Events surrounding the independence of Guyana

"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.
—President John F. Kennedy, 1962

Certainly words that reflect the self-image the United States has long had of itself. Ideals that the country was built upon. The remainder of the quotation continues those sentiments:

"Mr 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."

Unfortunately, by the time he spoke those words, the actions of the US had proven the sentiments a lie. It would continue to be a lie well after Kennedy was assassinated. A more accurate assessment was given prior to Kennedy's by the British politician Aneurin Bevan: "The fear of communism has led the United States and those who follow her lead to take a distorted view of the world situation and of the forces at work in modern society."

It was this "world view" that made one of the two superpowers work to destabilize—both politically and covertly—the government of a small nation (slightly smaller than the state of Idaho) on the coast of South America. A nation that was not economically or strategically important. A "world view" that determined who should and should not be the "freely" chosen leader of another country trying to move beyond its colonial past (it was granted independence in 1966).


1. Rather than switch back and forth, I'll use the "Guyana" spelling for the most part, though it was adopted after independence.
2. Following the background material, I've organized this primarily around the various elections, though each section includes events leading up to the next one.
3. Sources are listed at the end of part two.

Guyana (then British Guiana) was a British colony. By mid century, it was being given a certain amount of self-determination and was probably on its way toward independence like the rest of Britain's colonial territory. Its main exports were sugar grown on plantations and bauxite ore (the source for aluminum). During the second world war, bauxite was important for the US and Canada and became quite profitable. But it was beginning to decline with the increase of availability from other sources. Guyana was not economically important as a trading partner to the US. The question remains why expend large sums of money and time on this small nation that also posed no threat to any other, particularly the US?

Cold War paranoia and the US belief that Latin America and the Caribbean were part of its sphere of influence (and control). Once the Spanish were out of the region, following the Spanish-American War, the US felt it was the controlling force, politically and economically, in the entire hemisphere. Any move that was viewed as encroachment on its "territory" was taken very seriously—especially if it is by a Communist (or supposedly Communist) movement/government/country—and still is. Such a thing would also challenge US economic interests (no matter how small).

It is an idea that has a long history and is the cause of numerous US interventions of an overt and covert nature. In 1954, the US helped plan and run the coup that ousted the democratically elected president of Guatemala on the pretext that the government was communist controlled (it wasn't). There is the ongoing treatment of Cuba. In 1979, President Ronald Reagan said "The Caribbean is rapidly becoming a Communist lake in what should be an American pond." Around that time, an even smaller nation (Grenada) was being pressured to act according to the will of the US. In 1983, under the pretext of Communist takeover and claims of its building military installations and amassing arms (for alleged Communist bloc armies), the US invaded the small island.

The last thing the US wanted was this soon to be independent nation of Guyana to "go the way of Cuba." That made Dr. Cheddi Jagan, an Indo-Guyanese (the two main ethnicities in the country are people of Indian and African descent) who had studied dentistry in the US, a very dangerous man.

A dangerous dentist and the formation of the PPP

Jagan's politics; US and British attitudes
As noted, Jagan went to school in the US. He returned to Guyana in 1943 with an American wife (Janet). Both had developed a keen interest in politics and were dedicated leftists. Usually referred to as Marxist, it isn't entirely clear just what form of leftist ideology Jagan espoused. There were sympathetic feelings to the goals of communist ideology (though not as the US would have it, being world domination) and the usual communist-Marxist leaders.

In an October 1961 "Memorandum of Conversation" between Jagan, Kennedy and others of his staff, it is noted that he "described himself politically as a socialist and a believer in state planning." It went on to add that he claimed not to be sufficiently familiar with different types of socialism to say which he aligned with. It also mentioned that he saw "the cold war as an issue in which he did not feel himself engaged or committed, but he stressed repeatedly his determination to keep British Guiana free and politically independent."

While he was certainly a leftist (by most accounts Janet was more ideological than he was), he was "committed to establishing a socialist economy within the framework of a parliamentary democracy and neutralism in foreign affairs" ( In the above memorandum, it was noted that Jagan emphasized the "political freedom" he had worked into the constitution, including "an independent judiciary, and an independent civil service in the British tradition," among others. The US didn't believe him.

He was another example of a nationalistic leader wanting to improve the lot of his country (particularly the poor and working class) through a means of social democracy. Definitely left-leaning, but no indication that there was going to be some sort "revolution" like Cuba. Certainly no reason to think he was following orders of a "bloc" puppetmaster or was hiding a secret Communist agenda to be used to infect the country and its neighbors.

