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Remembering Janet Jagan

Janet Jagan – Quite Easily the Greatest Guyanese Woman

By Ralph Ramkarran - April 2009

Much has been written and spoken about Janet Jagan since Saturday, March 28, when she succumbed to a sudden ailment after a brief illness. Many have and will continue to record their encounters with her not only for posterity but to indicate the qualities of quite easily the greatest Guyanese woman ever. Her longevity and the consistency of her social and political activism, dedicated to the oppressed, will ensure that her place in Guyanese history is preserved forever. I doubt that those who really know Janet Jagan will have any doubt about the eventual historical recognition of her contribution to the freedom of Guyana from colonial subjugation and authoritarian rule for a quarter of a century thereafter.

Like any political figure of substance, Mrs. Jagan was the subject of much criticism along the way. The accusations against her which endured are shallow enough to have exposed her detractors long ago as charlatans. None has survived with the dignity and grace that she has and in this moment we need not dwell on them. Suffice it to say that time has ridiculed the allegation that she was the evil genius behind Cheddi Jagan, an assertion she deemed to be racist because it was implied that a “white woman” had to teach a young “black boy” from the colonies. Time has also proven that the issue of national security is one which has been embraced by Mrs. Jagan since 1950 when the PPP was formed and throughout the years after the split in 1955 when the PPP made one proposal after another for unity with the PNC. All were rejected by the PNC. At the first Executive Meeting of the PPP immediately after the last general elections in 2006, it was Mrs. Jagan, before anyone else, who proposed that renewed efforts must be made to resolve outstanding problems with the Opposition. Discussions had already been initiated with the PNC to share the positions of Chair and Deputy Chair of two Regional Democratic Councils and wide ranging talks took place. These are the facts.

I had the opportunity in the week before March 28th to deliver a talk on Cheddi Jagan at the home of Mrs. Jagan, which was an annual event. Despite a fractured shoulder and in an uncomfortable shoulder and arm cast, Mrs. Jagan attended the event and spoke tenderly about life with Cheddi at the first and only home they owned. As usual, she never talked about herself but only about Cheddi’s love for the gardening he did and the peaceful atmosphere in which he read and wrote. The following evening, with what must have been great physical effort, she attended another talk given by Navin Chandrapal at Red House and again spoke, this time about the facilities offered by the Research Centre for study of Cheddi’s writings.

Mrs. Jagan was unfailingly kind and generous to everyone, even political opponents, contrary to her portrayal as of an aggressive and unforgiving character. This is proved by her relationship with Martin Carter. Even though she had serious political differences with him, they maintained a warm friendship throughout his life. His wife, Phillis Carter, remained a loyal friend of Mrs. Jagan until her passing and had attended the event at Mrs. Jagan’s home about which I spoke above. The proof that the people of Guyana had no hostility to Mrs. Jagan, except that which was instigated for political purposes, was evidenced by the fact that up to 1997 she did her own shopping at supermarkets and Bourda market. Of course, she never had a body guard or driver up to this time and walked alone. She was never ever subjected to hostility or felt threatened by the Guyanese People.

Mrs. Jagan will be sadly missed by her family and the numerous people in and out of the PPP who looked upon her as a mentor, supporter, advisor and friend. The PPP will miss her wise counsel and experienced guidance. There have been insinuations that Mrs. Jagan’s passing creates opportunity for advancing the political process in some way. The little known fact is that Mrs. Jagan was always on the lookout for ways in which the political process could be advanced and inclusiveness developed. Her work in the arts and culture demonstrated convincingly that politics was never an obstacle or a qualification for Mrs. Jagan in extending her hand of co-operation. The fact, however, is that Mrs. Jagan was conditioned by a political culture, not of her making, which utilized undemocratic means and violence to remover her Party from office twice and in which violence was continuously employed against lawfully elected PPP Governments. In these circumstances no one can reasonably fault Mrs. Jagan for being protective of her Party and the noble ideals it represented. Without her commitment to the survival of the PPP and the protective umbrella she held over it, the working people of Guyana would have either had no one to defend their interests today.


Tribute to Cde. Janet Jagan

by Frank Anthony at Freedom House


Sadness crept into many of our lives, as we learnt of the untimely passing of comrade Janet Jagan, one of the founders of the Political Affairs Committee, a former General Secretary of the Peoples Progressive Party, the president of the Women Progressive Organization and the first female President of Guyana.

