Remembering Janet Jagan
A Dignified Woman of Great Courage
By Odeen Ishmael
A few years ago Mrs. Janet Jagan (Comrade Janet, as she was popularly known), wrote a series of articles in the Mirror entitled “Women of Substance”. In that series she examined the struggles, setbacks and successes of some famous women of this region and beyond. Looking back, I believe she easily could have been writing her own autobiography through the qualities of determination she described of those noble women.
I can recall very clearly when I first saw Comrade Janet. It was in the late 1950s when my father and I went to visit my aunt at Dundee, Mahaicony. That afternoon when we arrived, there was a large public gathering near the public road for the opening of the new health centre. At the health centre, festooned with balloons and small Union Jacks, I saw a White lady in a white dress speaking through a loud speaker to the rapt audience. My father told me the lady was Janet, the wife of Dr. Jagan of whom I, as a little boy, had already known. I had seen photos of her and knew that she was the Minister of Labour, Health and Housing, but it was the first time I was seeing her in person. That image of her in a white dress and waving her arms as she spoke remains with me to this day as an everlasting memory.
Years later, I had the distinctive opportunity to be closely associated with her from the early 1970s when I held a leadership position in the Progressive Youth Organisation (PYO) and then later as a member of the Central Committee of the PPP. I found her to be an intense debater, and we had numerous discussions on issues relating to education, international affairs, social issues and ideological matters. I can easily say that she stood fast to her views but she held a healthy respect for opinions that differed from hers.
My closeness to her can be easily understood by the fact that her decisive action nearly thirty years ago actually saved my life. Back then, I suffered a serious spinal injury and my situation was deteriorating rapidly. I lost the mobility of my right arm and had become very ill, and medical treatment available in Guyana was providing no relief. When Comrade Janet heard of my situation, she quickly arranged for me to be sent to Moscow for emergency treatment. I was hospitalised there for nearly three months where a repair job was done and she ensured that I returned for check-ups on a number of occasions. This itself is just one example of the humane side of Comrade Janet, of which many others can equally vouch.
But above all, she was a modest and courageous woman. This was so vividly displayed when she sat by Comrade Cheddi’s bedside at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C. in February-March 1997. Every day I went to the hospital and talked with her. I can attest that she stood out as a beacon of dignity, grace and courage during that trying time. She never wilted under the stress that the situation presented, and she was the one who continuously inspired us with hope that, despite the odds, her comrade-at-arms would win this battle for his life. She also showed a great concern for the members of her immediate family by urging them to "get some sleep" while she herself would sit for long hours to keep the vigil over her husband. Her determined fortitude was ever present.
On many a late evening when I dropped in at the hospital I found her alone where she sat near her husband bedside. She never broke down under the pressure. But when Comrade Cheddi died, I saw in her dignified face a realisation as if her world had collapsed into pieces beside her. It was a representation of our own feelings at that time.
Comrade Janet was well known internationally, no doubt, as many would say, because people linked her with her renowned husband. I saw this clearly demonstrated when I accompanied her to Chile in 1997 where she, as President, attended the second Summit of the Americas. Ordinary Chileans saw her and shouted out her name in greeting and numerous young university students approached her for autographs. Many of the leaders attending the forum also held animated conversations and posed for numerous photographs with her.
Even here in Venezuela on a regular basis, despite the fact that she was no longer in public office, politicians continued to enquire about her. Actually, President Chavez on many an occasion asked me to convey his greetings to her, and once reminded me that she was the first President he met when he was first inaugurated.
After she resigned the presidency in 1997, I worked very closely with her in collecting historical documents and other materials relating to the life of Comrade Cheddi, and we consulted with each other by telephone and the occasional e-mail. The Cheddi Jagan Research Centre, which was so close to her heart, surely, is now a memorial for her as well.
Without a doubt, Comrade Janet was an immense international figure – a Guyanese woman of substance who stood up to the might of British colonialism and never flinched from her duty to wage the battle for independence for Guyana. And even when independence was won, she never backed down from struggling against totalitarianism and for the return of democracy to our country. Although, physically she was of small stature, she wielded immense vitality in her determination, fortitude and selflessness. Sure, she had her share of detractors, but history will remember her more for her sterling efforts in the battle for equal rights for women, her leadership role in the political evolution of Guyana, and the initiatives she took to improve the social conditions of the Guyanese people.
