Janet Jagan’s Journey From Chicago’s South Side To The Presidency Of Guyana

Ron Grossman
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Ron Grossman takes a look at the the extraordinary life of Chicago native Janet Jagan who served as the President of Guyana from 1997-1999.


Though Janet Jagan’s parents fretted about what she revealed in a 1954 letter, they weren’t surprised.

They were inured to their daughter going down roads they wouldn’t dare set foot on. After apologizing for worrying them by being out of touch, Janet Jagan cut to the chase:

“At any rate, I’m in jail, and it’s not bad. Everyone is very nice to me, and I really experience no hardship. Having ‘hard labor’ I am given needlework to do — something I haven’t done since I was a child. As you no doubt remember, I used to make nice things, as I am doing now,” she wrote.

Still filled with memories of her Chicago childhood, Jagan was behind bars in Guyana, a tiny country on the northern coast of South America. She was destined to be its president. But in 1954, Guyana was a British colony, and the British were not about to give it up. Certainly not to an American expatriate they considered a Communist. Jagan denied that, and both parties were tempted to spin the story to their benefit.

In that Cold War era, political hay could be made by denouncing an opponent as a dupe of the Russians. For a Communist, laying low was key to survival. Jagan had seen what happened to those who were outed. On a trip to New York in the 1940s, she visited Paul Robeson, the internationally celebrated artist and civil rights activist.

“This great singer and actor was restricted by the U.S. government from leaving the U.S. on any tour. He was banned from singing in public,” she recalled in her newspaper column. “This was the price he was paying for his radical politics.”

Born Janet Rosenberg in Chicago, Jagan was raised in a Jewish family that enjoyed a middle-class life before the Great Depression, when she witnessed what some saw as the fruition of Karl Marx’s prediction that capitalism carries the seeds of its own destruction.

A writer who never allowed her political career to get in the way of her typewriter, Jagan turned out short stories, children’s books, poetry and news stories. She often reminisced about her childhood in the 7500 block East End Avenue in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood.

“Some glorious times my mother, (your great-grandmother Kate) used to give me ten cents for lunch, and then I was happy. I would go over to the drugstore on the corner near Bryn Mawr School and order a hot chocolate. The secret treasure of the hot chocolate was the marshmallow on top, which melted beautifully,” she wrote to her grandchildren in “When Grandma Janet was a Little Girl.”

She recalled Saturday matinees at the Avalon Theater on 79th Street: “There were fountains and glorious furnishings. There were exquisite ladies’ rooms, and inside the cinema itself the ceiling was made of stars and the walls on the side were like pictures in the fairy tales.”

During the Depression, her father lost his heating business and couldn’t find a job. The family barely scraped by on the few dollars her mother earned taking in sewing work. Patriotism prompted Jagan to enroll in nursing school at Cook County Hospital during World War II. At a party in 1942, she met Cheddi Jagan, a Guyanese native studying dentistry at Northwestern University.

Eight months later, they were married at Chicago’s City Hall. They took their wedding portrait in a 25-cent photo booth.

“We were in love,” she later told Tribune. “He was very handsome.”

“We didn’t have the consent of parents on either side,“ Cheddi Jagan wrote in “The West on Trial, ” his autobiography. “Janet’s father threatened to shoot me.”

While Janet Jagan’s family fell out of the middle class, her husband’s family was essentially barred from it. In Guyana skin color determined social position. Entrepreneurs and professionals were white and Christian. Cheddi Jagan’s family were East Indian Hindus. His father was a foreman on a sugar cane plantation, but he was determined that his son would break the caste barrier,
So when he won $500 on the lottery, he bought Cheddi an ocean-liner ticket. Having been a tailor’s apprentice, Cheddi sewed his way through Northwestern’s dental school.

“I lived on the border of the slums and worked on the fringe of the Gold Coast at 221 E. Division Street,” Cheddi wrote. “I often ate meals in the Clark Street slum area. There I came into close physical contact with urban poor white Americans. And in Bughouse Square nearby, I listened to speeches reflecting their miseries and suffering.”

Janet’s political awakening came during her undergraduate years at Wayne State University in Detroit. “As a rule, I had an inclination to join underdogs,” she recalled. “At university I became very active in left-wing organizations and I took part in all demonstrations and protest marches.”

“Whatever her convictions are, they’re not our convictions,” her mother told the Chicago Examiner on the eve of Janet’s jailing. “But she’s still our daughter and she’s made a name for herself.”

Their families’ religious differences mattered not to Cheddi and Janet. They shared a belief in socialism as the path to a more equitable world.

The problem was that by U.S. immigration law, he was classified as an “Oriental” and ineligible for citizenship. So Cheddi and Janet moved to Guyana. He started a dental practice, she was his assistant. They had two children.

In awe of someone who looked like them and had the title “doctor,” plantation workers sought Cheddi’s advice. The Jagans hosted a study group that morphed into a political party and a union. During a 1948 strike, the police fired on some sugar industry workers, killing five.

“It was at their graveside that the Father of Guyana’s independence, Cheddi Jagan, made a pledge that has guided him during his entire life. He said he would dedicate his life to the cause of the struggle of the Guyanese people against bondage and exploitation,” Janet wrote in “Children’s Stories of Guyana’s Freedom Struggles.”

In 1953, Guyana (then British Guiana) had a moment of self-rule, with Cheddi as prime minister and Janet as a cabinet member. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent in troops, reportedly egged on by the CIA. The Jagans were declared subversives and jailed.

For the next half century, the Jagans and their political party cycled in and out of power. In 1961, he became premier of the newly independent country. He returned to power in 1992 as president. After his death in 1997, Janet served as president until failing health forced her to resign in 1999.

Over time, Cheddi’s socialist orthodoxy was tempered by political reality. He sanctioned a free-market economy for the sake of Guyana’s development. The GNP’s annual growth rose to 7%, the highest in its region. He rebranded himself as “a Gorbachev before Gorbachev,” the late reformist Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

But Janet remained the true believer who addressed the World Congress of Women, a Soviet-sponsored group, in Copenhagen in 1953.

“Our people turn their eyes to the great socialist countries, which have been making progress with great rapidity and success,” she said. ”Help us win freedom for all the oppressed colonial people of the world.”

In 1992, a Tribune reporter visited Janet Jagan in her first lady’s office. The paper regularly gave her the coverage due to her status as a native Chicagoan.

“Her husband has modified his Marxist views,” the reporter noted. “But Janet Jagan remains outspoken. She answers the phone by saying, ‘Comrade Janet speaking.’ ”

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