Events surrounding the independence of Guyana (II)

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.
—John F. Kennedy are free to have the government you want so long as it is the kind of government we like.
—Aneurin Bevan, describing what Western "democracy" and "freedom" apparently mean, following the removal of Jagan and the PPP from office in 1953

Please read part one
British Guiana was small British colony on the northern South American coast. As it moved toward independence (going through gradual increases in self-determination) in the 1950s and 1960s, a left-leaning ("Communist" or "Castroist" according the US) party and leader came to power through popular election. Both the United States and Britain (mainly due to pressure by the US) took great effort—both overtly and covertly—to ensure that Cheddi Jagan and his People's Progressive Party (PPP) would not govern an independent Guyana. In his place, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham and his People's National Congress (PNC) were backed.

1961 elections

The election
Another party showed strong opposition to the PPP during the 1961 elections. The United Force party (UF) was representative of conservative businessmen, the church, and non Indo- or Afro-Guyanese. There was more of a contest than in the previous election (especially after the British government redrew constituency boundaries in 1960), but it was still a clear victory for the PPP (43%), winning 20 out of 35 seats. The PNC and the UF won 11 and 4, respectively. Jagan was made Premier.

Not only was there a contest politically, but the US was involving itself more deeply in compromising the PPP's chances. The United States Information Service (known domestically as the US Information Agency) set up shop on street corners showing films of the "evils" of Communism and Fidel Castro. This was not such a surprise activity (with the exception of how unimportant to US interests Guyana really was). The USIA/USIS had done similar things in Italy (1940s), before and during the orchestrated coup in Guatemala (1953-1954), and elsewhere in Latin America and abroad. Another group that got involved was the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, which brought people and materials to the tune of some $76,000 in order to ensure the Jagan did not win. Though it seems they were not connected to the US government, the State Department was aware of their presence and did not even offer a nominal objection.

In October of 1961, Jagan went to Washington (during which the meeting referred to in part one took place). Though President John F. Kennedy assured him that "we are not engaged in a crusade to force private enterprise on parts of the world where it is not relevant" (Blum), it was clearly not the case. And Jagan had made the mistake of signing trade agreements with Hungary and the Deutsche Demokratische Republik ("East Germany"). He also arranged for Cuba to offer Guyana loans and equipment. He even had the arrogance to refuse to honor the US embargo on Castro's regime. Since all this (among other "evidence") was "proof" of his intentions, there was no US aid forthcoming.

Though there were some positive aspects of the administration (such as the creation of the first university in 1963), it was a time of strife and unrest. The PNC (who said there should be no independence under Jagan) and the UF, along with the heads of the unions launched a campaign intended to destabilize the country and bring about Jagan's (and the PPP's) downfall through resignation or election. In many cases, the colonial powers tacitly went along with it.

PPP members were subject to harassment, which including being arrested on what were often bogus charges. The accusation/assertion of the PPP being "Communist" echoed like a shotgun blast throughout the country. What was worse was that the way the PPP/PNC split along racial lines set things up to become very ugly. In February 1962, things began to burn.

The PNC, UF, and the Trade Unions Council (TUC) using the pretext of PPP budget and tax proposals, began a series of demonstrations and protests that turned into riots and arson, during which parts of Georgetown (the capital) were burned to the ground. As for the pretext, the proposals were called "courageous and economically sound" by the New York Times and "courageous and certainly not far from what Guiana must have" by The Times of London.

The protesters were not acting alone. They were being financed and largely organized by the CIA. All along they would be given advice and orders about how to proceed by CIA operatives, some of whom were among they ranks of the protesters, one of them serving on a negotiating committee for dike workers (Jagan found out and barred him from the country).

Later they would broadcast propaganda about Cuban warships steaming on their way toward Guyana over radio stations that suddenly sprang up out of nowhere. It was also arranged for union people in the US and other Latin American countries to send food and messages of solidarity. That was to give it the appearance of legitimate labor trouble, but it was ruled by a Commonwealth Committee that "political affinities and aspirations played a large part" in the organized protests and strikes. The riots managed to postpone the Constitutional Conference scheduled in May to October.

The following year it was worse. PPP members were harassed and in some cases attacked on the streets (Cheddi and Janet Jagan were both victims). Civil servants who refused to join in the many strikes received the same treatment. There was a general strike held in April that lasted for 80 days, fully financed by the CIA (spending at least $1,000,000 for that strike alone), which also provided food and medical supplies to (anti-Jagan) people injured in the many confrontations. A number of government buildings were bombed. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 to $130,000 were being spent to support the opposition each week.

The next month, police raided PNC headquarters where they found a cache of weapons and plans detailing violence to be perpetrated against members of the PPP (these may have included assassination plans for Jagan). Making matters worse were the shipments of food and fuel arriving from Cuba, which outraged the opposition. Of course, the fuel was needed because the US arranged for its oil companies to cease delivering petroleum to Guyana.

