Between 1953 and 1960, critical developments took place in the political life of British Guiana and in the colony’s relationship to the United Kingdom and the United States. After suspending British Guiana’s constitution, the ruling Conservative Party embarked on a concerted campaign to destroy the People’s Progressive Party. The Conservatives’ tactics included stimulating racial politics in the colony, pitting blacks against Indians. The U.S. government and the U.S. trade union movement quietly backed the British. But the effects of two momentous international events—the Suez Crisis and the Cuban Revolution—shattered the Anglo-American alliance on British Guiana. In the aftermath of the Suez debacle, Britain’s new leaders concluded that they should dismantle the empire. The British decision to allow Cheddi Jagan and his supporters back into government dismayed U.S. policymakers. Their dismay grew into alarm as they persuaded themselves that an independent Guyana led by Jagan would be a facsimile of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. By the end of the decade, British Guiana had become a Cold War battleground and the scene of an Anglo-American diplomatic confrontation. The colony had also been transformed into a divisive society, with its politics marred by deep ethnic and racial divisions.


AFTER SENDING TROOPS to British Guiana and suspending the colony’s constitution in October 1953, the Conservatives, led first by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and then by Prime Minister Anthony Eden (1955-57), set out to mold British Guiana’s political future. The PPP would not be permitted to govern the colony again. As the Colonial Office resolved in February 1955 in a major paper on the crisis in British Guiana, “While the extremist leaders of the PPP dominate the policy of the party and the party itself maintains its present influence among the people, there can be no return to representative government, and no full confidence in the security forces in the Colony to maintain order without U.K. troops.” The PPP used classical Communist methods, exploiting popular demand for self-government and reform. Among the PPP’s many sins was that it even organized youth organizations “on the communist pattern” and attempted “to undermine the position and influence of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides.”1 The Conservative governments pursued a classic policy of intimidation and incentive to destroy the PPP and convince Guyanese to join new political parties.
The United Kingdom continued to occupy British Guiana militarily long after the alleged conspiracy to burn Georgetown had passed. In September 1954, Churchill overruled cabinet objections and ordered that the battalion of British troops in British Guiana would stay. The prime minister was loath to accept the wisdom of Treasury officers who persistently argued through the 1950s that the country could no longer afford the empire. The Treasury worried that it cost £170,000 to maintain a battalion and that it would cost another £70,000 to rotate out the battalion that had occupied British Guiana over the past year.2 Churchill’s decision to maintain a military presence was not based on a direct security threat, for the colony remained calm after the suspension of the constitution. Churchill primarily intended to overawe the colonial subjects with British power. To be sure, a malcontent had attacked a symbol of imperial pride in May 1954 by dynamiting and partially damaging a statue of Queen Victoria in front of the Laws Court building in Georgetown.3
The Conservatives fortified the military with a new governor in Georgetown, Sir Patrick Renison, a veteran colonial officer who had recently served in British Honduras. In June 1955, Alan Lennox-Boyd, the new colonial secretary, told Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who had recently replaced the eighty-year-old Churchill, that “British Guiana has undoubtedly become one of the more difficult Colonies.” The government needed a forceful hand in Georgetown, and Lennox-Boyd had become “uneasy” about Savage. He also pointed out to the prime minister that Great Britain’s rule in British Guiana was “ever under the keen and critical eye of the American states, especially the United States, and I feel that we cannot afford to take any unnecessary risks.”4 The Colonial Office decided to take the extraordinary step of giving Renison formal guidance before he journeyed to South America. Renison would be instructed to make unpopular decisions, and he needed to know that he would have the complete backing of the colonial secretary.5 Despite the Colonial Office’s desire to control him, Renison would demonstrate independent judgment. As had Governor Savage, Governor Renison would eventually conclude, based on firsthand knowledge, that the character of political life in British Guiana was not necessarily what officials in London or Washington believed it to be.
Governor Savage undoubtedly did not endear himself to the Conservatives with his reporting in the period after the suspension of the constitution. Colonial Secretary Lyttleton had told Churchill that he wanted to arrest without charges the leadership of the PPP. Churchill had demurred on that extreme step, noting that the full cabinet would have to approve.6 In December 1953, Governor Savage informed the Colonial Office that his government could not prosecute PPP leaders because the charges enumerated in the White Paper were political and could not be easily translated into criminal prosecutions. After a year of investigation, Savage further told London that no credible evidence could be found to sustain charges that Cheddi and Janet Jagan and other PPP leaders planned to commit acts of arson and sabotage. The case of the “Arson Plot” was closed.7
British authorities did find a way to put the Jagans in prison. After meeting in October and November 1953 in London with Labour Party officials and then being threatened with imprisonment by Lyttleton, Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham journeyed to India seeking support from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. India declined to intercede or raise the issue at the United Nations. Jagan did, however, take advantage of the trip to learn about the tactics of passive resistance and civil disobedience. He and Burnham returned to British Guiana in February 1954. The government prohibited political activities and confined PPP leaders to the vicinity of Georgetown. Jagan quickly challenged the travel ban and found himself in a colonial jail. While in jail, Jagan engaged in Gandhi-like gestures, organizing hunger strikes, protests, and political discussion groups. After her husband’s release, Janet Jagan was sent to prison for violating the ban on political activities. Her experience in prison proved harder for her than for her husband. Cheddi Jagan served his time with fellow political prisoners. Janet Jagan was thrown into jail with common criminals, especially prostitutes. She also suffered in prison, because she could not digest the miserable prison food. She survived for five months on bread and water. Janet Jagan endured another injustice. Because of the ban on travel imposed by British colonial authorities, she could not return to Chicago to visit her dying father. 8 To the Indians of British Guiana, it probably appeared that the Jagans were reliving the experiences of Gandhi and Nehru in colonial India. Such a comparison could only redound to the political benefit of the Jagans and the PPP.