Her death has robbed the Caribbean, and indeed the World of a great freedom fighter, a true champion of the people, an extraordinary woman.

On behalf of all the members of the Progressive Youth Organization, I wish to express our sincerest condolences to her family. We in the PYO resolved that the best way we can pay tribute to comrade Janet, is to continue to champion her ideals for social justice, freedom and development in Guyana and around the world.

Comrade Janet has a unique place in our hearts, because she and comrade Cheddi has selflessly given up a good life to fight for a better life for all Guyanese. This arduous journey of struggle started the moment the Pan Am Sea plane landed on the Demerara River and never ceased until her last breath at the hospital.

She was there in the vanguard, giving leadership on women rights when she formed the Women Economic and Political Organization in 1946 the forerunner of the Women Progressive Organization.

She was there as cofounder of the Political Affairs Committee, the forerunner of the Peoples Progressive Party.

She was there at Enmore in 1948, when colonialism murdering bullets, made men into martyrs, these injustices, which were hitherto used as instruments of oppression to keep our people beaten and broken. But comrade Janet and Cheddi taught us how to bear these hurt not as defeat or humiliation but as a flag for the revolution, to raise people’s conscience to fight for freedom and justice.

She was there on the 1st of January, 1950 to breathe life into the Peoples Progressive Party and to delicately nurse it from infancy to adulthood, shepherding it through the rebellious adolescent years, with the firm yet gentle hand as General Secretary.

She was there in the trenches with her husband and other comrades challenging the status quo, fighting for Guyana’s independence. Their tenacity caused the colonial quo to lose its status, ending about 230 years of British rule.

Yes she was there in all that, and more.

She was there when detractors thought we were too progressive that is too red to rule, and unleashed many onslaughts of violence to remove the party from power, but her valiant efforts help to expose these perpetuators and help us preserve. She was a woman of real substance an anchor in rough waters.

She was there in fighting to prevent rigged elections, 1967, 1973, 1979 and 1986 and her expose, brought shame to the PNC, when she documented some of her finding, several booklets, in articles in the Mirror and Thunder.

She was there courageous, strong with a tenacity of purpose always bettering her best; she was a woman of many firsts, breaking invisible ceilings, opening up opportunities, allowing us to discover ourselves, to dream to aspire.

Yes, she was there not as a mere witness to our history, but an active participant, a creator of our history.

There are those on the lunatic fringe who may try to savage her contributions, but try as they may they cannot hijack her greatness with their mean spiritedness.

Her memory was good but her kindness better. She was always sending little notes of encouragement, a card on a birthday, a little gift for the children. She had a nurturing embrace for her comrades, firm but not stifling, unrelenting but not suffocating. She held the hands of most in the party, navigating them through difficulties and giving them space to grow.

When I became minister of Culture, I got a little not from her explaining why she created the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports not only because she was passionate about the arts, but that she felt it was a unifying force that can glue the Guyanese mosaic together.

Comrade Janet has always been a patron of the arts. In the fifties she supported the establishment of the theatre guild, when the government made available the land. The Guild prospered for many years, and after a short period of decline, Comrade Janet was there two years ago when we unveiled the plans to resuscitate the Guild.

In music, her taste and interest was wide and varied, in an interview with Dr. Vibert Cambridge, she told him about her love for Paul Robeson and Nat Cole songs, of calypsonians such as “32”, the music of the Brahms, Beethoven and Bach.

Her love for classical music, may have prompted her support for Allan Bush who visited Guyana in 1959, traveling to the various estates to witness the horrendous conditions under which the toiled lived, that inspired him to write an opera called the “Sugar Reapers”, it was the only opera ever written and performed about Guyana.

But her love for music was not confined to the classics. As steel pan maestro Roy Geddes can attest Cheddi and Janet had a passion for working people music. They formed the first National Steel Orchestra in the Caribbean in 1962, where all the players were paid a salary. In 1963, this Orchestra was performing the duties of cultural diplomacy as they toured Cuba.

Her love of dance was profound, and she supported her friend Helen Tait to explore the rich Guyanese dance traditions and bring them to stage. She also gave me tips on what we can do with the national school of dance and the national dance company.