The violence continues
At the Constitutional Conference, it was decided that independence would be delayed, the government would be changed to proportional representation, and there would be elections held in 1964 (the latter two requiring yet more changes to the constitution).

The Kennedy administration was pressuring Britain to act according to its will and its will was that Jagan could not lead an independent Guyana. In fact, the New York Times described the decision as Britain, "bowing to US wishes had ruled out early independence for British Guiana." It went on to say that the decision was reached "after high-level British-American exchanges on how to check the spread of Castroism in the Western Hemisphere" and left the British Foreign Secretary with "no doubt that the United States would resist a rise of British Guiana as an independent Castro-type state" ( It was also presidential adviser Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who had suggested to Kennedy that they should back Burnham and that the proportional representation would help bring down the PPP.

Further, the main reason given, according to Colonial Secretary Duncan Sandys, for delaying independence were the strikes and violence of 1962 through that year. Interestingly, Sandys had been the founder of The European Movement in 1948—a Cold War organization that had been partly funded by the CIA. In a 1964 article by syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, it was revealed that Kennedy made a special visit to London to persuade Prime Minister Harold Macmillan not to grant independence under Jagan. In Pearson's words, "That strike was secretly inspired by the combination of U.S. Central Intelligence money and British intelligence. It gave London the excuse it wanted" (Blum).

In February 1964, the Guiana Industrial workers Union called the sugar workers to strike to protest the lack of available work (for all workers). Being that the union was aligned with the PPP, it erupted in another cycle of violence (largely racial) that ended up killing over 160 Guyanese. Because of the dangers of the ongoing violence and the lack of adequate response by the police, almost 15,000 ended up having to move from their homes. Bombings continued. In an attempt to bring peace, Jagan offered to form a coalition government with Burham, each party receiving an equal number of seats. This proposal was rejected.

In July, the PPP headquarters were bombed, killing one person. Over 30 of the leading activists of the party were put in "detention." A member of the PNC was arrested also. Weapons and ammunition were found in his home. Things did not look well for the upcoming elections in December.

1964 elections

And they weren't well. The day before the election, a newspaper ran a fake letter allegedly from Janet Jagan that said (to her Communist allies, of course) that they could take comfort that the Burnham administration would be short-lived and that "our communist comrades abroad will continue to help us win eventual total victory" (Blum). Another common CIA tactic used in numerous countries to spread disinformation and dissent against the governments it targeted.

All the time the US spent pressuring the British government on the Guyana issue did not go unnoticed, either. In a speech, the Tory Secretary of Commons stated that

there is an irony we all recognise in the fact of America urging us all over the world towards colonial freedom except where it approaches their own doorstep. I believe their fears are exaggerated. I do not think Dr. Jagan is a Communist.

The PPP actually won the majority of seats with 46% of the vote. It gave them 24, the PNC 20, and the UF 7. Unfortunately, the other two parties formed a coalition to ensure Jagan could not hold power and the PPP would be outvoted. He refused to step down and (once again) the constitution was changed, this time making it possible for the governor to remove Jagan as Prime Minister. Within a week of elections, Burnham had taken that position.

The country began to stabilize following the ouster of Jagan—of course, that is because the instigators of the violence and protests had gained power (and those who were funding and in most cases directing them were satisfied for the time being). Relations with Cuba were cut right away, as expected, and policies that favored business, investors, and foreign industry implemented. At the same time business began to prosper (relatively speaking), the government was going into debt and the money in the treasury running low. Wages and the standard of living dropped for many of the citizens. Social services had to be discontinued and unemployment rose.

On the plus side, with Jagan gone, Britain was willing to talk independence again and a conference was held in London in 1965. Jagan refused to attend because there were PPP members still in prison (they would remain "detained" until July 1966). It was decided that Guyana would become independent on 26 May 1966. Jagan did attend the ceremonial lowering of the Union Jack and the raising of the new flag.


Now that Burnham was in office and the coalition controlled the government, it was time to consolidate power (alone). Elections were set for 1968. The outcome was the PNC (55%) with 30 seats, the PPP (30%) with 19, and the UF (7%) with 4. It was also well known that the elections were fraudulent. Despite what might appear to be a victory for US "interests" by the removal of Jagan and the weakening of the PPP, work continued behind the scenes to ensure Burnham and the PNC remained in power.

As early as 1967, charges of fraud and election tampering were leveled at the PNC. Voter registrations were being handled by people hand-picked by the PNC and the Elections Commission was not allowed to supervise the process. It was being run by the Shoup Registration System International, which appears to have been funded (if not run) by the CIA (it was the company that handled registrations for rigged 1966 elections in South Vietnam).