Colonial officials recognized that repression had not weaned the Guyanese from the PPP. They privately conceded that the post-1953 government that they had established had no measure of popular support and that it was “thoroughly authoritarian.” They also understood that, if the Colonial Office restored representative, democratic government, Cheddi Jagan and the PPP would win power. Colonial officials spoke about exiling Janet Jagan, assuming that she was “the brain behind” her husband. They regretfully concluded that they had no legal justification for such a harsh measure. One action British officials took to diminish Jagan’s appeal was to plant unfavorable stories in the colony’s newspapers. The U.S. Information Agency assisted the propaganda campaign, supplying British Guiana’s newspapers with anticommunist material.9
Beyond burnishing the image of the West, another way to counter the appeal of communism was to foster social and economic development. Colonial officers reasoned that Guyanese had voted for the PPP in 1953 because they were poor and had horrific memories of the past abuses of slavery and indentured servitude. Indeed, a study conducted in the mid-1950s by the International Labor Organization confirmed British Guiana’s economic problems. A full 30 percent of the colony’s labor force was unemployed or underemployed, working less than thirty hours a week.10 Governors Savage and Renison lobbied for a massive British investment in the colony both to address labor issues and to enhance “our political and public relations position.” In 1954, Savage asked the Colonial Office to increase expenditures by 300 percent in British Guiana by spending $10 million immediately in the colony and by establishing a $36 million line of credit. Pleading poverty, the Colonial Office could only provide about $5 million a year in economic aid for 1954-55. At the end of 1955, Governor Renison presented an ambitious five-year economic development program that would cost $96 million. Renison noted that the United States generously dispensed aid and that the Soviet Union had begun to promise aid to developing nations. The Colonial Office accepted Renison’s point that it provided too little aid to British Guiana, but it lamented that the United Kingdom had balance of payments problems. A frustrated Renison sent a series of angry letters to London, pointing out the lack of progress in housing, roads, land, and local government. In his public addresses, the governor promised progress to the colonial subjects. In his dispatches, Renison warned that “in the eyes of this country it is the Colonial Office as well as the interim government which is on trial.”11
Although the Conservative governments proved unsuccessful either in suppressing political activity or in persuading Guyanese to love colonialism, they did partially succeed in their campaign to weaken the PPP. This success portended grave consequences for British Guiana’s political future. Emulating the collaboration between the CIA and U.S. trade unions, colonial officers worked with officials in the British Trade Union Council (TUC) to train anticommunist union leaders in British Guiana and to support them with covert funds. In particular, the British wanted to strengthen the Manpower Citizen’s Association, which opposed the PPP, and break the relationship between British Guiana’s TUC and the PPP. The Manpower Citizen’s Association, which represented Indian sugar workers, was a timid union led by Richard Ishmael, who was widely disparaged as a disorganized opportunist. So dubious was Ishmael’s reputation that the Colonial Office accepted for a time a suggestive rumor that Ishmael had “fallen under the spell of Janet Jagan and is working closely with her.” By comparison, Afro-Guyanese made up the bulk of the membership of the TUC, which was led by the lethargic Rupert Tello. The British wanted the TUC to stay out of the colony’s politics and focus solely on its relationship with employers. After close consultation with the Colonial Office, British TUC official George Woodcock sent representatives, such as Andrew Dalgleish, to British Guiana to work with Ishmael, Tello, and their unions. The plan was for Dalgleish to portray himself as having no relationship with the governor and other colonial authorities. There also would be no public disclosure of the funds, dubbed “a quiet subvention,” that union people from Great Britain distributed in the colony. Compared to the amount of money U.S. unions would funnel into British Guiana, the quiet subventions were small. Dalgleish gave, for example, about $15,000 to the Manpower Citizen’s Association over the first six months of 1955.12 British trade union officials were not consciously encouraging racial division in the colony. But by encouraging British Guiana’s black members of the TUC to oppose a PPP led by Cheddi Jagan, the Colonial Office and union people were creating the preconditions for racial confrontation.
Another Conservative effort to fracture the PPP directly intensified racial tensions in the colony. In 1954, London dispatched a study team, the Robertson Commission, to review the constitutional crisis of 1953 and make recommendations for British Guiana’s future. Reporting in November 1954, the commission predictably echoed the White Paper, blaming an irresponsible, radical PPP for the suspension of the constitution. As for the future, it could not predict when self-government could be restored. But it took a morose tone, repudiating the optimistic predictions about racial harmony in British Guiana made in 1951 by the Waddington Commission. The Robertson Commission foresaw the growing Indian majority of the colony asserting itself, awakening “the fears of the African section of the population.” The commission accepted the charge made by some blacks that Indians did not want independence within the British Commonwealth but rather that they desired to join an empire led by India. “Suspicion and distrust” characterized relations between the two groups, with little hope of “any coalescing process,” such as intermarriage. The Robertson Commission therefore affirmed that “we do not altogether share the confidence of the Waddington Commission that a comprehensive loyalty to British Guiana can be stimulated among peoples of such diverse origins.”13
The Robertson Commission drew distinctions about political leaders in British Guiana. It branded the Jagans and some of their black colleagues, like Sydney King and Brindley Benn, as international Communists. Great Britain could never allow them and their ilk to have power again. British Guiana’s Communists were the “sole barriers” to progress, self-government, and independence. The commission judged, however, that Forbes Burnham was the leader of moderate, democratic socialists who had been overwhelmed by PPP extremists. The commission quoted Guyanese who believed that Burnham should have stood up to the Jagans.14 Colonial officials underscored the points made by the Robertson Commission by relaxing the political proscriptions on Burnham and maintaining them on the Jagans. They also encouraged Lionel Luckhoo, an Indian lawyer, to form a political party. But the prosperous Luckhoo, who admired Western culture and whose family had converted to Catholicism, had little appeal to poor Hindus and Muslims who worked in the sugar fields and rice paddies.15
Forbes Burnham had seemingly received an invitation from the Robertson Commission either to take control of the PPP or to leave it. In February 1955 at a party meeting, Burnham challenged Cheddi Jagan for the leadership and split the party into two factions. Between 1955 and 1958, the Burnham and Jagan factions contested each other for power, with each side using the PPP label. In 1958, Burnham founded his own party, the People’s National Congress (PNC). Although some blacks stayed with Jagan and a handful of Indians followed Burnham, British Guiana had by the end of the decade a political party system based on the colony’s racial divide. Several radical black politicians, like Sydney King, Martin Carter, and Rory Westmaas, quit the PPP, because they judged Jagan too moderate and eclectic in his political views. British Guiana’s mainly black trade unionists aligned with Burnham and the PNC, whereas Indian sugar workers stayed with the PPP.