Caracas, 29 March 2009
(The writer is Guyana’s Ambassador to Venezuela).
by Hydar Ally
THIS letter is in tribute to former President Mrs. Janet Jagan who passed away recently. Her death is a great loss to this nation. Mrs. Jagan, up to her final hours, was someone who continued to shape and influence public thinking and policy both by her writings and as a leading member of the ruling party.
I happen to know Mrs. Jagan quite some time ago. We were both columnists of the Mirror newspaper for over a decade and we both served on the editorial committee of the Thunder, theoretical organ of the People’s Progressive Party of which she was the Editor at the time of her death. We served on several Party Committees including the Central and Executive Committees of the Party, the PPP Education Committee and the Party’s Public Relations Committee.
She was a quite a remarkable and fascinating person. She was a people’s person, always willing to help people in times of need. She was a personal friend and mentor to several party comrades who could count on her wise counsel and support.
Mrs. Jagan was a modest and unassuming person. She came across ordinary and simple despite her greatness and her several accomplishments. Like her late husband Dr. Cheddi Jagan, she was never enticed by material things. Her Bel Air residence which she shared with her husband up the time of her death is ample testimony to this fact.
To say that her contribution to the economic, social and political development in this country was significant would be an understatement. Like her husband, she played a key and critical role in shaping the political architecture of this country. She was a founder member of the Political Affairs Committee the forerunner of the People’s Progressive Party and served in several leading capacities in the Party and Government, rising to the position as Executive President following the death of her husband in 1997. Her presidency unfortunately was shortened by failing health.
Despite her active political life, she found time to spend with her family including her children and grandchildren, as noted by her daughter Nadira in her memorial speech. She also found time to write several children’s stories. She loved the arts and at the time of her death was patron of Castellani House.
There are so many things that Mrs. Jagan did in her lifetime to enhance the quality of life of the Guyanese people which cannot be captured in this letter. Whatever she did, however, was always done with the poor in mind. I recall her saying how the National Park was once a place where only few could go because golf was the game played which only the rich could afford. It was during the period of PPP rule, and on her insistence, that the park was opened up to the public. During her stint as Minister of Labour, Health and Housing, several health centres and cottage hospitals were built throughout the country. In the area of Labour, substantial improvements were made in terms of living and working conditions of workers, in particular those in the lower-income bracket.
Mrs. Jagan always insisted on high levels of morality and integrity, both with respect to Party and government and in the conduct of personal lives. She was intolerant of corruption and corrupt practices. She herself led an exemplary life in this regard.
During the memorial services, glowing tributes were paid to her by leaders of party and government and from the political opposition. This is testimony to the high regard that Guyanese had for her from right across the political spectrum. The important thing for us all is to use this painful moment of her passing as an opportunity to forge a society in which there is peace and reconciliation and where every Guyanese, regardless of race, religion or political affiliation see themselves as an integral part of a process of national development.
I would like to take this opportunity to extend my deepest condolences to the relatives, friends and comrades of the late Mrs. Janet Jagan. Guyana is certainly poorer for her passing.
Reflections by Rickey Singh - in Barbados
GUYANA yesterday (Tuesday) cremated in an ordinary village cemetery its most famous adopted citizen--Janet Rosenberg Jagan--who had stoically defied all odds for some 66 years in the country's turbulent politics, from colonialism to republican, status, to become its first woman Executive President. She was 88.
The warm tributes that flowed across political, religious and cultural boundaries, recognised the sterling contributions of a life deeply interwoven with the nation's social, economic and political developments.
Yet she managed to live comparatively simple, in and out of government, as she became increasingly identified with its arts and culture but always reflecting a dominant and unique political profile.
Fondly hailed, across Guyana, often by young and old, simply as "Janet", the widow of Dr Cheddi Jagan died early Saturday morning, within hours of admission at the state hospital in Georgetown.
