This Day in Jewish History

1997: Jewish-American Woman Becomes President of Guyana

Janet Rosenberg Jagan was born in Chicago but would go on to play a pivotal role in the development of the South American nation of Guyana. On this day, she became the country's sixth president.

Government Information Agency, Guyana

On December 16, 1997, Janet Rosenberg Jagan was elected president of Guyana, the small republic on South America’s northeast Caribbean coast. Jagan was the widow of former president Chaddi Jagan at the time of her election, but she was a significant figure in her own right in the country’s political and social history, and her entire adult life was committed to turning her adopted home into an egalitarian, Marxist, democracy.

Janet Rosenberg was born in Chicago in 1920, the daughter of two assimilated, middle-class Jewish parents. Her parents were right-wing Republicans; she was drawn to communism. While attending nursing school, in 1942, Janet met and fell in love with a foreign dental student of Indian-Guyanese descent who was studying at Northwestern University. When his visa ran out, the two, then married, moved back to British Guiana, as his homeland was then called. Chaddi opened a dental clinic, Janet worked as his assistant -- and her father threatened to shoot her husband if given the chance.

The couple quickly became involved in the labor movement of their deeply impoverished country, whose population is descended in part from African slaves brought to work the sugar plantations, and in part from indentured servants brought from India after the slaves were freed. In 1950, the Jagans, together with Forbes Burnham, founded the colony’s first political party, the People’s Progressive Party, which advocated for full independence from Britain. In 1953, Chaddi was elected prime minister and Janet became a minister and deputy parliament speaker.  When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill became concerned that Guyana’s blend of politics and labor radicalism was pushing it toward the Soviet orbit, he ordered the constitution suspended and its legislature disbanded. After 133 days in power, the Jagans were both put under arrest.

Though initially allies, the Jagans and Burnham gradually turned into bitter rivals, with their loyalties divided in part along ideological lines, but mainly racial ones – Burnham drawing support from those of African descent, Cheddi backed by Indian-Guyanese. Burnham also moved to the right, aligning himself with Western interests as the British, now joined by the CIA, began to direct resources to Guyana to destabilize it.

Full independence from the U.K. came in 1966 and for the next two decades, the country was dominated by Forbes Burnham. This was the period when the radical American minister Jim Jones, head of the People’s Temple of Christ, was invited to bring a community of followers to Guyana to set up a commune, an adventure that end with the mass suicide of Jones and 900 of his faithful. That was only one of the disasters that plagued the country under the leadership of the increasingly authoritarian Burnham, who died in 1985 during a visit to Moscow. Half of Guyana’s population emigrated during that period.  

In free and internationally supervised elections in 1992, Cheddi Jagan was elected president; five years later, when he died, Janet Jagan became prime minister, and then in 1997, she was elected president. She was the first democratically elected female (not to mention American born and Jewish) president of a South American country.

By then she was suffering from heart disease, and she resigned from the post in 1999. She lived, however, for another decade, and remained active in party politics as well as in her country’s cultural life as a journalist and author of children's literature. Although she told Suzanne Wasserman, an American cousin who made a film (“Thunder in Guyana”) about Janet in 1997, that her Jewishness had played only a marginal role in her life, she proudly showed her a photograph of Cheddi reviewing Israeli troops during a visit to the Jewish state in 1961. She acknowledged that her Jewish background had played a role in helping her identify with the underdog and in fighting for social justice. She died on March 28, 2009.