Jagan, Cheddi 1918–1997
Cheddi Jagan 1918–1997
Spending most of his political career as an opponent of the government in power in his native Guyana, Cheddi Jagan was a controversial firebrand with Marxist-Leninist leanings who had his greatest success when he was in his seventies. His Communist leanings forced him to overcome resistance from both inside and outside his country for decades, yet he remained a popular figure due to his tireless efforts on behalf of the workers and the long-dominated Indian majority in his country. Larry Rohter in the New York Times referred to Jagan as “one of the Caribbean’s most contentious political leaders for half a century.” The Nation added that he was “a champion of the poor” who “devoted himself to alleviating poverty in his country and throughout the Caribbean.”
Cheddi Jagan was born on a sugar plantation in British Guiana where his father served as a foremen of the work crew. His grandparents had come to the British colony from India as indentured laborers, and from an early age Jagan got a first-hand look at the plight of exploited laborers. Although educational options for Indians on the plantation were limited, his parents recognized his potential and made major financial outlays to send him to a better secondary school in the capital of Georgetown. Once there Jagan lived up to his promise by earning high grades, as well as becoming a top debater and batsman on the school’s cricket team.
At the age of eighteen, Jagan went to the United States with his family’s life savings of five hundred dollars and became a pre-medical student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. As a student he helped cover his expenses by taking on part-time work as an elevator operator and as a patent medicine salesman during the summer in New York City’s Harlem area. According to Rohter, Jagan said that his part-time jobs during his schooling in the United States “taught him bitter lessons about racism and inequality in capitalist societies.”
While attending Northwestern University Dental School, Jagan met Janet Rosenberg, a student nurse who was very involved in left-wing causes. Rosenberg became Jagan’s wife, and she helped spark her husband’s commitment to alleviating the burdens of the working class. Under her influence, Jagan expanded his knowledge in political science, economics, sociology, and philosophy. Upon his return to Georgetown in British
Born March 22, 1918, in Port Mourant, British Guiana; died March 6, 1997, after heart surgery, in Washington, D.C. married Janet Rosenberg, 1943; children: Cheddi, Jr., Nadira; five grandchildren. Education: Queens College, Guyana; Howard University, Washington, D.C.; YMCA (now Roosevelt College), Chicago, IL; Northwestern University Dental School, Chicago, IL.
Excelled as student, debater, and cricket batsman in secondary school in British Guiana; earned degree in dental medicine in U.S.; began dental practice in Georgetown, British Guiana; became active in labor organizing and assumed leadership of the sugar, rice, and wood workers’ unions in British Guiana; elected to the British Guiana assembly, 1947; co-founded the People’s Progressive Party (with his wife), 1950; elected Chief Minister, 1953; imprisoned for role in civil disobedience campaign, 1954; served as Minister of Trade and Industry, 1957-61; became Prime Minister, 1961; voted out of office, 1964; was leader of opposition party, 1964-73,1976-92; became General Secretary of the People’s Progressive Party, 1970; elected President of Guyana, 1992.
Memberships: Presidential Guyana Peace Council; Presidential Committee of World Peace Council, Guyana; Honorary President, Guyana Agricultural Workers’ Union.
Guiana, Jagan divided his efforts between a dental practice and organizing labor groups. He soon demonstrated his leadership skills by becoming head of the sugar, rice, and woodworkers’ unions.
In 1947 Jagan entered the political arena by being elected to the British Guiana assembly. Three years later he brought a new dimension to his country’s politics when he and his wife created the People’s Progressive Party, which was the first modern political organization in the colony. Formation of a new constitution then gave the vote to all adults. Jagan became the Minister of Agriculture, Lands, and Mines, as well as the leader of the House of Assembly, in the colony’s first democratically elected government in 1953. The rising power of Jagan captured the attention of English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who feared the Marxist leader’s potential for leading a Communist revolt in the colony. As Rohter noted, Jagan’s “fondness for Marxist oratory and a program that called for sweeping social and economic reforms quickly aroused the suspicion of Churchill, who was serving his last term as Prime Minister, and six months later London sent troops and warships to depose him, charging that Dr. Jagan and his party ’were completely under the control of a Communist clique.’”
After he lost his leadership position in the House of Assembly, Jagan tried to incite dissent with a civil disobedience campaign similar to the peaceful rebellions of Gandhi versus British rule in India. His efforts were thwarted and he was imprisoned for six months for allegedly not obeying an order limiting his movements to Georgetown, but then he was re-elected leader of the People’s Progressive Party in 1955. When his party came to power again with a two-thirds majority in 1957, Jagan was named Minister of Trade and Industry. A better performance by his party four years later resulted in him becoming the first premier of the colony.
