By Ashante Infantry
Toronto Star Staff Reporter
Janet Jagan hopes to fulfil the final wish of her husband, Cheddi, by winning the race to be Guyana's president
Minutes before being taken into surgery at Washington D.C's Walter Reed Hospital following a massive heart attack last February, the Guyanese president whispered his request to his wife of 54 years.
``He said, `If anything happens to me, I want you to carry on,' '' Jagan recalled in a recent interview.
The 78-year-old president survived the operation but never spoke again. He wrote notes to his family, until he grew too weak and died March 6.
Twelve days after her husband's death, MP Janet Jagan was sworn in as Guyana's first female prime minister, after the person who held that position ascended to the presidency.
Now, she has just gone through a rigorous six-week campaign as the ruling People's Progressive party's presidential candidate in the election.
It has been a long journey for Jagan who, as Janet Rosalie Rosenberg, a Chicago-born nursing trainee, met a dashing dental student from what was then British Guiana, at a party in Detroit in 1942. Today, at 77, she is a sharp, determined woman, with a disarming manner and delicate build.
Interviewed at her daughter's Milton home during a recent visit, Jagan talked easily about the past and the future. She speaks in a measured Guyanese lilt, laced with linguistic vestiges of the American midwest.
Even her worst memories - being jailed for civil disobedience in the 1950s, the dirty politics that kept her husband out of power for nearly three decades, his unexpected death - are tearless and punctuated by bursts of unabashed laughter.
Cheddi Jagan was the eldest of 11 children of East Indian sugar cane workers. The charming scholar from the British colony she'd never heard of ``was such a handsome man and he had a beautiful personality,'' Janet Jagan said.
Less than a year after they met, the couple married, against the wishes of both sets of parents who objected on cultural and religious grounds.
``I had a Jewish background and in that circle, Jewish people generally don't marry outside and I married, you would say, double outside,'' she recalled with a laugh. ``My parents were very upset and Cheddi's parents were very upset. They wanted him to marry a Guyanese girl.''
Cheddi's filial obligations decreed his return home. The couple settled in Georgetown, the capital, but often visited Cheddi's relatives on the sugar estate where he was born in the rustic village of Port Mourant. ``They welcomed me, but of course I was an oddity,'' Jagan said. ``In sugar-estate life, the only white people are the sort of tyrannical white plantocracy.''
Guyana was divided by race. The white colonial masters were at the top. The offspring of indentured servants brought from India and the enslaved blacks from Africa jockeyed for position as second- and third-class citizens.
And in that race-checkered landscape, Jagan always made it clear where she stood: ``Never did I mix with the white people of the upper crust. Maybe that's why I've been identified with the (masses).''
The Jagans got their start in politics at Cheddi's dental practice, where Janet was his assistant. They were often asked by sugar-cane workers to intervene in labour disputes. ``The workers really were exploited and he was a hero in the sense that he was the only ordinary son of a sugar worker who had a higher education,'' she said.
The couple became fully entrenched in the trade union movement and by 1952 were co-founders of the People's Progressive party, which drew its base support from among the East Indian sugar labourers.
With Cheddi at the helm, the party came to power in 1953. Janet was the party's general secretary and edited the movement's newspaper.
The emergence of the Cold War spelled trouble for the Jagans, however. The British and U.S. governments, concerned that the progressive party's Marxist-Leninist orientation would bring communism to a country on the verge of independence, undermined the government and conspired to keep the party out of power.
Britain suspended the constitution and then ousted the government in 1955. Both Jagans were imprisoned for six months for their political activities. During a two-year period of house arrest, Janet was prevented from going to the U.S. to be with her father as he died of cancer.
Despite the foreign opposition, the party won elections again in 1957 and 1961. Janet served as minister of labour, health and housing during the first term and briefly as minister of home affairs in the second term.
In 1964, Jagan appeared set to win another election and become the country's first post-independence leader. But according to U.S. state department archives recently made public, Washington conducted a secret destabilization campaign - the CIA fomented labour unrest and race riots - that toppled Jagan from power.
The U.S.-friendly People's National Congress won the election and its leader, Jagan's former comrade Forbes Burnham, was in place when the independent nation of Guyana was born in 1966.
Burnham died in 1985. His successor, Desmond Hoyte, eventually succumbed to regional and hemispheric pressures to hold free elections.
In 1992, in the country's first internationally monitored vote, the People's Progressive party was returned to power in a coalition with the Civic party. Cheddi Jagan was the country's leader, with Janet again elected to parliament. But the president died before completing his five-year term.
``He had 4 1/2 years and I'm happy for that,'' said his widow brightly.
Now, she wants to continue where he left off: rebuilding the nation of nearly 800,000 people that was economically devastated under the previous regime.
However, some of her opponents tried to turn the race into a racial contest. They labelled her ``foreign born,'' an apparent euphemism for ``white.''
``They're trying to cause a conflict, but it isn't working, because people say, `Why didn't you say that when she was in parliament, when she was a minister?' No one said it then, it's only now,'' Jagan said.
Given her age, others wonder about Jagan's health.
``No one knows the future,'' she said wistfully. ``Whatever I have to do, I'll do until the time comes when I can't do it.''
If she has any regrets, it's the countless hours politics kept her away from her two children.
Nadira Jagan-Brancier, 42, is a Milton jeweller, while Cheddi Jagan Jr., 48, is a dentist in Guyana and first-time candidate in the election.