Her love of art is well known; she founded the National Art Gallery, and used the space to start conversations on art and literature. Her passion for literature is manifested in the support for the Guyana Annual, in the poetry that she encouraged, in her own writings especially her short stories and children books.

The quality of her impact on the arts, have given many cultural practitioners a sense of artistic legitimacy. Comrade will truly be missed.

On my behalf, my wife Shanti and daughters Jessica and Ashley, I extend our condolences to Nadira and Joey and their families. Your loss, your grief is also ours, we care deeply for her and her kindness, selflessness, and her incorruptibility has always inspired and will continue to inspire us.

My family feels very privileged that we were able to share some real quality time with her. She has done quite a lot for me, and to her I owe significant debt gratitude.

Death cannot kill what never dies. Her memory, her glory and legacy will live on in our hearts.

May her soul be blessed with eternal peace.


The Jagans in Historical Perspective

by Hydar Ally

THE month of March is remembered for the deaths of two political icons of Guyana - Cheddi and Janet Jagan.

Both were founder members of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and between the two, they had over a hundred years of contribution to the politics of Guyana. No other couple in the Anglo-phone Caribbean and beyond could match such an out­standing achievement.

I propose in this article to analyze the political contribution of the Jagans, especially in light of attempts to denigrate and cast aspirations on their role in the politics of this country. The impression that some so-called ‘analysts’ are attempting to project is that the Jagans were not politically sensitive to geopolitics, which they assert, were responsible for the relative underdeveloped state of the country vis-a-vis other countries in the Common­wealth Caribbean.

It is my view that those who level such charges against the Jagans and the PPP which they founded are intellectually dishonest or motivated by political/ideological prejudice rather than out of any objective and rigorous analysis of the facts and the context in which the Jagans entered the political arena. They have failed to take into account the historical antecedents which obtained at the time of the entry of the Jagans into the politics of the colony.

I shall argue that the situation which obtained during the early 1940’s when the Jagans entered the political arena was one that was at best oppressive and consequently militated against the rise of militant political leaders who sought to champion the cause the downtrodden. This is why many of the militants, including Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, regarded as the Father of Trade Unionism in Guyana, and several other working class leaders, were either pressured into subservience by the Colonial Office or, in some instances, put on the payroll of the employers which in effect muzzled them and prevented them from articulating and representing the interests of the working people against the yoke of colonial oppression.

What distinguished the Jagans from other working class leaders was the fact that they were able to pro­vide a political perspective to the problems affecting the laboring class in the then colony of British Guiana. Hitherto, the struggle was mainly seen as an economic struggle between the planter class and the laboring class. The working people for the most part were unorganized and therefore could not provide an effective challenge to the colonial power structures.

The formation of the Political Affairs Committee in 1946 (PAC) bore testimony to the perspicacity of the Jagans. They recognized that the first task was to sensitize the population, in particular the working people, on the need for a political assault on the status quo and not simply a tinkering of the system.

Dr. Jagan, from his own experience as an elected member of the Legislative Assembly for the East Coast Demerara constituency in the elections of 1947, saw how difficult it was to effect any meaningful changes for the working class unless there was a change in the power configuration of the colonial structures.

Hence the formation of the People’s Progressive Party in January a1950, which a mere three years after its formation was able to win a landslide victory in the elections of 1953, the first under Universal Adult Suffrage. The PPP, under the charismatic leadership of Dr. Jagan, won 18 of the 24 seats and held political office for three months be­fore it was removed from office by the British Government. The Constitution was suspended and an interim administration was put in place made up mainly of those who were loyal to the Colonial office. It is of interest to note that the British Government, and for that matter the United States, failed to provide development assistance to the colony. In fact, the period 1953-1957 was described as one in which the country simply marked time and could be regarded as one of the dullest and most uneventful period in the country’s history.

One would have thought that the British Government and other western countries would have used the period of suspended rule to boost the image and status of the interim administration if only to show how ‘incompetent’ and ‘ineffective’ the elected PPP leaders were. That did not happen. Instead, the colony remained frozen in time and it was not until the return to office of the PPP in the elections of 1957 that genuine efforts were made to develop and diversify the economic bases of the colony. The cultivation of rice expanded significantly and development assistance was sought by the new PPP administration from non-traditional sources on relatively easy terms.

