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Reviled in life, revered in death: Guyana's Cheddi Jagan
The Washington Times / February 12, 2002

By Larry Luxner

GEORGETOWN, Guyana -- In the early 1960s, President Kennedy considered him Public Enemy No. 2, a dangerous Marxist following in the footsteps of Fidel Castro. By the early 1990s, Guyana's Cheddi Jagan was being hailed by President Clinton as a crusader for democracy and human rights.

And now, the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre has opened its doors in the Guyanese capital, Georgetown, to honor "Cheddi" -- the eloquent dentist who led British Guiana to independence in 1966, headed the country's main opposition party for years and finally served as Guyana's president from 1992 until his death in 1997 at the age of 79.

"We felt that this would be the best tribute we could make to him, to honor his ideas and what he stood for, as well as all his writing," said Cheddi's widow, Janet Rosenberg Jagan, in an interview here. "The center puts on computer all his papers and things related to his many years in the political forefront of Guyana. This allows students to do research about him and about the independence struggle, which was an important period in our history."

Mrs. Jagan, who became president of Guyana when her husband died, resigned three years ago for health reasons. Now 81, she spends every morning at the headquarters of the left-leaning People's Progressive Party, which she and Cheddi founded in 1950 in order to rid Guyana of British colonial rule.

Much of her time is spent these days raising money for the research center, which was recently opened by Guyana's current president, 37-year-old Bharrat Jagdeo. Located at Red House -- a rambling wooden structure that was the official residence of the Jagans from 1961 to 1964, when Cheddi was British Guiana's premier -- the center has become the newest tourist attraction in this remote English-speaking nation of 750,000 inhabitants.

At the entrance, visitors are greeted with a larger-than-life, black-and-white portrait of Cheddi making a speech. The photograph is framed by two flags -- that of Guyana on the left, and the black, red and yellow flag of the PPP on the right.

Dozens of additional photographs line the walls, depicting stages of Cheddi's life from the time when he was a struggling dental student at Northwestern University in Chicago to his civil wedding (neither his nor Janet's family approved of the marriage) to his days as leader of the opposition and finally to his inauguration as president of Guyana.

In a glass case on the second floor are documents ranging from the authoritarian to the sentimental -- such as a 1953 decree from the governor of British Guiana suspending the constitution, and a very touching 1957 letter from Chicago businessman George L. Steiner to Cheddi, which begins: "Do you remember me? You were my room service boy at 211 E. Delaware Place while attending Northwestern dental school."

There's also a sheet of paper entitled "Books You Cannot Read" -- 22 categories of material banned by the British colonial government under the Subversive Literature Law. These included copies of Soviet Weekly magazine, as well as the books "Hands off British Guiana," and "Towards the Third World Trade Union Congress."

In fact, the British sent Mrs. Jagan to jail for six months during the 1950s, simply for having a copy of Jawaharlal Nehru's acclaimed 1941 autobiography "Toward Freedom."

"A lot of information is coming out now, about what the Americans and British were doing to undermine us," Mrs. Jagan told The Washington Times. "They were thinking of exiling me and my husband, and Kennedy might have been thinking of getting rid of him."

Yet both the British high commissioner and the U.S. ambassador have been honored guests at the research center, which gets an average of 200 visitors a month and is just down the street from the U.S. Embassy. Attesting to Guyana's friendship with the United States is a framed photograph of Clinton and Jagan shaking hands, and a handwritten note that says: "To President Jagan -- welcome back to Washington."

Odeen Ishmael, Guyana's ambassador in Washington, was a close friend of Cheddi Jagan, and was with him in 1997 when he died of a heart attack at Walter Reed Medical Center. But he says the idea of a research center came about many years before that.

"One day, while he was still in the opposition, Cheddi told me he had quite a lot of his writings in his house," recalled Ishmael. "So we began to talk about microfilming these papers, and we began negotiating with companies in the U.S. After he became president, that idea was put on the back burner."

The idea was revived following Cheddi's death, and Red House -- which had been sadly neglected for years -- was rehabilitated, thanks to a generous grant from Malaysian timber giant Barama Co. Ltd., one of Guyana's biggest foreign investors.

"There's no charge for anybody to use the facilities, and we don't ask visitors for donations," said Mrs. Jagan. "But we do have continuous expenses. My daughter Nadira, who lives in Canada, raises a lot of money from the sale of Cheddi's books, and three months ago, we had a fabulous fund-raising dinner at which we raised G$1 million [about $5,300]. We keep our nose just above water, though I always worry because we don't have much in reserve."

Adds Dudley Kissoore, chief archivist at the center: "We need funding. Right now, security is our biggest expense. We have to keep 24-hour security here, and that's eating up our budget."

The guards are needed to protect rare documents, as well as an assortment of gifts that include a silver plate from the Kuwait Chamber of Commerce; keys to the city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia; a lucite map of California from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors; a painting from the president of India; a plaque from the Brazilian Navy; a wooden drum from the prefect of French Guiana, and a soapstone carving of a Canadian loon from the Guyanese community of Winnipeg.

In an adjoining room, visitors can see a replica of Cheddi's office -- right down to his large wooden desk, rotary telephone, briefcase and jars of Planters' Nuts. "Those were his favorites," says Kissoore.

An audiovisual library on the third floor will eventually have over 120 videotapes of Cheddi's speeches and interviews, while the PPP leader's original writings are currently being scanned onto CD-ROMs. The period from 1942 to 1964 has almost been completed, and is now available for public use; those in other countries who'd like to learn more about Cheddi Jagan can visit the center's website at www.jagan.org.

Despite recent election-related unrest between PPP supporters and the opposition People's National Congress, Mrs. Jagan insists her husband was loved by all.

"I suppose his funeral would have given evidence of this," she said. "Thousands and thousands of people came to pay their respects. Political opinions vary, but everyone recognizes him as a true Guyanese hero."

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