Burnham may have had many reasons for breaking the PPP apart. As a fervent nationalist, he may have taken seriously the Robertson Commission’s threat that British Guiana would never gain its independence with Jagan leading the PPP, although Burnham denied that he was responding to the Robertson Commission. Publicly, he stated that he broke with Jagan because he opposed communism and because he thought Jagan placed too much emphasis on international events. These explanations are belied by his subsequent actions. By the 1980s, after twenty years of Burnham’s dictatorship, Guyana reminded observers of Communist North Korea under Kim Il Sung, with Guyanese addressing one another as “comrade.” Burnham also loved acting on a global stage. He certainly coveted power and had a strong sense of his historical importance. He judged himself the better man, over Jagan, to lead his country to independence. In April 1953, after the PPP’s great electoral triumph, Burnham briefly unsettled the party by demanding that he should be the lead figure in the new government. He further knew that Jagan opposed joining a West Indies Federation. Burnham envisioned British Guiana associating with Jamaica, Barbados, British Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago and creating a federation in which blacks had an overwhelming numerical superiority. Burnham may also have decided that it would be politically advantageous to pander to racial fears and tensions. Burnham initially blamed British colonialists for stoking racism between blacks and Indians as a part of a divide and conquer strategy. But by 1961, Burnham was issuing explicit racial appeals, warning blacks that Indians wanted to take their jobs and businesses.16 Contemporary observers of British Guiana’s political scene agreed that, as Canadian scholar Elisabeth Wallace put it, Burnham, as compared to Cheddi Jagan, was “more willing to make capital out of racial passions and far less willing to consider possible compromises.”17
As British authorities struggled between 1953 and 1956 to shape British Guiana’s political future, U.S. officials stood on the side, occasionally speculating on what should be done with the colony. President Eisenhower and his national security advisers essentially forgot about the British colony after the suspension of British Guiana’s constitution. The administration applauded the British for their “firm action” and lamented that Latin Americans saw the intervention as “unjustified,” for Latin Americans continued to perceive communism as peripheral to the question of European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. To counter this dissatisfaction, the administration instructed the U.S. Information Agency to coordinate its activities with British information services.18 Despite the president’s philosophical commitment to decolonization, the administration made no effort in the mid- 1950s to support independence movements in the Caribbean. Having just witnessed the defeat of what it perceived to be communism in British Guiana and Guatemala, the administration now favored a cautious approach toward political change in the Western Hemisphere. It contented itself with calling for the acceptance “of the principle that dependent and colonial peoples in this hemisphere should progress by orderly processes toward a self-governing status.” To assist those processes, the administration authorized the U.S. International Cooperation Agency to provide technical assistance to the colonies. But the amount of money allocated was minuscule. For fiscal year 1957, the United States authorized spending a total of only $1.25 million in British Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica, and Surinam. Between 1954 and 1957, the United States allocated about $1 million to British Guiana for technical assistance in the fields of agriculture, housing, and community development.19
British efforts to master British Guiana’s political life prompted only limited discussion within the State Department. Without diplomatic representation in Georgetown, the State Department continued not to receive regular analyses about the colony. Based on their reading of newspapers, interviews, and brief visits to Georgetown, U.S. consuls in Trinidad reported the obvious facts of political life in British Guiana. They noted that the PPP remained widely popular and would win any election the colonial authorities permitted. The Guyanese were intensely nationalistic, and the ban on political activities and Cheddi Jagan’s imprisonment had provoked “fanatical hero-worship of the Jagans, Burnham, and their ilk.” In mid-1955, Consul Thomas Maddox interviewed J. M. Campbell of Booker Brothers and John Gutch, an aide to Governor Savage. They emphasized that a political vacuum existed in British Guiana that was “very unsatisfactory.” Colonial authorities could not indefinitely impose a government backed by troops upon the people of British Guiana. Cheddi Jagan also had not been intimidated by the repression. In April 1956, Consul Douglas Jenkins Jr. advised Washington that Jagan “gave no sign that he is less recalcitrant in his points of view or that the Emergency Regulations have had any chastening effect upon him.”20
State Department officers in Washington, London, and Port of Spain talked among themselves about the colony’s future. As did the British, they wanted to see the PPP break apart. In 1954, an officer in Washington spoke of Forbes Burnham as the “leader of the African Christians,” and Maddox suggested “discreetly playing up the Burnhamites and other non-Communists to produce a split in the PPP.” Maddox tempered his own idea a year later, however, by pointing to Burnham’s demagogic statements and expressing doubts that Burnham could become a “sane and responsible leader.” In 1956, Consul A. John Cope reported that Governor Renison hoped that Burnham would lead democratic forces in the colony. But Renison added that Burnham was “opportunistic and untrustworthy.” As the U.S. embassy in London had earlier bemoaned, after discussing British Guiana with the Colonial Office, all were “baffled” as to what to do constitutionally in the colony.21
Although the Eisenhower administration mainly talked about British Guiana, it did deploy technical assistance money to influence one area of the colony’s life—labor relations. The administration cooperated with the British in assisting anti-PPP trade unions. The administration paid for labor leaders, like Richard Ishmael and Rupert Tello, to travel to Maryland to attend labor leadership seminars sponsored by the AFL-CIO. The State Department cleared the assistance with the Colonial Office and British unions to ensure that British unions did “not regard this as an intrusion on its functions by the U.S. Government.”22 In the mid-1950s, the United States still trusted British officials to pursue the proper course in the colony. The Colonial Office reluctantly accepted the offer, noting that “we remain extremely apprehensive about the risk of possible influence of American lecturers in the trade union field in British Guiana.” Colonial officers reasoned that it would be “embarrassing” to reject the offer, because the Colonial Office welcomed U.S. technical assistance in areas such as housing and community development.23
