On December 15, 1997, the electorate turned out in large numbers to exercise its franchise. In what international observers described as a transparent process, 55 percent of the electorate voted for the People’s Progressive Party/Civic giving that Party another five-year mandate to build Guyana socially and economically.
The PPP/C victory pivoted presidential candidate, Janet Jagan, to the highest office of the land, thus making her the first woman Executive President in the country.
This achievement was by no means isolated, but was the most significant of many others that have characterized her political life. Of all the women that have graced the political scene in Guyana, Jagan has undoubtedly been the most controversial of the lot.
A Jewish native of Chicago, Illinois, USA, Mrs. Jagan was born on October 20, 1920 as Janet Rosenberg. On August 5 1943, at the age of 23, she married the late President of Guyana, Cheddi Jagan, a native of British Guiana who was studying Dentistry and Economics in the USA at that time.
Both Janet and Cheddi had one thing in common—they were both fiercely committed to Marxist politics, and soon, to each other.
In those days, with racism being a prominent feature in Chicago, her family immediately rejected Cheddi under the pretext that he was a foreigner and a non-Jewish one at that. In what was to be characteristic, Janet pointedly went against her family’s wishes and planned her wedding.
Susan Wasserman, a cousin of Janet and Associated Director of the CUNY Graduate Centre for New York history sets out an odyssey to flesh out the cousin she knows only through weathered photos and family gossip. The product of her research is a 30-minute documentary, aptly dubbed, “Thunder in Guyana.”
This documentary is available at the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre, Main Street, Georgetown and depicts the tumultuous experiences of Janet as she defied her father’s wishes to become married to Cheddi. Wasserman narrated that Janet’s decision so infuriated her father that he attempted to shoot Cheddi. Instead of deterring Janet, her father’s actions only served to strengthen her resolve and one year later, she boarded a seaplane for British Guiana to join her husband.
From the dusty streets and stench of racism in Chicago, to the British Guiana colony, Janet discovered a similar situation. Only this time, instead of the raging racial conflicts between Whites, Blacks and Jews, she encountered a situation where former indentured slaves and East Indians were embroiled in racial conflict.
Her arrival in British Guiana also coincided with the struggles of the Trade Unions for workers’ rights. She solidified her position in the struggle when she became a member of the colony’s first ever union, The British Guiana Labour Union (BGLU) where she struggled alongside Trade Union icon, Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow in the fight for workers’ rights.
Janet’s life delivers interesting and almost unbelievable narrative. It is about rebellion, revolution and political tension, punctuated by crisis, race riot, rigged elections and political paranoia.
PPP General Secretary, Donald Ramotar, in paying tribute to Janet on her 81st birth anniversary, described her as an exemplary woman who had led Guyana in the struggle for independence, democracy and social progress. Indeed, such glowing tributes would have been proven meritorious when it is noted that since the mid-1940s Janet stood at all the historical junctures and helped to shape the direction of Guyana. Even her critics would admit that Janet’s political resume is extremely outstanding.
She was the first Deputy Speaker of the House, the first woman to be elected in the Georgetown City Council, first woman Cabinet Minister under self Government, first Prime Minister and eventually, first woman President of Guyana.
Despite such sterling accolades, Janet has sparked more controversy than any other female in public life. On one hand, she enjoyed love and affection while on the other side of the scale, hatred for her personality and her political work has defined her later years in active politics.
During Guyana’s struggle for independence, she was the only woman among such notable political figures as Ashton Chase, Ram Karran, Sydney King, now Eusi Kwayana and her husband, who founded the PPP in 1950.
Her history of firsts in the political arena started in the sixties when she was elected to the position of General Secretary of the PPP, a position she retained until 1970. Janet entered the house of assembly in 1953 and served as Deputy Speaker of that august body.
During the racial strife of the 1960s, when British Guiana was on the verge of attaining independence, the US administration had dubbed her husband a Communist but of greater importance was that Janet was in the forefront of the struggle and was thought to be the influence behind Cheddi’s actions.
By dint of this, she can be accredited with the honour of steering Guyana to independence status.
During the days of political and ethnic strife, when her husband was agitating for independence for British Guiana and after the suspension of the Constitution in 1953, she, along with her husband and many others, after the suspension of the Constitution, suffered the indignity of imprisonment.
Mrs. Japan was also an accomplished journalist and served as Editor of the Mirror newspaper.
Contrasting perspectives underline the cruel irony of the Janet Japan story. One side of the divide has characterized her as someone who views cause over race while the racist polarization that has enveloped Guyana has usurped the issue to be one of color over cause.
This division has confined her vast achievements to the rubble, especially after the famous ‘throw it over her shoulder’ episode where, after being served court documents ordering a halt to the proceedings that inaugurated her into the presidential seat, she had angrily tossed the order behind her back.
Notwithstanding this love/hate relationship with the Guyanese populace, Janet received the nation’s highest award, the Order of Excellence, and was unofficially dubbed, ‘Mother of the Nation.’ She has authored a number of publications, mainly political and children’s books that are sold at bookstores around the country.
There are many other facets of her life that that will have to be constricted because of space. However, it is enough to know that Janet had outlived many of her political detractors while endorsing the view that women are quite capable of carrying the political mantle just as effectively and efficiently as their male counterparts. The management and staff of the Kaieteur News newspapers join the rest of the nation in mourning this sad loss. May her soul rest in peace.
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