Janet with PPP supporters in Georgetown, 1953.
THUNDER IN GUYANA
synopsis
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Janet Rosenberg was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. In 1942, 23-year-old Janet met and fell in love with a handsome man from a South American country no one in my mother’s family even knew existed. Born in the tiny colony of British Guiana (Guyana after 1966),on South America’s northern coast, Cheddi Jagan was the son of East Indian immigrant indentured sugar plantation workers. She was a nursing student at Cook County, he was a dental student at Northwestern University and they were both involved in radical politics.

They married in 1943 despite the strenuous objections of her Jewish and his Hindu parents. Together, they planned to go to British Guiana as socialist revolutionaries to fight for independence. Janet’s father, my great-uncle Charlie, threatened to shoot Cheddi on sight; my great-grandmother had a stroke.

Considered the founders of Guyana, Janet and Cheddi Jagan spent the next half century as political leaders of the country. In 1950, they founded the multi-racial People’s Progressive Party, the first modern political party in the colony. In the historic election of 1953, the first election that provided for universal adult suffrage, Cheddi was elected Chief Minister and Janet was elected the country’s first female minister and deputy speaker of parliament.

Janet made international headlines that claimed "Guiana Red Line Laid to Chicago Born Blonde." Called the "Second Eva Peron" and the "Woman in White," another article claimed "Parents Describe Girl as 'Storm Center of Guiana.'" To her own parents, Janet sent a Western Union telegram that read "Cheddi, myself and Party won overwhelming victory."

They governed for 133 days, until British Prime Minister Winston Churchill deposed them. They both served time in jail and under house arrest. Remaining the most popular leader in the colony, Cheddi Jagan was re-elected and became Prime Minister in 1961. This time, the Kennedy administration intervened.

The CIA instigated labor unrest, disinformation and race riots that left hundreds dead or injured. With pressure from the United States, Britain, in 1964, pushed through constitutional changes that made it impossible for Jagan to retain power despite his continued popularity. In the first free and fair elections in almost three decades, Cheddi Jagan was sworn in as President of Guyana in 1992. In the winter of 1997, he passed away. Despite reluctance, Janet agreed to accept the Presidential nomination of her Party. On December 15, 1997, she was elected President of Guyana. The first foreign born and first woman to serve this role, many consider her the mother of the nation.

Far from being a simple biography of an unconventional woman, this film seeks to interweave the threads of my family’s history, Janet’s incredible life story and the complex history of the little understood country of Guyana. This will be accomplished through my unique perspective as an historian and as a relative.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wedding picture, Chicago, 1943