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US-UK-Guyana (1953-1992)

Project: History of US Interventions
Open-Content project managed by Derek, mtuck

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The Progressive People’s Party (PPP) wins 18 of the 24 elected seats in the general elections in Guyana, a British colony in the Caribbean. Dr. Cheddi Jagan, an admirer of the works of Karl Marx, heads the new government. (Weiner 10/30/1994; BBC 12/9/2005)

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sends troops into Guyana, suspends its constitution, and orders its government dissolved four months after Dr. Cheddi Jagan of the leftist Progressive People’s Party (PPP) is chosen to head the government (see April 24, 1953). (Weiner 10/30/1994; BBC 12/9/2005)

Dr. Cheddi Jagan and his wife, Janet, are freed from jail after the British restore Guyana’s constitutional government. General elections are held and the Progressive People’s Party (PPP) wins 9 of the 14 seats. Jagan is appointed the Chief Minister. (Weiner 10/30/1994; BBC 12/9/2005)

US Secretary of State Dean Rusk sends British Foreign Minister Lord Home a letter which includes the following passage: “[W]e do believe that [Dr. Cheddi] Jagan and his American wife are very far to the left indeed and that his accession to power in British Guiana would be a most troublesome setback in this hemisphere. Would you be willing to have this looked into urgently to see whether there is anything which you or we can do to forestall such an eventuality?” The British foreign minister will respond to this letter a week later (see August 18, 1961). (US Department of State 8/11/1961)

In response to a letter sent by US Secretary of State Dean Rusk (see August 11, 1961), British Foreign Minister Lord Home writes: “[N]ow the choice before us in situations like this is either to allow the normal process of democracy and progress towards self-government to go ahead and do our best to win the confidence of the elected leaders, and to wean them away from any dangerous tendencies, or else to revert to what we call ‘Crown Colony rule.’ It is practical politics to take the latter course only when it is quite clear that a territory is heading for disaster. We have done this once already in British Guiana-in 1953. But since the restoration of the democratic process in 1957, the elected government has behaved reasonably well and we have had no grounds which would justify a second attempt to put the clock back.” (United Kingdom 8/18/1961)

Guyana President Cheddi Jagan pays a visit to the White House, seeking financial aid and offering assurances that Guyana will not host a Soviet base. President Kennedy tells Jagan that the US is not concerned with his left-leaning politics. Kennedy says: “National independence. This is the basic thing. As long as you do that, we don’t care whether you are socialist, capitalist, pragmatist or whatever. We regard ourselves as pragmatists.” Also in attendance at the meeting are the president’s special assistant Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and George Ball, the Assistant Secretary for Economic Affairs at the State Department. (Weiner 10/30/1994; Ishmael 2005 Sources: Cheddi Jagan) Following Jagan’s departure, US President John F. Kennedy will meet in secret with his top national security officers and issue a direct order to remove Dr. Jagan from power. (Weiner 10/30/1994; Jagan 1999 Sources: Unnamed US Government officials familiar with the secret papers.) Sources will note that “Though many Presidents have ordered the CIA to undermine foreign leaders, they say, the Jagan papers are a rare smoking gun: a clear written record, without veiled words or plausible denials, of a President’s command to depose a Prime Minister.” (Weiner 10/30/1994)

The CIA promotes civil unrest in the Caribbean country of Guyana. “Previously unheard-of radio stations went on the air in the capital, Georgetown,” the New York Times will later recount. “The papers printed false stories about approaching Cuban warships. Civil servants walked out. The labor unions revolted. Riots took the lives of more than 100 people.” (Weiner 10/30/1994)

US President John F. Kennedy denies accusations that the US is meddling in the affairs of Guyana. He states: “The United States supports the idea that every people should have the right to make a free choice of the kind of government they want. [Dr. Cheddi] Jagan who has recently elected Prime Minister in British Guiana, is a Marxist, but the United States doesn’t object because that choice was made by honest election, which he won.” (Jagan 1999)

US Secretary of State Dean Rusk sends British Foreign Minister Lord Home a letter addressing concerns about Guyana President Dr. Cheddi Jagan that had been discussed in previous correspondence (see August 18, 1961 and August 11, 1961). He writes: “I must tell you now that I have reached the conclusion that it is not possible for us to put up with an independent British Guiana under Jagan… These considerations, I believe, make it mandatory that we concert on remedial steps.” (US Department of State 8/11/1961)