That was the institution where Guyana's first Executive President, Forbes Burnham, had also passed away in 1985 following a throat operation. Janet's husband was to die 12 years later at the U.S. Walter Reed Hospital after heart surgery.
Symbolised as a personality of tremendous courage and endurance, the side of her character which had cherished privacy was allowed to prevail yesterday in a relatively low-key state funeral arranged by the government, in consultation with family members.
The funeral arrangement honoured her wish against public viewing of the body in the casket and the restricted official ceremony of tributes at Parliament Building before her final journey to the place where her husband, the late Dr Cheddi Jagan, was cremated--approximately 90 miles east of Georgetown, at Babu John in Port Mourant, Corentyne, following his death in office as Head of State in March 1997.
Babu John is now regarded as a shrine for remembrance of the Jagans -- the husband and wife team whose lives and politics are integrally woven into the history of Guyana for generations to come.
In life she was most unkindly treated by opponents whose political opportunism, depending on the political season, would extend to exploiting her ethnicity (whiteness) and original (American) nationality; and even her gender with some grotesque display of "white dolls" at one point of an emotional campaign during her presidency.
Nevertheless, even her most formidable opponents came to recognise her resilience to remain engaged, as she repressed bitterness in preference for dialogue in the national interest
Why Janet Jagan was never invited to be a recipient of the CARICOM Triennial Award for Women -- established in 1984 to recognise women of the region who had distinguished themselves in various leadership roles --remains a puzzling matter and one for which an explanation by the Community's decision-makers may be appropriate.
The region's leading women's organisations could also reflect on this glaring oversight -- if indeed it was just that! She, of course, held no grudges against those Caribbean women in public life who have been so honoured by CARICOM. Indeed she had joined in recognising their contributions, including as long-serving editor of the PPP-aligned ‘Mirror’ newspaper.
This was the region's unique woman politician who had sacrificed almost two years of her presidency under a so-called "Hermandston Accord" that was to result from CARICOM's initiative to broker a post-election impasse between her government and an opposition then led by the now late Leader of the People's National Congress Reform, Desmond Hoyte.
On reflection, that CARICOM "accord" was seriously flawed in unfairly seeking a reduction of her government's legitimate five-year term, considering the controversial 28-year-long one-party rule of the PNC. The PPP went on, nevertheless, to retain power at the succeeding 2001 general election.
To the mass of rural Guyanese of East Indian descent, Janet Jagan was the charming, blue-eyed white "bhowgie" (sister-in-law) as wife of the dentist/politician "big brother", Cheddi Jagan, they had come to enthusiastically embrace following the couple's initial foray in the politics of colonial British Guiana in the late 1940s.
For the rest of the country, and across ethnic boundaries, she was to later emerge as a breath of fresh air in a huge struggle against colonial oppression and grave social injustices, fighting alongside icons who have long passed away -- such as the veteran trade union leader and National Hero, Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow.
But within ten years of her marriage in 1943 to Cheddi Jagan at age 22, the young United States-born nursing assistant of Chicago, Illinois, who had given up country and parents to follow her heart of love and share the political passion of Cheddi Jagan, was to be branded a "communist" by the colonial power and jailed for six months.
Like her husband, and Guyana's most famous poet, Martin Carter, she was imprisoned and later placed under curfew by the British Governor for unsubstantiated allegations of involvement in an international “communist conspiracy” to disrupt the rule of law.
It was a spurious excuse for Britain's suspension of the first-ever popularly elected government, led b the People's Progressive Party (PPP).
That was the party she had helped to launch in 1949 and which was to become a virtual life's work for this remarkable woman politician of the Caribbean region for almost 66 of her 88 years.
During the very painful, challenging, turbulent political years, Janet Jagan stoically suffered the slings and arrows of opponents as she kept scaling hurdles to set a unique record of firsts in the politics of Guyana.
Finally, she was to reach the pinnacle as first woman Head of State in December 1997, following the death in office of her husband on March 6, after first serving as Prime Minister.
Yesterday, after two days of mourning, and consistent with her wishes, Janet Rosenberg Jagan, the once petite Jewish girl who became the symbol of woman's power in the land of her adoption; a founder-matriarch of the PPP; mother of a daughter and son and grandma of five, was cremated.
