Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Jagan, Cheddi (1918–1997)

Guyanese nationalist politician, founder of the People's Progressive Party (PPP), premier of British Guiana (1953, 1951–1964), and president of the independent nation of Guyana (1992–1997). Born at Port Mourant Estate, Berbice County, British Guiana, on 22 March 1918, Cheddi Jagan was the child of sugar estate workers. Humble origins notwithstanding, his family sought higher education for their son. He attended Queen's College, Georgetown, during 1933–1935; received a bachelor's degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1938; and earned a doctorate in dentistry from Northwestern University in 1942.

While attending dental school in Chicago, Jagan met and married Janet Rosenberg, a leftist activist with ties to the Communist Party. Rosenberg introduced Jagan to Marxism, which gave him a global context for his hatred of the exploitative Guianese sugar economy. After returning to British Guiana in 1943, the Jagans immersed themselves in politics. In June 1948 they took the lead in organizing a mass protest against the police, who had shot and killed five striking sugar workers. For most Indo-Guianese, this solidified Jagan's position as their spiritual and political leader.

In 1950 the Jagans founded the PPP. Led by Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham, a charismatic Afro-Guianese barrister, the PPP came to power in the 1953 legislative elections, the first held under universal suffrage. As premier, Jagan acted with unexpected radicalism and immaturity. Other PPP leaders followed suit. The British government sent a warship to Georgetown and removed the government after only 133 days in power.

By the time the 1957 elections were held, Burnham and many other Afro-Guianese had split from the PPP, claiming that Jagan was a communist. Nevertheless, Jagan won the election in a vote that broke down roughly along racial lines. This time, he governed more responsibly and was reelected in 1961, and the British hinted that he would be the one to lead the colony to independence.

President John F. Kennedy, however, suspected that Jagan harbored communist sympathies. After having failed to persuade the British to prevent Jagan's reelection, Kennedy met with him in person. Jagan made a terrible impression, and Kennedy believed that his fears had been confirmed. Under tremendous U.S. pressure, the British reluctantly agreed to consider the possibility of removing Jagan from power.

In 1962 and 1963, Jagan's government was hobbled by violent general strikes, funded by secret payments of approximately $1 million from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Financial support also came from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In the strikes' aftermath, the British declared that there would be a final preindependence election in 1964, conducted under proportional representation rather than the traditional constituency-based system. Jagan responded by launching a sugar workers' strike that lasted 161 days, turned violent, and was riven by racial tensions. Thereafter he desperately sought to compromise with the United States but was rebuffed.

Burnham won the 1964 election as the head of a coalition, even though the PPP received almost half the vote. Following independence, he grew increasingly autocratic and made himself president-for-life through a series of rigged elections. Jagan continued as leader of the opposition and took the PPP into the Soviet orbit via the communist movement in July 1969.

At the Cold War's end, the United States pressured Burnham's successor, Desmond Hoyte, to democratize, and on 5 October 1992 Jagan was elected president in the country's first free election in twenty-eight years. In the new international climate, he moved quickly from communism to capitalism. Jagan died on 6 March 1997 in Washington, D.C., after suffering a massive heart attack.

Robert Anthony Waters Jr.


Further Reading
Spinner, Thomas. A Political and Social History of Guyana, 1945–1983. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1984.
 

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