Whereas the Eisenhower administration acted circumspectly, the U.S. labor movement actively intervened in British Guiana. During the Eisenhower years, U.S. labor officials did not have the ready access to the White House and the State Department that they enjoyed during the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson presidencies. Nonetheless, they continued to use covert government funds to support their international activities. Labor people, like Jay Lovestone, Serafino Romualdi, and Robert Alexander, seemingly worried more about British Guiana’s future than did the Eisenhower administration. After the 1953 overthrow of Jagan and the PPP, Lovestone chastised J. M. Campbell of Booker Brothers for creating the inequities and misery in which Communists flourished. In personal letters to Campbell, Lovestone accused the company of having “a nineteenth-century concept of social justice,” paying sugar workers a miserly wage. Campbell responded by claiming that Booker Brothers made little money because of the expenses of reclaiming British Guiana’s land from the sea. He further reminded Lovestone that the company opposed the PPP. Lovestone concluded the exchange by affirming the anticommunist, progressive faith of the U.S. trade union movement. The “first duty” was “to prevent the Communists from grabbing British Guiana.” Defeating the PPP was “the first prerequisite before we can even attempt any sound progressive basic social reforms and full national freedom for the people of British Guiana.”24
Lovestone kept himself informed about the colony by sending Robert Alexander in 1954 and 1956 to interview the colony’s politicians and union leaders. Alexander found that the Manpower Citizen’s Association was disorganized and “unwilling or unable to take a militant position with regard to the victimization of the workers.” Its past leaders had allegedly accepted bribes from Booker Brothers. Alexander recommended that Romualdi and his inter-American labor organization, ORIT, provide the sugar worker’s union with money and anticommunist material. Booker Brothers now seemed ready to cooperate with the Manpower Association in order to counter the appeal of the PPP. Alexander further advised Lovestone that U.S. unions should work with Forbes Burnham. Alexander labeled Burnham an impressive figure who was a nationalist with socialistic leanings. Burnham assured Alexander that he would never reconcile with Cheddi Jagan. Like officials in the Colonial Office and State Department, Alexander also found that Janet Jagan was the most dangerous person in the colony. Based on interviews with Richard Ishmael and his wife, Alexander recounted that Janet Jagan “dominated” her husband and transformed him into a Communist. Moreover, she “used her sex effectively for political purposes,” making herself attractive to Guyanese men. Richard Ishmael opined that Janet Jagan consciously used her fair complexion to attract Guyanese males of dark-colored skin.25
Lovestone and Romualdi carried out Alexander’s recommendations. In the post-1953 period, the AFL-CIO developed a working relationship with labor groups in British Guiana, supplying them with equipment such as loud speakers and printing presses. The AFL-CIO’s international affiliates, like ORIT and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, began to make cash contributions of up to $1,000 to British Guiana’s unions. The U.S. union also brought Ishmael and Rupert Tello to the United States to meet with affiliates like the United Steelworkers. Romualdi worked with representatives of the British Trade Union Council to strengthen anti-PPP groups. The inter-American representative of the AFL-CIO, Harry Pollak, toured British Guiana and called on international labor groups to save British Guiana from the “Stalinist Jagan.” The AFL-CIO would also decide to back Forbes Burnham. U.S. labor leaders never wavered from the conviction, as expressed by Romualdi, that “the Jagans and others of their collaborators are confirmed, 100 percent Communists who have never deviated one iota from the Stalinist line, either in their writings or their utterances.”26 Such fervor infused the AFL-CIO’s war against Jagan in the early 1960s.

PRIOR TO THE LATE 1950s, the United States was content to lend it support and approval to the United Kingdom’s efforts to control its troublesome South American colony. London apparently shared Washington’s view of the dangers of communism. The CIA had carried out a covert intervention in Guatemala, and the British had reoccupied British Guiana. In both cases, the Western powers had overthrown popularly elected governments that they considered in sympathy with the international Communist movement. The two allies would develop sharply contrasting views on British Guiana, however, in the aftermath of two critical international events—the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The United States would come to believe that the United Kingdom no longer sufficiently appreciated the dangers of communism in the Western Hemisphere.
Students of the British Empire believe that the rash attempt by Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s government in the fall of 1956 to restore British control over the Suez Canal marked a turning point in British imperial history. The British military strike on Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt outraged nationalists throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East and infuriated President Eisenhower. The United Kingdom, which acted in concert with France and Israel, had foolishly directed the world’s attention away from the reprehensible invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union in October 1956. Eisenhower publicly denounced the attack on Egypt, introduced a resolution in the United Nations demanding withdrawal, refused oil shipments to the British, and declined to intercede on international financial markets to support the price of the collapsing British currency. In the face of this diplomatic pressure, Eden was forced to abandon his imperial venture. The prime minister’s colossal diplomatic blunder had achieved the impossible; it had created a tacit alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union over Suez. Eden had also exposed the military and economic weakness of his country. The colonial subjects in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and South America took note of those facts.
