I just finished reading the book U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story by Stephen Rabe. One in a series of textbooks on the Cold War published by the University of North Carolina Press, the book explores the United States’ heavy hand in undermining democracy in Guyana and the tragic, enduring legacy of that meddling.
I’ve read a lot about Guyana and knew the broad outlines of these events from other sources. Of course, the wreckage caused by British imperialism remains the key to understanding the Guyana one encounters today. However, the years leading up to Guyana’s independence were marked by great hopefulness and opportunity. Two young men – a descendant of African slaves and a descendant of Indian indentured servants, both representing the brightest of their communities – had founded a political party together to usher in independence. Both possessed sharp and probing intellects. One of the two had a practical bent; the other exuded charisma and eloquence. Both demonstrated different weaknesses of leadership and some negative tendencies, but as friends they supported and sharpened each other. Their partnership bridged a destructive racial tension that British imperialism had left in its wake. They agreed that racial division presented a first and primary obstacle to overcome if Guyana would thrive as a democracy. They were Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham, co-founders together with Jagan’s wife, Janet Jagan, of the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP). The three held open meetings in Georgetown’s public library to discuss and plan for independence. The PPP platform they crafted was designed to attract the poor and working among Indians and blacks.
What went wrong? Mainly and most crucially, the United States government got deeply involved. Beginning with John F. Kennedy, three subsequent U.S. administrations determined that preventing Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese from cooperating would best serve U.S. interests in Guyana.
Meticulously researched with over 40 pages of notes and citations (including recently declassified government documents), Rabe’s account nonetheless provides a rattling good read, at times containing all the elements of a spy thriller. Here are just a few of the most unbelievable plot elements from the book:
- Cheddi Jagan, newly elected to head the transitional government in British Guiana, visits the United States, the country where he was educated as a dentist and where he met his wife. He meets with Kennedy and thinks it goes well. But he goes on TV to talk about independence for his country and, when pressed, can’t quite bring himself to say the simple phrase, “I am not a communist.” Instead he rambles interminably about how a complex term like communism can be variously defined and applied. He makes a few reasonable points about the need to reverse the impact of colonialism in Guyana. But all most listeners hear is “Blah, blah, blah, I’m a commie, yada, yada.”
Jagan realizes he got off on a bad foot with the Americans and writes Kennedy a long follow-up letter promising a close partnership and asking for assistance for the new democracy in Guyana. Kennedy doesn’t reply. The White House sends a curt note saying that if Jagan needs anything further he can take it up with U.S. officials stationed in British Guiana.
- Kennedy, lounging in a hot tub for his ailing back pains, tells the British colonial secretary that an independent Guyana governed by this Cheddi fellow would be unacceptable to his administration. They cook up a plan to call for a new election. They devise a proportional electoral scheme that will ensure party alignment based on race. They snicker at their own hypocrisy. Kennedy promises to prevent, “by hook or crook,” the Jagans from ever gaining real power, but also assures the British he won’t for now send spies into British Guiana being that it is still their territory.
- CIA agents sneak into British Guiana in the cargo holds of planes from Suriname. Acting undercover as AFL-CIO labor organizers, operatives instigate race riots and mob violence. Kennedy cites the sudden eruption of violence in Guyana as justification for Britain to suspend the transitional government headed by the democratically-elected Jagan and delay their independence.
The Jagans are arrested and go to jail for engaging in political activities while their government is suspended. Sitting behind bars like political demigods, they issue patriotic, anti-imperialist epistles from prison. Their popularity grows.
- U.S. intelligence and diplomatic reports consistently portray Janet Jagan as the domineering, savvy political operator and true ideologue behind her charismatic husband. She is stripped of her U.S. citizenship.
- U.S. intelligence spreads rumors that Janet Jagan is sexually promiscuous with the Cuban revolutionaries she admires hoping to divide and conquer the dynamic power couple, or at least make Cheddi Jagan look weak.
