Thunder in Guyana

How did a 77-year-old Jewish woman from Chicago become the president of a South American country?

Film Signature Image
Independent Lens, Global Voices
Premiere Date
February 22, 2005
60 minutes

Suzanne Wasserman

Suzanne Wasserman has a Ph.D. in American history from New York University. She is the associate director of the Gotham Center for New York City History, which seeks to boost the visibility of New York City’s historical assets for citizens and tourists alike. Wasserman lectures, writes, and consults about New York City history, especially the history of Show more the Lower East Side. She has published widely on topics such as the Depression, Jewish nostalgia, housing, restaurant culture, tourism, pushcart peddling, the Jewish silent screen actress Theda Bara, and 19th century saloons. Thunder in Guyana is her first film. She is also an historical consultant for Ron Howard’s production company, Imagine Entertainment. Show less

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The Film

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 intrigue, and struggles to bring progressive policies to an adopted country.

Dashing Cheddi Jagan, born in the 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 they married in 1943. As socialist revolutionaries, they left for Guyana to fight for the country’s independence from colonial England. They spent the next half-century as political leaders, founding Guyana’s first modern political party — the multi-racial People’s Progressive Party — and winning election in 1950 to government.

But they were deposed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, jailed, and targeted by an insidious CIA campaign to destabilize the country. In 1964, Britain changed Guyana’s colonial charter, making it impossible for Cheddi to be re-elected. For the next 28 years the country was ruled by a dictator, Forbes Burnham. 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.