Cary Fraser teaches at Penn State University, and is a regular contributor to the Trinidad and Tobago Review.
By Cary Fraser
The death of the former President Janet Jagan signals the passage to a new era in Guyanese politics. Mrs. Jagan’s death brings to an end her role as caretaker of the People’s Progressive Party and mentor to a generation of party leaders who have been the heirs to the careers and accomplishments of Cheddi and Janet Jagan. Her adult life was dominated by politics and her passing will have significant consequences for both the party and Guyana. With national elections due by 2011, the PPP will be entering an election for the first time in its history without either of its two key architects whose appeal provided both automatic legitimacy and electoral appeal over the course of the party’s history. The next election will also be a test of the party’s resilience and of the quality of the current generation of leaders. Mrs. Jagan had been the key organizer for most of the party’s history, and her mastery of tactical politics within the ranks of the party had played a decisive role in ensuring that Cheddi Jagan’s charismatic appeal was the anchor of the party’s survival and its longevity. The 2011 elections will also provide a glimpse into the legacy of both Jagans for the PPP and for Guyana.
Mrs. Jagan’s career was a reflection of her own personal commitment to a politics of change that had its roots in her early involvement in radical politics in Chicago. As a young Jewish woman of Eastern European origin in Depression-era America, embracing radical politics was not unusual, but marrying outside of her culture and voluntarily alienating herself from her community of origin marked her as a free spirit. It was that quality that led her to marry Cheddi Jagan and to follow him when he returned to British Guiana in 1943. Her willingness to adapt to the culture of the rural Indo-Guyanese community in which Cheddi was reared, and her role in the 1940s in encouraging him to adopt Marxism-Leninism as he became a political activist and nationalist leader after establishing his dental practice in Georgetown, were an indication of her willingness to pursue a radical vision of change for herself and for her adopted country. For Janet Jagan, the personal was political and it was this characteristic that would define her life’s trajectory, including her election as the first female, and fifth, President of Guyana.
For much of her career, Mrs. Jagan proved to be both a catalyst for change and a polarizing figure in the politics of British Guiana/Guyana. As a young American white woman who embraced the “natives” in British Guiana, she was a transgressor of the colonial order and the segregation that underpinned it in the 1940s. As a woman of Jewish origin championing the cause of colonial “subjects,” her political activism triggered hostility among British colonial officials and their American counterparts in the Caribbean. While much has been made of her affinity for radical politics, the anti-Semitic undercurrents of the hostility that she encountered, and that no commentator on this period has properly acknowledged, should not be discounted. On the other hand, for the colonial subjects in British Guiana, her advocacy of their cause – as well as her courage in marrying the son of sugar plantation workers – was a statement of her identification with the cause of the disadvantaged and they reciprocated through their admiration for her. Further, her willingness to work as a journalist and party official in building the PPP as a national force, offered an alternative to the traditional roles for women in the colony. Even before the founding of the PPP, she had been a founder member and General Secretary of the Women’s Political and Economic Organization that was established in 1946. Her status as a full partner in marriage and politics was a powerful statement about the role of women in the emerging national movement.
Her emergence as a major influence in the party’s development created a dynamic that would affect the PPP’s stability over the course of her career. Her unflinching commitment to Cheddi Jagan’s leadership protected him through all of the crises that he confronted from the early split of the party into the Jagan and Burnham factions in 1955, through the subsequent departures of Sydney King, Martin Carter, and Rory Westmaas; the Anglo-American plan undertaken to oust the PPP between 1962 and 1964; and the marginalization of the PPP through PNC-managed fraudulent elections until its return to power as a result of the 1992 election monitored by the former American President, Jimmy Carter. The partnership between Cheddi and Janet effectively allowed them to control the party’s business on a day-to-day basis, as well as the deliberations of its General Council and Party Congress. It was a structure that facilitated tight control of the party and effectively limited the range of internal debate and dissension. Ultimately, many talented people departed from the party and the constant haemorrhage of talent has produced a PPP government that, in recent years, has been tainted by damaging allegations of tolerance of, if not complicity with, the penetration of the state and the party by criminal networks.
This centralization of power within the party was a key factor in its marginalization over the period 1964-1992 as the ruling PNC could invoke the ideological leanings of the Jagan to circumscribe the challenge from the PPP. Given long-standing American hostility, and the support of other hemispheric states for the containment of the PPP, the Jagans were in a constant state of siege both at home and abroad. The lack of ideological pluralism within the PPP was a critical factor in the reputation for ineffective opposition that saddled both the Jagans and the party. It is perhaps arguable that Mrs. Jagan’s tight operational control over the reins of the party’s governance structures limited the PPP’s appeal at home and abroad. It is also arguable that her roots in American radical politics and its propensity for factional conflict may have had a subtle influence on the PPP’s internal culture. The centralization of power became a mechanisim for pre-empting internal ideological and political challenges, even as vitriolic campaigns of character assassination against dissident voices within the party created levels of alienation that fed a constant exodus of activists and supporters from the PPP to the PNC, to the WPA, and to migration abroad. Even as the PPP complained about the lack of democracy and free and fair elections in Guyana after 1964, its own internal politics of representation and democracy provided no assurance that there was respect for intellectual pluralism as a guiding principle. Any assessment of Janet Jagan’s political legacy will require a fuller examination of her role in creating and sustaining this culture within the party from its inception.
Over the course of her career, Mrs. Jagan had demonstrated the ability to be an effective political force in her own right even as she was a key partner for her husband who was recognized as the charismatic leader of the party. While much attention has hitherto been focused upon the role and influence of Cheddi Jagan in the national politics of Guyana, it would be important for Mrs. Jagan’s accomplishments to be more closely examined to provide a clearer assessment of her incontrovertible contributions to Guyanese political life. Hers was a singular career and life, and she deserves no less than the equality that she championed as a woman and an advocate of a politics of radical nationalism.
(This is one of a series of fortnightly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)