Magazine article Monthly Review

Subversion in British Guiana: Why and How the Kennedy Administration Got Rid of a Democratic Government

Magazine article Monthly Review

Subversion in British Guiana: Why and How the Kennedy Administration Got Rid of a Democratic Government

Article excerpt

On June 30, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, his British counterpart Harold Macmillan, and a coterie of ambassadors, Foreign Ministers and assistants, met for talks at scenic Birch Grove, England. A joint press communique revealed that the delegations discussed issues of mutual and global importance, such as the multilateral force treaty. However, nowhere in the text of the communique is it mentioned that the question of British Guiana (now Guyana) figured prominently in the Birch Grove discussions. Macmillan's memoirs and those of Presidential Aide Theodore Sorenson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk all fail to acknowledge that British Guiana - a small, economically backward colony in South America with the population of a small American city - was actually the first subject on the agenda that summer day in 1963. Even Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Kennedy Administration only covers the Birch Grove meeting in one cryptic sentence: "... Macmillan said no on multilateral force and yes on British Guiana." It is only in recent years, with the partial declassification of documents surrounding U.S. relations with British Guiana, do we learn what Macmillan agreed to: a covert scheme to remove Cheddi Jagan, British Guiana's left-leaning but democratically elected leader, from power.

Origins: 1953-1961

The origins of this little-known tale of subversion (little-known because details remain secret even to this day) go back to 1953, when Jagan's Peoples' Progressive Party (PPP) first came to power in the colony of British Guiana. The PPP's leaders were young, independence-minded Guianese who, by and large, looked to socialism to end the cycle of economic dependency that colonialism had brought to their colony. Jagan openly expressed his admiration for communist governments - a politically naive move, in the context of the West's 1950s anticommunist fervor. It is little wonder, then, that the British Government used Jagan's first contentious piece of legislation, a 1953 labor relations bill that proposed an overhaul of the colony's labor union system, as proof that the PPP wanted to take British Guiana down the slippery slope towards communism. The British Government dissolved the PPP government only 133 days after the 1953 elections and quickly threw Jagan in prison.

In 1957, the Guianese people reelected Jagan and his PPP under a new and more restrictive constitution. This time, Jagan's first effort was to draft, in true "socialist" fashion, a Five-Year Plan for the economy. Because the British Guianese legislative assembly did not have taxation powers, Jagan sought foreign loans to implement his plan. He flirted with the Communist Bloc and Cuba and received some lucrative offers, all of which the British government in London disallowed. But Jagan remained determined to get the money he needed to implement his economic plan. So, in August 1961, after winning yet another election, he prepared to take his crusade for development aid directly to President Kennedy's Oval Office.

Jagan and the United States: "Whole-hearted Cooperation?"

It would be a gross exaggeration to say that all Americans knew or even cared about Cheddi Jagan; but those who did clearly did not like him. State Department files in the U.S. National Archives hold many hundreds of letters from U.S. citizens hostile to the idea of another Castro in the American hemisphere. The State Department responded to many of these letters by gently informing the writers that the British Guianese elected Jagan in a free and fair election and, despite what they read in the newspapers, Jagan never actually called himself a communist.

In the Senate, Thomas Dodd saw Jagan as a proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing, akin to Fidel Castro, who came to power in Cuba on a platform of reform and democracy - only to show later his communist stripes. For Dodd, the fact that Cheddi Jagan denied being a communist was irrelevant: "If an animal looks like a duck, walks like a duck and lives habitually with ducks, I believe that every rational person would be prepared to agree that the animal in question is a duck. …

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