One of the most colorful chapters in American Jewish history ended on March 28, with the death, at age 88, of Janet Jagan, former president of the South American country of Guyana. Born Janet Rosenberg in Chicago in 1920, she was one of only three Jewish women ever to lead a modern nation. The other two were Golda Meir of nearby Milwaukee, and Ruth Dreifuss, a former member of the Swiss Federal Council representing the Geneva canton, who held the rotating presidency of the Swiss Confederation from January 1 to December 31, 1999.
Jagan (rhymes with Reagan) is remembered, too, as the first woman — Jewish or otherwise — ever freely elected as president of a South American country (as distinguished from various wives of Argentine dictator Juan Peron). She was the first white person ever elected to lead Guyana, and was the country’s longest-serving legislator. And she was probably the only American Jew ever chased out of public office by both the British marines and the American CIA.
Most important, she was a dominant force for six decades in the politics of the former British colony. Together with her husband, Caribbean political legend Cheddi Jagan, she helped found Guyana’s independence movement. 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.”
Jagan grew up in a middle-class Jewish family on Chicago’s South Side. “They were very assimilated,” said a cousin, New York historian Suzanne Wasserman, who made an award-winning documentary film about Jagan in 2003. “They even had a Christmas tree.” According to Wasserman, the Rosenbergs lived in an Irish Catholic neighborhood, far from Chicago’s dense Jewish strongholds. “Her parents were conservative Republicans, which was very unusual among Chicago Jews in the 1930s,” she said.
During Janet’s teenage years, her father changed the family name to Roberts to avoid job discrimination.
Like many Depression-era teens, Janet outraged her parents by taking up communism. Unlike most, she spent her life in the struggle. In 1942, she met and fell in love with Cheddi Jagan, a son of Indian-Guyanese sugar cane workers. Nearly every biographical account dwells on the instant spark between the “beautiful Jewish” student nurse and the “dashingly handsome” foreign dental student.
They were married in August 1943. Her father cut off contact with his daughter, vowed to disown her and threatened to shoot the dark-skinned, non-Jewish Cheddi, Janet would recall. In the fall of that year, the couple moved to what was then British Guiana. Cheddi opened a dental practice, and Janet worked as his assistant. Together they began meeting with other radicals to discuss independence.
Guyana, on the north coast of South America, is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. Its English-speaking population is divided between descendants of African slaves who once worked British sugar plantations and descendants of indentured servants brought from India to work the cane fields after Britain freed its slaves in 1834. Cheddi’s grandparents had come as indentured servants.
In 1950, the Jagans and Afro-Guyanese activist Forbes Burnham formed the colony’s first modern political party, the People’s Progressive Party. Janet became party secretary. Cheddi was elected chief minister of the colony in 1953, on a platform of independence for the colony and workers’ rights. The same year, Janet was elected deputy speaker of the parliament. But they served only 133 days. That summer, the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, fearing Soviet influence, sent warships to disband the legislature. Cheddi and Janet spent five months in prison and two more years under house arrest.
In that same summer, the CIA, with British backing, overthrew the elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran. In Vietnam that fall, the French army began preparing for the final battle that would end in its defeat and expulsion the following May by Ho Chi Minh’s communist rebels. A month after that, a CIA coup in Guatemala overthrew the elected government of leftist Jacobo Arbenz. But the Jagans survived.
In 1955, the British colonialists encouraged their party ally, Burnham, to form a breakaway party built on Afro-Guyanese ethnic resentment. The colonial office reorganized the electoral system repeatedly, seeking explicitly to boost Burnham and unseat the Jagans. But they won an election in 1957 and again in 1961.
By then, the British had come to respect the Jagans’ resilience and integrity — and to fear Burnham’s violent racial provocations. But now, the Jagans found a new enemy in the newly installed Kennedy administration in Washington. Kennedy feared that Jagan would turn British Guiana into a second communist beachhead after Cuba, and he was determined to prevent this. The American press pilloried Cheddi and Janet, the “strident Marxist” who was his “brains and backbone,” as Time magazine put it. She was rumored — falsely — to be a relative of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the Jewish New Yorkers executed for alledgedly spying for the Soviet Union in 1953. The rumor circulated for years, even appearing in The Washington Post’s obituary for Cheddi in 1997.
In 1961, Cheddi visited Israel, which was then working closely with Third World liberation movements. Foreign Minister Golda Meir argued his case to the British, who were now defending the American position, and Israeli ambassadors in South America lobbied Washington. In the end, the State Department warned that Israel risked being “regarded by the U.S. public as strengthening militarily” a communist regime.
At home, Janet was serving as minister of labor, health and housing, launching major public works and welfare programs and reinforcing her popularity. But the colony was plagued by CIA-funded strikes and riots led by Burnham, according to Stephen Rabe’s 2005 book, “U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story,” so Janet sent her and Cheddi’s two children abroad for safety.
Finally, in 1964, the Jagans were ousted in an election held under new, American-backed rules. The British granted the colony independence in 1966 under Burnham, who spent the next quarter-century lurching from socialism to capitalism and back while the economy collapsed.
Janet’s father had died in 1957, while the British still barred Janet from leaving the country. Father and daughter had reconciled after the birth of Janet’s first child, Joey, but they never saw each other again. Her father never met her husband, something she often said she regretted. She had kept up with her mother throughout, writing weekly letters and sending pictures of the children.
After Burnham died in 1985 in Moscow — where he was mummified for posterity — international pressure mounted for free elections. In a 1992 election monitored by Jimmy Carter, Cheddi was elected president and Janet took on the unfamiliar role of first lady and national hostess.
In 1997, when Cheddi died, Janet was named prime minister under a new president in an interim government. She was elected president herself later that year, but stepped down two years later after suffering a heart attack.
Janet Jagan never talked much about her Jewish identity, though it came up constantly in her public life. “Jewishness wasn’t much of a factor in my life,” she told me in a phone interview in 2000. “There’s no Jewish community in Guyana.”
Wasserman prodded her on the topic when she visited in 1997 to shoot her documentary. They sat for hours, discussing the family and leafing through an old family album. At one point, Wasserman said, Jagan lingered over a photo of her husband reviewing Israeli troops during his 1961 visit. “She was very proud of that,” Wasserman said. At length, Jagan conceded that her Jewish background had sparked her “interest in the underdog and in helping out the impoverished of the world,” not least because of the antisemitic discrimination her father had suffered.
I had phoned Jagan in June 2000 because of a political battle in Peru. Novice politician Alejandro Toledo was headed for his country’s presidency, and his Belgian-Israeli-American wife, Eliane Karp, was primed to become, as I planned to write, South America’s second American Jewish first lady. I wanted to talk to Jagan about her experiences as the first of the breed.
She wasn’t amused. “I wasn’t just the first lady,” she growled indignantly, nearly melting the telephone line. “I was the president. I was elected in my own right. I was always my own woman.”
An article on the death of former Guyanese president Janet Jagan (“Guyana Leader Was Always Her Own [Jewish] Woman,” April 10, 2009) should have noted that in addition to Jagan and Golda Meir, a third Jewish woman has led a modern nation: Ruth Dreifuss, a former member of the Swiss Federal Council representing the Geneva canton, who held the rotating presidency of the Swiss Confederation from January 1 to December 31, 1999.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).