THUNDER IN GUYANA


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A young Janet and Cheddi shaking hands of Guyanese supporters. 

Cheddi kissing Janet on the cheek as a crowd cheers around them. 

A Guyanese man holds up campaign posters of Janet.

Filmmaker Suzanne Wasserman grew up fascinated by her glamorous cousin Janet. At 23, Janet Rosenberg, a beautiful nursing student born and raised in Chicago, fell in love with a handsome dental student from a country no one in her family had even heard of. Together, the political power couple became known as the founders of modern Guyana, and in 1997, Janet became the first American-born woman to lead a nation. In THUNDER IN GUYANA, Wasserman uses interviews, family photos and archival footage to tell the story of her remarkable cousin: a tale of life-long love, political campaigns and struggles to bring progressive policies to an adopted country.

Cheddi and Janet Jagan dressed formally and smiling in their 1943 wedding 
photo.
Cheddi and Janet Jagan's 1943
wedding photo

Forbes Burnham giving a speech at a podium, wearing dark sunglasses.
Forbes Burnham of the People's
National Congress

Dashing Cheddi Jagan, born in the former British colony of Guyana on South America's northern coast, was the son of East Indian Guyanese indentured sugar plantation workers. Both Janet and Cheddi were involved in radical politics, and when they married in 1943, it was against the strenuous objections of her Jewish and his Hindu parents. As socialist revolutionaries, they planned to go to Guyana—then called British Guiana—to fight for the country’s independence from colonial England. Janet and Cheddi spent the next half-century as Guyana’s political leaders, founding its first modern political party, the multi-racial People’s Progressive Party, in 1950. In Guyana’s historic election of 1953, the first election in its history with universal adult suffrage, Cheddi was elected Chief Minister and Janet the country's first female minister and deputy speaker of Parliament. They led the first Communist government in the Western hemisphere, creating a firestorm in the press.

Janet and Cheddi governed Guyana for 133 days, until British Prime Minister Winston Churchill deposed them for their Communist beliefs. They both served time in jail and under house arrest. Remaining the most popular leader in the colony, Cheddi Jagan was re-elected and became Guyana’s prime minister in 1961. But this time, the U.S. Kennedy administration intervened, fearful of a Communist presence in its hemisphere, and recommended a covert program to reduce the Jagans’ popularity. As seen in the film, the American CIA instigated labor unrest, a vicious misinformation campaign and race riots that left hundreds of Guyanese dead and injured. During this difficult time, the Jagans feared for their children's lives, sending them to live abroad until the tensions died down. In 1964, under pressure from the United States, Britain created constitutional changes in Guyana which made it impossible for Cheddi to retain power despite his continued popularity. Forbes Burnham, a former ally of the Jagans who later turned against them, rose to power and ruled Guyana with an increasingly dictatorial hand for 28 years. Yet the Jagans continued to fight for their country, traveling internationally and speaking out on progressive issues.

1992 heralded Guyana’s first free and fair elections in almost three decades, and Cheddi Jagan was sworn in as president. He passed away in 1997, after which Janet accepted her party’s presidential nomination, and on December 15, 1997, she became president of Guyana, becoming the first woman and first foreign-born candidate to do so. Far from being a simple biography of an unconventional woman, THUNDER IN GUAYANA interweaves the threads of family history, one woman’s incredible life story and the complex social and political history of the country of Guyana.

Janet Jagan, in her 80s, sitting in her desk behind a manual typewriter and in front of a bookshelf.

Update

Filmmaker Suzanne Wasserman shot THUNDER IN GUYANA between 1997 and 1999. In January 2005, she reported:

This year, Janet Jagan will turn 85. She still lives in Georgetown, Guyana, where she has lived for the past 62 years She still goes to her party office every day. Her son, Cheddi, Jr. and his family live on Long Island in New York. Her daughter, Nadira, and her family live in Toronto, Canada.

Learn more about Janet Jagan >>

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