Dr. Jagan was accused of not understanding the geo-politics of the situation, especially Guyana’s location in what was described as a US sphere of influence. However, despite his best efforts to source development assistance from western countries, not much assistance was forthcoming which forced Jagan to seek development assistance from non-western sources.

The fact is that at an intellectual level, the struggle for independence and national liberation necessarily had to take the form of a radical restructuring of power relations in the colony along a pro-working class orientation. It must be remembered that the Party derived its strength from the working people and any attempt to mislead or deceive the working class was fraught with dangers. The fact that the PPP won all elections from 1953 to 1964, when it was manipulated out of office, proved that the PPP’s faith in the working people was not misplaced.

Dr. Jagan was accused by detractors of having allowed himself to be tricked by the British Government on the issue of Proportional Representation for Guyana. The facts would show that Dr. Jagan foresaw the manipulations of Britain to remove him from office and vigorously opposed the move. It was not until it dawned upon him that failing to reach consensus on the issue could result in further delays for independence for Guyana that he reluctantly agreed, fully aware of the consequences.

It was a case of putting the interests of the country before that of Party - an extremely noble act in the circumstance.


The other side of an icon 

by Sadie Amin

Last Thursday, October 20, former President Janet Jagan celebrated her 85th birthday. It was certainly a milestone in every sense of the word. President Bharrat Jadgeo hosted a dinner at State House in honour of “Cde. Janet” as she is popularly known within the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and well-wishers shared a toast to this icon of the Guyanese landscape. Among the guests were close party associates, friends and relatives including both Mrs. Jagan’s children, Nadira Brancier-Jagan and Cheddi Jagan, Jr. (Joey). It was a simple, no-fuss affair, just the way Mrs. Jagan likes things. Brief speeches were made by President Jagdeo, PPP’s General Secretary Donald Ramotar, Nadira, Joey and a few members of the Jagan family. It was a time to show appreciation for the woman who has been in the leadership of the PPP from its inception and who is still active at all levels of the party.

Good, bad or indifferent, every Guyanese has to admit that Mrs. Jagan has had a tremendous impact and influence on our nation. She has been around and active in a variety of social and political struggles since she first came to Guyana in 1943. Her public life and achievements are well documented and known nationally and internationally. That is the public persona. What most Guyanese don’t know much about is the private side of Janet Jagan - her kindness, loyalty, generosity of spirit, care and consideration for those less fortunate and most of all her upbeat attitude to life in general.

I’ve only known Cde. Janet for a short period, about eight years (some of her friendships go back over fifty years). I’ve worked for her and enjoyed every moment of it. She was and still is a hard but rewarding taskmistress, short on patience for slackers and chronic complainers but high in praise for hard work and commitment. This woman is a stickler for punctuality, meeting deadlines and keeping her word once she gives it yet she rarely openly complains or criticizes when others show weakness or failure. If she holds herself out to do something for a member of the public she will doggedly call every public official until the job is completed. With regard to being punctual, I remember one time having to meet her to attend a function. I was ten minutes late and she left me. It was a wake-up call either to be five minutes early or right on time.

Some of the still lesser known facts about Janet Jagan is her love of reading and keeping up with current events worldwide. She has a voracious appetite for books, magazines and anything in print form. With her hectic schedule it’s amazing that she finds time to read as much as she does. Her favourite television channels are the BBC and CNN. Once when her television couldn’t access the BBC she was highly annoyed and almost cancelled her contract with the cable company. Mrs. Jagan is an avid patron of the arts and has a substantial collection of paintings and artifacts. In her zeal to support the “poor, starving artist” she will occasionally purchase pieces she isn’t too fond of in order to help out. There is one artist who habitually brings around his artworks whenever he is broke and Mrs. Jagan is often too kind to turn him away. She justifies her kindness as an investment towards a future gift for someone.

This is a woman who does not like people to fuss over her. She will send flowers, a note or visit a sick friend but when it comes to her, she brushes off attention to any of her ills or woes. She won’t seek medical attention for herself but will send a doctor to look in on one of her co-workers or to someone who is house-bound.