U.S. diplomats appeal to Cheddi Jagan’s former political ally, Forbes Burnham, with a devil’s bargain: he can rule Guyana as America’s puppet in exchange for denouncing Jagan’s views and communism. He takes the deal. The U.S. throws all of it’s cards in on Burnham and his new splinter party, People’s National Congress (PNC). Sundry red flags about Burnham are ignored. Foreign investors prefer Jagan, most business owners in the country prefer Jagan, the British see Jagan as an honest, well-intentioned, widely admired if naive, slightly inept, definitely hen-pecked potential leader. On the other hand, they openly worry about Forbes Burnham. Even the U.S’s own intelligence indicates Burnham has demagogic, racist and opportunistic tendencies. But Burnham is a man who says he hates commies; so, all things considered, he’s our man.
- CIA agents work behind the scenes to establish new political parties to splinter the Indian majority and take votes from Jagan. The CIA pays for posters, radio ads and election workers to promote Burnham and splinter parties.
U.S. agents literally train Burnham to cheat in elections, eventually helping him go full Tammany Hall: tweaking the voter rolls, using absentee and overseas voting to fake votes, and centralizing ballot tabulations to fake the count.
- Burnham, touchy about being perceived as a U.S. puppet, defies the puppet masters by establishing close ties with the Soviet Union and Cuba, and nationalizing most of the private industry. He tosses the Americans’ self-righteous directives about how to improve Guyana’s race relations into the Demerara River.
- Burnham terrorizes Indians, deliberately driving many to abandon the country. He imprisons and kills journalists and political opponents. He effectively blocks most Indians from serving in the military, the police forces or in civil service jobs. He stacks government jobs and newly nationalized industries with PNC members. He steals from the treasury and enriches himself. And he enthusiastically runs the country directly into the ground until Guyana is the poorest and most obviously mismanaged in the entire hemisphere. Digging deeper, he censors the press, bans wheat and other foreign products, nationalizes all the religious and private schools, and even kicks out Kennedy’s precious Peace Corps volunteers.
- Burnham continues to rig elections for decades, winning by larger and ever more ridiculously wide margins.
Burnham becomes increasingly weird and attracts other weirdos, including one Jim Jones from the United States and his hundreds of followers. Burnham provides Jones with land for his commune, and Jones’ People’s Temple members provide PNC officials with fun parties in Georgetown, sexual favors and votes for Burnham in elections.
- Burnham finally dies. He tries to have himself embalmed and put on permanent display. Following his wishes, they dig up his body shortly after his funeral and ship him to Moscow so he can be fixed up like Lenin. But his corpse deteriorates too much in shipment, and he is finally sent back (over a year later for some reason) to be reinterred at his final resting place in the Georgetown Botanical Gardens.
With Burnham dead, renowned do-gooder, Jimmy Carter, manages to worm his way into Guyana for some more (this time more constructive) meddling. His Carter Center oversees the first truly free and fair election in Guyana’s history. Cheddi Jagan, now an older man, wins easily.
- Contrary to JFK’s paranoia, and in keeping with most of the best intelligence the U.S. had on Cheddi Jagan at the time, Jagan governs as a rather conventional and pragmatic socialist democrat, immediately reversing course on many of Burnham’s most devastating policies. Industries are privatized, freedom of the press is reestablished, bread is legal again, the U.S. is wooed back as a partner, and Kennedy’s precious Peace Corps volunteers go back to work. But tribal divisions are now set in stone, and, before long, Jagan’s administration’s treatment of blacks begins to mirror Burnham’s treatment of Indians.
- Kennedy’s aid, Arthur Schlesinger, publicly apologizes to the Jagans for his treatment by the Kennedy administration and concedes they greatly misjudged the situation in Guyana. The Jagans visits the Clinton White House. The U.S. offers Janet Jagan her citizenship back. Apparently, she no longer cares. She later becomes president of Guyana herself. (Cheddi and Janet Jagan are interred together in Babu John Cemetery, the small community graveyard of Port Mourant village, Cheddi Jagan’s birthplace. Both were cremated according to the traditions of his family’s Hindu faith).
