Random historical note

Some of my best friends are from the small West Indian nation of Guyana (although Guyana is on the South American continent, its history and culture are much closer to that of Trinidad than of, say, Brazil) and they emailed me the obituary of Janet Jagan, a woman from Chicago who became president of Guyana and who died a few days ago at the age of 88. It’s an interesting story:

Born Janet Rosenberg in 1920, she was a student nurse at Cook County Hospital in Chicago when she met Cheddi Jagan, a dentistry student at Northwestern University and the eldest of 11 children of an Indo-Guyanese family of sugar cane workers. His grandparents had arrived in British Guiana from India as indentured laborers.

They married, despite the fierce opposition of her parents, who were Jewish, and in 1943 they moved to British Guiana, where he established a dental practice and they both became involved in radical politics. In 1950, they founded the People’s Progressive Party, and in 1953, in elections under a new Constitution providing greater home rule, Dr. Jagan became chief minister. But the Jagans’ Marxist ideas aroused the suspicions of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who sent warships and troops to topple the new government. The Jagans were jailed.

[….]

Dr. Jagan returned to power in 1957, and Mrs. Jagan became labor minister.

Again, their politics, along with their admiration for Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, caused alarm in a foreign capital — this time, Washington. According to long-classified documents, President John F. Kennedy ordered the Central Intelligence Agency in 1961 to destabilize the Jagan government. The C.I.A. covertly financed a campaign of labor unrest, false information and sabotage that led to race riots and, eventually, the ascension of Forbes Burnham, a black, London-educated lawyer and a leader of the People’s Progressive Party who had become a rival of the Jagans. He became president and prime minister in 1966.

[….]

After her husband died in 1997, she ran for president and won. At campaign rallies, her followers respectfully called her “bhowji,” a Hindi term meaning “elder brother’s wife.” But her government was plagued by street protests and tension with the opposition People’s National Congress.

It’s a typical story, in a way, for a poor country in the Western hemisphere buffeted by failed Marxist ideas and murderous Euro-American interventions.

On a lighter note, how can it be that no Merchant-Ivory style movie has been made about Janet Jagan yet? This has Oscar written all over it.


Update
. From the comments, there is this PBS documentary about that Jagans.






18 replies
  1. 1
    Comrade Mary, Would-Be Minion Of Bad Horse says:

    Wow. My extended in-laws (that is, my sister’s in-laws) are all originally from Guyana, coming to Canada in the 70s. I’d love to hear their take on the Jagans.

  2. 2
    DougJ says:

    I’d love to hear their take on the Jagans.

    I asked one of my friends what he thought. He said “Better than the dictator the CIA put in place! Her inheritance was a mess but she did re-instate free and fair elections.”

  3. 3
    Brachiator says:

    On a lighter note, how can it be that no Merchant-Ivory style movie has been made about Janet Jagan yet? This has Oscar written all over it.

    Merchant-Ivory don’t do politics well. However, there is this:

    Filmmaker Suzanne Wasserman grew up fascinated by her glamorous cousin Janet. At 23, Janet Rosenberg, a beautiful nursing student born and raised in Chicago, fell in love with a handsome dental student from a country no one in her family had even heard of. Together, the political power couple became known as the founders of modern Guyana, and in 1997, Janet became the first American-born woman to lead a nation. In THUNDER IN GUYANA, Wasserman uses interviews, family photos and archival footage to tell the story of her remarkable cousin: a tale of life-long love, political campaigns and struggles to bring progressive policies to an adopted country.

    Janet was quite a babe as a young woman. Her husband was a handsome man.

  4. 4
    Bill Teefy says:

    …failed Marxist ideas…???

    It looks like the failure was arranged. I do not think Marxist ideals will actually work as the basis of a government but I am not sure that any attempt has actually been made. There is no vacuum. Cuba has probably come the closest but the Soviet Union and the United States have had more to say in the result than the Cubans themselves.

    The USSR was started on some of the ideals but the west did everything they could to monkey-wrench that. And it wasn’t long till controlling the country was more important than maintaining the "ideals" of Marx. For all of the talk of communism it is hard to find a more "corporate" structure than the one developed by the Soviets.

    The revolution leading to the United States of America is one of the few that was ever allowed to get traction thanks to the logistics of monkeying with it by foreign powers. Sure we are not Marxist but we did try to set up a system in which people had a say in the result. Historically it is hard to find an instance where any peoples movement was allowed to flourish.

  5. 5
    brantl says:

    I always love that there are "failed marxist ideals" when some other country is screwing around in your politics enough that if it happened to us, we’d consider it either an act of espionage, or war. We’ve treated a hell of a lot of places like they were banana republics, before we made them into banana republics, then we call them banana republics as if it’s an excuse.

  6. 6
    Zifnab says:

    DAMN YOU SOCIALISM!

  7. 7
    Zifnab says:

    @brantl: Exactly what I was thinking. "Hey, nice independent national government you’ve got there. Looks a bit socia list. Oops, I paid a group of dissident political rivals to arm up and overthrow your government in a violent revolution. Guess socia lism doesn’t work after all. Oh well."

