Remembering Cheddi Jagan

Guyana has dedicated a museum to its first premier, Dr Cheddi Jagan. Larry Luxner reports

Georgetown’s Red House, now the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre. Photograph by Larry LuxnerJanet Jagan briefly succeeded her husband as President. Photograph by Larry Luxner

In the early 1960s, US President John F. Kennedy considered him a dangerous Marxist in the mould of Fidel Castro. But by the early 1990s, he was being hailed by President Bill Clinton as a crusader for democracy and human rights.

Cheddi Jagan, the eloquent dentist who led British Guiana to independence in 1966, headed the country’s main opposition party for many years and finally served as Guyana’s President from 1992 until his death in 1997. Now, a museum in Guyana’s capital city has been dedicated to his life’s work.

The Cheddi Jagan Research Centre in Georgetown houses a permanent collection of Dr Jagan’s writings, as well as mementos and other material related to his many years in the political forefront of Guyana. The collection takes the form of a comprehensive computer archive and museum display.

Dr Jagan’s widow, the American-born Janet Rosenberg Jagan, was directly involved in creating the centre. “We felt this would be the best tribute we could make to him,” she says, “to honour his ideas and what he stood for.”

Mrs Jagan, who became President of Guyana when her husband died, resigned three years ago for health reasons. Now in her eighties, she spends every morning at the headquarters of the People’s Progressive Party, which she and Dr Jagan founded in 1950. Much of her time is spent raising funds for the centre.

The three-storey Research Centre was opened by Guyana’s current president, Bharrat Jagdeo. It is located at Red House — a rambling wooden structure that was the Jagans’ official residence from 1961 to 1964, when Dr Jagan was British Guiana’s first premier.

At the entrance, visitors are greeted with a larger-than-life, black-and-white photograph of Dr Jagan making a speech. The portrait is flanked by two flags — Guyana’s on the left, and the black, red and yellow flag of the PPP on the right. Other photographs line the walls, Jagan as a struggling dental student at Northwestern University in Chicago, his wedding (which neither his family nor Janet’s approved), his tumultuous time as Leader of the Opposition, his inauguration as President of Guyana.

On the second floor of the centre are official and personal documents. There’s the 1953 decree from the governor of British Guiana suspending the Constitution, and a list entitled “Books You Cannot Read” — 22 categories of material banned by the British colonial government under the Subversive Literature Law, including Soviet Weekly magazine and books such as Hands off British Guiana and Towards the Third World Trade Union Congress. (The British jailed Mrs Jagan for six months during the 1950s, simply for having a copy of Jawaharlal Nehru’s acclaimed 1941 autobiography Toward Freedom.)

There is a replica of Dr Jagan’s office, complete with large wooden desk, rotary telephone, briefcase and jars of his favourite Planters nuts. An audiovisual library on the third floor will eventually house over 120 videotapes of Jagan’s speeches and interviews.