Racial tensions are still raw in Guyana. Party affiliation still breaks mostly along racial lines. Political conversations with Guyanese can easily turn to discussions of “our people” and “those people.” The sad truth is: the United States government invested a lot of dollars and effort deliberately exacerbating that tension. Then we threw good money after bad propping up a demagogue who made life a misery for most Guyanese, buried any hope for racial conciliation, and really did a lot to run their country into the ground. Caught up in the hysteria of the Cold War, the U.S. often betrayed its own ideals of respect for democracy. Certainly the U.S. ruined any hope for a newly independent Guyana being governed efficiently by a broad multi-racial party. Guyanese still live with that legacy today. And it is in that context that an American company recently arrived to extract natural resources under a deal including royalty rates for Guyana that the International Monetary Fund dryly observed are “well below of what is observed internationally.”
Here, finally, is a clip of Forbes Burnham speaking to Caribbean reporters at a conference in Barbados in 1985. I recommend watching from 16:14 at which point he is questioned about accusations of election irregularities. His response is chilling and worth a watch. He deflects by accusing those in Guyana calling for outside election observers of wishing to be a colony again and failing to respect the sovereign independence of Guyana (“You can take a man out of a colony, but you can’t take the colony out of some men.”) He also points at rumors of voting irregularities in America (“ghosts voting in Cook County”) as if to say, Look, they do it, too. “I’m tired of these busybodies,” he shrugs, waving his cigarette. “Let them mind their own farmyards.” He is smoking and coughing all the while. He will die while undergoing throat surgery a few weeks later.
A footnote on Burnham’s nationalization of private education and its impact on my daughter’s school
One school was exempted from the nationalization of private schools: the international school where my daughter attends. The primary mission of the school, the school argued, was to provide an education for the children of U.S. diplomatic families. Moreover the school receives support from the U.S. State Department. The Burnham government therefore agreed to exempt the school, but also required that all Guyanese students attending be expelled.
In a country once dotted with old Catholic missions, Muslim madrasas and Hindu schools, the American school formally known as Georgetown International Academy is the oldest private school in Guyana.
Guyanese children were once again welcomed to enroll when the Jagan government allowed private education in the country. Many new private schools have since been established. But identifying them can be tricky. Nationalized schools retained their former names and remain government schools today, So many government schools around Georgetown bear Christian, Hindu and Islamic names. Some are still located adjacent to churches, mosques and temples.
A footnote on Burnham’s ban of wheat and its impact on one Kansas City company
When Burnham banned wheat products from Guyana, he ironically undermined a partially nationalized milling industry he himself had established – in cooperation with a Kansas City company. The National Milling Company of Guyana (NAMILCO) was established in 1969 to process imported wheat. Until then, flour had been imported from various sources and without a predictable supply chain or stable prices. Operating and partly owning the new NAMILCO was Seaboard Corporation of Shawnee Mission, Kansas. The public/private partnership proved successful and Guyanese enjoyed a stable and reliable supply of locally-milled flour for making bread and roti. However 13 years later, Burnham banned wheat in a fanciful effort to stimulate the local economy by cutting off colonial products.
A thriving underground economy and runaway inflation resulted as business people procured foreign exchange on the black-market and smuggled products into Guyana. Customs and Police targeted flour for seizures as suppliers and consumers defied the ban. NAMILCO was asked to mill rice into flour which was intended as a substitute for wheaten flour but this failed since rice lacked the gluten vital to bread making.
Seaboard Corp maintained a skeleton staff at NAMILCO and experimented unsuccessfully with alternatives to wheat flour. Burnham died and the ban was reversed four years later.
The National Milling Company of Guyana remains in operation today as a subsidiary of the Shawnee Mission-based Seaboard Corp.
Bonus photos: My family paying our respects at Forbes Burnham’s final resting place inside Georgetown Botanical Gardens.