Her generosity is manifest in many ways. Anyone working at Freedom House will attest to the fact of certain indigent persons going there on a weekly basis and Janet giving them money in privacy, never letting the person lose his or her dignity. On days she can’t show up and a person is scheduled to collect money, Mrs. Jagan will send the money in a packet with her driver for that person. Whenever she goes anywhere and others are in the company she will always ensure that they’re taken care of. Many times she will send her driver to pick up someone or if a set of persons has to get a ride she will squish her and them like sardines in the car and drop everyone off to their doors. She did this even when she was president.

Cde. Janet has a memory like clockwork for remembering birthdays. A telephone call, card or an appropriate gift always arrives on that special day. And believe me when I say, her birthday list is quite lengthy. In particular, she shops in advance for her five grandchildren’s gifts. Once while we were holidaying in St. Kitts, Mrs. Jagan bought some prints and an antique pen for two of her grandchildren even though their birthdays were months away.

Janet Jagan may be eighty-five but her wits and faculty are sharply intact. She has a few medical conditions like most people her age but that doesn’t cause her to be grouchy or behave as if helplessly. Her independence and zest for life makes one marvel at her ability to keep going. One time I mentioned helping out some “little, old ladies” and her quick reply was “I hope I’m not a little, old lady.” That is definitely not her category, not when she can out-swim me any day or stay up late at coffee shops. Her category is unique to her alone. She is an icon who has left a tangible and indelibly positive imprint on all who have known her. Once again, Happy Birthday and Long Live!


Forget About Obama As The 'First Jewish President'--How About Janet Jagan!

by Daled Amos - July 29, 2009

My thanks to Cindy, who pointed this interesting trivia fact in a comment to another post.

Alan Solow, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations may refer to Obama as "The First Jewish President," but that title rightfully belongs to someone else: Janet Rosenberg Jagan--who was also from Chicago.

Jagan was president of Guyana and holds the distinction of being one of 3 Jewish women to have served as leaders of a nation in modern times--the other two being Golda Meir of Israel and Ruth Dreifuss. Dreifuss was a member of the Swiss Federal Council representing Geneva and held the rotating presidency of the Swiss Confederation from January 1 to December 31, 1999.

Apparently that is not Jagan's only distinction.

According to The Forward:
Jagan (rhymes with Reagan) is remembered, too, as the first woman — Jewish or otherwise — ever freely elected as president of a South American country (as distinguished from various wives of Argentine dictator Juan Peron). She was the first white person ever elected to lead Guyana, and was the country’s longest-serving legislator. And she was probably the only American Jew ever chased out of public office by both the British marines and the American CIA.
Janet and her husband were Marxists, which made the British and the US nervous.

This was in 1953--after her husband Cheddi was elected chief minister of Guyana and his wife deputy speaker of the parliament. The the Jagans survived both incidences, though they ended up serving only 133 days--and strikes and riots in the country were funded by the CIA. The New York Times reports that President Kennedy was preoccupied with Guyana:
According to long-classified documents, President John F. Kennedy ordered the Central Intelligence Agency in 1961 to destabilize the Jagan government. The C.I.A. covertly financed a campaign of labor unrest, false information and sabotage that led to race riots and, eventually, the ascension of Forbes Burnham, a black, London-educated lawyer and a leader of the People’s Progressive Party who had become a rival of the Jagans. He became president and prime minister in 1966.
But they were back in 1957 and 1961 when they won the elections--and though Jagan was a secular Jew, there is even an Israel connection, when Jagan's husband Cheddi visited Israel in 1961 and Prime Minister Golda Meir argued his case to the British--until the State Department warned Israel that it was running the risk of being "regarded by the U.S. public as strengthening militarily" a communist regime.

In 1963 Jagan was called "The most controversial woman in South American politics since Evita Peron" by Time Magazine, which claimed British Guiana's husband and wife team has brought little besides economic stagnation and political upheaval to the country.
There were even false rumors claiming she was related to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for spying for Russia.

On the other hand, Janet Jagan received the Order of Excellence--Guyana's highest honor, the Woman of Achievement award from the University of Guyana, and in 1997 the Gandhi Gold Medal for Peace--from UNESCO.

In 1997, after her husband Cheddi died, Janet Jagan was named prime minister and later that year was named president--a position she helf for 2 years until she was forced to step down after suffering a heart attack.

Not bad, for the first Jewish president.