Janet Jagan: Marxist from Chicago who served as president of Guyana

Janet Jagan was white, Jewish and from Chicago, but for two years she served as President of Guyana, a Caribbean country on the mainland of South America deeply divided between communities of Indian and African origin. She was training as a nurse in her home town when she met Cheddi Jagan, a dental student whose parents had been brought from India as indentured labourers to work on a sugar plantation in what was then British Guiana, and the future course of her life was set.

The couple married in August 1943, and Janet is generally held to have exercised a decisive influence on her husband's political development, steering him towards the Marxist left. But she always dismissed as a racist myth, put about by the British, any suggestion that she was the real driving force behind Cheddi Jagan's career, which eventually took him to the leadership of his country.

Janet Rosalie Rosenberg was born into a middle-class family in Chicago in 1920. She attended several universities, dabbling in physics and bacteriology, before enrolling in the Cook County School of Nursing – but she did not complete that course, either. The politics of British Guiana/Guyana was to become her overriding interest.

The young couple moved to Cheddi Jagan's homeland in December 1943, to the dismay of Janet's parents, and for the next 10 years she worked as a dental nurse in her husband's clinic. At the same time they both became deeply involved in left-wing political and union activities, joining the colony's first-ever trade union and founding the Political Affairs Committee, which in 1950 became the People's Progressive Party (PPP), uniting the "East Indian" and black communities in the demand for independence from Britain. Janet Jagan served as PPP general secretary without a break until 1970.

In 1950 she became the first woman to be elected to Georgetown city council, and three years later she was one of the first three women to win a parliamentary seat, as member for Essequibo, when the PPP won the first elections held under universal adult suffrage. But this was at the height of the Cold War, and the colonial power was unnerved by the Jagans' radicalism. Prompted by a nervous US administration, London suspended the constitution in October 1953 and dismissed the government, on the grounds that the country was in danger of falling into Communist hands.

Janet Jagan was jailed for six months in 1954, on civil disobedience charges, and was confined to the Georgetown area for two years after her release. This meant she was unable to return to Chicago to visit her dying father. After the PPP was returned to office in the 1957 elections, and she resumed her Essequibo seat, she served as minister of labour, health and housing, and later home affairs.

But by that time the PPP had split along racial lines, and one of the party's founders, Forbes Burnham, a London-trained black barrister, led a breakaway to form the People's National Congress (PNC). Ethnic political divisions continue in Guyana to this day.

The PNC, with discreet backing from Britain, took the colony to independence in 1966, and the PPP was firmly excluded from power until 1992. The PNC rigged election after election, and turned the country into a virtually one-party "cooperative republic", with Burnham serving as executive President from 1980. But the Jagans' political will never wavered, and Janet turned her formidable energies to everything from organising female domestic workers to editing the PPP's publications, the Mirror newspaper and the quarterly Thunder – a post she still held at the time of her death. She was a PPP member of Parliament from 1973 to 1997.

In 1992 Cheddi Jagan finally achieved his lifelong ambition to become President of Guyana, in what were arguably the country's first free elections since independence. But it was a very different world by then. Jagan decided to continue the free-market policies introduced by his PNC predecessor, Desmond Hoyte (Burnham had died in 1985), and Guyana enjoyed a high growth rate for most of the 1990s. Janet Jagan had a pragmatic explanation for this policy reversal. "We faced the realities and decided our job was to create a national state based on democracy and the improvement of peoples' lives."

On the death of her husband in March 1997, Janet Jagan honoured his last wish and took over as Prime Minister and first Vice-President. She then led the PPP-Civic alliance to victory in the general elections of 1997, becoming the first democratically elected female president in South America at the age of 77.

The 1997 elections were highly controversial, and the disgruntled PNC opposition, alleging massive fraud, attempted unsuccessfully to prevent her from being sworn in. Her years in office were marked by continuing political unrest, including a long strike by public-sector workers that almost brought the country to its knees. In August 1999, after she had suffered a mild heart attack, President Jagan resigned, and was replaced by her former finance minister, Bharrat Jagdeo.

In her later years "Comrade Janet" wrote children's stories, including When Grandpa Cheddi was a Boy (1993), Patricia, the Baby Manatee (1995) and Anastasia the Ant-Eater (1997). She also became a noted patron of the arts, helping to found the National Art Gallery in Georgetown.

Colin Harding

Janet Rosalie Rosenberg, politician: born Chicago 20 October 1920; married 1943 Cheddi Jagan (one son, one daughter); President of Guyana 1997-99; died Georgetown, Guyana 28 March 2009.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?