Been here before

Issue: 111

John Newsinger

A review of Stephen G Rabe, US Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story (University of North Carolina Press, 2005), £14.50

In the early 1960s both Conservative and Labour governments in Britain were complicit in CIA efforts to destabilise the elected government in the South American colony of British Guiana. This CIA campaign culminated with a constitutional coup, planned by the Conservatives and implemented by Labour, a coup that removed Cheddi Jagan and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) from power and installed the United States’ candidate, Forbes Burnham, a man known to be a corrupt racist and a gangster. At US insistence the newly independent Guyana was handed over by Harold Wilson’s Labour government to the tender mercies of Forbes Burnham in May 1966. His gangster regime oppressed and pillaged the country, turning it into ‘an economic facsimile of Haiti’, into the 1990s. This sorry tale is the subject of Stephen Rabe’s exemplary study, US Intervention In British Guiana, a book that reveals that neither British subordination to the United States nor British complicity in the crimes of the CIA is anything new.

The instigator of Cheddi Jagan’s downfall was President Jack Kennedy, a man obsessed with the threat that the left posed to US domination over South America. He fervently believed that Jagan was a stalking horse for Fidel Castro and that consequently he had to be overthrown, no matter what. Although Jagan had been regarded by the British as dangerously left wing in the early 1950s, by the closing years of the decade he was acknowledged as a moderate reformist who posed no threat to British interests. Where Jagan fell foul of the Americans was in his adoption of a neutralist stance with regard to the Cold War, in his refusal to commit himself to the US side. This was completely unacceptable to Kennedy. Indeed, in April 1960 Jagan actually had the temerity to visit Cuba as Castro’s guest, soliciting economic aid. The fact that he was also seeking economic aid from the US was neither here nor there as far as the Americans were concerned. Neutralism was grounds for overthrow. As Rabe points out:

‘In the name of anti-Communism, the Kennedy administration took extraordinary measures to deny the people of British Guiana the right to self-determination. US officials and private citizens incited murder, arson, bombings and fear and loathing in British Guiana. Indeed, the covert US intervention ignited racial warfare between blacks and Indians. By the end of 1962, the United States had forced the United Kingdom to accede to its demands to find a way to deny power to Cheddi Jagan.’

The British initially tried to persuade the Americans that the PPP was not a danger. On one occasion the British colonial secretary, Iain Macleod, told Dean Rusk, the US Secretary of State, that not only was Jagan not a threat to the West, but that if he had to live in British Guiana, he would certainly prefer to have Jagan in power rather than Forbes Burnham. The Americans, however, produced a stream of fake, manufactured intelligence identifying Jagan as a communist, none of which proved to have any substance. In February 1962 the British were informed that a Cuban freighter was smuggling 50 tons of weapons into the country to arm Jagan’s supporters. When the ship was searched, it was found to be carrying secondhand printing equipment. The CIA has apparently always had trouble finding weapons!

Nevertheless, the British government stood by while the CIA, working through the US trade union bureaucracy, the AFLCIO apparatus, poured money and agents into the colony. They suborned corrupt elements within the local trade union movement and financed Jagan’s rivals. Every effort was made to build up Forbes Burnham’s People’s National Congress (PNC) and to exploit divisions between black and indian workers. Whereas Jagan’s PPP did its best to unite the working class (in the 1961 general election 12 of the PPP’s 26 candidates were black), Forbes Burnham whipped up race hatred and communal violence. This was, and remains, a classic CIA strategy. The result was serious rioting in the capital, Georgetown, in February 1962, intended to stop the British declaring the colony independent with Jagan in power.

The Macmillan government in London capitulated to American pressure. Only days after the outbreak of the CIA sponsored rioting Dean Rusk told the British that ‘it is not possible for us to put up with an independent British Guiana under Jagan’. He warned of ‘strains on Anglo-American relations’. In response to what was, in effect, an ultimatum, the British came up with a strategy to remove Jagan, hopefully without showing their hand openly. Independence was postponed and in October 1962 the British announced that they were introducing a system of proportional representation that would allow the removal of the PPP from power without the appearance of a coup having taken place. With US support and financial backing, Jagan’s opponents would be bought together under Forbes Burnham’s leadership and hopefully secure a majority. Meanwhile, CIA efforts at destabilisation, with British connivance, were stepped up. Prime minister Macmillan actually met CIA director John McCone to discuss the situation in British Guiana—an unprecedented step.

The CIA campaign culminated in a general strike against the Jagan government that lasted from 18 April until 8 July 1963. It was accompanied by considerable violence, including bombings and shootings, with Forbes Burnham’s supporters once again whipping up race hatred. The CIA financed the strike to the tune of $1 million, in the hope of plunging the colony into disorder on such a scale that the British would have to remove Jagan and take over. Indeed, Kennedy urged Macmillan to use the strike as a pretext to intervene, but the British refused. The disagreement was only over timing, however. American hostility to Jagan was such that Kennedy actually warned Macmillan that if independence was granted with the PPP still in power this would provoke a US attack on Cuba. Indeed, in February 1964 the United States actually prepared their own plans for direct military intervention in the colony to remove Jagan. Their pressure secured the removal of the colony’s governor, Sir Ralph Grey, who was openly sceptical of US fears, opposed the proportional representation ploy and considered Forbes Burnham to be unstable.

The election of Harold Wilson’s Labour Party into government in London in October 1964 gave heart to the embattled Jagan. In opposition, Wilson had condemned the Conservatives’ constitutional coup, and Jagan hoped that the Labour government would come to his aid. While Wilson undoubtedly had some sympathy for Jagan (they were after all both reformists), the bottom line was that relations with the United States came first. Jagan was given the brush-off and Wilson went ahead and implemented the Conservative plan. In December 1964 a general election was held in British Guiana under proportional representation, accompanied by violence, intimidation and electoral fraud. Jagan’s opponents were generously funded by the CIA, and the threat of US intervention was always in the background. Even so, the PPP increased its share of the popular vote, but not by enough. Under the new electoral system, the PPP won only 24 of the 53 seats. Forbes Burnham was appointed prime minister. Harold Wilson’s Labour government presided over the installation in power of a corrupt gangster regime that was to oppress and pillage the Guyanese people for the next 25 years.

Learning from history is easy when so little changes. Today US attempts to destabilise and overthrow the Chavez government in Venezuela have the full support of Tony Blair’s New Labour government. There are differences, however. Whereas Wilson bowed down to the Americans reluctantly and with some regret in 1964, Blair and Co are unreservedly on side.