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British Guiana: Husband & Wife Team

4 minute read

The most controversial woman in South American politics since Evita Peron is Janet Jagan, 42, the American-born wife of British Guiana’s Premier Cheddi Jagan. Not only is she a white woman in a volatile land of East Indians and Negroes; she is also a strident Marxist and believed by many to be the brains and backbone behind her husband’s Castro-lining government. Violent enemies call her “the devil.”

Anti-Jagan dock workers recently stoned and burned her car; luckily for Janet Ja gan, she was not inside at the time. Even the regime’s moderate opponents blame her for much of what Cheddi does. “It’s all Janet’s fault that Cheddi’s the way he is,” says one adversary.

Like a Tiger. Dowdy and bespectacled, her greying hair askew, Janet Rosenberg Jagan looks more like a suburban matron than an impassioned leftist in a disturbed colony of 600,000 people on South America’s northeast coast. But she was a fire brand Young Communist Leaguer in Chicago long before Cheddi came on the scene to study dentistry at Northwestern in the late 19305. She hit it off with the ever-smiling East Indian, and when they returned as a married couple to British Guiana, Cheddi was making angry speeches condemning foreign “oppressors” and spouting the Marxist line. Wherever Cheddi went, Janet went too, making her own fiery speeches. She campaigned even when she was pregnant and ignored the rotten eggs thrown at her. “She was like a tiger in those days,” remembers a Jagan admirer. “She would tell people how they were exploited and how the imperialists were sucking their blood.”

With her Young Communist training, Janet conducted cell meetings on Communist ideology. She helped organize Cheddi’s following into his People’s Progressive Party, now runs it as secretary-general and edits the party’s Red-lining paper called Thunder. Associates are called “comrade,” and last year she spent three weeks in East Berlin, Moscow and Peking talking trade and spreading the word about what was going on in British Guiana.

“I’m an activist,” says Janet Jagan. “People either hate me to infinity or love me to death. I get caught in extremes.” She denies that she has “the influence I’m supposed to have.” Whether she does or not, British Guiana’s husband and wife team has brought little besides economic stagnation and political upheaval to the country.

In February 1962, after the Jagan government proposed enforced savings and higher taxes, mobs surged through the Georgetown capital in riots that left six dead and a charred shopping district in the center of town that has not been rebuilt to this day. Jagan had to call in British tommies airflown from London to restore order. An investigating committee sent from London to look into the riots put the major blame on Jagan’s government, and noted that in testifying Jagan refused a straight answer to questions about whether he was a Communist.

No Aid, No Work. Under the circumstances, the U.S. has refused all Alliance for Progress aid to British Guiana. And Britain, which last year was ready to discuss complete freedom for the self-governing colony, has now postponed independence indefinitely.

Jagan continues to stir up antagonism inside the country, and last week his regime was challenged by a paralyzing general strike. The walkout was called to protest labor legislation that would require government-directed union elections in all industries. The powerful Trades Union Council suspected Cheddi of trying to grab control of the unions, insisted on elections regulated by an independent agency.

Sugar mills, bauxite mines, docks, railroads and airports shut down. Store owners covered their windows with strong wire mesh, British tommies went on alert, a British warship stood offshore, and police armed with bayonets patrolled the streets of Georgetown. At week’s end Cheddi was desperately trying to negotiate a solution to the strike. It was doubtful whether he could get away for a trip to the U.S., where he was scheduled to appear before a United Nations committee studying British Guiana’s case for full independence, and he was forced to send his regrets to the Winnipeg Press Club in Canada, where he was supposed to make a speech. As a substitute, Cheddi wired the Canadians that he would send his wife Janet to do the talking for him.

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