The Suez debacle hastened Prime Minister Eden’s decision to step down as prime minister. The Conservatives replaced Eden with Harold Macmillan (1957-63). Prime Minister Macmillan proved notably successful in reorienting his nation’s domestic, international, and imperial policies. Having served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Eden’s government, Macmillan concluded that the United Kingdom could no longer afford its colonies. His country’s rate of domestic economic growth had fallen behind other Western European nations. The country needed money to modernize its nuclear forces. Macmillan further believed that his country must maintain close relations with the United States. The Anglo-American rapprochement, which had emerged out of the Venezuelan-British Guiana Boundary Crisis of 1895, had served the British well throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The prime minister developed good relationships with President Eisenhower and especially with President John Kennedy. As Macmillan and his advisers saw it, decolonization would strengthen the kingdom both at home and abroad. Macmillan moved boldly after October 1959, when he scored a resounding electoral triumph. He put in the Colonial Office advisers, like Iain N. MacLeod and Reginald Maulding, who shared his goal of dismantling the empire. He also garnered international praise when he delivered in February 1960 his “Winds of Change” speech to the South African Parliament. He pointed to the growth of political consciousness among Africa’s repressed people and rejected “the idea of any inherent superiority of one race over another.” Macmillan did not fully embrace the cause of freedom and independence, wanting always to maintain control of the process. In December 1960, he instructed his delegation at the United Nations to abstain on a resolution that called for the “necessity of bringing to a speedy and unconditional end . . . to colonialism in all its forms and manifestations.” Nonetheless, during Macmillan’s tenure, key colonial possessions—Ghana (1957), Malaya (1957), Nigeria (1960), and Kenya (1963)—secured their independence.27
In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, the Macmillan government began to test new policies in British Guiana. To be sure, even as the British were attacking Egypt, colonial officers were reassessing past approaches. By the end of 1956, they were privately admitting they had failed to tame the colony. With inadequate imperial funding, progress on roads, land, housing, and local government was judged unsatisfactory. The Jagans and the PPP retained a loyal following. Governor Renison persistently told the Colonial Office that the political restrictions on the Jagans had to be lifted. Renison argued that Guyanese who opposed the PPP needed to learn to face and counter the party in open political debate. In February 1957, the Colonial Office authorized the governor to lift the restrictions on the Jagans and simultaneously to announce a “partial return to elected government.”28 The British would permit a legislative election in August 1957, with the governor having a strong veto power and the power to appoint members to the legislature and the executive council. Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd also mandated a monthly intelligence report on the Jagans and the PPP.29 The Colonial Office further made the “distasteful” decision to permit Cheddi Jagan to attend Ghana’s independence ceremony. Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of Ghana, had shocked the Colonial Office by inviting both Jagan and Forbes Burnham to the ceremony and offering to pay for the trip.30 Nkrumah’s invitation pointed to the growing international concern about the military occupation of British Guiana.
As Guyanese politicians campaigned for the August 1957 election, the new British government tried to prepare the United States for change. Anglo-American lines of communication had improved, because the State Department reopened its consulate in Georgetown in early 1957. Governor Renison informed Consul John Cope that the Conservative Party now recognized that the 1953 intervention had been a mistake. The PPP remained popular. The government had conferred the status of martyrdom on the Jagans. The governor theorized that the colonial subjects needed more time to learn that the PPP would inevitably disrupt the colony’s political and economic life. Renison noted that Forbes Burnham had been told that his past errors had been forgiven and that he had been encouraged to maintain his break with Jagan. He added, however, that the Colonial Office had not forgotten about Burnham’s shortcomings.31 Just prior to the elections, Renison journeyed to London for two months of consultation with his superiors. Before returning to Georgetown, he stopped in Washington in late July 1957 to brief State Department officers in the Division of European Affairs. Renison stunned the State Department with his news. Washington operated on the premise that the Jagans were “openly Communist.” Renison now declared that members of the PPP were not Communists and left the question of the Jagans’ political allegiance open. He implied that the PPP would win the election because of its political skills, with Janet Jagan being the party’s “organizational wheel horse.” Renison promised to balance the power of Cheddi Jagan and the PPP in a new government but was uncertain how he would do it. He predicted that Jagan “would be either tamed or hung” by the responsibility of power. Economic development would be the best way to combat “Jagan and/or Communist influence” and suggested that the United States should assist the colony. State Department officers gave no response to Renison’s presentation.32
The extent of Cheddi Jagan’s victory in the mid-August 1957 elections surprised the governor. Both Jagan and Burnham sponsored a slate of candidates under the PPP label. While in Ghana, Jagan had unsuccessfully tried to convince Burnham to reunite the party. Jagan’s wing of the PPP won nine of the fourteen seats available in the new legislature. Governor Renison had sharply reduced the number of legislators from the twenty-four permitted in the 1953 constitution. Burnham’s wing of the PPP won only three seats. After this poor showing, Burnham announced his new party, the PNC. Governor Renison invited five members of Jagan’s PPP, including Cheddi and Janet Jagan, to join his executive council. Cheddi Jagan became the chief minister. Governor Renison demonstrated good faith, declining to stack the legislature and the council with his appointees. The governor informed London that negotiations for the new government had been productive and that “Jagan was throughout entirely reasonable and friendly and gave a great impression of sincerity in desiring to take the responsibility of government, avoid crises, and to show to British Guiana and the world that he is not the ogre that some think him to be.” Indeed, Jagan had given “statesmanlike” public statements.33
Over the next three years, the Macmillan government found Cheddi Jagan’s leadership satisfactory. PPP ministers focused on improving the living and working conditions of the population. They sponsored drainage and irrigation schemes, built houses for sugar workers, extended workmen’s compensation laws, and mandated paid annual vacations for workers. As the Colonial Office saw it, the resumption of limited self-rule was a “testing time” for the colony. “Only by providing an opportunity for political life” would there be “a chance of reasonable political leadership emerging.” If the PPP proved unreliable, the governor could call on a “beefed up” police force of 1,500, the Special Branch intelligence unit, and a company of United Kingdom troops. The Colonial Office understood, however, that racial relations now constituted the key issue for British Guiana. The continued division between Jagan and Burnham would likely stimulate racial animosity in the colony.34
The Eisenhower administration did not share the Macmillan government’s optimism about British Guiana. As it went forward with its new policy, the prime minister had instructed the Colonial Office to keep Washington “in close touch with what is going on.” As Macmillan wrote in a personal minute, the United States had been “quite good when the last troubles occurred and if it should be necessary for the Governor to suspend the Constitution again we shall certainly need their help in keeping the other Latin Americans quiet.”35 The Eisenhower administration did not want, however, to hear that the PPP had another substantial electoral victory and that Cheddi and Janet Jagan were ministers in the new government. Immediately after the election, the State Department summoned Ambassador Sir Harold A. Caccia to hear of “our deep concern over a Communist victory.” The administration wondered why the $1 million in technical assistance that the United States had provided had not counteracted Communist influence. Speaking for the administration, Deputy Under Secretary of State Robert D. Murphy pointed out to Caccia that “with its vital hemispheric and Caribbean interests the United States could not ignore what had happened in British Guiana.” Murphy added that “he felt certain that Communists would build up Jagan” and turn British Guiana into a base for the expansion of international communism.36 Such doomsday predictions led one historian to conclude that they “reflected the ideologically driven perceptions of American policymakers” and their “uninformed appreciation of the nuances of politics in British Guiana.”37
