Guyanese Politics
Home Up British Guiana (1962)



Raymond T. Smith

Copyright 2002:   All Rights Reserved

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Introduction: An Unlikely Story

The present-day Republic of Guyana is an insignificant remnant of the old British Empire, the only possession Britain ever held on the mainland of South America, uneasily resting between Venezuela and Brazil and adjoining two other fragments of European colonial empires, Suriname and Cayenne, erstwhile possessions of Holland and France respectively.  Guyana has no great economic or strategic value.  Most of its 83,000 square miles is uninhabited forest and infertile savannah, and its population of less than 800,000 is little, if any, better-off today that it was when Guyana became independent in 1966.

Why then, should its recent political history be of any but local interest?  Because it became an obsession of the United States during the Cold War and illustrates in a particularly vivid way the manner in which the State Department forced its views upon a reluctant British Government, distorting the social and political development of the country.  The officials of the United States government were not the only ones with a warped view of the importance of this small country; Guyanese leaders also had grandiose illusions of their own importance as players on the world stage.  Their ideas and behaviour are an interesting example of the so-called “ethnic politics” that came to dominate international relations at the end of the twentieth century.

Background to Tragedy

The colony of British Guiana had been formed in 1831 when the former separate Dutch colonies of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice were finally united into one entity governed from Georgetown, the former Dutch city of Stabroek.  Because British Guiana was a colony of conquest in which important elements of the old Dutch constitution had remained in effect, the domination of the British government was mediated through a series of institutions that could have afforded a measure of democratic participation once slavery had been abolished and a formal legal equality of all citizens established in 1838.  However, the local planter class, with the cooperation of the British administration, managed to subvert any such development and ensured that practical control remained in the hands of the planter class.  There were complex struggles, particularly between a local merchant class and the planters, whose economic interests diverged significantly, and this resulted in a lively political atmosphere throughout the nineteenth century.  This complex background is discussed in my book, British Guiana, published originally in 1962 by Oxford University Press.  Chapters III and VII contain the relevant information.  Suffice it to say here that in spite of a number of constitutional reforms during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, on the eve of World War II British Guiana had reverted to being a colony directly ruled from London for the benefit of the planters and merchants whose representatives dominated the limited organs of representative government.

Following widespread labour unrest, riots and disturbances throughout the Caribbean between 1935 and 1938, a commission was appointed by the British Government, the 1938 West India Royal Commission, to carry out a comprehensive investigation of the social and economic condition of all the British territories in the Caribbean.  Led by Lord Moyne, the Commission held public hearings throughout the region, including British Guiana, and recommended sweeping reforms in everything from employment practices and social welfare, to radical political change.  The full findings of the commission were not published until 1945 but an immediate start was made upon the implementation of less controversial recommendations.  The British government decided to make substantial increases in the amount of money available for colonial development of all kinds and set about creating a framework for change.  In 1943 in spite of the continuing war in Europe, further changes in the British Guiana constitution were enacted, reducing the property qualifications for candidates for the Legislative Council, removing the bar on women and clergymen, reducing the property or income qualifications for voters, and increasing the number of elected members to give them a majority in the Legislative Council.  The Governor retained control of the Executive Council and the right to disallow or pass legislation against the wishes of the now mainly elected Legislative Council.  Owing to delays occasioned by the war no general elections were held after 1935 until November 1947, by which time new political forces were beginning to emerge and the beginnings of political party organization could be faintly discerned.

The next major revision took place in 1953 following upon the recommendations of the Constitutional Commission of 1950-51, and this inaugurated the phase of constitutional and political development with which I am mainly concerned here.  I shall present the outline of the 1953 constitution, the events leading up to its suspension and partial restoration, and the manner in which the British and United States governments influenced the internal affairs of the country, including the development of political party organization.

By 1950 other West Indian territories were moving toward some degree of internal self-government and the British intention of allowing only a slow development toward independence was being challenged by various nationalist parties.  Accordingly the three-member Constitutional Commission of 1950-51 felt obliged to recommend drastic changes in the constitution of British Guiana, placing it on the road to eventual self government.  At the same time they clearly did not wish to strip the Governor of his substantial control of policy and so they devised a series of changes in keeping with a long tradition of appearing to devolve responsibility while retaining real power in the hands of British interests.

For the first time all persons of 21 years and older would be allowed to vote, whether they were literate in English or not, for 24 members of a House of Assembly.  However, that Assembly was also to contain three ex-officio members of the colonial government; the Chief Secretary, the Financial Secretary and the Attorney-General.  An upper chamber, the State Council, was created to have limited revisionary powers.  Here the Governor had the upper hand since he nominated no less than 6 members of this nine member body, with 2 being nominated by the majority group and one by the minority group in the House of Assembly.  Although candidates for election were required to be literate in English they were no longer subject to any property or income qualification. 

