Thunder in Guyana

 

Thunder in Guyana (2003) Directed by Suzanne Wasserman [DVD]. New York: Women Make Movies.

 

Reviewed by Kirsten Fermaglich, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA

 

 

In her sharply-drawn and engrossing documentary, Thunder in Guyana, director Suzanne Wasserman tells the story of her cousin, Janet Rosenberg Jagan, a Jewish woman from Chicago who became in 1997 the first white person and the first woman to become president of Guyana.

Jagan was born Janet Rosenberg in a middle class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. The filmmaker traces her early years briefly, using still footage, as well as interviews with family members, to flesh out a portrait of a beautiful, athletic, confident young girl who began to travel in radical circles as a college student at Wayne University (now Wayne State University) in Detroit. The film briefly notes that Jagan experienced some anti-Semitism in her youth. In one example, a relative describes JaganÕs father changing his name Rosenberg to Roberts when unable to find a job in sales; in another vignette, Jagan describes herself having been shocked to hear her friends one day lacing their conversation with hateful comments towards Jews. Perhaps most telling, in an interview with Jagan in her eighties, she herself notes that Òsome of my strong feelings for thoseÉ who are living a hard life probably came from my own experience as a Jew in the United States.Ó In general, however, the film does not linger on JaganÕs Jewishness—as the activist and leader herself does not seem to have.

At Wayne University, Janet Rosenberg met Cheddi Jagan, a young charismatic Marxist from what was at the time British Guiana. The two fell in love and married, and in 1943 moved to British Guyana, the only British colony in South America. Politics in British Guiana were repressive, dominated by the British government, which imported and exploited laborers from Africa and India. Cheddi had been born to parents on a sugar plantation, the first man from a sugar estate to attend college. When he returned to Guyana with his new wife, the two immediately launched into trade union politics, organizing domestic workers on plantations. After a government massacre of striking sugar workers in the village of Enmore in 1948, the Jagans helped to form the colonyÕs first political party, the Marxist multiracial PeoplesÕ Progressive Party (PPP).

Using remarkable film footage, as well as news clippings from the era, Thunder in Guyana takes the viewer through the ins and outs of the PPPÕs fortunes, noting all the while Janet Rosenberg JaganÕs personal fearlessness and competence: she worked as a secretary and publisher for the party, but also travelled throughout the countryside campaigning. Westerners at the time viewed her as a powerful and dangerous leader, suggesting that her gender made her the power behind her radical husband, and that her identity as a Jew linked her to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. One US reporter wrote: ÒJanet Rosenberg Jagan is a woman for the US to keep an eye on. She appears to be the ablest communist organizer in the Western hemisphere. The Jagans dress in rags to work their propaganda among the hungry, ignorant natives. Mrs. Jagan, pretty when she is slicked up, has gone barefoot into cane fields to recruit more communists.Ó The PPP successfully pushed for all Guyanese to achieve the right to vote, regardless of race, class or gender, and in 1953, Cheddi Jagan was elected first communist leader in the Western hemisphere. Janet Rosenberg Jagan became the countryÕs first female minister and deputy speaker of Parliament.

One hundred thirty three days after the Jagans took office, however, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent British troops to the colony to stop the growth of a communist government in Guyana. The Jagans were imprisoned. While they were in prison, their colleague in the PPP, Forbes Burnham, split away from the split away from the party to form the PeopleÕs National Congress (PNC), an Afro-Guyanese party. The film focuses on this split as a seed for political and racial disunity in Guyana, dividing black Guyanans from those of Indian descent. Nonetheless, by 1957, the Jagans had been freed and had won another election. Cheddi Jagan was elected Chief Minister and Janet Jagan was appointed Minister of Labor, Health, and Housing. Under her leadership, the colony set up health centers, maternity and child-care centers, and inoculated children in anti-polio and anti-typhoid campaigns.

In the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, however, the Kennedy administration in the United States became more fearful of communist regimes in the Western hemisphere. The film shows particularly telling Cold War footage from British and American news organizations interrogating Jagan about his politics, and demanding that he either define himself as a communist or capitalist. The CIA secretly funded labor strikes and fomented race riots in British Guyana in the 1960s in order to destabilize the PPP regime; the film notes that Janet Jagan, as a woman, bore the brunt of GuyanansÕ unhappiness with the PPP. One friend remembered that Janet had been demonized as the Òwoman behind Cheddi Jagan, the woman who made him do all kinds of bad things,Ó and Janet Jagan herself remembered having been unable to leave the house for fear of harassment during these unhappy years. The United States pushed the British to rewrite their constitution to push Jagan out of power and to support instead Forbes BurnhamÕs competing PNC party; with the Marxist Jagans safely out of power, the British gave Guyana independence in 1966. Burnham styled himself a black nationalist in the 1960s, but once in power, made himself into a dictator. The Jagans spent much of the 1970s and 1980s as opposition members of Parliament in Guyana, but they wielded little power until they succeeded in convincing former President Jimmy Carter to help reestablish free elections in Guyana. In 1992, observers from the Carter center monitored free elections in Guyana, and Cheddi Jagan was elected president of the nation.

When Cheddi Jagan died in 1997, Janet Rosenberg Jagan campaigned to succeed him as president. As a seventy-seven year old white woman from the United States, she faced racial animosity and nativist attacks during the campaign, but was nonetheless voted in as president. The film intersperses its narrative of JaganÕs life with footage of the 1997 campaign and struggles over the ballot counts in that election. This narrative strategy is flawed, as it does not clearly explain the political environment in which Janet Rosenberg Jagan became president in 1997, nor does it clearly explain the rapid termination of her presidency. She served for only twenty months, under circumstances that the film says were not successful, and then resigned after suffering a heart attack. The film does little to explain or contextualize Janet JaganÕs troubles as president, and leaves the reader with some confusion and disappointment in this regard.

The film disappoints in other ways as well. Janet Rosenberg JaganÕs early turn towards radicalism in the 1930s is never really explained or explored adequately. The filmmakerÕs decision here is surprising, given the significance that radical politics played in JaganÕs life. And some of the intricacies of politics in Guyana are glossed over in order to make Janet Rosenberg JaganÕs story the central one of the film. The irony of a white Jewish woman as president in Guyana thus comes to overshadow some of the fascinating politics of race and labor in that country. The fact that Jagan herself says little about being Jewish moreover means that the racial categorization of Jews themselves is not addressed enough in the film.

Nonetheless, Thunder in Guyana is in most ways a tremendous success, a valuable historical film in its own right, as well as an excellent potential teaching tool for undergraduate students. Wasserman successfully uses JaganÕs life as a window into the turbulent politics of Guyana through the twentieth century, providing an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with that nationÕs history. The filmmaker also offers inspiring portrait of a fascinating Jewish woman swept into the transnational currents of radical labor and racial politics in the second half of the twentieth century.

 

 

Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Winter 2009 Volume 6 Number 2

ISSN 1209-9392

© 2009 Women in Judaism, Inc.

 

 

 

 

 



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