Fighting for a free Guyana

April 8, 2009

Helen Scott recounts the life of Janet Jagan, who became the first woman elected president of Guyana after a life spent with her husband, Cheddi Jagan, fighting for the country's independence, and against colonialism and imperialism.

THE REMARKABLE life of Janet Jagan, a white American Marxist who was at the center of anti-colonial politics in 20th century Guyana, illuminates both the hopes and defeats of the post-war Caribbean, and the crimes of Cold War imperialism.

She was born Janet Rosenberg in Chicago in 1920 into a middle-class Jewish family (long rumored to be related to Ethel and Julius, though this has been refuted), and was already a Marxist when, as a nursing student, she met Cheddi Jagan. Jagan was the eldest son of Indo-Caribbean sugar cane workers from what was then British Guiana (it was under British colonial rule), who was in the U.S. to study dentistry.

Bucking family opposition, the couple married and returned to Guiana where they set up a dental practice and dedicated themselves to socialist politics. They joined the first Guianese Trade Union, and with other radicals, influenced by a mixture of Soviet communism and social democracy, founded the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) in 1946.

The PAC was a multi-ethnic working-class organization dedicated to building solidarity between urban blacks (or "African Guianese"--the descendants of African slaves) and rural Indo-Caribbeans (descendants of "East Indian" indentured laborers), in the fight against colonialism.

Janet Jagan in February 1966, just weeks before Guyana won independence
Janet Jagan in February 1966, just weeks before Guyana won independence

During the days of plantation slavery, Guiana produced immense wealth from sugar cane. After abolition, the plantation owners brought indentured servants from India (where British colonialism guaranteed a steady flow of desperate migrants) to ensure cheap, compliant labor and to undercut the bargaining power of the former slaves.

Racial and ethnic division was thus endemic to the colony, and the PAC, which in 1946 became the People's Progressive Party (PPP), was the first mass movement dedicated to challenging communalism and sectionalism within the working class. Janet Jagan threw herself into the movement for economic and social justice, adult suffrage and independence.

Combating the power of the foreign-owned sugar and bauxite industries, the PPP won mass support. Under a new constitution and internal self-government in 1953, the party won elections: Cheddi Jagan became chief minister, and Janet Jagan, as labor secretary, was the first elected woman in British Guiana. She was party secretary from 1950-1970, and editor of the party paper, The Mirror, and journal, Thunder.


IN A brutal display of imperialist collaboration, the British colonial office (through direct military invasion and political power) and the U.S. government (largely via the CIA) waged a campaign against the PPP. Britain's Winston Churchill sent in troops and arrested the entire administration.

The two powers used every weapon in their arsenal over the next decade to neutralize the PPP, which nonetheless won elections in 1957 (after four years of interim British colonial rule) and again in 1961.

The struggle against colonialism had forged unity among East Indians and Africans, and now the imperialist powers used "divide and rule" policies to separate them. In an attempt to weaken the PPP, the CIA built a new opposition party in 1957, the People's National Congress (PNC). With Forbes Burnham (who split from the PPP) as its leader, the PNC was projected as the "African" counterpart to Jagan's PPP, now cast as the "East Indian" party.

British and U.S. hostility to the Jagans stemmed from their reformist platform--which included levies on foreign corporations, investment in domestic social spending, land redistribution and pro-labor legislation--and, in the Cold War context, their links with the Communist Party and the Cuban and Soviet regimes. While the PPP formally affiliated with the USSR in 1969, Burnham's PNC, dominated by professionals and small businessmen, pledged allegiance to the U.S.

The CIA ran a generalized destabilization campaign, provoking internal unrest through riots, violent attacks and political murders; pouring money in to right-wing unions; financing Burnham's campaign; and spreading propaganda against the Jagans. The mobilization of communalism led to violent attacks on ethnic communities in the early 1960s, most infamously the massacre at Wismar, and was to leave a devastating legacy up to today.

Eventually, in 1964, following British-orchestrated changes in the constitution to obstruct majority rule, Burnham took power as head of the PNC in a coalition government with the right-wing party of business, the United Force. Two years later, Guyana became an independent nation.

The Burnham regime first pursued the Puerto Rican model of development based on private foreign investment, and then carried out a disastrous series of nationalizations on terms favorable to foreign corporations, leaving Guyana with crippling debt. While adopting the rhetoric of socialism and populism, Burnham's was an authoritarian and anti-democratic regime, enacting devastating structural adjustment through the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the 1970s, turning Guyana from a prosperous nation into one of the most impoverished in the region.

Throughout this period, the Jagans remained in the political opposition, criticizing the regime and continuing to be active in the labor movement.

In 1992, in the first free elections since independence, Cheddi Jagan again came to power, and, after his death in 1997, Janet became president at the age of 77. The PPP in power, however, was far from its origins, representing instead a slightly more humane version of neoliberalism.

Janet stepped down from political life in 1999, and for her remaining years was active in the arts, helping to found the National Art Gallery in Georgetown, and writing children's stories.

While certainly limited by the contradictions of reformism and the distortions of Stalinism, Janet Jagan nonetheless was a lifelong socialist activist, and her tenacious refusal to be silenced by imperialism deserves recognition and respect.

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