Madam President

updated 11/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

AT 22, JANET ROSENBERG, A STUDENT nurse living on Chicago's South Side, defied her Jewish parents to wed Cheddi Jagan, a recently graduated dental student from British Guiana (now Guyana), South America's only English-speaking nation. Though she later reconciled with her family, Janet Jagan's sense of rebellion would endure. Before the end of the year, after a fiery political career spanning more than 50 years—as an avid anticolonialist, legislator, cabinet minister and currently the nation's prime minister—Jagan is expected to win election as Guyana's first female president, succeeding her husband in the office he held from 1992 until his death from cancer this March.

For the mother of two—Nadira, 42, and Cheddi Jr., 48—and grandmother of five, victory will be sweet. At 77, Jagan is recognized as "the matriarch of Guyanese sovereignty," says Caribbean scholar Prof. Gary Brana-Shute of George Washington University. "This is her payoff. She was out there on the street." In 1950, Jagan helped found the socialist People's Progressive Party, which led the fight for independence from Great Britain. Appalled at the living conditions of plantation workers, Jagan helped organize labor unions, edited anti-British political papers, "collected funds and food and organized soup kitchens," she recalls. In the mid-'50s she endured a six-month jailing for civil disobedience. Guyana won independence in 1966.

Though politically less strident today, Jagan says she hasn't abandoned her basic goals. "We can get rid of poverty," she says, vowing to foster expansion of the country's eco-tourism, timber and mining industries and even to build a satellite launch station. To her kinfolk in the U.S. she will always be "this glamorous creature," says a cousin, Virginia freelance journalist Judy Flander. "She was just a very independent spirit."

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