The final instrument for retaining power in the hands of the British government was the executive body, called the Court of Policy in deference to British Guiana’s historic Dutch constitution.  This body was to consist of the Governor, Chief Secretary, Financial Secretary, Attorney-General, and seven ministers, six of them elected members of the House of Assembly and one minister without portfolio to be chosen by the State Council.  Each minister was to be individually responsible to the Governor.  The expectation seems to have been that the seven ministers would have no collective identity or responsibility, but that expectation was seriously wrong for by the time the first elections were held under this constitution, in 1953, political parties were much in evidence and one of them, the People’s Progressive Party, had secured wide spread support.

Although political parties as such were unknown in British Guiana, interest groups of one kind or another had been common.  The most obvious and powerful was the sugar interest; that is, the loose association of owners of sugar plantations and sugar factories that had long been the dominant voice in local politics.  By the early 1950s consolidation in the sugar industry had resulted in the creation of one huge conglomerate, “Bookers,” and a couple of smaller companies controlling the whole of the industry.  Indeed, Booker Brothers, McConnell & Co., Limited had, by 1953, become the parent Group Board of a number of Operating Companies, the largest of which was Bookers Sugar Estates Limited which operated eleven of the fifteen large sugar estates in British Guiana.  The Group Board also oversaw the activities of a range of semi-independent companies engaged in activities as diverse as shipping, retail and wholesale trade, printing, engineering, rum production and sales.  Inevitably Bookers became the symbol of colonial domination, and try as it might the company was unable to transform itself rapidly enough to erase its past.  After various efforts to modernize its operations and improve its appalling labour relations and working conditions, its top management prudently began to diversify operations into other countries.  By 1959 the bulk of its profits still came from enterprises in British Guiana, of which sugar remained the most important, but new—or newly acquired—businesses in Britain and Canada were increasing in importance, while enterprises in Central Africa were contributing to the profits of the group as a whole.  The book by David Hollett, Passage from India to El Dorado: Guyana and the Great Migration (Madison, Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999), deals in some detail with the early history of the enterprises that came to be incorporated in the Booker Group.

Another major economic interest was bauxite mining.  In 1914 the Demerara Bauxite Company was formed by American and Canadian aluminium interests and began to exploit the rich deposits situated some 60–70 miles up the Demerara river at Mackenzie.  The company eventually became a subsidiary of Aluminium Ltd., and complementary to the Aluminium Company of Canada.  The only other company producing bauxite at this time was the Reynolds Metals Company operating at Kwakwani, up the Berbice river.  The Reynolds mine produced 225,023 long tons in 1957, as opposed to 1,976,880 long tons from the Mackenzie mine.

Most of British Guiana’s bauxite was shipped as raw ore to the parent companies’ plants in Canada and the United States, but a small proportion was calcined and the Demerara Bauxite Company started an alumina plant at Mackenzie.  Compared to Jamaica, where a bauxite industry was established as recently as 1942, British Guiana derived little benefit from its bauxite industry.  The companies established mining towns in which excellent provision was made for workers’ accommodation, health, and recreation but they were necessarily small and the total effect of the bauxite industry on employment figures was not very significant.

It is against this background of colonial exploitative industries that the development of nationalist politics must be seen.  A full account of that development can be found in my book British Guiana; suffice it to say here that after the 1953 elections, the Peoples Progressive Party won an overwhelming (and unexpected even to its leaders) victory, and assumed office. The aims of the party had been clear from its inception and similar in all respects to those of nationalist parties in other British colonies.  It stood for self-government, economic development, and the creation of a socialist society.  Such aims implied a complete social revolution, were really incompatible with the declared British policy of gradual advance to self-government, and neglected many of the problems of radically altering the economy of a poor, under­populated colony in the western hemisphere.  From the beginning the party was labelled communist by the conservative press, and although this was mainly a device to discredit radicalism of any kind there is no doubt that many of the party leaders found inspiration in the writings of communist theoreticians and in the techniques of rapid economic development that they believed had been employed in countries such as Russia and China.  The communist ethic of the brotherhood of all men, and the possibility of creating a just and prosperous society through the application of the supposedly basic laws of social and economic organization, provided just the kind of unifying force that could provide the way out of the tangle of petty preoccupations and factional struggle, or so it seemed to many educated Guianese.  Neither in the country at large nor in such intellectual circles as existed, was there much informed discussion of either Marxism or of economic development; the opposition merely seized upon the word ‘communism’ and attempted to equate it with evil, so that words such as “red,” “communist,” “imperialist,” and “exploitation” became so many weapons hurled back and forth until they tended to obscure the real issues and to make rational action less easy for anyone.

