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Janet Roseberg Jagan

31 March 2009

Who was the first President from Chicago?  Not Barack Obama.

Born 20 October 1920 in Chicago into a Guyanese-Jewish family, Janet Rosenberg  Jagan moved to what was then British Guiana with her new husband, dentist Chedi Jagan 1943.  The Jagan’s dental clinic doubled as headquarters for the People’s Progressive Party, an anti-colonialist and socialist party.  Working as a dental assistant by day, and organizing sugar cane workers by night, Janet Rosenberg Jagan made herself some powerful enemies… like Winston Churchill.

The People’s Progressive Party managed to become the first elected socialist government in  South America, following elections in what was then a colonial parliament in 1953.   But Britain under Prime Minister Churchill, who had returned to power in 1951, promising “not to preside over the decline of the British Empire” did not look favorably on either Socialists (not the non-English ones, anyway) nor on colonial upstarts.

British Guiana’s Constitution was suspended in 1955, and both Dr. Jagan and his wife (who was also Party Secretary and deputy speaker of Parliament) were imprisoned for six months then released under house arrest.  During her incarceration, Janet continued to edit “The Thunder”, the pro-independence newspaper.  Following her release from detention, Janet immediately returned to politics, being elected to the new Legislature which replaced parliament and serving as Minister of Labour and Health, and later as a Senator and Home Secretary.

Finally achieving independence from Britain in 1966, Dr. Jagan became the first Prime Minister of the new state, while Janet built a dual career as a journalist and parliamentarian.  For the first several years both the United States Central Intelligence Agency and the British government channelled money to anti-People’s Progressive Party groups.

Guyana is an unusual country for many reasons, not the least of which is its ethnic and religious diversity.  About half the people being of Indian (from India) descent, with the rest being Afro-Caribbean, European, Chinese, indigenous American or “all of the above”.      Ethnic divisions provided a handy wedge for foreign governments to undermine the left-wing PPP Government:

[The Jagan's] politics, along with their admiration for Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, caused alarm in a foreign capital — this time, Washington. 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 [sic]who had become a rival of the Jagans. He became president and prime minister in 1966.

Burnham had left the PPP in 1958 to form a Afro-Caribbean Protestant party.   Religious divisions had also exploited by the outsiders to prevent a return to a socialist government.  Only about half the people are Christians, with Hindus making up a quarter of the population, and Guyana has the largest percentage of Muslims (11 percent) in the Americas.   With even Rastifarians making up a larger percentage of the population than Jews, Janet was at least an outsider (and above the fray) in one critical area.  However, being of Indian descent (something that surprises many, who assume all Jews are Europeans), Janet as a journalist and opposition parlimentarian had to work to overcome criticism of the PPP  as the “Hindu Party” building a true “People’s Progressive Party” on one hand, and continuing to protest rigged elections on the other.

Burnham, almost immediately upon his election, pushed through a “National Security Act” which effectively turned Guyana into a police state.  Perhaps surprising to the CIA and the British, Burham’s government — although remaining a member of the Commonwealth — abolished the monarchy, changed the name of the country and became what it called a “Cooperative Republic.”

Overt corruption and political fraud led Janet to organize a PPP election boycott in 1973.  The struggle for the PPP and the Jagans was to return Guyana to a democratic state while the Burham government (and its successors) destroyed the economy (taking advice from both the Soviet Union and the Rev. Jim Jones) and any semblance of democracy.  Guyanese emigrated in massive numbers in the 1980s, while the Janet Jagan continued to foment resistence and build a concensus for political change through both newspaper work and through labor organizing.  The continual push for change finally resulted in monitored elections in 1992, and a return to parlimentary democray.    Dr. Jagan was elected President.

Dr. Jagan died in March 1997, shortly after Janet had been elected Prime Minister.  In the special election that followed, she was elected to the Presidency in November.  Although ill-health cut short her own term in office (she resigned in August 1999) her election was a harbinger of a leftist electoral trend in the Americas.

While Isabelita Peron and Lidia Guillar were the first women presidents of American nations, and Indira Gandhi was the first woman of Indian descent to lead a nation, Leon Blum the first Jewish president (of France!) and Golda Mier was the first Jewish woman to become a prime minister (and the first U.S. born woman to become head of a foreign government), Janet Rosenberg Jagan was the first to do all of the above. And did it while battling the the CIA, Soviet “advisers”, Winston Churchill, colonialism, ethnic strife  and crazed apocalyptic preachers while doing it.

Janet Rosenberg Jagan died Saturday in the capital city of Georgetown.

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