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Guyana: The Legacy of Janet Jagan

Categories: Caribbean, Guyana, Breaking News, Politics

On the afternoon of Friday 27 March, news spread in Guyana that 88-year-old former president Janet Jagan [1] had been admitted to hospital [2]. Shortly after midnight on Saturday 28, Jagan passed away [3], as reported by the Live in Guyana blog.

Still a controversial figure more than eleven years after she left office, Jagan was both the first foreign-born and the first female head of state of Guyana. Born in Chicago, USA, in 1920, to a middle-class Jewish family, Janet Rosenberg met her future husband Cheddi Jagan [4] in 1942, while working as a nurse. They married the following year. Jagan, then a dentistry student, was significantly influenced by his wife's socialist politics. A Stabroek News obituary summarises [5] the Jagans’ entry into active politics:

She came to British Guiana with him in December 1943 and worked for 10 years as a dental nurse in Dr Jagan’s clinic. She became immediately involved in the labour struggle and as a member of the first ever union in the colony, the British Guiana Labour Union. She was also the co-founder of the Political Affairs Committee. Mrs Jagan was elected General Secretary of the PPP [6] in 1950 and served in that post until 1970. She was a founder of the Women’s Progressive Organisation and became the first elected woman to the Georgetown city council. She was later one of three women to enter the House of Assembly as a representative of the Essequibo Constituency.

Following the suspension of the constitution and the ousting of the government, Mrs Jagan was jailed for six months in 1955 and restricted to Georgetown after her release. When the PPP was returned to power in the 1957 elections she was appointed Minister of Labour, Health and Housing – one of her famous posts.

(While she was a government minister, Jagan made a strong impression on the visiting writer V.S. Naipaul, who described her dress sense and reading habits [7] in his 1962 travel book The Middle Passage.)

In 1964, however, the Jagans’ political rival Forbes Burnham won a general election, and led the country from independence in 1966 until his death in 1985. Cheddi Jagan was leader of the opposition during this period, and Janet Jagan worked as editor of the party newspaper. After free elections in 1992, the PPP was returned to power and Cheddi Jagan became president.

After her husband's death in 1997, Janet Jagan ran for the office of president and was elected, despite her age (77) and the fact that she was white and foreign-born. (She was only the second female South American head of state.) She resigned in 1999, after a mild heart attack, and her short term of office was marked by political unrest. Until her death, she remained active within the PPP, resuming the editorship of the party newspaper, and she was a noted patron of the arts.

Guyanese bloggers’ reactions to her death were varied. “Mrs Jagan's entire life has been a class act,” wrote [8] Live in Guyana admiringly. “Her Presidency was defined by a sense of vision and wider purpose.” The blog also posted a gallery of portraits [9]. On the other hand, Guyana 911 remarked [10]:

We wait now for PPP to keep pounding it in our face how great she was. Look how many years have gone and they still haven't reached the end of Cheddie's eulogy.

Guyana 360 pointed out [11] that as of early Saturday afternoon, the government of Guyana had still not issued an official statement on Jagan's death; when a  statement did appear later that afternoon, 360 provided a link [12]. The following day, 360 raised questions [13] about the quality of medical care available at the hospital where she died:

Could anyone say why was Mrs. Jagan admitted to the Georgetown Public Hospital, a facility that has been discarded by senior officials of her party? Is this the care and attention she deserves as a fomer President?

Meanwhile, on Twitter, mediaimran [14] declared himself “appalled that [furniture store] Courts ran a TV ad which stated that the company was ‘pleased to join the nation in mourning the passing of Mrs. Jagan’.”

Guyana Providence Stadium linked [15] to details of the “simple” funeral plans for Jagan: a ceremony at the parliament building in Georgetown followed by a cremation ceremony.