But the US was concerned with those very things, speculating just how connected he was to the Soviets, Cubans, and other Communist nations. Just how far he would push to the left under their orders. By 1962, it seemed clear to the administration that it was "doubtful that a working relationship can be established with Jagan which would prevent the emergence of a communist or Castro type state in South America" (Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, 18 February). They "concurred reluctantly in the British timetable for independence" but continued to ask for new elections. Independence had to be under US conditions and with the appropriate candidate in power.

Britain was also greatly concerned at the beginning, especially during the early elections. But over time, they became more conciliatory, determining (particularly the Labour Party) with strong reservations the best course of action would be development (largely economically) as the key to making Guyana a stable, independent state (it still preferred it without Jagan as its leader).

A contrast to the US evaluation of him comes in a 1961 report by then governor Sir Ralph Gray. He was highly critical of most of the people involved (with the notable exception of Janet Jagan). He felt that the trouble would come from "administrative ineptitude, lack of capacity for decision and the general incompetence of Jagan and his associates" rather than from "ideology." He went on to "deplore the facile sticking of a Communist label on anything and everything my government does that offends conservative thought here" (

When he was elected (details to follow), it was on a platform of strengthening the rights of farmers and unions, creating a school system that was separate from religious control, and other "liberal" reforms, many aimed at the lower classes. He also had plans to seek economic development from outside the country. That became a problem, since like many others, he made the mistake of seeking ties with Cuba and other Communist nations, something the US could not tolerate—at the same time, he looked to noncommunist countries like the US and Britain for the same thing.

In the October meeting, he had even asked whether the US would consider it a "hostile act" if he sought "commercial ties" with bloc nations in order to trade bauxite ore for goods. He was told the US had some trade with bloc countries and said it would not be a problem as long as it did not "create a condition of dependence" which could be used as a Soviet "political instrument for applying pressure and trying to force damaging concessions to [Guyana'a] political interests and goals." Jagan left that meeting without the awareness that Kennedy and his advisers had already determined that he could not remain in power. Kennedy gave a direct order for him to be deposed.

Another of the "problems" was the restructuring of education. Taking the school system out from under the control of religious institutions (Christian) and putting it under control of the government was viewed as "proof" of his being a Communist and was used against him and his party. In reality, it was partly to make things more fair for Hindus and Muslims in the country.

Until 1953
Jagan and his wife quickly became politically involved in Guyana, starting in the unions. The biggest, most powerful unions were company unions, which gave the workers little choice or fair representation. They first took part in political elections (as candidates) in 1947. She lost, but he won, largely on the strength of his support among workers and unionists (lower level). It was during that time that the specter of "Communist" first arose. Use of the word as accusation was becoming popular in the West (especially in the US, of course) and it was also an easy charge for the plantation owners and business community (it was also popular with the church) to hurl at those seeking reform, expansion of rights for the poor and workers, and increased wages.

An incident in 1948, when colonial police opened fire on striking workers (as part of a general crackdown on labor organization) and killing some, galvanized the Jagans, making them determined to become a driving force in their county. Two years later, they helped for the People's Progressive Party (PPP). The Jagans were joined in their leadership capacity by Afro-Guyanese Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham. Though racial conflict was uncommon, support for Jagan was still predominantly from those of Indian descent. Burnham added a constituency of Afro-Guyanese to the popular support (not to say that there wasn't some cross-racial support).

The PPP made important progress in the 1950 election, though Janet was the only member to win a seat. They traveled throughout the region, as well as to the Deutsche Demokratische Republik ("East Germany"), the United Kingdom, and the United States. The party's anticapitalist sentiment and left-leaning reform proposals were a concern for Britain.

On the other hand, that year, Britain recommended universal adult suffrage—something that would end up increasing the power and support of the PPP. At the same time, the political power was being concentrated in the executive branch, leaving the (colonial) governor in charge. So while there was a great deal more ability to self-manage their own affairs, the Guyanese were still limited by Great Britain.

1953 elections

Short lived victory; CIA support of opposition unions
As a result of the recommendations, the constitution had been changed and elections planned for 1953. Despite opposition from the colonials, the plantation owners, and business elite (mainly charging the PPP of its alleged Communist agenda and plans), the party succeeded greatly, bolstered by a large turnout of the new suffragette Guyanese. The party won 18 of the 24 seats available and the legislature opened in May.