She has left behind a governing party, currently in its fourth consecutive term, to face a future without the dominant presence and influence of either herself or its patriarch that had prevailed for the past half century of the PPP's existence.
Sports view by Neil Kumar
Former President of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana Janet Jagan was indeed an ardent supporter of sport. Her love for children and a healthy lifestyle was indeed a hallmark.
Janet Jagan gave her unflinching support for the development of sport.
The former President of Guyana was quick to recognize our young people as our country’s greatest asset.
As President of Guyana she took the opportunity to put in place a special Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport. Even before in December, 1992 she found a proper home for Guyana’s Art Collection.
Janet Jagan was very uncomfortable to know that Guyana’s rich and highly appreciated Art Collection was allowed to be scattered around in cupboards, dusty cob-webbed rooms and such places.
As a result, she identified the Castellani House as the real home for this country to treasure our Art Collection. Today, the Castellani House is recognised as a place where our people and foreigners must visit.
In 1992, National Swimming Coach Stephanie Fraser along with Mr. Collin Tappin approached her to allow them access to the Castellani and Colgraine Pools. Janet Jagan herself who was a prolific swimmer when she was young was quick to use her eminent office to make the pools available to the public.
Speaking to Fraser, she was quick to remind me that Janet Jagan sent them to me and all systems were put in place for the resuscitation of the Guyana Swimming Association. It is most pleasing for us to reflect that our young swimmers were allowed to swim alongside Dr. Cheddi Jagan - the then President of Guyana, in the same pool. Such was the humble nature of these two giants, Janet and Cheddi.
It was the personal touch and her intimacy for swimming that indeed led to the Watooka Pool opening up to the young swimmers also. It will be a great day for the swimming fraternity when the international size fifty-metre pool is completed.
With President Bharrat Jagdeo at the helm of the Government and his love and appreciation for sport, it is more than possible that the State–of–the–Art Pool at Liliendaal will be completed.
Gail Teixeira was appointed Minister in the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport. This Ministry was undoubtedly Mrs. Jagan’s pet Ministry.
However, it cannot be denied that Janet turned the sod for the construction of a National Stadium at Providence. Her successor, the young President Bharrat Jagdeo with all his youthfulness, enthusiasm and will to accomplish set goals, finally got the gift of the Guyana National Stadium at Providence. Mrs. Janet Jagan lived to see that in her life time one of the best stadia in the Caribbean was built. It must have been pleasing for her to be in her home and see the young Guyanese hammering the former Colonial Masters. More so, the simple and humble Shivnarine Chanderpaul batted a magnificent century to enable West Indies to humble England.
She must have been really pleased to see her sons and daughters of the land produce the largest ever crowd at the National Stadium at Providence.
Janet Jagan, as editor of the Mirror newspaper, made genuine effort to see that her newspaper, the Mirror, covered sport.
In those difficult days when press freedom was suppressed, journalists were beaten and threatened. She allowed a sport column, “Sports by Neil”. That was the beginning of this journalist’s career which blossomed and bore fruit. She took her money from her little purse and contributed to us holding Media Domino Competitions.
Workers from Stabroek News, Chronicle and Mirror played in keen competitions to win prestigious trophies.
Janet Jagan was fully behind the Progressive Youth Organisation’s National Sports Programme. She always supported and motivated the youths to compete at group, district, regional, county and National Competitions. She was the person who reminded us that a smile could take you a mile. In those days there were very few medals and trophies to play for. However, to participate in sport was a big thing. Dr. Frank Anthony, in his appointment as Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport, was quick to inform us that we must recognize the importance of sport for fitness and a healthier lifestyle.
Janet Jagan, during her early years, embarked on learning to fly airplanes. During the bitter days of apartheid in South Africa, Cde. Janet as International Secretary of the People’s Progressive Party requested the P.Y.O. hold lecture on apartheid and sport. Mrs. Jagan sat among the audience at Friendship House in Georgetown, and listened attentively to lectures delivered by the then President of the Olympic Committee, Justice Rudolph Harper and Dr. James Rose.