It is not difficult to see that these preoccupations with ideological posturing, on both sides, was closely aligned with post-war international conflicts, and particularly with the growing hysteria in the United States over the power of the USSR and the possibility of communist subversion.  The Peoples Progressive Party was led by two men, each ambitious, charismatic, and capable of mobilizing the support of the mass of the two principal racial groups, East Indians and Africans (as they were respectively termed in British Guiana itself).  Dr. Cheddi Jagan, a young dentist, the son of an East Indian estate ‘driver’ (overseer), who had spent seven years working his way through college and dental school in Washington and Chicago, had returned to British Guiana in 1943 and soon afterwards formed the precursor organization that would eventually become the P.P.P..  Both he and the American woman he had married, were passionately interested in politics and both took a left-wing, Marxist view of the British Guiana situation, seeing it as part of a wider problem of colonialism and capitalist exploitation.  The other leader was Mr. L.F.S. Burnham, a young African barrister who returned to British Guiana from London in 1949, became President of the British Guiana Labour Union, and threw in his lot with the People’s Progressive Party when it was formed in 1950.  The danger of racial identity politics was obvious to everyone in the early 1950s and the very extremism of the left wing ideology constituted a transcendent vehicle for moving the country forward.  However, two factors militated against such a development.  The determined opposition of the United States to any manifestation of “communist” sympathies, and the political ambitions of the two “leaders”—Jagan and Burnham.

In the other major Anglophone Caribbean territories, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados, ideologically left-wing leaders had been unable to dominate nationalist parties.  In Jamaica two major parties, each ostensibly representing labour, made it impossible for either one to completely dominate the electoral process.  Furthermore, the more manifestly socialist party, the Peoples National Party, was internally divided into left and right wings, and in 1952 the conflict came to a head with the forced resignation of several members of the left wing including three extremely able politicians, Richard Hart, Ken Hill and Frank Hill.  Thus Jamaica avoided the censure of the United States and Richard Hart maintained close contact with the Jagans in British Guiana, becoming for a while the editor of the P.P.P. newspaper, Thunder.

No sooner had the results of the 1953 election been announced than there was competition over the distribution of power and offices in the new government.  Again, this is described at great length elsewhere and need not be repeated here (see Jagan 1954; Smith 1962).  These internal disputes were resolved (or at least contained), the party assumed office, and proceeded to act as though they were in fact governing the country rather than operating under a constitution that limited the activities of the elected officials and required a great deal of cooperation with the governor and colonial office officials.  Serious conflict soon developed in the relationship with the governor.

The Labour Party government in Britain had selected Sir Alfred Savage to be governor of British Guiana precisely because it was assumed that he would be sympathetic to the self-government aspirations of the Guianese.  Like Sir Andrew Cohen whose policies also came to grief in Uganda, he was selected for his left-wing sympathies.  In the event those sympathies made it even more galling when the leaders of the Peoples Progressive Party pointedly refused to play their appointed role, and insisted on precipitating crises and conflicts whenever possible in order to make clear the gap between their conception of self-government and that provided in the constitution.  There was absolutely no occasion on which the elected ministers stepped outside the bounds of constitutional legality; the crisis they wished to provoke was one which showed what they considered to be the inherent weakness of the constitution and not one that would involve violence or illegal acts.

On 9 October 1953 Radio Demerara announced that ‘Her Majesty’s Government have decided that the constitution of British Guiana must be suspended to prevent Communist subversion of the Government and a dangerous crisis both in public order and in economic affairs.’   The governor then made a broadcast speech explaining the presence of British troops who were patrolling the streets with guns at the ready, having been landed overnight to anticipate any violence that might have followed his announcement.  In fact there was no violence and Guyanese went about their business as though nothing had happened, including attending in record numbers the inter­colonial cricket match between British Guiana and Trinidad that began that very day  in Georgetown and went off without incident.

A British Government White Paper, published on 20 October, attempted to make the case for the suspension of the constitution, but the case was remarkably weak  (for details see British Guiana, Chapter 7).  Nonetheless, party leaders were imprisoned for technical breaches of the security regulations and the governor assumed direct control.  Thus began a long process of trying to find a way to transfer power and authority to an elected government, while at the same time ensuring that only persons acceptable to Britain and the United States were elected.   Sir Alfred Savage was soon replaced by a governor reputed to be made of sterner stuff; whatever the truth, Guianese soon came to think of Sir Patrick Renison as a hard man who would force through measures designed to neutralize the communist threat.  In fact I found him to be moderate and pleasant, perhaps because he had studied anthropology at Cambridge at some time in his career.

Between 1953 and the end of the decade the British Government tried to shore up the more conservative political elements and to shift electoral support away from Dr. Jagan and the P.P.P..  In 1955 Mr. Burnham made a decisive break with the Jagans and subsequently formed a rival party, the Peoples National Congress.  Both Jagan and Burnham, recognizing the realities of international power politics, went out of their way to gain the support of the United States, and particularly economic support for various schemes of development.  Quite early in the process officials in Washington had made up their minds that Dr. and Mrs. Jagan were either communists or communist sympathizers and therefore unacceptable as the political leaders of a country, no matter how small and insignificant, within the sphere of interest of the United States.  Officials and politicians alike soon came to see Mr. Burnham as the solution to their problems if only they could get his party elected and in power, for he seemed to be, in their terms, a moderate.  There is no doubt that Burnham was quickly made aware of these United States views and this determined his course of action within British Guiana itself, including his break with Jagan, his founding of the People's National Congress, and his various alliances with right-wing fractions.