The PPP began an attempt to rapidly implement its progressive changes, something that further concerned the colonial leaders and the business class. As usual, they were denounced as Communists and warnings of the "threat" they supposedly posed were spread. Business did not like the idea of government regulation and limits, nor did it like more freedom for workers and unions. Though the PPP could be confrontational and outspoken, at no time did it act in any way that violated the constitution or would provoke violence or general uprising. One of its early actions was to try to repeal the Undesirable Publications Act, which banned any publication carrying views contrary to the British government—which by default made them "Communist." This would not sit well and added to the "proof" of the party's intentions for the country.

The proverbial straw that broke the colonial back was the introduction of the Labour Relations Bill. It was legislation that was intended to make it necessary for the planters to negotiate with the unions that the workers chose to represent them (rather than company unions or ones more aligned with the business elite). Besides the obvious objection, it effectively (whether or not intentionally) gave extra advantage to the Guiana Industrial Workers Union (GIWU), which happened to be fairly closely aligned with the party. The day the legislation was introduced, the GIWU went on strike in support of the proposed measures. It was called a Communist move by the conservative segments of society who called for colonial intervention.

Feeling this action&$151;mingling politics and unionism—to be challenging constitutional law and its authority to rule, the British took action. In October, the British government (under authority of the Queen) suspended the constitution, removed the government and sent in troops. The Colonial Secretary explained in a parliamentary debate that "Her majesty's Government are not prepared to tolerate the setting up of Communist states in the British Commonwealth" (Blum). The radio reported that the intervention was "to prevent Communist subversion of the Government and a dangerous crisis both in public order and in economic affairs" ( and the governor claimed that soldiers were patrolling the streets with guns ready in order to prevent or deal with any violence resulting from the events. There was no violence. The citizens of Guyana went about their days as they normally would.

Not so lucky were members of the PPP, many of whom were arrested and imprisoned under the declared state of emergency. When Jagan attempted to go to London to attend the debate on the matter, he was not allowed to pass through the US on the way. According to him Pan Am would not even sell him a ticket (Pan Am had a history of cooperating with US intelligence). This was the first obvious act of US involvement.

Unknown at the time, the US (CIA) had already been at work in Guyana for a few years, supporting opposition leaders and pro-business/anticommunist unions. This was done through "legitimate" channels due to the CIA's links to the American Federation of Labor. Initially through the Inter-American regional Labor Organization which would also be responsible for turning Guyana's Trade Unions Council (TUC) into an anticommunist organization (heavy CIA intervention in Guyana unions largely began following the 1957 elections).

Later, it also worked through the international trade union Public Services International (PSI). When finances became low for PSI, it was helped out by its US affiliate, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In 1967, the president of the union admitted that it had been funded up until 1964 by the CIA and its International Affairs Department (which was active in Guyana) was essentially being run at the time by intelligence operatives.

By 1954, the British colonial authority had created an interim administration made up of conservatives, business class, and PPP opposition—some of whom had been defeated in the popular elections. They started their run by repealing most of the PPP legislation. Strong restrictions were also placed on party members. In April, Jagan broke restrictions by traveling and speaking to supporters. He was imprisoned with hard labor for six months. His wife got the same sentence later that year for breaking her restrictions. She had attended a Hindu religious function in another town.

Tension had been growing within the PPP. After the elections, Burnham had contested for the top leadership position before accepting a lower one, with members close to him getting favorable positions. It came to a head in 1955 (encouraged by the press and allegedly by the British government) and he broke with the party, eventually forming his own People's National Congress (PNC) in 1957. While he was still advocating socialist reform, he was less "radical" and more sympathetic to the desires of the business class. This schism also created a strong shift along racial lines which would create serious problems later on.

1957 elections

Much to everyone's surprise, despite lobbying unionists, limitations imposed on the constitution, continued charges of Communism, and strong opposition from the PNC and other sources (those running for office and those not), the PPP again won the popular vote (48%) giving them 9 of 14 seats. The PNC only won 3.

Jagan immediately began making attempts to implement his progressive policies, often at odds with the colonial government, which would veto anything it felt was going too far. Some land reform and public works projects were started. They worked for workers rights and economic reform. He nationalized the electric company (then owned by a Canadian company) and pushed for further nationalization. Schools were brought under government control and educational reforms were worked on.

While never straying from his avowed leftist beliefs, he maintained that they must be "adapted to Guyana's own particular circumstances," in the words of the Country Study from the Library of Congress. Throughout the administration, the PPP continued to call for independence. In 1960, Jagan attended a Constitutional Conference in London, where he forcefully argued for it. Britain chose not to grant it at that time but allowed for internal self-government.

The next elections were to be held in 1961.

Continue to part two

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