American-born first female president of Guyana who stuck to her Marxist views
Janet Jagan of the People's Progressive Party greets supporters after casting her ballot in Georgetown, Guyana, Monday, Dec. 15, 1997. Photograph: Ricardo Mazalan/AP
The death of Janet Jagan, who has died aged 88, closes a remarkable and controversial career in Guyanese and postwar anti-imperialist politics, within which she was a central figure from 1946 until her death. She became president in succession to her husband Cheddi Jagan in 1997 and along the way she acquired as many supporters as enemies.
Born Janet Rosenberg, later Roberts, in Chicago to radical Jewish parents, she attended the University of Detroit, Wayne University and Michigan State College. She met Cheddi when she was a student nurse and he was studying dentistry in the US. Their marriage pleased neither set of parents. Yet it created one of the most influential political partnerships ever. They married and he returned to Guyana in 1943; she arrived later, armed with the Little Lenin Library which provided her husband with his grounding in Marxism. She worked in his dental practice until 1970, but her real interests were always political.
In 1946 the couple were among the founders of the Political Affairs Committee which, in 1950, became the People's Progressive party (PPP), the country's first modern political party. By then, reading the Little Lenin Library and listening to Paul Robeson records had helped shape a group who became the main actors in Guyanese politics during the next four decades.
Janet's formidable organisational skills, ruthlessness and energy made her its first general secretary, a post she held until 1970; the editor of Thunder, its journal, until 1957; a member of the Georgetown city council in 1950 (the first woman to be elected); and a member of the pre-independence legislative assembly in 1953. In those elections, the PPP, confronted with a host of independents and weak parties, won half of the vote and most of the seats. Totally unprepared for power, the youthful ministers and members struck revolutionary poses and passed reformist legislation.
This proved too much for the British governor and the Colonial Office; the government was removed from office and the constitution suspended a few months later. Some ministers and PPP members, including the Jagans, were jailed. The interim government of acceptable politicians and technocrats was not, however, a popular success, and by 1957 the PPP was back in office, though now split on personal and ideological grounds. This split would increasingly mirror the divide between Afro- and Indo-Guyanese.
On its return to power, the PPP continued the various social welfare programmes of the interim government. Janet became a remarkably good minister of labour, health and housing; a fact acknowledged even by her opponents and civil servants of very different politics. It was the best period of PPP government, generally peaceful and successful.
By 1961, Forbes Burnham, the Jagans' close friend and initiator of the 1957 split, had reorganised and renamed his party the People's National Congress (PNC). This presented a much greater challenge than it had four years before. Race began to dominate. Janet, like the other PPP leaders, however, was not prepared by her version of Marxism - the orthodox Soviet model of the time - to deal with this question seriously.
When the PPP won the election again in 1961, it repeated some of the radical policies of 1953. For this, Janet, always on the left of the party and one of the few survivors of an earlier purge, must bear some responsibility. It also drew the wrong lessons from the Cuban revolution which took power in 1959: Janet's US background proved less useful than it should have been. The PPP believed that the Cuba model could be followed, but the US government almost immediately destabilised the government by funding opposition trade unionists and supporting political opposition.
A radical budget in 1962 triggered strikes and a riot that left some dead and the commercial heart of the capital Georgetown burnt out. Long strikes, further violence and many more deaths in 1963 and 1964, encouraged by cold war interests, started a decline from which Guyana has not yet recovered. In the midst of all this, Janet became minister of home affairs, but she resigned in 1964 because she did not control the police.
In 1964 the PPP lost office to the PNC and United Force coalition. It would not return to power for 28 years. During those years, independence was achieved in 1966, and the PNC discarded the conservative UF, rigged elections and moved on to the PPP's terrain, nationalising most of the economy and stressing its Marxist commitments.
Janet remained editor of the PPP's paper, its historian, a relentless critic of the PNC government and a member of the increasingly impotent opposition in parliament. She, like the rest of the PPP, fought against the PNC's electoral malpractices, but was handicapped by agreement with its policies and the defection and resignation of many of its most able members. Over the years her dominance and ideological rigidity had circumscribed debate within the PPP and contributed to the loss of many of its most independent members. Ironically it was the destruction of its lodestar, the Soviet Union, that returned the PPP to power in 1992, seven years after Burnham's death. With Cheddi as president, Janet was designated first lady and continued to play a central role in the highest councils of the PPP. She sometimes sat on ministerial sub-committees though not a minister.
In 1996 she was seriously ill; but a year later it was her husband who died in office. In seeking a replacement, the party overlooked the obvious, younger candidates. She was prime minister from May to December 1997 and became president following the elections at the end of that year. The campaign featured some of the nastiest attacks on her origins and her colour in a political system by then inured to nastiness. Her victory was contested on the streets and the courts and she resigned from office in 1999 on health grounds.
Her continuing dominance of the party was shown in her choice of successor, Bharat Jagdeo, and by her protection of trustworthy but not very competent members of the party. Opponents and supporters often felt that her major weakness, exacerbated by ideological rigidity, was poor judgment.
She remained a powerful figure in the party, but the enormous powers of the Guyanese presidency ensured that her influence on Jagdeo and the party declined. On occasions - most notably when he withdrew government advertisements from a leading newspaper - she disagreed publicly with his actions.
Hers was a career of selfless devotion to the people of Guyana. An unbending ideologue, she was of enormous help to the charitable activities of political opponents, set standards of administrative competence, and was unrivalled in her personal sacrifices and struggles for the poor. Her strengths and weaknesses ensured that she was a politician to whom no one remained indifferent.
She is survived by a son, Joey (Cheddi Jr), and a daughter, Nadira.
- Janet Rosalie Jagan, politician, born 20 October 1920; died 28 March 2009