From a purely local perspective many of these party loyalty realignments represent a rearrangement along racial lines, while others resulted from the crystallization of minority-group economic and status interests.  Since those interests often overlapped racial group differences, the exact basis of the alignments was not always easy to distinguish.  It is clear enough at the time that the polarization of leadership around Dr Jagan and Mr Burnham was fraught with danger.  In the absence of any serious ideological difference between them, and given the fact that Mr Burnham broke away from the main party which remained for the time being the repository of socialist doctrine, Mr Burnham had to depend upon a sectional appeal to the urban Negro electorate.  The most serious problem of British Guiana politics at that stage was that Mr Burnham’s party became more and more purely Negro in character, and worse still, that many of his supporters became more anti-Indian.  There was much talk about British Guiana being a plural society and even at that stage it was evident that proportional representation on the basis of race was an option that could be written into the final constitution.  In British Guiana, published in 1962 I wrote:

It is to be hoped that such a bid, if made, would be unsuccessful, for it would be a most seriously retrograde step from which the country might never recover.  The whole trend has been in the direction of creating a unified society within which there is a high degree of religious and cultural freedom and racial tolerance.  At this crucial stage in the country’s development not even open racial conflict and violence would justify a departure from the principle of a united society in which racial differences are ignored at the political and administrative levels.  It would be an act of statesmanship on the part of British Guiana’s politicians if they could form some sort of coalition, or if a reunited party similar to the old People’s Progressive Party could be formed with the express intention of tackling the urgent problems of economic development.  Quite apart from helping to counteract tendencies to racial division, such a coalition would be more likely to produce a leadership capable of exploiting all the available sources of economic aid without becoming over-dependent upon either east or west (Smith 1962: 182-3).

It is against this background that one must consider the influence of United States policy and the determined efforts of a badly misinformed State Department staff to impose their will upon the British government and its much more knowledgeable bureaucrats.

British Colonialism and American “Interests”

In spite of a few deluded moments when some Europeans thought of colonialism as a civilizing mission, both colonized and colonizers knew quite well that colonies were administered for the benefit of the companies that ran the colonial economic enterprises.  Of nowhere was this more true than of British Guiana.  A succession of governors and administrators took it for granted that the colony would not be viable were it not for the sugar plantations and other enterprises owned and managed by British companies, and no matter how liberal, compassionate and humane they might have been they rarely acted against the interests of the “planter class,” as that economic bloc was known.

The Communist "Threat"

The United States had virtually no economic interests in British Guiana.  There had been talk from time to time of American capital building a railway, or a road, or both from the coast south through the country to the heartland of Brazil, but nothing had come of it.  By the early 1950s bauxite mining was a highly profitable industry fuelled by Canadian and United States capital.  While bauxite had been a strategic mineral during World War II it was less so after the war and increasing world wide production was making it less profitable.  However, with the deepening of the Cold War, the United States increasingly regarded the Caribbean as a part of its most important sphere of influence; a strategic area in which it had overwhelming political interests and throughout which it was prepared to deploy whatever resources were necessary to prevent governments coming to power that were by any stretch of the imagination “communist.”[1]  At the same time the United States liked to strike a pose as the champion of “democracy” and the opponent of “colonialism.”  Its politicians and bureaucrats seemed to justify support for the most brutal and repressive anti-communist regimes as the lesser of many evils, a political stance that has continued right up to the present.  In British Guiana the tragic consequences of this policy are particularly clear, as was the profound difference between British and American views on how to manage the Cold War.  The story can begin with a seemingly bland attempt at an objective assessment of the “problem” for Washington on the eve of an election that the British Government regarded as the necessary prelude to the transfer of power to an independent British Guiana.  I include the document in full. [A note on Sources]

242. Special National Intelligence Estimate[3]

SNIE 87.2 61                                                                                                 

                                                                                Washington, March 21, 1961


The Problem

To estimate the political situation and prospects in British Guiana with particular reference to the coming elections and Communist potential in the colony.

The Estimate

1. British Guiana is a small outpost of empire with a population of over half a million about half East Indian in origin and about a third of African decent. The remainder of the population includes small numbers of British, Portuguese, native Indian, and Chinese residents. Partially self-governing since elections in 1957, the colony is scheduled to assume increased responsibilities for its own affairs following new elections on 21 August 1961 and, if all goes well, to gain full independence two or three years thereafter.

2. The politics of British Guiana is dominated by the Communist led People’s Progressive Party (PPP) of Cheddi Jagan. Jagan is an East Indian, and his party draws its support almost entirely from East Indians, including not only poverty-stricken rural and urban workers, but also a considerable number of small businessmen in Georgetown and other centers.  Jagan’s US born wife, who exercises very strong influence over him, is an acknowledged Communist. She shares with Jagan control of the PPP and is a government minister. Several other PPP leaders are believed to be Communists. Jagan himself is not an acknowledged Communist, but his statements and actions over the years bear the marks of the indoctrination and advice the Communists have given him. While there is no Communist party per se in British Guiana, a number of the leaders in the PPP have been members of, or associated with, Communist parties or their front groups in the US and the UK.