She was indeed an internationalist, a broad mined individual who always saw the world objectively. Janet Jagan was adamant that we must have a National Sports Policy. She was a thorough person, demand that we must have system, transparency and accountability in what we do. Janet Jagan and her dear husband Cde Cheddi were two philosophers; they interrupted the world. We as a people must recognize sport for recreational, leisure, amateur and professional value of sport. Former President Janet Jagan left us a legacy that we must read, learn, be honest and patriotic. Let us, as Guyanese, bid her physically goodbye while we work to live a healthier lifestyle.
by OSCAR JAMES 31 March 2011
OVER the past months I have been reading and seeing comments made by a columnist from the Kaieteur News and former supporters of the PPP/C.
Most of them indulge in criticising the party and the Jagans out of a sense of disappointment of not being able to get more out of the party and the government. I remember well one of them who was a director or chairman of the Electricity Corporation running away from Freedom House while it was being attacked in 1962. He ended up in Canada and returned to Guyana in 1992. He claimed he made sacrifices but lots of comrades made sacrifices too.
Some comrades felt the heavy hands of the previous regime, some lost their jobs, some were detained and imprisoned and some even lost their lives because they were Afro-Guyanese and supporters of the PPP. The Fords, Edwardses, Holders, Gonsalves, Shepherds, Campbells, Browns, Burgesses, McLeans and Fernandes, just to name a few.
Let me not dwell too much on that part of my letter but let me write on some things of the Jagans that I know:
I was 13 years old when I first came into contact with Cheddi and Janet Jagan in 1953. My father used to give me sets of magazines (China Reconstruction) to take to Cheddi for him to distribute to members of the party.
I wonder if these critics know of the time in the late 1940s when Cheddi was refused entry on the upper deck of the McKenzie steamer and Janet came down to the bottom so that she could be with her husband.
Do they know of the many times during the 60s and 70s when he picked up children going to school on Lamaha Street on his way to Freedom House?
Do they know of the time when the British troops raided Thunder Newspaper Office and as Janet Jagan approached the building a British soldier challenged her, bayonet at ready to her chest, and she continued to advance to the building until she was arrested?
Do they know when Cheddi was jailed for six months hard labour and crowds would gather and sing the party song ‘Oh Fighting Men’ until the police fired tear gas at us?
Do they know the number of small businessmen Dr Cheddi helped to start their own businesses?
Janet and Cheddi paid visits to several long yards in the city from Kingston, Lacytown, Werk-en-Rust, Charlestown, etc encouraging parents to send their children to school. They both assisted in preparing breakfast and bathing the children.
There is a certain long yard in Charlotte Street between Camp and Wellington Streets, which had two big buildings in the front part and two range houses, which had 10 rooms (as much as eight persons lived in a room), six outdoor kitchens were provided as well as three toilets and three baths for the tenants.
These were the conditions he met the poor living under when he returned home and he fought against it.
From this same long yard was produced several seamen, two photographers, three land surveyors, one electrical foreman, director of prisons and a professor of mathematics.
Do you know that in the 1940s – 1950s the City Council had employed women to break bricks for the building of roads? Janet paid a visit to these women and fought tooth and nail for this practice to stop, which eventually did.
Cheddi only saw the good in people; I believed a saint walked among us.
I have written this letter hoping for it to be published in your newspaper (Chronicle). I am not a scholarly person as I only attended class up to third standard. I am not gifted with the intelligence of these gentlemen, who write and try to distort and demonise the memories of the Jagans. To them I say look into your hearts and seek forgiveness, for forgiveness is there.
Venue: Freedom House
Time: Monday 30th March
Occasion: Tribute to Cde late Janet Jagan
“Man’s dearest possession is life,” It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying, he might say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world – the fight for the Liberation of Mankind.” so said Nikolai Ostrovsky in his famous book “How the Steel was tempered”
These words aptly describe the contributions made by Cde Janet since her arrival in Guyana. She and her life partner and comrade in struggle Cde Cheddi together dedicated their energies and total commitment to the improvement of the life of the ordinary men and women with great humility and compassion.