Jagan used his new high profile to assert that one day the colony would gain its independence from Great Britain and implement a socialist economy, according to the New York Times. Such talk was not taken lightly by the United States, which was especially fearful of the spread of Communism in its hemisphere. “Dr. Jagan’s enthusiasm for the Cuban revolution of Fidel Castro and his threats to turn to the Soviet Union for aid immediately made him suspect to the United States,” asserted Rohter. Documents brought to light in the 1990s, according to the New York Times, revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) waged a campaign of unrest, sabotage, and disinformation after Jagan became premier. The United States also put pressure on Great Britain to hold off granting independence to the colony until its constitution was altered to limit Jagan’s ability to stay in power.
Efforts from the outside against Jagan took their toll in 1964, when his party was ousted due to a coalition of two opposition parties led by Forbes Burnham, a black lawyer who had once been Jagan’s ally. The colony was granted its independence two years later and became known as Guyana. The New York Times claimed that Burnham instituted a complex system of wiretaps and other surveillance measures to prevent political opponents from gaining ground on him. Many of his own elections may have been rigged to guarantee his victory. During the next two decades of Burnham’s rule, Jagan maintained an active presence in the opposition, serving as its leader almost every year.
After Burnham’s death in 1985, Vice President Desmond Hoyte became the new president. By that time Guyana’s economy was in miserable condition due to a strict adherence to self-sufficiency that made it difficult for much-needed imports like wheat to enter the country. Hoyte helped turn the economy around by reducing trade barriers and trying to stimulate foreign investment, but he couldn’t overcome the corruption and poor governing of his predecessor. In the elections of 1992, Jagan’s party received over 50% of the vote and Jagan was installed as president. Before the election, he had participated in meetings with officials of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, as well as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson, to help secure support in his nation’s economic recovery.
Although he still considered himself a Socialist, the Jagan of the 1990s continued Hoyte’s free-market reforms, as well as tried to stimulate foreign investment. He also stressed that he would work toward bringing together African and East Indian ethnic groups in Guyana. “I was a Gorbachev even before Gorbachev, in the sense of what we were doing and not adopting the traditional dogmas of Marxist parties,” Jagan was quoted as saying in the New York Times.
As the Soviet bloc was dismantled, the cold war thawed and gave Jagan the opportunity to receive support from the no-longer paranoid U.S. government under President Bill Clinton. But he inherited some major problems, including a $400 million debt owed to neighboring Trinidad and Tobago. Falling prices of Guyana’s chief exports of bauxite, oil, and bananas had also taken their toll on the economy. Jagan was further challenged by having to establish trade terms with other members of the Caribbean community.
Remaining a strong voice of the people as President of Guyana, Jagan stressed that the needs of the common man should not pushed aside in the wake of economic reforms. “We must together examine our development strategies so that we have not only economic growth but human development that meets the basic needs of our people,” he stated at a session of the Organization of American States Permanent Council in 1993, according to Americas. “Our people must enjoy not just political and civic rights, but economic, social, and cultural rights as well,” he continued.
Jagan took his vision on a larger world stage in a speech at the United Nations in the fall of 1995, where he proposed a new strategy for reducing the poverty of developing nations by new funds gleaned from cuts in arms spending, taxes on pollution, and investments between countries. “The unjust economic order must be replaced by a just new global human order for international and individual security and peace,” he remarked in the speech, claimed Presidents & Prime Ministers.
While striving to end barriers to collective trade in the Americas during his final years, Jagan never stopped voicing his support of the workers. “If the working class do not dominate, they will be dominated,” he said in article in the Wall Street Journal. “And I am here to defend the interests of the working class,” he added. He died a few weeks after having heart surgery following a heart attack. After Jagan’s death, acting president Samuel Hinds called him “the greatest son and patriot that had ever walked this land,” according to Jet.
Forbidden Freedom, 1954.
Anatomy of Poverty in British Guiana, 1964.
The West on Trial (autobiography), 1966.
The Struggle for a Socialist Guyana, 1976.
The Caribbean Revolution, 1979.
Americas, September/October 1993, p. 54.
The Economist, March 15, 1997, p. 88.
Jet, March 31, 1997, p. 17.
The Nation, March 31, 1997, p. 7.
New York Times, March 7, 1997, p. A28.
Presidents & Prime Ministers, January/February 1996, p. 12.
Time, October 19, 1992, p. 21.
Wall Street Journal, September 25, 1996, p. A16.
Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, March 10, 1997, p. 299.
World Press Review, December 1992, p. 37.
Further information for this profile was obtained from the Guyana website on the Internet.