3. Moreover, these individual leaders maintain sporadic courier and liaison contacts with the British and US Communists and with Communist Bloc missions in London. Both Jagans have visited Cuba in the past year and have since chosen to identify the PPP with Castro’s cause.  However, neither the Communist Bloc nor Castro has made any vigorous effort to exploit the British Guiana situation.

4. The principal opposition to Jagan’s party is the People's National Congress (PNC), a socialist party made up largely of city negroes [sic].  It is under the ineffectual leadership of Forbes Burnham, a negro and a doctrinaire socialist.  Like most British Guiana politicians he was at one time allied with Jagan, and indeed was second to Jagan in leadership of the PPP.  The United Force (UF), a party made up largely from businessmen of various ethnic groups, was recently organized and has not demonstrated any wide popular appeal.  Neither it nor the PNC is disposed to work with the other to present Jagan with a united opposition; previous efforts at coalition have failed.

5. The elections scheduled for August 1961 will be one of the last steps preparatory to independence, which the British have agreed to grant approximately 18 months after The West Indies achieve independence in 1962 or 1963. With the next elections not due for another five years, the winning party in this year’s contest will carry the government through independence.  During the transition period, the local British officials will retain ultimate authority for external affairs (including defense) but their present over-all veto power will be narrowed to these matters.  After the elections, the local government will assume full control of the police.

6. The election seems likely to hinge mainly on personalities and to be decided by voting along ethnic lines—though racial antagonisms have not been deliberately stirred up.  Social and economic problems, though they will certainly be issues in the election, have not yet made as much popular impact in British Guiana as they have in most of the Latin American area.  The PPP has promised to put through various schemes of economic development but has been ineffectual in fulfilling its promises, partly through lack of technicians and funds.  It wants to get more money out of the US developed bauxite resources of the country. The good rice crop of the past year has made the economic situation seem improved and for the time being has tended not only to obscure PPP shortcomings but even to redound to the party’s credit.  The PNC stands for anticommunism and the desirability of joining The West Indies (in contrast to Jagan’s anti-federation stance), but these are not popular issues.  The UF’s appeal against communism and for a businessman’s government is even less effective.

7. Of the 35 districts from which members of the Legislative Council will be elected next August, the PPP appears certain of victory in 13, the PNC in 15 or 16.  Thus, control of the government will be determined by the electoral outcome in a half dozen or so of the 35 districts.  A PNC-UF coalition could take enough of these to assure itself a majority in the Legislative Council; but it is unlikely that such a coalition will be formed.  Without such cooperation between the opposition parties, Jagan is almost certain to win in most of the pivotal districts. Accordingly, we believe that Jagan’s PPP will probably succeed in winning the right to form the next government.

8. From time to time Jagan has threatened to boycott the elections, on the grounds that a redrawing of the boundaries of electoral districts, carried out by a British-appointed commissioner, was adverse to PPP interests. We think it highly unlikely that he will carry out his threat and certainly he will not do so unless he believes his party is going to lose the elections.

9. Jagan’s election as Chief Minister in the pre-independence phase would not be likely to result in a dramatic and sudden shift to the left, since he would probably seek to avoid action which would discourage the granting of independence by the British and recognizes that he would lack sufficient support for a revolutionary attempt to force the British out.  He is almost certainly mindful of the effectiveness with which the British moved in with force in 1953, when they feared he might try to set up a Communist regime.

10. However, with a new electoral mandate, Jagan will probably make a more determined effort to improve economic conditions than he has heretofore. This will entail pressure on the UK and the US for economic assistance considerably above present levels.  If he feels that economic aid from the West is not adequate to fulfill requirements for development he will go elsewhere being careful not to provoke the British.  He has already indicated interest in an alleged Cuban offer of an $8.5 million low-interest loan.  At the same time, he may threaten nationalization or confiscation of foreign and local businesses to extract additional revenues and benefits.

11. How far a Jagan government might go after eventual achievement of independence is obscured by uncertainty about the nature and extent of his actual commitment to Communist discipline and about the tactical aims of the Bloc with respect to British Guiana.  We believe that British Guiana will obtain membership in the UN upon independence, and that it will align itself under Jagan with Afro-Asian neutralism and anti-colonialism.  At a minimum, we would expect his government to be assertively nationalistic, sympathetic to Cuba, and prepared to enter into economic and diplomatic relations with the Bloc, although such a government would probably still be influenced by the desire to obtain economic help from the UK and the US.  A good deal will depend on how far the spirit of social revolution has spread in nearby areas of Latin America.  We think it unlikely that Jagan would give up his opposition to joining the federation of The West Indies (TWI), which would offer few economic rewards and would subordinate his regime to outside and predominantly conservative influences.