Legislation was passed that allowed registration of Guyanese overseas so they could vote. The British Grenada Television Company investigated the charges, finding that only 4,700 of 11,750 registrees in the US and 13,050 of 44,300 in the United Kingdom were genuine. Covert Action Information Bulletin (a CIA, intelligence services watchdog publication now called Covert Action Quarterly) reported that the lists were "heavily padded by including horses, deceased citizens and hanged criminals" ( Registration also managed to deny large numbers of people the supposed right to vote. There were additional charges of ballot tampering and fake votes. Even the leader of the UF stated "to call it an election is to give it a name it does not deserve; it was a seizure of power by fraud, not elections" (

Something to take pride in: Burnham's legacy

The question then remains, what was accomplished by the manipulation of another country's government? Was Burnham Washington's man? Was it a "victory" for democracy and against communism? Quite simply, no. Things got worse.

Following the elections, Burnham moved further to the left, saying he would move the country to socialism. He implemented legislation that gerrymandered territory to the PNC's advantage, made changes in the balloting process, and politicized the civil service. Guyanese politics were still racially divided as a remnant of the past, and he lost little of his Afro-Guyanese support. In 1970, he cut ties with Britain. He also reestablished ties with Cuba, even allowing them to use the country as a transit point during the period Cuba was sending troops to Angola.

Subsequent elections were also marred with rampant fraud, the overseas votes, harassment and tampering with ballot boxes (the army was accused of both). In 1973, an amendment was passed that "abolished legal appeals to the Privy council in London" ( The next year he announced the "paramountcy" of the PNC. In essence, the party and its agenda became almost indistinguishable from the state. PNC policy became Guyanese policy.

The PPP and a new party, the Working People's Alliance (WPA) were the government's main opposition. Burnham remained in power, even postponing the elections in 1978 and offering a referendum. The PPP and WPA boycotted, ensuring PNC victory. The 1978 Jonestown massacre led many to believe that the Burnham government was somehow involved with Jim Jones and the People's Temple of Christ (they were allowed to live and operate within the country and openly flaunted weapons—the government could not have been ignorant of that). Some investigation suggested links between the government and the cult.

In 1979, members of the WPA (the government's most vocal critics) began to be harassed. In 1980, one of its leaders was killed in a car bombing. The PNC claimed he was a terrorist and had died from his own bomb, then promptly accused his brother of being an accessory. It was widely believed that he was murdered by agents of the state. That same year, the constitution was changed to make the head of state the Executive President, a position chosen by the majority party. Burnham took the position by default. Elections were held that December with the usual results. International observers agreed with the opposition parties that it was fraudulent.

In the 1980s, infrastructure began breaking down and economic trouble became serious. There were continual blackouts, poor water quality. There were shortages of things produced in Guyana, like rice and sugar, and other important staples of daily life—this was partly related to Burnham's "cultural revolution" wherein Guyana would be self-sufficient and produce all of its own basic goods and necessities, rather than import them. By that time, given the economic crisis, it is doubtful much could be done without the program. Guyana became one of the poorest countries in the world. One of its chief "exports" turned out to be Guyanese citizens. On the other hand, the black market thrived.

In 1985, after undergoing surgery for a throat ailment, Burnham died. His vice president carried on and actually made some economic and legislative reforms (after being voted into the position by another rigged election). The overseas voting was abolished and he gave the more freedom (press and assembly) that had the authoritarian Burnham. In 1988, he did away with the one party state (he also renounced communism). Four years later, Guyanese took part in what was considered to be the first free election since 1964. Cheddi Jagan was elected president.

Jagan served until 1997, when he died. His wife, Janet, was elected that year. She remained head of state until she resigned (health) in 1999. The Finance Minister took her place and was reelected in 2001 (still serving as of January 2003).


In 1990, Schlesinger publicly apologized to Jagan, saying that "I felt badly about my role thirty years ago" and "I think a great injustice was done to Cheddi Jagan" (Blum).

In 1994, when the 30 year rule had expired for classified government documents from 1964, the State Department and the CIA decided not to release them. According to the New York Times:

Still-classified documents depict in unusual detail a direct order from the President to unseat Dr. Jagan, say Government officials familiar with the secret papers. Though many Presidents ordered the CIA to undermine foreign leaders, they say the Jagan papers are a smoking gun: a clear written record, without veiled words or plausible denials, of a President's command to depose a Prime Minister

It also reported the "reason" given for refusing to declassify the documents was that "it is not worth the embarrassment" (Blum).

William Blum Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II 1995
Library of Congress Country Study:
The many resources at "Cheddi Jagan - Guyana's Hero"
Raymond T. Smith's "Guyanese Politics"
"History of the PPP"
Department of State's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs "Background Note: Guyana"
Some documents that are declassified can be found here:
"McGhee v. CIA" (about a lawsuit arising from the Jonestown massacre)

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