Guiding light

Print edition : April 24, 2009

Janet Jagan. Her life was characterised by tremendous sacrifices for the sake of the people, irrespective of their race and colour.-RICARDO MAZALAN /AP

THE death of Janet Jagan on March 28 in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, brings to an end a glorious chapter in the anti-colonial struggle in the Caribbean and Latin America. The revolutionary freedom fighter died of natural causes at the age of 88. In her illustrious political career she had the distinction of being the first woman to hold the high office of President in the region. She became President of Guyana, succeeding her husband, Cheddi Jagan, in 1997. In a way, she was a pioneer in the struggle to empower women. Today, women occupy important positions in most of the Caribbean and Latin American countries. Two of them, Christina Kirchner of Argentina and Michelle Bachelet of Chile hold their countrys highest offices.

Cheddi Jagan, who was committed to socialist principles from an early age, met Janet Rosenberg in Chicago when both were students there in the 1930s. While Cheddi was studying dentistry, Janet was training to be a nurse. Many of Janets family members were activists of the Communist Party of the United States. Janet accompanied Cheddi to British Guyana after he completed his studies and helped him set up his dental practice. The couple also plunged headlong into the anti-colonial struggle that had started there, inspired to a great extent by the freedom struggle in India.

The majority of the population in Guyana is comprised of people who hailed from the Indian subcontinent. Most of them were taken there as indentured labour by the British colonial rulers in the latter half of the 19th century. Cheddi Jagans grandfather had come to Guyana as an indentured labourer. It was not surprising that the majority of the Indian-origin Guyanese still harked back to the tenuous links they had with the mother country.

In December 1950, a high-powered commission from Great Britain visited the Caribbean colony on the Latin American mainland to ascertain the wishes of the people regarding independence. The commission reported that the majority of Indo-Guyanese, while desiring independence, actually wanted to be part of newly independent India. It was only the younger section of the population that wanted greater integration with the black minority in an independent Guyana.

This was the goal Cheddi and Janet struggled for throughout their lives but were thwarted for a long time by the machinations of the colonial authority and, after independence in 1966, by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the U.S. Both the United Kingdom and the U.S. were convinced that Cheddi and Janet were dyed-in-the-wool communists and, therefore, pawns of the Soviet Union. The Cold War had also escalated dramatically in the region with the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959. Cheddi and Janet were avowed admirers of the goals for which the Cuban revolution stood for and were personal friends of Fidel Castro.

The Jagans, along with the Afro-Guyanese leader Forbes Burnham, had formed the Progressive Peoples Party (PPP) in 1950. The radical couple wanted to create a multiracial, left-wing party. Cheddi Jagan formed the first government in the country in 1953 after the British administrators allowed self-rule. The government, however, did not last long. The British government, under instructions from Washington, dissolved it, using force, accusing the Jagans of planning to convert the colony into a communist state. The colonial authorities also engineered a split in the PPP with Burnham leaving to form his Peoples National Congress (PNC).

The PPP, however, continued to win elections until 1961, but the polity became increasingly divided on the basis of ethnicity. Before granting independence, Britain introduced a system of proportional representation to ensure that the PPP did not get an outright majority in parliament. Violent inter-racial clashes, which continue till date, became the norm in Guyanese politics, despite the best efforts of the Jagans and progressive sections of society.

The U.S. intervention in Guyanese politics has been detailed in a book U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story by Stephen Rabe, a professor of history in the University of Dallas. Rabe has presented details from previously unavailable documents. He writes that the policy of the Conservative government in the U.K. led by Winston Churchill in the mid-1950s was to destroy the PPP and convince the Guyanese to join other parties. As independence for the country loomed and with the people continuing to vote for the PPP in local elections, the U.S., with the Cuban revolution a reality in its backyard, became even more paranoid about the Jagans.

The CIA became even more active after that. Stephen Rabe writes that U.S. officials and private citizens incited murder, arson, bombings and fear and loathing in British Guiana. The CIA used American trade unions such as the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) as fronts to engineer strikes and violence in Georgetown in the run-up to the elections of 1962 and 1963. When all these efforts failed to defeat the Jagans and the PPP, the system of proportional representation was introduced. This helped the colonial authorities to manipulate the victory of Forbes Burnham and the PNC in the 1964 general elections.

Stephen Rabe, in his book, gives details about the lavish financial aid that was doled out to Burnham as he went on rigging election after election. The CIA had privately characterised Burnham as an opportunist, a thief and a racist but went on backing him against the Jagans. During the mid-1950s, the Jagans were imprisoned for several years for their alleged communist sympathies.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy and his National Security Council approved a full- scale CIA intervention to keep the Jagans out. The successful effort was led by Frank Wisner Sr, who was also responsible for the ousting of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz and Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Peter Agee, the former CIA agent and author, wrote that the downfall of the Jagans was a new victory for the CIA at Georgetown. In 1963, Time magazine described Janet Jagan as the most controversial woman in South American politics since Eva Peron. The magazine said that she was a strident Marxist as well as the brains and backbone behind her husbands leftist government.

President Shankar dayal Sharma with visiting Guyanese President Cheddi Jagan (right) in 1993 in New Delhi.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The Jagans and the PPP could only make a comeback after internationally supervised free and fair elections that were held in 1992. The Cold War was over by then. There was no Soviet Union left. The Jagans were now acceptable to Washington, especially as Burnham had taken a leftward turn, by turning the state into a Cooperative Socialist Republic in 1970 and implementing radical policies. The PPP government, restored to office, set about to revive the ravaged economy of the country. We faced the realities and decided our job was to create a national state based on democracy and the improvement of peoples lives, Janet had said at the time.

Under Burnham, the country had become one of the poorest in the region and the world. In 1992, the poverty rate averaged around 80 per cent. By 2004, it had dropped down to approximately 34 per cent. The Jagans made concerted efforts to bridge the racial divide but unfortunately this legacy, a result of Britains divide and rule policy, still continues.

After Cheddis death in office in 1997, Janet was elected President, the first white person to assume such a high office in the post-colonial Caribbean region. She had held important portfolios when her husband and ideological soulmate was in office. Since independence, she was a member of parliament and the editor of The Mirror newspaper. She continued to edit the quarterly journal Thunder until her death. Janet was also briefly her countrys Ambassador to the United Nations in the 1990s.

She was respectfully called bhowji (elder brothers wife) by PPP supporters. Janet remained an atheist and did not convert to Hinduism. I am an activist. People either hate me to infinity or love me to death, she once told an interviewer. Janet was fond of saying that her identification with the underprivileged was a result of growing up as a Jew in the U.S.

Janet resigned from the presidency in August 1999 after she suffered a minor heart attack. She, however, ensured that there was a smooth transition. Her chosen successor, Bharath Jagdeo, continues to be the President. She saw to it that there was equitable power sharing between the two biggest ethnic groups. Janet Jagan, after her retirement from active politics, wrote stories for children. The stories include When Grandpa Cheddi was a Boy, Patricia, the Baby Manatee, and Anastasia, the Ant Eater.

Donald Ramotar, the general secretary of the PPP, echoing the views of the Guyanese people, said that Comrade Janet gave all her life to the struggle for the countrys independence and democracy. Her life was characterised by tremendous sacrifices for the people, irrespective of their race and colour. As an administrator, she set new standards and was known for being incorruptible. Most of all, she never lost her ideological moorings.

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