The first female and foreign-born President of Guyana, Janet Jagan, was a native of the United States who was born into a Jewish family in Chicago, she met then-dental student Cheddi Jagan in Chicago in 1942, married him, and moved to Guyana permanently in December 1943. Nearly every biographical account dwells on the instant spark between the “beautiful Jewish” student nurse and the “dashingly handsome” foreign dental student.
The Jagans went on to become the most influential Guyanese political couple for more than a half century. From the days of pre-independence British Guiana, to the successful struggle for independence (achieved in 1966), through several years in the political wilderness during the Burnham dictatorship (1964-85), and culminating in their respective terms as President (Cheddi from 1992 until his death in March 1997; Janet from December 1997 until her resignation for health reasons in August 1999), Janet was universally acknowledged as Cheddi's equal partner.
She was an iron-willed pillar of South American radicalism and a major preoccupation of American foreign policy at the height of the Cold War. Time magazine once called her “the most controversial woman in South American politics.”
Born just two months after the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution first guaranteed women the right to vote in the United States, Mrs. Jagan was a lifelong advocate of the rights and role of women in society, politics, and government. She was also an avowed Marxist, and remained openly distrustful of the capitalist economic system in her later years. Like many Depression-era teens, Janet outraged her parents by taking up communism. Unlike most, she spent her life in the struggle.
Having experienced what she perceived as persecution by the United States government during the Cold War, she renounced her U.S. citizenship in the 1960s and routinely criticized U.S. foreign policy. In recent years she expressed particular disgust with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, generally vocalizing her opinions through a weekly newspaper column.
Mrs. Jagan was perhaps best identified as the matriarch of the political party she helped found in 1950, the People's Progressive Party (PPP), which had held executive and legislative power in Guyana since Cheddi Jagan was elected President seventeen years earlier. Her influence was indisputable and decisive: when Mrs. Jagan resigned from the Presidency in 1999 after just 20 months in power, she engineered the surprising ascension to the Presidency of the 35-year old Finance Minister, Bharrat Jagdeo, who was since elected to two full terms.
Mrs. Jagan died in Georgetown on 28 March 2009, at the age of 88. She was dubbed by numerous mourners as "The Mother of the Guyanese Nation." She remained a principal powerbroker within the PPP up until her death, having been reelected to her position on the PPP's oligarchic 18-member Executive Committee just last August, and was widely believed to be the leader of its more hardline, Communist-oriented faction.
Mrs. Jagan's passing from the political scene sparked much debate about the implications for the PPP, particularly considering the looming Presidential elections in 2011 in which President Jagdeo is ineligible to run again due to term limits. Considering the PPP's inherent demographic advantage with its largely Indo-Guyanese support base, the party still stands as the clear early favorite. But the loss of Mrs. Jagan's influence shook up the status quo, cementing this as the most wide-open and consequential party nomination contest in Guyanese political history. The leadership vacuum left by Mrs. Jagan's death left the door open for PPP General Secretary Donald Ramotar to assert himself more within the party hierarchy, which led most observers to assume that Ramotar now held the advantage.
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