12. It is possible that Jagan, once he had a free hand, would proceed forthwith with an effort to establish an avowed Communist regime.  However, we believe that he would consider this undesirable, even if he were fully committed to eventual establishment of such a state, in view of the lack of trained cadres in British Guiana, the territory’s primitive state of political and social development, and the likelihood of adverse international reactions. We consider it more likely that an independent Jagan government would seek to portray itself as an instrument of reformist nationalism which would gradually move in the direction of Castro's Cuba. Such a regime would almost certainly be strongly encouraged and supported by Castro and the Bloc.

13. Before independence, the attitude and actions of the British will bear heavily on the situation in British Guiana. Thus far the British seem to have been motivated chiefly by a desire to see British Guiana independent. They have tried to get along with Jagan and to overlook his Communist associations because he has seemed to them the only man capable of running the country.  Since their intervention in 1953 to halt Jagan’s first bid for power, they have refrained from actions which would antagonize him; the Governor’s veto power has never been used.  Even though they retain the capability for confronting Jagan, we believe they will do little to interfere with political developments in British Guiana.

The above document exhibits a superficial knowledge of British Guiana and its affairs but the preoccupation with communism is patent and exasperation with supposed British naiveté and lack of cooperation breaks through the bureaucratic tone of the document.

British Pragmatism

The contrast with a report submitted to the Secretary of State for the Colonies by the then Governor of British Guiana, Sir Ralph Grey, on March 10th 1961 is striking.  Grey had assumed the post of Governor on December 22nd 1959, so that he had been in British Guiana for a little over a year when he finished writing his report.  Entitled British Guiana in 1961, and marked “Secret: For United Kingdom Eyes Only,” it is long, detailed, and reveals an intimate knowledge of the situation in the country based on his working relationships with Guianese politicians (UK Public Records Office Reference: CO 1031/3137).  Certain themes are constant.  As an administrator, nearing the end of a career as a colonial bureaucrat, he is impatient with the perceived incompetence of Cheddi Jagan and his fellow politicians.  The only person for whom he has a kind word, (many kind words in fact), is Janet Jagan whom he regards as an efficient, realistic and sensible person who runs both the party (she was Secretary-General of the People’s Progressive Party) and her department (she was Minister of Labour, Health and Housing), with an efficiency unusual for British Guiana.  Of her he writes that she is “a forceful, ambitious Jewish-American … of Czech descent (Mrs. Janet Jagan, née Rosenberg) with a Communist background” (p. 2).  Of Forbes Burnham he is content to quote Sir Patrick Renison who, in an earlier secret report described Burnham as "cynical, superficial, unreliable, prejudiced and irrational."  Grey is certainly more favourably inclined toward the Jagans than toward Burnham, and much of his report attempts to counter the idea that if Jagan wins the coming election and becomes Premier he will inevitably take British Guiana into the communist fold.  The problem with British Guiana is not its communist leanings but the incompetence and romanticism of its people and their political leaders.

Referring to intelligence estimates that the Jagans are likely after independence to take an increasingly communist line, he writes:

My personal opinion is that the dangers to the health of this part of the free world that are to be apprehended in British Guiana result from the administrative ineptitude, lack of capacity for decision and general incompetence of Jagan and his associates (other than Mrs. Jagan) rather than from his ideology and his friends. … I deplore the facile sticking of a Communist label on anything and everything my government does that offends conservative thought here [p. 9].

He goes on to cite the case of the government’s intention to assume the control and management of the 51 schools operated by Christian denominations, but financed by government funds.  Although the majority of leaders of the Christian churches, including the Archbishop, had been noisily denouncing this proposal as evidence of the communist nature of the government, in fact it was driven by Hindu and Muslim objections to the restrictive recruitment of teachers.

Only at the end of his long despatch does he take up the issue of the danger of communist influence on the future of the country, concluding that if such a danger exists it could, and should, be countered by a policy of genuine cooperation in economic development.  At the same time he concedes the difficulty of persuading Dr. Jagan of the difficulties in such development, since he persists in the notion that the mere action of devoting unlimited financial resources is in itself sufficient to solve problems when in fact the major difficulty lies in finding skilled personnel.  After reviewing the likely outcome of the elections due in August of 1961 and the subsequent move toward independence, Sir Ralph Grey clearly expects that Dr. Jagan and the P.P.P. will prevail and that Britain will honour its commitment to grant self-government.  While aware of the misgivings of the United States government, he makes it abundantly clear that intelligence estimates are wrong and that the major problem in British Guiana is incompetence rather that any dedication to ideology.  This is precisely the position he took when I discussed the future with him during one of my visits to British Guiana in the early 1960s and I am certain that he had no part in the subsequent decision to introduce a change in the electoral system in order to help Forbes Burnham achieve power.

The position taken by Sir Ralph Grey was generally shared in Britain, and even by United States officials in Georgetown.  On April 6th of 1961 a meeting took place in Washington between Lord Home, the British Foreign Secretary, and Dean Rusk, the United States Secretary for Foreign Affairs, in which the subject of British Guiana was raised briefly.