The State Department went beyond expressing its Cold War fears to the British. Acting Secretary of State Christian Herter ordered diplomatic officers stationed in Georgetown and London to report on the United Kingdom’s concrete plans to cope with the Communist threat. Murphy had also suggested to Ambassador Caccia that British Guiana could not be viewed as an internal matter of the British Empire. Murphy called on the British to consider joint measures “we can take to improve the political situation in British Guiana.”38 British intelligence services began to send reports about the colony to the United States. CIA agents may also have begun to operate in British Guiana. The State Department decided to maintain its small technical assistance programs and to open a U.S. Information Services office in Georgetown. U.S. officials further began to develop ties with Forbes Burnham. State Department officers noted that Burnham openly pleaded for financial assistance for his new political party. They also met with Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York, an African American member of the House of Representatives, who had become Burnham’s patron in the United States.39
To their surprise, U.S. officials found themselves negotiating with Cheddi Jagan. British Guiana needed to develop a viable economy to sustain its independence. Because the colony did not produce enough goods and services to generate income for development, the process of diversifying the plantation-based economy would require foreign aid and direct private investments for a sustained period. Although British Guiana’s economy was growing in the late 1950s, it was barely keeping pace with the annual population growth of 3.2 percent. Unemployment and underemployment remained over 25 percent. British Guiana also had poor health conditions, with its infant mortality rate approaching an appalling 7 percent. If he could attract outside funds and spur economic development, Cheddi Jagan calculated that he could build a solid political future for the PPP.40
Sponsored by Governor Renison, Jagan journeyed to London in 1958 seeking money. He proposed that the British pledge approximately $120 million to a five-year development plan. As it had in the mid-1950s, the Colonial Office rejected the development request, noting it might find funds for about half of the request. The Colonial Office took the unusual step of introducing Jagan to Japanese and West German diplomats stationed in London, suggesting nations wealthier than the United Kingdom might help. It also pointed him toward Washington, where he went in August 1959. Jagan submitted requests for development assistance that amounted to $34 million. In particular, Jagan wanted money to finance a ten-year road building program that would tie mineral, agricultural, and coastal areas together.41
As it reviewed Jagan’s request, officials in Washington received advice from several sources about British Guiana and its chief minister. British officials assured the State Department that Jagan was a new man, “becoming less aggressive, more moderate, and mature in presenting his arguments.” The Special Branch found no cause for alarm, although it once noted that PPP members had several “Communist and left-wing contacts,” including Carey McWilliams, the editor of the U.S. news and opinion weekly, the Nation. The Special Branch’s monitoring of the mails turned up that Janet Jagan and the PPP received several pieces of Communist literature from Czechoslovakia and the United Kingdom.42 Also available in Washington was Senator George Aiken’s 1958 report on his study tour of the Caribbean for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The Vermont Republican, known for his independent streak and forthright manner, condemned British rule in British Guiana and highlighted the colony’s dismal living conditions. Aiken left little doubt that the British should leave immediately and that the United States should help an independent nation with economic development assistance.43
Jagan’s loan application also received the endorsement of the new U.S. consul in Georgetown, Carroll H. Woods. Woods belittled the idea that British Guiana was ripe for Communist takeover. The PPP was not a Communist party, although a few members of the inner circle were “card-carrying Communists.” Cheddi Jagan was attracted to communism for idealistic reasons. In any case, no PPP member had a direct link to Moscow. The PPP was financially dependent on Indian merchants and small landowners who were anticommunist. The colony also had a strong opposition press, a civil service, and a second political party, the PNC. “In this milieu,” Woods reasoned, “it is difficult to visualize a handful of leaders having appreciable success in exploiting the country for Communist ends.” Woods also observed that conservative sectors of British Guiana had concluded that the PPP was honest and tried to govern efficiently. Booker Brothers now cooperated with the PPP. On the other hand, businessmen had doubts about Burnham and the PNC. In Woods’s judgment, a U.S. loan would represent “an inexpensive insurance policy against communism” and would have a “psychological impact” by encouraging private investors. The United States should take up the Colonial Office’s policy of tying British Guiana to the West. Woods conceded a loan would boost the PPP but that this was preferable to allowing economic stagnation and “waiting for radicalism to proliferate.”44
U.S. officials neither accepted nor rejected these recommendations. The State Department did not formally invite Jagan to Washington, although it listened politely to his overtures when he showed up in the capital. Economic aid officers suggested they would give “sympathetic” consideration to a “reasonable” loan. They rejected the idea of $34 million without actually saying so, finding inadequate preparation and technical faults with British Guiana’s loan application. By the end of 1959, officials in the U.S. Development Loan Fund were speaking favorably of a $3.5 million package for an irrigation project, although they did not receive authorization from the Eisenhower administration to make a commitment.45 From 1957 to 1959, the State Department took a self-described “wait and see” attitude toward Jagan and the PPP. In a special U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, the intelligence community deemed British Guiana’s political future as “uncertain.” U.S. officials did not yet perceive British Guiana as a critical Cold War battleground. Between 1957 and 1960, President Eisenhower met with Prime Minister Macmillan four times to discuss global issues. The issue of the future of British Guiana did not appear on the Anglo-American agenda.46
In his campaign to raise money for British Guiana, Cheddi Jagan tried a ploy that highlighted the sharply different perceptions that he and U.S. officials had about the proper role of small South American nations. Frustrated by Western parsimony, Jagan openly spoke about being forced to ask the Soviet Union for a loan. Jagan knew, of course, that neutral nations like Egypt and India had received money from both capitalist and Communist sides during the Cold War. Consul Woods quickly dismissed Jagan’s talk as a “bluff” and “leverage for accelerating or increasing the Western ante.”47 Jagan wanted U.S. and British private and public money, and he understood the Colonial Office would never sanction a loan from the Soviet Union. But Jagan’s gambit perhaps also revealed how he viewed British Guiana’s place in the international system. Colonial officers reported that Jagan, after returning from India in 1954, often referred to “the Indian system.”48 By his own definition, his trip had been unsuccessful. India had not denounced the suspension of the 1953 constitution, and Jagan thought that he embarrassed himself there, because he could not speak Hindi or Urdu or identify the village of his forebears.49 Nonetheless, Jagan saw that the United States abided an India that preached the virtues of national planning, built a mixed economy, conducted warm relations with the Soviet Union, and regularly criticized the United States. India had also sponsored the 1955 Asian-African Conference at Bandung, Indonesia, where the twenty-nine nations participating declared their nonaligned status in the East-West confrontation. Jagan often seemed surprised when the United States reacted negatively to actions that he took that they tolerated from an Indian leader. Jagan similarly seemed dumbfounded that U.S. officials could not appreciate the communist ideal he admired in the kibbutz system of Israel, a U.S. ally. Jagan did not always grasp that the United States put British Guiana, its ethnic composition notwithstanding, within the concept of the U.S. sphere of influence in Latin America. The United States opposed Latin American nations having diplomatic or economic relationships with the Soviet Union. During the early Cold War, only larger nations like Mexico tried to resist that extreme pressure.
