– The former President’s early life and how she wanted to be remembered
By Neil Marks
In an interview for the documentary film on her life “Thunder in Guyana” Mrs. Janet Jagan said she wanted the headlines to portray her as a “Freedom Fighter.”
Indeed, for all her life she fought for freedom – freedom to make her own choices, freedom to marry a ‘Black man”, freedom for Guyana and its people, and freedom from those who vilified her.
Her 20 months in office as the President of Guyana following the December 15, 1997 elections was perhaps one of the most testing period in her life, when the opposition demonised her, and White dolls representing her were burnt on the streets of the capital.
In fact, her life in this country was replete with struggles and she snatched whatever chance she could for freedom and once even found soulful retreat in prison. She said it was “nice” being in prison for the six months she was sentenced in 1954 for allegedly organising a political rally, “people used to drive you crazy.”
Janet Jagan was born into a typical Jewish American middle class family in the south of Chicago.
Her penchant for pushing the boundaries of the ordinary shone early through her exploits in swimming and horseback riding and her first cousin Eileen Wasserman said Janet could have competed in the swimming championships of the 1936 Olympics. It is unclear why she didn’t.
A young Janet was not satisfied with horseback riding and swimming and decided to use her allowance money to take flying lessons without the knowledge of her father.
She later enrolled in what was then described as the “radical” Wayne University in Michigan and got involved in left wing politics. While working as a nurse at the Cook County Hospital she met Cheddi Jagan who was then studying dentistry at the Northwestern University.
As she was a gorgeous young lady, Janet attracted a lot of attention from members of the opposite sex and had a lot of boyfriends – but none like Cheddi and so she married him on August 5, 1943.
On June 16, 1948 British police fired at protesting sugar workers. While 12 were injured, five of the workers were killed – all shot in the back. The funeral of the five men, who are now called the Enmore Martyrs, led to a mass protest and demonstration. The Jagans personally knew the workers who were killed.
Following the elections of 1953, in which her husband was elected Chief Minister, she was one of the three women to enter the House of Assembly as a representative of the Essequibo constituency.
She grabbed international headlines that read “Guiana Red Line Laid to Chicago Born Blonde” and ‘Woman in White.”
In a letter she sent home to her family, she said the “The British are real dogs.”
As Minister of Health, she is remembered for her aggressive work in stamping out malaria, and in leading programmes against diseases such as typhoid.
In 1963, upon the death of Claude Christian, she became the Minister of Home Affairs, but resigned when the Police refused to cooperate with her and possibly prevent the racial violence that took place at Wismar, Linden in 1964.
In “Thunder in Guyana” Mrs. Jagan said that split between Burnham and Jagan was the “worst thing to happen” and she said it was responsible for the problems that the country experienced thereafter and that still exist today.
After 28 years in Opposition, the PPP won victory at the October 1992 elections in what was declared the restoration of democracy in Guyana.
She was awarded the country’s highest national honour, the Order of Excellence, and was also awarded the Gandhi Gold Medal for Peace, Democracy and Women’s Rights.
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