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In Radical Matrimony | The Nation

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In Radical Matrimony

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Suzanne Wasserman's documentary Thunder in Guyana, which airs on PBS's Independent Lens series at 10 pm on February 22, is the first in-depth look at Janet Jagan, former president of Guyana. Attribute that to the subject's obscurity: Guyana is roughly the size of Britain, but as an economically strapped country whose population grazes 800,000, it's a blip on America's radar.

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Baz Dreisinger
Baz Dreisinger, who teaches English and American studies at the City University of New York, is writing a book about...

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Tony Kushner's latest play, Caroline, or Change, left me contemplating its curious title, which suggests an indecisive playwright. Why not just Caroline, or simply Change?

Or attribute it to the subject's enormity: Jagan's life story is so much larger than life, it's almost too cinematic for cinema. That story delivers dramatic narrative tropes--rebellion, revolution, racial tension--in operatic proportions. It begins in 1943, when Janet Rosenberg, a pretty Jewish girl from Chicago, immigrates to the land of her new husband, Cheddi Jagan, the son of East Indian sugar workers in what was then the colony of British Guiana. It ends in 1997, when 77-year-old Janet Jagan takes the helm of what is now Guyana--to become the only American-born woman elected president of any country.

Guyana's story, like Jagan's, is familiar yet fantastic, at once a typical postcolonial ordeal of independence and creolization, and a grotesque hyperbole of these things, punctuated by crises--race riots, rigged elections, political paranoia--that make our 2000 election woes feel like, well, a blip on the radar.

Considering the grand scale of her subject, first-time filmmaker Wasserman--a cousin of Janet Jagan's and associate director of the CUNY Graduate Center's Gotham Center for New York City History--had her work cut out for her. Recounting the life of a politician is itself a challenge, because it means striking a compelling balance between two narratives that threaten to overwhelm each other: history and (in Jagan's case) her story, public and private. When these two halves of the saga are as sensational as they are here, achieving this balance is more than a challenge; it's an all-out battle between competing narratives. Thunder in Guyana navigates that battle, but just barely. Its goal is lofty, particularly for a fifty-minute documentary: to give us public and private--not just Janet Jagan but Janet Rosenberg.

Set during Guyana's 1997 election, Thunder in Guyana is a deftly edited fusion of newssreel footage, photos and interviews with Janet Jagan, her two children and her political allies. The film is narrated by Wasserman, who embarks on an odyssey to flesh out the cousin she knows via weathered photographs and family gossip. It lands her in Georgetown, Guyana, where Jagan pilots her campaign headquarters with grandmotherly repose. Wasserman voices the skepticism that her cousin clearly lacks: "I wondered if the Guyanese people would really elect a 77-year-old American-born Jewish woman for president." The film is thus framed as a question: How did Rosenberg become Jagan, and how did Guiana become Guyana?

It began, we learn, as a love story. Beautiful, athletic, fiercely intellectual Janet Rosenberg met dental student Cheddi Jagan during her college years in Chicago. Both were fervently committed to Marxist politics and, soon, to each other. To Janet's family, Cheddi was a triple blow--"a foreigner, a person who wasn't white, a person who wasn't Jewish," Jagan says--but by 1943, an undeterred Janet ("nothing much frightens me," she shrugs) had married Cheddi and was off to rural British Guiana, where she found her rightful place: not in the kitchen with the women but in political trade unions with the men. In 1950 Janet, Cheddi and London-educated lawyer Forbes Burnham launched the People's Progressive Party (PPP), which propounded ardent socialism in a newsletter titled Thunder.

The PPP represented more than national unity. A country that naturally confounds categories--geographically, it is South American; culturally and politically, it is Caribbean--Guyana is known as "the land of six peoples" because it's a postcolonial pilau, born of Amerindian natives, European colonizers, African slaves and indentured servants from China, Portugal and East India, imported to work the plantations after Britain abolished slavery in its colonies in 1833. An alliance between the Indo-Guyanese Cheddi and the Afro-Guyanese Burnham was thus an alliance of Guyana's principal ethnic groups. Although Janet eluded any such category, in 1953--when Cheddi was elected the first Marxist leader in the Western Hemisphere--she became Guyana's Minister and Deputy Speaker of Parliament. In the American press, she was likened to Eva Perón and vilified as "the ablest Communist organizer in the Western Hemisphere," adept at spreading "propaganda among the hungry, ignorant natives."

As Cheddi's story takes center stage, then, Janet's is never just its footnote: A bright-red expatriate, she attracted all the attention her husband did. It was not the right kind of attention: 133 days after Cheddi assumed office, Winston Churchill sent troops into Georgetown to topple a so-called Communist regime. It was the end of a golden era, because it was followed by a racial rift that now defines Guyanese life: Burnham moved far to the right of Jagan, founding an opposition party--the People's National Congress (PNC)--that appealed directly to Afro-Guyanese voters, exploiting their fears of Indo-Guyanese domination. Gang-style political warfare erupted in most Caribbean countries, but thanks to its uniquely diverse population, Guyana (like the similarly populated Trinidad and Suriname) added race to the mix and bred a monster: apanjaat, or divisive racial politics. Afro-Guyanese endorsed the PNC; Indo-Guyanese stood with the PPP; exceptions to that rule were scarce.

The US government, for its part, regarded apanjaat as a way of weakening Cheddi Jagan, and worked covertly to encourage this shameless race-baiting. Re-elected in both 1957 and 1961, he confronted a hostile media in Britain and the United States, where his socialist convictions made cold war leaders shudder. "Where do you stand on this fundamental division in the world today, between Communism and Western democracy?" an O'Reilly-like anchor asks him on Meet the Press, in language eerily reminiscent of President Bush's evocation of a world starkly divided between the forces of "freedom" and those of "terror," between us and them.

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