Chief Minister Jagan’s talk of a flirtation with the Soviet Union did not dissuade the Macmillan government from pushing forward with political liberalization in British Guiana. In late 1959, the Colonial Office sent Governor Renison to Kenya and replaced him with Sir Ralph Grey, a New Zealander and an experienced colonial officer who had served in Nigeria. In a 1956 radio address, Renison had denounced Jagan as a Communist who would attempt to install one-party rule. By the end of the decade, colonial officials perceived Jagan and the PPP as responsible political actors.50 As the new colonial secretary, Iain Macleod, explained to Macmillan, the PPP had learned the lessons of 1953 and that “there has been for some time a feeling that British Guiana has largely purged its offence.”51 Such assessments proceeded on the debatable proposition that the PPP had pursued a radical, un-democratic agenda in 1953. Perhaps Macleod could have added that the nostalgic imperialists—Churchill, Eden, Lyttleton—no longer judged the political culture of British Guiana.
In March 1960, Colonial Secretary Macleod presided over a constitutional convention in London to determine British Guiana’s future. Both Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan attended. After three weeks of wrangling, Macleod ruled that British Guiana would have new elections in 1961. He divided the country into thirty-five single-member districts for election to the Legislative Assembly. The leader of the victorious party would form a government, become prime minister in a cabinet system, and have authority over the colony’s internal affairs. The governor would retain control over defense and foreign affairs. All parties understood that the new government would bring British Guiana to independence, although Macleod declined to set a specific date. Macleod handed Jagan and the PPP a big victory by rejecting Burnham’s bid to have the election based on proportional representation. Victory in a legislative district would be based on the traditional “first across the post” British electoral system. If voting broke down on racial lines, the PPP had a bright future. Indo-Guyanese, with their high birth rates, constituted almost 50 percent of the population at the end of 1959, although many had not reached voting age. Jagan unsuccessfully lobbied Macleod to lower the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen. Patterns of residency also favored the PPP, which could count on being competitive in most districts. Afro-Guyanese, who made up 34 percent of the population, were concentrated in urban districts, whereas Indians lived throughout the coastal plain.52 The Colonial Office emerged from the constitutional conference with new respect for Jagan. It told the U.S. embassy in London that it found Jagan to be “genuine” and that it mistrusted Burnham and disliked his negotiating tactics.53
The Eisenhower administration theoretically should have been pleased with the outcome of the London conference. The devolution of colonial authority in British Guiana seemed to flow directly from Macmillan’s memorable “Winds of Change” address in February 1960. Indeed, President Eisenhower had congratulated the prime minister, noting that he had been impressed by “your masterful address in Cape Town and your analysis of the forces of nationalism in Africa.”54 Throughout the latter part of the 1950s, the administration’s leading figures again took up the anticolonial theme. In 1957, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles complained to the German ambassador that “the colonial powers tend to move slowly, in fact too slowly.” At an NSC meeting in August 1959, President Eisenhower doubted that the United States could fully back France while it continued to wage war against Algerian nationalists. The president viewed U.S. history as “anti-colonial, and the French action in Algeria is interpreted by the rest of the world as militant colonialism.” Eisenhower declared to his advisers that he United States had to pursue its own interests and not back Charles de Gaulle on Algeria, “because we are the most powerful country in the world, we are already considered a supporter of colonialism, and we had great difficulty disabusing countries like India of this impression.” A year later, in a discussion with the U.S. ambassador to Portugal, Eisenhower recalled the advice he had given to Winston Churchill to set a firm date for colonial independence. The idea had “jolted” Churchill, but the United Kingdom would have made friends among colonized people if Churchill had accepted the president’s advice. Portugal needed to learn from history, the president insisted, and set a date for the independence of its African colonies.55
However passionate President Eisenhower may have been on the issue of colonialism, neither he nor his chief advisers had resolved the dilemma of radical nationalism. Winston Churchill’s wicked taunt still held: anticommunism trumped anticolonialism. And in the political discourse of the United States, the term “communism” was broadly and imprecisely defined. Against the advice of the African and Asian bureaus of the State Department, Eisenhower had, for example, acceded to Prime Minister Macmillan’s request and ordered the United States to abstain on the December 1960 U.N. resolution calling for a speedy end to colonialism. The resolution passed by a vote of 89-0, with nine abstentions including those of the United States and the United Kingdom. Macmillan had assured Eisenhower that “we are making a tremendous effort by our colonial policy to get peaceful development in Africa and to keep communism out.”56 In its policy statements on colonial areas including the British West Indies, the Eisenhower administration called for “orderly progress toward independence.”57 In the context of the Cold War that meant that the United States demanded that anticommunist leaders guide nationalist movements.


