Janet Jagan, an extraordinary woman

GEORGETOWN, Guyana — Tributes came from all over the world for former President of Guyana Janet Jagan, who died March 30 at the age of 88. She was the wife and partner of Guyana’s famed leader, Cheddi Jagan.

It is not every day that a Janet Jagan is born, her party comrades and friends said at a memorial service here recently. This U.S.-born woman left an indelible mark on the history of Guyana, they said, including becoming the first woman and Jewish president of this South America/Caribbean nation, made up of mainly Hindus, Muslims and Christians of East Indian, African, Amerindian and mixed descent.

Originally a Dutch colony in the 17th century, by 1815 Guyana had become a British possession. The abolition of slavery led to black settlement of urban areas and the importation of indentured servants from India to work the sugar plantations. This ethnocultural divide has been used by both British and U.S. ruling interests to destabilize the country, including coups and military rule.

Guyana won independence from the UK in 1966. Since then it has been ruled mostly by socialist-oriented governments.

Janet Rosenberg Jagan was born in Chicago in a middle class, conservative Jewish family and became a part of the left-wing, pro-socialist movements when she was a young woman. She met a student at Northwestern University named Cheddi Jagan, an East Indian from then British Guyana, and a communist, studying dentistry. Cheddi Jagan became the elected leader of Guyana – before independence and after independence.

They were married (against the wishes of their families) and Janet Rosenberg (no relation to Ethel or Julius), a trained nurse from the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, moved with her doctor husband to Guyana in 1943.

Janet Jagan immediately became involved in the Guyanan labor movement, and in 1946, helped to found the Women’s Political and Economic Organization and the Political Affairs Committee and began editing the PAC bulletin.

In 1950, she co-founded the People’s Progressive Party along with her husband. This party was instrumental in attaining Guyana’s independence from British rule.

While her husband gained prominence in the PPP, Janet Jagan continued as a leader in the struggle for workers’ rights. In 1970, she was elected president of the Union of Guyanese Journalists, and from 1973 to 1997, edited the Mirror, a national newspaper.

Janet Jagan was instrumental in many strikes by workers for a better way of life including a bauxite workers’ strike in Linden and the sugar workers’ strike that started at Enmore, both of which were in the 1940s.

She along with the Public Affairs Committee, was instrumental in raising funds to keep the strikes going and she stood up for the workers’ rights.

She, challenged the racial barriers in place during the bauxite strike. She publicized the workers’ plight and gained support for them and at the end of the bauxite strike the racial barrier was broken and a collective labor agreement was signed. She and her husband helped the workers to testify before a committee that was set up to investigate the conditions under which they worked.

Mrs. Jagan was again instrumental during the demonstration of the sugar workers which ended with five workers being shot and killed by colonial police at Enmore. That strike was in 1948 from April 22 to June 16 and again Mrs. Jagan raised money to sustain the strike, which won better wages and improved lives for the workers. Women no longer had to leave their jobs when they became pregnant.

Mrs. Jagan helped to lay the roots in winning the vote for the Guyanese, advocating before a commission that was sent from England to investigate the plight of citizens.

She later became the first female to be elected to the Georgetown City Council and first woman to be elected as deputy speaker. Even after the government was suspended by the British in 1953, who accused the triumphant PPP of introducing communism to Guyana, she continued to fight.

She spent six months in prison and was at one time banned from Trinidad and attacked on many fronts, but she still continued the struggle, a close family friend said.

The People’s Progressive Party had boycotted the government for many years to protest the rigging of elections. In 1992, after the first free presidential election, Dr. Cheddi Jagan became president of Guyana.

Mrs. Jagan fought to prevent rigged elections in 1967, 1973, 1979 and 1986 and she wrote an expose with documentation in a booklet entitled “As Crooked as Barbed Wire” and in her articles in the Mirror and Thunder.

Taking off from that name, Mrs. Jagan’s cousin and New York historian Suzanne Wasserman made a video documentary called “Thunder in Guyana” about Janet Jagan. According to reviews, “It’s an amazing political love story, with dishy commentary from family members about the couple’s mixed-race marriage and documentation of the CIA campaign against Cheddi’s prime ministry in the 50s and 60s.”

In 1997, President Cheddi Jagan died, and Janet Jagan ran successfully for the post. On Dec. 19, 1997, Janet Jagan was sworn in as the first woman president of the Republic of Guyana. Unfortunately, she was only able to serve for 20 months. On Aug. 8, 1999, Janet Jagan resigned from her ground-breaking post for health reasons. Her successor, Bharrat Jajagdeo, was reelected in 2001 and again in 2006.

She was not only Guyana’s first female president but also its first female prime minister and for many years she held the post of general secretary of the PPP.

Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture, Dr. Frank Anthony said, “She was not a mere “witness to our history but an active participant, a creator of our history.”

History would describe her as the greatest woman who has ever walked the soil of Guyana, Mannie Singh of the Association of Concerned Guyanese said. Guyanese Women in Development called her the architect of the women’s rights movement. She “laid the foundation and provided the vision for the women’s rights movement in Guyana.”

The stories about Janet Jagan are indeed many and great, but daughter Nadira Brancier remembered her mother as a “loving, warm and kind mother” and the seawall was where she walked with her husband for relaxation. Nadira’s brother, Dr. Cheddi (Joey) Jagan, urged a clean up of the seawall in his mother’s memory, describing it as being in a deplorable state.

Despite landing in jail for their left politics, the Jagans were committed to the cause of socialism, democracy and freedom all of their lives.

“Cheddi and I always believed in socialism,” Janet Jagan told JTA website in an interview three years ago. “To us that meant getting rid of oppression so the poor man could get out of poverty and enjoy the fruits of this country.”