Latinamerica Press / December 17, 1998
By Larry Luxner
Born in Chicago 78 years ago, Janet Rosenberg was studying nursing in 1943 when she met her future husband, Cheddi Jagan, who had just completed his doctorate in dentistry at Northwestern University. Towards the end of World War II, the couple married and relocated to Cheddi's native land, then known as British Guiana. In 1946, they became active in the trade union movement, and four years later, inaugurated the Marxist-Leninist People's Progressive Party (PPP). After decades in the opposition, Cheddi Jagan finally became president in 1992, but in March 1997 died of a heart attack in Washington.
Last December, Mrs. Jagan was elected president in her own right, but the People's National Congress (PNC) led by ex-president Desmond Hoyte refused to accept the vote, charging the contest was rigged. Sporadic violence has plagued Guyana ever since.
Noticias Aliadas correspondent Larry Luxner interviewed Mrs. Jagan last month in Georgetown. Here are excerpts from that meeting.
Q: It's been nearly a year since you took office in a very controversial election. How would you characterize the past 12 months?
A: They've been difficult in the sense that the opposition has created rifts in our society. Aside from that, it's been a very fruitful year. We're in the process of consolidating democracy. When I went to the UN two weeks ago, I focused on that subject and addressed a special committee to deal with restored and new democracies.
Q: Mr. Hoyte and his PNC say the election was rigged from the beginning. How do you respond to such charges?
A: "We had four major groups monitoring the elections and the counting. We ended up in the rather unusual position of being one of the only countries in the world where it had all its votes counted a second time. A number of well-known Caribbean personalities spent eight weeks here, counting every single vote. As far as I'm concerned, I don't believe there's a genuine belief the elections were rigged. I think it's part of a new phenomenon developing where opposition parties refuse to accept the results of an election because it doesn't suit their agenda.
"Aside from this problem, we've gone ahead with our program of housing, transportation, health and increasing water supplies throughout the country. Business goes on as usual."
Q: Do you have any personal animosity towards Mr. Hoyte?
A: "I have no animosity for him, but I suspect -- based on some of his recent statements -- that he may not think the best of me."
Q: Some say the standoff between you and Mr. Hoyte has paralyzed the Guyanese economy and scared off potential investors. Is that true?
A: "First of all, the economy is not paralyzed. We've had unusual growth, running about 6.5% annually. This year is a hard year for rather broad reasons. We've had El Niņo, which brought havoc to many of our farmers, and then we had a world decline in prices on our exports -- gold, sugar, timber, so we've been affected by that, too.
Q: What are you doing to promote Guyana's relations with Spanish-speaking South America?
A: "One of my thrusts has been the question of moving south. I want to have much closer relations with Latin America, because Guyana is on the South American continent. Unfortunately, except for Brazil and Venezuela, we're not integrated with these countries at all. It's my intention for Guyana to have one foot in Caricom and the other in Latin America. To that end, I have asked our education minister to make Spanish compulsory at the grade-school level."
Q: Did you ever aspire to run the country, or were you content to be viewed as a partner of Cheddi?
A: "I was there at the beginning, but I've never taken a front position, especially with people like my husband and his colleagues. I was in the political struggle at every level, carrying placards, going to jail, collecting food for trade-union members. I've been around for 55 years now -- it's a long time."
Q: And has age ever been an issue?
A: "They had a hard time making it an issue, since Hoyte is no young chicken either. So it was a little difficult for him to harp too much on that."
Q: Have you, since becoming president, felt hostility as a white, Jewish woman of American origin running a country that's predominantly black and East Indian?
A: "The only personal hostility I get is from the diehard People's National Congress members. The ordinary man or woman I bump into who may not have voted for my party is quite friendly, and not accusatory. On Saturday mornings, I see whoever wants to see me. Most people don't look at me as a white woman. They look at me as a woman who's been on the political scene for many years, and who is the widow of Cheddi Jagan. I don't think my whiteness comes into it unless they want it to."
Q: Will you run for re-election?
A: "No. That's a definite no."
Q: How would you like to be remembered in history?
A: "It's really doesn't matter to me. But I would want Dr. Jagan to be remembered for all that he did."