Jagan, Janet (1920–)

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Jagan, Janet (1920–)

In December 1997, Janet Jagan (formerly Rosenberg) was elected president of the Republic of Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America. Born in Chicago on October 20, 1920, to conservative Jewish Republican parents, she became the first American-born woman to be elected president of any country. She left the United States in 1943 with her Guyanese, East Indian, Hindu husband, Cheddi Jagan, to lead the anticolonial, anticapitalist nationalist movement of British Guiana (later Guyana). She relinquished her U.S. citizenship in 1947. In 1953 the People's Progressive Party (PPP) that they had formed three years previously won office in the first elections held under universal suffrage. Cheddi Jagan became the colony's first premier and Janet its first woman cabinet member. Having been elected to the legislature, she also became deputy speaker of Parliament.

Quickly the Jagans became lightening rods in the international cold war. Because they were accused of being communists, Britain (still the colonial power), with U.S. backing, suspended the constitution and ousted the Jagans and the party they led from power. Furthermore, they were both imprisoned. The U.S. government declared Janet persona non grata. The Jagans survived unbowed, their firm commitment to democratic socialist transformation intact. This remained the hallmark of their politics. The PPP, relying almost exclusively on the predominantly Hindu East Indian vote, was elected to national office once again in 1957. Cheddi Jagan became chief minister, with Janet holding an important cabinet post as head of the Ministry of Labour, Health, and Housing. In the racially charged politics of the country, Janet Jagan became identified almost exclusively with the country's Hindu population. The party remained in office until 1964 during a period when the country saw significant achievements in education, agriculture, health, welfare, and economic development. While in office, Janet and Cheddi Jagan became poster children in the U.S.-led international campaign against communism. She was labeled as one of the most dangerous communists in the hemisphere. Voted out of office after a constitutional change that favored the opposition, Janet and Cheddi embarked on a campaign for freedom and civil rights until, in 1992, their party was once again elected to office. Cheddi Jagan became the country's executive president. When he died in office in March 1997, Janet Jagan became the country's first woman prime minister. After national elections in December 1997, she served for twenty months as executive president until a heart attack, at the age of eighty-three, forced her resignation in 1999. Even though out of office, she continued to be politically active.

See alsoBurnham, Linden Forbes; Guyana; Jagan, Cheddi.


Despres, Leo A. Cultural Pluralism and Nationalist Politics in British Guiana. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1967.

Hintzen, Percy C. The Costs of Regime Survival: Racial Mobilization, Elite Domination, and Control of the State in Guyana and Trinidad. New York; Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Hintzen, Percy C. "Cheddi Jagan (1918–97): Charisma and Guyana's Response to Western Capitalism." In Caribbean Charisma: Reflections on Leadership, Legitimacy, and Populist Politics, ed. Anton Allahar. Boulder, CO: Lynn Reinner Publishers, 2001.

Jagan. Cheddi. The West on Trial, revised edition. Berlin: Seven Seas, 1980.

Spinner, Thomas J., Jr. A Political and Social History of Guyana, 1945–1983. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1984.

                                        Percy C. Hintzen