Janet Rosenberg Jagan

I wasn’t planning to write a post on Janet Jagan, Guyana’s late ex-president but when I did a search on Jews in Guyana, her name came up.  She was believed to be the only Jew living in the country.

Janet Rosenberg was born in Chicago, Illinois to to middle-class Jewish parents.  Her maternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants.  Her grandfather imigrated from Romania and her grandmother from Hungary.  According to her cousin, New York historian Suzanne Wasserman, who made an award-winning documentary film about Jagan in 2003, the Rosenbergs were very assimilated. “They even had a Christmas tree. They were “conservative Republicans, which was very unusual among Chicago Jews in the 1930s.”

During her teenage years, Janet’s father changed their family name to Roberts to avoid job discrimination.  Janet outraged her parents by taking up communism.  This was common among Depression-era teens.  She further incensed her father when at the age of 22, she met and fell in love with Cheddi Jagan an Indo-Guyanese dentistry student in December 1942 while working as a student nurse at Cook County Hospital.  Her father cut off contact with her, vowed to disown her and even threatened to shoot the dark-skinned, non-Jewish Cheddi. 

I find this rather sad, considering that her father knows what it is like to be discriminated against.  I can understand him wanting her to marry a Jewish man but how does wanting to kill a man because he is dark-skinned and a non-Jew any better than those people who wanted to kill someone because he or she was a Jew?  Janet did not allow her father to deter her from marrying Cheddi, the son of Guyanese sugar cane workers.  She married him a year later and moved to Guyana, known then as British Guiana. 

In Guyana, she took part in labor activism along with her husband and joined the British Guianese Labor Union. She also worked in her husband’s dental clinic as a nurse for 10 years. In 1946, she founded the Women’s Political and Economic Organization and co-founded the Political Affairs Committee.

Janet’s political history is impressive.  She almost immediately became involved in the labour struggle and was a member of the colony’s first-ever union, the British Guiana Labour Union. She worked with labour hero, Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, to organise domestics.  She and other women founded the Women’s Political and Economic Organisation (later called W.P.O.)  She was the co-founder of the Political Affairs Committee (PAC).

Janet ran for a seat from Central Georgetown in the 1947 general election but lost.  Undaunted by this, she went on to be a co-founder with Cheddi of the left-wing People’s Progressive Party (PPP) on January 1, 1950. The PPP, a socialist party, opposed British colonial rule of Guyana. After its electoral victory in April 1953, the PPP briefly formed the government, but the British government had the PPP government removed later in the year, and Cheddi and Janet were jailed for five months; they were subsequently kept under house arrest for two years.  In 1966 the Jagans helped win independence for Guyana, the only English speaking country in South America.

Janet served as the PPP’s General Secretary from 1950 to 1970.  In 1950, Jagan was elected to the Georgetown City Council.  She was subsequently elected to the House of Assembly in the April 1953 election, winning a seat from Essequibo constituency.  She was one of three women to win seats in that election; following the election, she became the first women to hold the position of Deputy Speaker of the Legislature.

She later succeeded Claude Christian as Minister of Home Affairs upon Christian’s death in 1963, but resigned from the Cabinet in 1964. As a member of the Elections Commission for the opposition in 1967, she expressed concern about the possibility of vote rigging. She was also the editor of the PPP newspaper Mirror from 1973 to 1997.

Jagan was elected to Parliament in 1973 and was re-elected in 1980, 1985, and 1992, eventually becoming the longest-serving member of Parliament (46 yrs.). Cheddi Jagan was elected as President of Guyana in 1992, and Janet Jagan became First Lady. She represented Guyana at the United Nations for three months in 1993, temporarily replacing Rudy Insanally when the latter was President of the United Nations General Assembly.

After Cheddi Jagan’s death, Janet Jagan was sworn in as Prime Minister as well as First Vice President on March 17, 1997.  Jagan was the presidential candidate of the PPP in the December 1997 election. After the PPP won the election, she became the first female Latin American president to be democratically elected. Janet Jagan not only became the first female President of Guyana, but she was also the first U.S.-born and the first Jewish person to lead the nation.  She was the recipient of the Nation’s (Guyana’s) highest honour – Order of Excellence (O.E.), Woman of Achievement award from the University of Guyana and in 1997 the Gandhi Gold Medal for Peace, Democracy and Women’s Rights by UNECSO. What a legacy!

On August 8, 1999, Janet announced that she was resigning as President because her health meant that she was no longer capable of “vigorous, strong leadership”; she said that Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo would be her successor. Jagdeo was sworn in as President on August 11.

Despite her resignation, Jagan remained active in the PPP. At the PPP’s 29th Congress, Jagan had received the second highest number of votes (671) in the election to the party’s Central Committee, held on August 2, 2008. She was then elected to the PPP Executive Committee, in addition to being elected as editor of the PPP paper Thunder, on August 12, 2008. 

At the age of 88, Janet Jagan died on March 28, 2009, at the Georgetown Public Hospital.  She is survived by two children and five grand-children.

Notes to women salutes this woman who followed her heart which led her to Guyana, the land of many waters where she would fight to get “rid of oppression so the poor man could get out of poverty and enjoy the fruits of this country.”  She followed her heart no matter the cost.  Fortunately, she and her father reconciled before his death in 1957 and after the birth of Janet’s first child, Joey, but they never saw each other again.  Sadly, her father never met Cheddi, something which Janet would always regret. 

Janet Rosenberg Jagan is to be commended for her involvement with the literary and cultural life of Guyana. She published early poems by Martin Carter in Thunder (which she edited) and supported the publication of early Carter collections such as The Hill of Fire Glows Red. She strongly believed that Guyanese children needed books which reflected their own realities. 

Janet Rosenberg Jagan wasn’t just the first lady of British Guiana.  In a telephone interview, she made it clear that, “I was the president. I was elected in my own right. I was always my own woman.” She is considered the mother of the nation in Guyana.

If you are interested in seeing Janet’s story, check out the documentary, Thunder in Guyana.

Sources:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_Jagan; http://www.jta.org/news/article/2009/03/30/1004112/janet-rosenberg-jagan-ex-guyana-president-dies;  http://jagan.org/janet_jagan3.htm#Profile%20of%20Janet%20Jagan,%20O.E.%20–%20First%20Woman%20President%20of%20Guyana; http://www.forward.com/articles/104488/

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