--who have, in various degrees and contexts, identified cross-racially. How such crossover figures negotiate the conflicting facets of their identities--how, for instance, a Jewish-American woman feels about being, as daughter-in-law Nadine Jagan puts it, "more Guyanese than most Guyanese"--is a profound issue that Thunder in Guyana could have probed.

It doesn't, perhaps because Wasserman's interviews with her cousin, more informational than emotional, emphasize the public over the private, history over her story. We learn little about Janet and Cheddi's relationship, and only slightly more about Janet's rift with her Jewish family: "Unfortunately," states Jagan, speaking flatly of her father's death, "my husband and my father never met." Jagan seems uninterested in reflecting on the emotional dimension of her cross-identification--which alone could indicate how deep this identification runs: Analyzing one's identification with the "other" (as Mezzrow did in his memoir Really the Blues) means standing apart from that group; taking this identification for granted, by contrast, suggests a sense of peace with one's cultural crossover and, perhaps, with the inherently vexed nature of race and identity.

The film's only reading of Janet Jagan's racial identity comes from Nadine Jagan, who suggests a rich tension at the heart of Thunder in Guyana. "She fell in love with [Cheddi], and they had a common goal." Jagan's daughter-in-law shrugs. "That's all they saw."

The cruel irony of Janet Jagan's story is that her personal narrative and her public one--her story and Guyana's story--are at odds. Janet may have fallen in love with Cheddi, and from then on seen cause over color. But her beloved Guyana could never do the same; it evolved into a nation that privileged color over cause. In Janet's triumphant personal saga, politics trumps race; in Guyana's tragic one, race trumps politics. And though the latter saga is the more disquieting one, it is also, in our race-fixed world, the more universal and familiar one--and thus the easiest one to recount. To plumb the depths of Jagan's personal story is an altogether different coup, one that Thunder in Guyana comes tantalizingly close to achieving.

 

The culture of party-life & Janet Jagan

by Eddi Rodney

A decade ago it was not unusual for reviews of the writings of Mrs Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Hortenda Allende, Jacqueline Kennedy and also Eleanor Rooseveldt to be featured to be featured in the major 'Atlanticist' journals.

In fact it could even be contended that bourgeois democracy reserved a specific niche (in the immediate post Cold War period and the market division of labour) associated not only with 'consumerism' but just as important, the fusion of 'Fukuyamaism' in different sections of American Conservative society.

The fact that since the end of the Second World War popular insurgent movements had inflicted defeats on imperialism in Indonesia, Algeria, Indo-China and Korea, also imparted its own significance of a worldwide dimension. The direct intervention of women in the world Peace and Anti War Movement as well as the Women's Liberation chapters, was to register appreciable gains for political mobilization in Japan (the Osaka Statement) India, Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Cuba, Argentina, Chile and South Africa.

Amongst these as political currents within the region, the public writings of Janet Jagan and Hortenda Allende are indeed outstanding for the espousal of the cause of social justice, political involvement, political (direct action and wage labour demands etc.) and internationalism.

Theory and political struggle

Two months ago, Party Life, a series of articles written in Thunder, the theoretical journal of the People's Progressive Party (PPP) by Executive member, Janet Jagan was published.

These items total 32 and include "Making Decisions - July-September, 1984) and "Literature sales in party work" (July-September, 1987).

There should be no doubt in the reader's mind. Janet Jagan has contributed to Thunder since its establishment in 1950. However, the publication under review carries pieces dated from 1982 up until the present.

All the articles are relative 'summary' type in construction (2 pp. text) It would therefore be somewhat of an injustice to describe them as being theoretical even though theoretical issues are raised and discussed. "Communicating Ideas" (July-September 1983) "Cadre Development" April-June 1989) and "Spirit of Internationalism" (October - December 1986) all attempt in someway to refute anti-PPP propaganda.

It could also be the case that these articles were referred to by Accabre Students during courses in Political Studies. Janet's writings are pre-eminently journalistic and informative. These highlight for PPP members the 'organizational' and 'cultural' principles associated with Marxism-leninism in the Guyana environment.

Writing for the 'Left Bloc'

From the standpoint of political and ideological concerns Janet Jagan's articles confirm that historical trend set by Rosa Luxembourg, Karl Liebnecnt, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Eugene Debs in the aftermath of the Great Imperialist war of 1914-1918.

History has proven that the conditions for the establishment of a party of the working class (commonly defined as the 'vanguard party') does not necessarily coincide with the circumstances favourable for the social democratic masses and its political expression, to emerge as a firm alliance partner to the Marxist party ('The Left Bloc in France and Monsieur Duclos,' Sarte, 1951 and Raya Dunasyeskaya, 1978).

When one examines carefully what Janet Jagan has to say it becomes less arduous to identify the major contradictions that have confronted the PPP in both the political and cultural spheres subsequent to the electoral fiasco of 1964 and especially after a succession of rigged fraudulent elections under the controls of the Burnham state and dictatorship.

Young cadres and students would learn a great deal from reading this publication.