The US President’s Special Assistant Arthur Schlesinger has lunch with British politician Iain MacLeod and Colonial Secretary Reginald Maudling. Describing the event in an letter to the US ambassador to Britain, he writes: “1. [Dr. Cheddi] Jagan is not a Communist. He is a naive, London School of Economics Marxist filled with charm, personal honesty and juvenile nationalism. 2. The tax problem which caused the trouble was not a Marxist program. It was a severely orthodox program of a ‘Crippsian’ sort appropriate for a developed nation like Great Britain but wholly unsuited for an immature and volatile country like British Guiana. 3. If another election is held before independence Jagan will win. 4. Jagan is infinitely preferable to Burnham.” (White House 2/27/1962)

The US State Department drafts a planning document titled, “Possible Courses of Action in British Guiana.” In it, its authors ask: “Can we topple [Dr. Cheddi] Jagan while maintaining at least a facade of democratic institutions,” and “Can the PPP be defeated in new elections without obvious interference?” The paper observes that “it is unproven that CIA knows how to manipulate an election in British Guiana without a backfire.” The document also notes: “Disclosure of US involvement would undermine our carefully nurtured position of anti-colonialism among the new nations of Asia and Africa and damage our position in Latin America. It could also strengthen Jagan over the long term if he became a ‘martyr of Yankee imperialism.’” (US Department of State 3/15/1962)

The CIA organizes a general strike in Guyana, through its client trade unions. The CIA channels fund through the international public workers secretariat Public Services International, and via the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions for a strike lasting 80 days. Historian William Blum later notes that its support “was considerably less than total.” The strike is organized by the local Trades Union Council, headed by US-trained Richard Ishmael, who had received tutelage at the American Institute for Free Labor Development, along with other Guyanese officials. The strike is marked by violence and provocation, including attacks on Premier Cheddi Jagan and his family. A British police report later tags Ishmael as involved in “a terrorist group which…carried out bombings and arson attacks against government buildings during the strike.” (United Kingdom House of Commons 4/5/1966, pp. 1765-67)

US and British officials meet and discuss the Guyana government of the left-leaning Dr. Cheddi Jagan. A memorandum of the meeting states: “The President [Kennedy] said he agreed with the analysis of all the difficulties, but that these still paled in comparison with the prospect of the establishment of a Communist regime in Latin America. Mr. Sandys said he thought the best solution was that of a Burnham-D’Aguiar government to which [Britain] would grant independence.” (US Department of State 3/15/1962)

The British, at the behest of the Kennedy administration, postpone Guyana’s independence and modify the country’s electoral system so that the Guyanese will have to vote for parties instead of individual candidates. (Weiner 10/30/1994; Jagan 1999)

For the next 20 years, Guyana is governed by Forbes Burnham, who is later described by Kennedy’s special assistant Arthur Schlesinger in his book, A Thousand Days, as “an opportunist, racist and demagogue intent only on personal power.” He holds power through force and fraud until his death in 1985 and runs up a foreign debt totaling over $2 billion during this time—an amount representing over five times the country’s GDP. (Weiner 10/30/1994; Jagan 1999) Burnham’s two decades of rule is marked by questionable elections; suppression of human rights, civil liberties, and union activities; corruption and economic stagnation. During this time there are two major political assassinations. Jesuit priest and journalist Bernard Darke is killed in July 1979 and the distinguished historian and Working People’s Alliance (WPA) party leader Walter Rodney is murdered in June 1980. President Burnham is widely believed to have had a hand in the killings. (GlobalEdge 2005)

Elections in Guyana are held and the Progressive People’s Party (PPP) gains 46 percent of the vote, while the People’s National Congress (PNC) receives 41 percent and the conservative United Force (TUF) ends up with 12 percent. But the TUF gives its votes in the legislature to the PNC and consequently PNC candidate Forbes Burnham becomes the prime minister. (US Department of State 1/2006)

Britain grants Guyana independence. (Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. 2005)

Radical academic and leader of the Guyanese Working Peoples Alliance, Walter Rodney, is killed by a bomb as he prepares to run for office in upcoming presidential elections. Speculation immediately links Rodney’s death to the government of Forbes Burnham, although Rodney’s WPA colleague Dr Rupert Roopnaraine will later maintain that “In the days and months following the murder, WPA received credible information that the shaped explosive and the radio triggering mechanism had been brought in from the USA by a named individual. Virginia was mentioned.” (Stabroek News 10/28/2004)

The first completely free parliamentary elections since independence (see May 26, 1966) are held and Dr. Cheddi Jagan is re-elected. (GlobalEdge 2005; BBC 12/9/2005)


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