Mr. White reported that at the present time a joint appraisal of the situation in British Guiana is taking place in London. Later in the month Sir Ralph Grey, the Governor, and Mr. Mackintosh, of the Colonial Office, are passing through Washington. At that time we are to consider possible programs.  Sir Frederick frankly conceded that the UK does not know what to do about the U.S. concerns about British Guiana.  Lord Home thought they could give us a note on the problem.  Mr. White commented we were familiar with the Colonial Office’s views and that the UK is committed to a date for British Guiana’s independence.  Mr. Kohler observed a fixed independence date was all right assuming there will be a reasonable government at that date.  Isn’t there some way we could encourage the moderates?  Ambassador Caccia felt the Jagans provided the most responsible leadership in the country and they would be difficult to supplant.  Mr. White stressed that we ought to work in the direction of getting the people in British Guiana interested in British Guiana’s joining the Federation.  Lord Home agreed and said the UK would like to see British Guiana in the Federation and would be willing to consult with us to further them in this direction.

At a meeting of the United States National Security Council held on May 5th 1961 this exchange was referred to equally briefly, and it was “Agreed that the Task Force on Cuba would consider what can be done in cooperation with the British to forestall a communist take over in that country” [that is, in British Guiana]. [243. Memorandum from the Executive Secretary of the Department of State (Battle) to the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) Washington, May 19, 1961.]

The Cuban Connection

The linking of British Guiana and Cuba was extremely important.  The infamous Bay of Pigs operation had taken place in April of 1961, when an invasion force of Cuban exiles, backed and encouraged by the CIA, had been routed by Cuban forces.  John F. Kennedy had been inaugurated in January of 1961 and this was a considerable humiliation for his new government, especially as the failure of the operation was due in large part to the lack of support from the United States Air Force.  Henceforth British Guiana would continue to be associated with Cuba in the thinking of United States officials and politicians.  It has been difficult for outsiders, and certainly difficult for me, to understand the basis for United States policy toward Cuba, and certainly this linkage to British Guiana made no sense whatsoever, even after the notorious “Cuban missile crisis.”  Long before those events it is clear that Kennedy and his advisers had decided against the British view that Jagan and the P.P.P., as the inevitable winners of democratically conducted elections, should be given massive economic aid as a means of linking British Guiana’s development to the west.


In August of 1961 the People’s Progressive Party duly won the elections under an improved constitution that the British agreed would be the precursor of independence.  Dr. Jagan became the first Premier and Burnham publicly renewed his pre-election pledge to support the demand for immediate independence.  However, the United States had already decided that it should proceed with covert attempts to prevent Jagan becoming the Prime Minister or President of an independent British Guiana.  Although the Special National Intelligence Estimate reproduced above did not explicitly recommend covert action it is clear from other sources that such action was already under way.  For example, on August 31st 1961, Special Assistant Schlesinger forwarded to President Kennedy a State Department paper on British Guiana.  In it he said:

I have also communicated to Johnson your particular concern over the covert program and your desire to know more detail before the State Department group goes to London. The present covert program is set forth under Tab B m the attached file. You will note that the first emphasis is (properly) on intelligence collection, with covert political action to come later. Part II (if Jagan should turn sour) seems to me pretty feeble, but it is also pretty tentative. Johnson emphasizes that the [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] paper is “only a basis for planning and discussion, as appropriate with the British, and specific action will be subject to the usual Special Group consideration and approval.”

During the election campaign of 1961 there had been a stepping up of anti-communist propaganda by opposition parties, and anti-communist campaigners from North America had been very much in evidence.   Something called the Christian Anti-communist Crusade, with its representatives Dr. Fred Schwartz and Dr. Joost Sluis, was extremely active in early 1961.

Immediately upon being elected Dr. Jagan arranged to visit the United States with the express purpose of obtaining economic development assistance.  On October 25th 1961 Premier Jagan met President Kennedy at the White House.  Apart from the two principals the meeting was attended by Professor Schlesinger, Special Assistant to the President, Mr. George Ball, Under-Secretary of State, Mr. Richard Goodwin, Presidential Assistant, and Mr. William R. Tyler, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe.  The Memorandum of Conversation for that meeting is as follows;

The greater part of the meeting was taken up by an extensive presentation by Premier Jagan of the economic and social problems of British Guiana and of the plans and goals which Premier Jagan's government has under consideration.

Premier Jagan described himself politically as a socialist and a believer in state planning. At the same time, he was at pains to emphasize the guarantees for political freedom which he had personally incorporated into the British Guiana constitution, such as the democratic freedoms, an independent judiciary, and an independent civil service in the British tradition. While professing to be a follower of Aneurin Bevan, he was evasive on all ideological and doctrinal issues, claiming that he was not sufficiently familiar with theory to distinguish between "the various forms of socialism", within which he appeared to include communism. He spoke at all times of 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. The terminology he used was less forthright than in his speech, and in answer to questions, at the National Press Club luncheon on October 24.

