The extraordinary life of Janet Jagan

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Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: Janet Jagan rarely took the easy road. She was born in Chicago and moved to South America to what was then the colony of British Guyana. That was in 1943. Jagan was a hard-line communist, and she proceeded to antagonize the U.S. and British governments. She became president of Guyana in 1997 and proceeded to antagonize opposition leaders. But it's Jagan's accomplishments that are being remembered today. Janet Jagan died on Saturday. She was 88 years old. Orin Gordon is a BBC journalist from Guyana.

ORIN GORDON: I think one of the things that attracted her to Guyana was that it fit in with her political outlook at the time. Here was a young country just before independence. It had not yet forged its political identity, and here was a woman very steeped in Marxist, Leninist politics. She was attracted to Guyana because she and her husband could put her political stamp on what was still a very young country.

MULLINS: Can you describe that stamp?

GORDON: In 1953, about 10 years after she arrived Guyana with her Guayanese husband, the party they founded ? the People's Progressive Party, which was a Marxist Party ? won power in Guyana. But you have to think of it in the context of the time. These were Cold War days, and their policies in office of nationalization, their radical agenda, didn't sit well with the British government which was still the controlling interest in Guyana, because Guyana was still a colony, nor did it sit well with the American administration at the time.

MULLINS: Except Winston Churchill was not a big fan of hers. Did she have enemies here in the United States?

GORDON: She had enemies in the United States as well, because these were the days of the Cold War, and the United States was very jittery about establishing, to use the phrase at the time, ?Communist beech heads? in the Americas.

MULLINS: What policies did she and, in fact, her husband who was also President, Cheddi Jagan ? what policies did they bring in?

GORDON: They championed the nationalization of foreign owned industries. That was a pretty important policy of theirs.

MULLINS: Such as what?

GORDON: Like the sugar industry, the rice industry, the bauxite industry. Their agenda was taking money from the rich elite of Guayanese society and distributing it to the poor of the society. That is, I would say, the cornerstone of their economic policies.

MULLINS: How would somebody like Janet Jagan be remembered today in a place like Guyana?

GORDON: I think she's going to be remembered with a great deal of warmth. She came over the years to be regarded as Guayanese. She never lost her American accent over the many years, the many decades that she lived in Guyana. She was a very unassuming person. She carried herself modestly even when she was in power. She didn't do the motorcades or she didn't dress up very much. She wasn't a ?string of pearls? kind of person. She wasn't ostentatious in any way, so you would struggle to pick her out in a crowd. She's going to be remembered as well as a brave woman, because in the ?40s, coming from a Jewish American background and marrying an Indo-Guayanese and moving to Guyana with him, people regarded both of them as being brave for doing what they did at the time. He was brave to marry outside his tightly knit Indian-Guayanese community and to bring a white American wife to Guyana, and she was brave to make the move to Guyana.

MULLINS: All right. Thank you. Orin Gordon is a BBC journalist from Guyana. Janet Jagan was the first white and first female President of Guyana. She died on Saturday at the age of 88. Orin Gordon, thanks.

GORDON: Thank you.