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.