Jagan, Cheddi (Guyana)
Cheddi Jagan was a key figure in Guyanese politics from 1947 to 1997. He served as chief minister, prime minister, president, and leader of the opposition. The founder of the People’s Progressive Party, he was the first democratically elected premier. His socialist beliefs and reforms in the 1950s and 60s attracted much attention because of the perceived threat of communism, but his moderate policies were beneficial to the country. Foreign interference saw his removal from power in 1964, until a political comeback in 1992 put him once again in office. The reforms he implemented were largely successful and led him to be regarded as a dedicated leader and international statesman. He died in office in 1997. Jagan was married to Janet Rosenberg and had two children.
Cheddi Berret Jagan was born on 22 March 1918 in Port Mourant, Berbice, British Guiana and was the son of indentured sugar plantation workers who had immigrated from India. He was educated at Queen’s College, Georgetown in 1933–35 before going to the USA to complete his further education. He attended Howard University, Washington, D.C. in 1936–38 for pre–med studies, and then Dental School at Northwestern University, Chicago in 1938–42 to achieve his DDS. He married Janet in 1943 and returned to Guyana to set up a dental practice.
Jagan became active in local trade union affairs whilst working as a dentist in Georgetown and established the Political Affairs Commission in 1946 to raise awareness of labour issues and represent their needs.
In 1947 he won the Central Demerara seat as an independent labour candidate in a general election with limited suffrage. Jagan believed in the need to form an organised political party to allow effective opposition to British colonial policy. This led to the formation in 1950 of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) with himself as leader, Forbes Burnham as chairman and Janet Jagan as secretary. The primary aim was to unite the Afro–Guyanese and Indo–Guyanese factions of society against colonial rule and to form a ‘just socialist society’.
Pressure forced Britain to introduce a new constitution in 1953, which allowed limited popular elections, a ministerial system and a bicameral elected legislature. The PPP won 18 seats out of 24 and Jagan was made chief minister and minister of agriculture.
Once in office, Jagan began a reformist socio–economic programme, repealing the Undesirable Publications Ordinance, implementing changes in the educational system and in agriculture and drawing up the Labour Relations Bill. Britain deemed these moves as threatening and moved to reassert power. The constitution was suspended on 9 Oct. 1953 after 133 days; troops were sent in and the movement of prominent PPP officials was restricted. In response, the PPP formulated a policy of civil disobedience, encouraging leading officials to resist British rule. Jagan, jailed in 1954 for ignoring restrictions on his movements, was detained for 6 months with hard labour.
In 1955 Jagan led the Indo–Guyanese faction of the PPP when it split along mainly racial lines. Britain, believing that this split would limit PPP power, allowed a general election under a limited constitution in Aug. 1957. The PPP won 9 of the 14 seats and Jagan became chief minister and minister of trade and industry. His attempts to improve agriculture included the Black Bush Polder and Tapakuma land development schemes. The Canadian–owned electricity company was nationalized. At the Constitutional Conference in London in 1960 he called for independence while Britain insisted on self–government with safeguards.
In the general election of Aug. 1961, the PPP won 20 seats out of 35; Jagan was appointed prime minister and minister for development and planning. He continued the drive for independence and a socialist economy. However, the People’s National Congress (PNC, the breakaway faction of the PPP), and the UF (United Front) unified to try to remove the PPP from government. Assisted by the CIA, which was worried by a ‘communist’ government at the height of the Cold War, they mounted strikes, riots and racial disturbances. A large portion of the business district of Georgetown was burnt down in Feb. 1962, and during protests against the Labour Bill PPP supporters were attacked on the streets and government buildings were bombed.
In 1964 Britain instituted a proportional representation voting system, attempting to negate PPP influence and more accurately reflect the ethnic division. In the elections in Dec. 1964, the PPP received the highest proportion of the vote (46%) but Burnham’s PNC (41%) joined with the UF (12%) to form a coalition government headed by Burnham. Guyana received independence in 1966. Jagan became leader of the opposition from 1964 and was general secretary of the PPP from 1970.
After Burnham’s death in 1985, the reforms introduced under his successor Desmond Hoyte opened the way to internationally recognised free elections in 1992. The PPP/Civic won the elections with 54% of the vote and Jagan was inaugurated as president of Guyana on 9 Oct. 1992. Jagan’s tenure was cut short by a heart attack while in office. He died on 6 March 1997.