As we pay homage to this noble human being we do so knowing that no other woman before her had championed the cause of women as she had done. About a year after her arrival in October 1944 she took up the cause of women by penning a letter in the Labour Advocate on the question of adult suffrage.
I need to use this quote in a major way to illustrate her vision for women rights and to place on record once again her leadership role in giving purpose to women’s equality.
“The very vital question of adult suffrage, today while being of extreme importance to the male population of British Guiana is of equal significance to all women of the country.
The existing law does not qualify many women to vote, since very few could possibly meet the property qualifications. The present struggle for adult suffrage is also, one might say, a struggle for the women to vote, although, a women suffrage amendment was given effect we are well aware, did not enfranchise more than a handful women up to several years ago.
The majority of women in this country still occupy a relatively minor place in society. Their function is still one that does not reach very far outside the confines of the home.
Early marriages, too many children, and the meager education hinder many who have abilities equal to men. Women are not encouraged enough to become more educated and take part in political meetings and organizations as are the men.
We must remember that the women should have as vital an interest in the economic and political problem of the country as the other sex. There is no reason why they should not take part in the political framework of Government. But, they need encouragement! They must be urged to attend meetings- to participate – to contribute ideas to read – to learn.
With the enfranchisement of the people of British Guiana, the women will be in a more favorable position to take active part in public affairs.
The women of this country must fight hand in hand with the men for rights and reforms that are needed. The women must try to educate themselves and do their best to educate their daughters as equally as they educate their sons. The women of British Guiana must prepare themselves and their daughters’ the work they must do in the future." How prophetic!
This vision formed the basis for the emergence of the Women’s Political & Economic Organization which was formed in 1946 and the Women’s Progressive Organization formed in 1953.
What is remarkable is that the work of the WPO which she was the founder member and President of never swerved from that vision.
She lived to see that vision becoming a reality where she herself had attained the highest office of the land; where girls were excelling in all areas of life and where free and fair elections became a reality.
Cde Janet lived a purposeful life filled with many challenges and triumphs. She was a great role model for the women of the Party. She was intensely private yet having the ability to speak at a moment notice. She believes in the highest moral standards and led by example. While she believed in women’s equality she did not encourage mediocrity in women.
I had the good fortune to work closely with her for nearly 4 decades and there was a period when I had the greatest opportunity to be molded by her.
Almost all the comrades who worked closely with her will attest to her humanity, her kindness, her thoughtfulness. I am sure all of us girls then and now would have received a piece of jewelry from her a memento for the male comrades, the rent money for sum, presents for the children.
Members of the public who came to see her weekly would have laid their stories to her and would have received assistance from her or would have been sent for assistance.
She was fiercely independent and will always give a good fight for what she believed in; we have seen her on so many occasions standing firm and holding her own.
She was General Secretary of the Party for 20 years during which time she managed that office, helped the WPO, wrote for Mirror, and traveled on behalf of the Party visited groups and managed her home and family. When asked about her ability to perform such diverse tasks on a daily basis she would always respond that you have to know how to manage time and for women they need to know how to balance family life with public and professional life.
JJ was the person who I would have gone to when I needed advised on issues relating to the WPO. She would have been the comrade many would have gone to in times of doubt and uncertainty.
As we pay tribute to her we do so knowing that she would have preferred all of us to remember her living. The event at Cheddi Jagan Research Centre was the last public event and some of us remarked about the strength of her voice and opined that the way she was looking and talking she would very much live into the nineties.
JJ would not want us to mourn her, in her typical style she would want us to work to uphold the principles of the PPP and carry on the work of the Party with commitment, integrity and honesty.
The pair that championed the noble cause of service and liberation of their people have now passed on a new chapter will begin and it is for us who are the cadres of the PPP to decide on the course of action for a PPP without a Jagan for the very first time.
They came into the political landscape at a historical period and they have left us having completed the most difficult tasks and it is now left to promote that legacy they have left the Party.
Cde Janet knew for some time now that the WPO did what it had to do and that the hundreds of women who are in the leadership are capable and worthy to uphold the principles and values of the organizations.
We must all be proud of this daughter, this mother, the friend and comrade who lived her life a life of service to humanity and the liberation of man and womankind.