Premier Jagan analyzed the political composition of British Guiana and the antecedents of the recent elections. He said that his political rivals (Burnham of the PNC and D'Aguiar of the UF) had made wild promises of obtaining vast sums of aid, if elected.  He said that they had done this irresponsibly and that in the case of D'Aguiar he had undoubtedly received aid from the United States in his campaign.  The President interjected to say that the United States Government had certainly not intervened in any way, directly or indirectly, in the internal affairs of British Guiana.  Premier Jagan said that he had not intended to imply this, but that certain "forces" had subsidized the political campaign with his opponents.  He alluded to certain films "shown on street corners by USIS" during the campaign, which were directed against Castro and communism in general and which had been exploited by his political opponents against him and his party. He said he had no objection to USIS carrying out it program in normal times, but that these particular activities during the pre-election period had constituted intervention against which he had protested. He said he must obtain aid to carry out his urgent domestic program, and that this was a political necessity for him, as he was "on the hot seat."

The President stressed to Premier Jagan that the internal system and the political and economic philosophies of a country were, to us, a matter for it to decide. The important thing for us was whether a given country, whether we agreed with its internal system or not, was politically independent. The President pointed out that we had given very considerable sums of aid to Yugoslavia, which is a communist state. He also referred to the considerable amount of aid we had given to Brazil and to India.

Premier Jagan asked whether the United States would consider as a hostile act a commercial agreement between British Guiana and the communist bloc whereby British Guiana would export bauxite in return for the importation of commodities.

The President pointed out that the United States and its allies were engaged in trade with the communist bloc, thus we would not consider trade per se to have political significance. However, if the nature and the extent of trade between British Guiana and the Soviet bloc were such as to create a condition of dependence of the economy of British Guiana on the Soviet bloc, then this would amount to giving the Soviet Union a political instrument for applying pressure and trying to force damaging concessions to its political interests and goals. Under Secretary Ball emphasized the experience of Guinea in this connection.

The President concluded the formal discussion by saying that he understood and sympathized with the political, economic and social problems which Premier Jagan was facing, and that the United States was disposed and willing to help British Guiana to move toward its economic and social goals within a framework of political freedom and independence. He pointed out that our resources were limited and that we had worldwide commitments, all of which made it necessary for us to examine very carefully specific projects on which we might be in a position to help. The President said that he had made it a rule not to discuss or offer specific sums of money, but that the United States would be prepared to send down to British Guiana as soon as feasible experts who could work with Premier Jagan's government and make recommendations which we would consider sympathetically in the light of our other commitments and of our financial resources.  [259. Memorandum of ConversationWashington, October 25,1961,11 a.m.  SUBJECT: Call of Premier Jagan of British Guiana on the President].

On the following day, October 26th 1961, Dr. Jagan had asked for and expected to get, a further meeting with President Kennedy but Kennedy sent a note by his Special Assistant, Dr. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., saying that his crowded schedule would not permit it.  In fact Kennedy had already decided that Jagan would get no economic assistance from the United States.  In his book The Dark Side of Camelot, Seymour Hersh refers to a story that appeared in The New York Times in 1994, based upon still classified documents, that detailed the manner in which John F. Kennedy, immediately after Jagan's departure on the 25th, gave a direct order to his national security officials to depose Cheddi Jagan by whatever means necessary [Hersh, S. 1997, pp. 265-7].  As Hersh points out this blatant disregard for human values stemmed from the fact that "Cheddi Jagan was a surrogate for the real target of Presidential obsession--Fidel Castro" [Hersh p. 257].



[1] These attitudes persisted until the break-up of the Soviet Union and found their most incredible expression in the sorry spectacle of the “invasion” of the tiny island of Grenada in 1983.  A State Department official, Mr. Kenneth Dam, actually justified the landing of troops and the mistaken bombing of a mental hospital, on the grounds that Grenada represented the gateway to the western hemisphere, thus posing a major strategic threat to the United States of America.

 [A Note on Sources.  All documents cited in this section are taken from U.S. Department of State 1966. Foreign Relations of the United States 1961-1963. Volume XII: American Republics.  Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.  There is a subsequent microfiche supplement to this volume but it contains no additional material on British Guiana.

The documents on British Guiana from the printed Volume XII were scanned and posted, with an explanation of the way in which they were reproduced, on the Web Site, Guyana Land of Six Peoples (URL  They contain many transcription errors and lack all footnotes from the original but are nonetheless a useful source for preliminary scrutiny.]

[3] Source: Central Intelligence Agency Files, Job 79-R01012A, ODDI Registry.  Secret. A note on the cover sheets indicates that this SNIE was prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency and the intelligence organizations of the Departments of State, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Joint Staff, and concurred in by all members of the U.S. Intelligence Board on March 21 except the representatives of the AEC and the Assistant Director of the FBI, who abstained because the subject was outside their jurisdiction.



[Note 1] H.C. Deb., vol. 518, Col. 2270.

[Note 2] Ibid., col. 2187.



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