    If the Marxist ideas are so failed, explain Western Europe. They seem to be doing well enough.

  8. 8
    passerby says:

    Nice ‘random historical note’ DougJ. Alas, the indy film Thunder in Guyana is not available for viewing online or thru netflix. : (

    Well done Janet R. Jagan, RIP.

  9. 9
    DougJ says:

    I always love that there are “failed marxist ideals” when some other country is screwing around in your politics enough that if it happened to us, we’d consider it either an act of espionage, or war.

    I don’t think that what’s gone in Cuba has been great, either. Some of it is the United States’ fault to be sure, but the lack of elections of freedom of expression are troubling.

    Whether or not Cuba is Marxist or not is obviously debatable.

  10. 10
    Zifnab says:

    @DougJ: The Cuban revolution was militant at its roots. It was an overthrow of a US sponsored military dictatorship by a native guerrilla force. There weren’t a lot of peaceful revolutions in the 50s and 60s.

    But Castro’s Cuba has been an island perpetually under siege. To this day, you’ve got a state full of ex-Pat Cubans ready to rush back home and reclaim all "their" property. If you are surprised that a government under foreign military threat from the first day of it’s inception straight through it’s nearly 60 years of history has remained highly militant, paranoid, and repressive… what the hell did you expect?

    Cuba was the product of its environment. Castro wasn’t replacing a bunch of Democratically elected assemblies and colonies, he was a strong man running another strong man out of town. We made Cuba an island full of thugs with decades of our own thuggish capitalism. And we kept them weak and destabilized long afterwards, making the country prime territory for thuggishness to continue to reign.

  11. 11
    r€nato says:

    The USSR was started on some of the ideals but the west did everything they could to monkey-wrench that. And it wasn’t long till controlling the country was more important than maintaining the "ideals" of Marx. For all of the talk of communism it is hard to find a more "corporate" structure than the one developed by the Soviets.

    I don’t believe that the abortive attempts the western allies made to interfere with the October revolution really had much effect on how Soviet communism turned out. The USSR was the first large-scale effort to implement communism in a nation-state.

    We all know how that turned out. It would seem that politicians love power and given absolute power, they will do anything to hold on to it and increase it, revolutionary dogma be damned.

  12. 12
    r€nato says:

    @Zifnab:

    I understand why we embargoed Cuba when they were an ally of the USSR. I still think it was a foolish policy but at least it had some sort of rationale.

    After communism, it makes no sense whatsoever to continue the embargo except a narrow political calculation based upon winning Florida’s electoral votes every four years.

    Conquer them with Yanqui dollars, that’s what I say. Allow Americans to freely travel there. Even if the money spent gives the Cuban regime valuable foreign currency, there’s a powerful argument to be made for the influence of western culture and western values on a people subjected to authoritarian/totalitarian rule. I’m certain a case can be made, for instance, that western films, rock and roll and blue jeans most certainly helped undermine rigid Soviet rule.

  13. 13
    DougJ says:

    I might also point out that Burnham eventually nationalized a lot of the economy, which seemed to be a disaster.

  14. 14
    Will says:

    Just discussed the article with my boss, who is Indo-Guyanese. She had great admiration for Janet Jagan, and said growing up under Forbes Burnham was a nightmare and that his isolationist economic policies basically destroyed the country.

  15. 15
    SLKRR says:

    Don’t look now, but the "failed Marxist" ideas are on a comeback in Latin America. Out of 20 countries listed, a grand total of 2 have a rightwing (Colombia) or center-right (Mexico) goverment. We’d better get back to selling arms to Iran if we ever hope to fight these commie hordes!

  16. 16
    Bill Teefy says:

    I don’t believe that the abortive attempts the western allies made to interfere with the October revolution really had much effect on how Soviet communism turned out. The USSR was the first large-scale effort to implement communism in a nation-state.

    First. I didn’t mean the overt support of White Russia alone. However, once immediate threats to the Revolution were out of the way and the Civil War ended the attempt to export the revolution by force by the invasion of Poland, the Ukraine and other non-Russian states began. So there was no actual opportunity for any type of restructuring from the old order to a communist or Marxist ideal. No period of peace until the beginning of 1921. Before 1921 was over Lenin began The New Economy – basically abandoning Marxism. Leninism contained some Marxist ideas but was a step away. Stalin became General Secretary in 1922. So I think it unrealistic to say that the Soviet Union ever implemented Marxist ideas in the main.

    Second. The Western powers never relented to the Soviet government. There was never a policy of acceptance. Or an effort to help the people make their chosen form of government work.

    Once Stalin took power I think the Western Powers had good reason to be hostile. Under Stalin the Soviets embraced the Russian concept of empire simply replacing the Russian Imperialists with Soviet Imperialists.

  17. 17
    Will says:

    So, anyone ever visited Guyana? I’ve been looking to go to South America or Central America and this looks like a pretty place.

  18. 18
    SLKRR says:

    @Will:

    So, anyone ever visited Guyana? I’ve been looking to go to South America or Central America and this looks like a pretty place.

    I hear they make some Flavor-Aid that’s to die for.

Comments are closed.