CHEDDI JAGAN UNSETTLED U.S. policymakers not only because of his suspect political ideologies but also because he, his wife, and his political party became identified with the Cuban Revolution. For more than four decades, the United States has been obsessed with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Castro and his band of bearded guerrillas rode on tanks into Havana in the first days of 1959. Their triumphant entry into the capital city marked the culmination of Castro’s six-year struggle against dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Cuban strongman had dominated national life since 1934 and had directly ruled since 1952. Castro and his youthful followers opposed Batista’s tyrannical rule. They also envisioned a socially just, progressive Cuba that addressed the nation’s problems of poverty and deep social and racial inequities. Like other educated Cubans, Castro held ambivalent views about the United States. He appreciated the wealth and technological prowess of the United States and admired its heroes, such as Abraham Lincoln. He also enjoyed U.S. popular culture, playing baseball and rooting for major league teams. But Cubans deeply resented the role that the United States had played in Cuba’s history and political and economic life. After assisting Cuba’s struggle for independence in the War of 1898, the United States attached the Platt Amendment (1903-34) to the Cuban constitution, giving the United States the right to oversee Cuba’s internal affairs. U.S. military forces repeatedly invaded the island. With their money guaranteed by the bayonets of U.S. marines, U.S. investors came to dominate Cuba’s economic life. With approximately $900 million invested in Cuba by 1959, U.S. investors accounted for 40 percent of the country’s critical sugar production. U.S. companies also controlled public utilities, oil refineries, mines, railroads, and the tourist industry. Cubans took further offense that U.S. tourists considered Havana their playground for gambling, narcotics, and prostitution. Cubans also could not forget that the Eisenhower administration fawned over Batista and armed him with U.S. weapons, because the dictator protected foreign investments, voted with Washington at the United Nations, and professed to be anticommunist. In fact, the unscrupulous Batista quietly worked with the Cuban Communist Party.
Reforming Cuban society inevitably meant altering the U.S. presence in Cuba. Like many Cubans, Fidel Castro blamed the United States for Cuba’s backwardness and international insignificance. His agrarian reform law, which was promulgated in April 1959, set the tone for U.S.-Cuban relations. The law expropriated farmlands of over 1,000 acres, with compensation to be paid in Cuban bonds and based on the land’s declared value for taxes in 1958. Sugar barons, both foreign and domestic, had predictably undervalued their land in Batista’s Cuba. The new law, which was to be administered by a Cuban Communist, Antonio Núñez Jiménez, also prohibited foreigners from owning agricultural land. Sympathetic observers judged agrarian reform as a legitimate effort to address the crushing poverty and injustice that characterized the Cuban countryside. But from Washington’s perspective, the Agrarian Reform Law of 1959 smacked both of anti-Americanism and communism.
Fidel Castro only progressively moved toward communism. On 1 December 1961, he publicly declared, “I am a Marxist-Leninist, and I will continue to be a Marxist-Leninist until the last day of my life.” Most historians do not believe that Castro was a Communist in the 1950s, although his compatriots included his brother Raúl Castro and the Argentine, Ernesto “Ché” Guevara, both committed radicals. The Cuban Communist Party did not initially embrace Castro’s anti-Batista movement; the party only began to support Castro fervently after he took power. Castro gradually concluded that communism provided answers to Cuba’s problems and that the Communist concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would enhance his drive for personal domination of Cuba. As Castro reaped the animosity of the United States, he predictably turned to the Soviet Union. In February 1960, Castro hosted a Soviet trade fair in Cuba and signed a commercial agreement. The Soviets agreed to purchase one million tons of Cuban sugar over the next five years and to provide the Cubans with a $100 million credit to purchase Soviet equipment.
By the end of 1959, U.S. officials spoke of overthrowing Castro. The CIA official responsible for the Western Hemisphere, Colonel J. C. King, suggestively recommended that “thorough consideration be given to the elimination of Fidel Castro.” On 17 March 1960, President Eisenhower gave formal approval to a “program of covert action against the Castro regime.” The plan included launching a propaganda offensive, creating anti-Castro forces within Cuba, and training a paramilitary force outside of Cuba for future action. Through the rest of 1960, the administration attacked Cuba. The CIA broadcast anti-Castro diatribes from a radio station on Swan Island, a dot of land off the coast of Honduras. The administration tried to strangle the Cuban economy, cutting off sugar imports and banning U.S. exports to the island. The CIA began to train Cuba exiles in Guatemala with the mission of carrying out an amphibious invasion of Cuba. The CIA also contacted the criminal underworld of the United States, the “Mafia,” urging organized criminals to carry out a “gangland-style killing” of Castro and his chief associates. The CIA reasoned that the Mafia resented Castro for having driven gambling interests out of Havana. On 3 January 1961, Eisenhower broke diplomatic relations with Cuba.58
Cheddi and Janet Jagan walked right into the middle of the U.S. war against Fidel Castro. They would become casualties of the conflict. In April 1960, shortly after the successful constitutional conference in London, the Jagans traveled to Havana to observe the Cuban Revolution, meet with Cuban leaders, and discuss economic ties. Cuban officials in London arranged the trip. Neither the Colonial Office nor the Foreign Office tried to stop the trip, although they judged it a “foolish” venture.59 While in Havana, Jagan publicly praised the Cuban Revolution and recalled that the U.S. interventions in Iran and Guatemala “were preceded by an anti-Communist campaign seeking to represent the Governments of the countries as pro-Communist.” Jagan predicted that the “imperialists” would try to do to Cuba what they had done to British Guiana in 1953. Apart from his public performance, Jagan met with Castro and with Ché Guevara at the Cuban National Bank. Jagan emerged from the talks with tangible results. Castro offered to lend British Guiana $5 million for hydroelectric projects. Jagan also laid the foundation for a Cuban agreement to purchase in cash substantial quantities of British Guiana’s surplus rice production. The leaders further discussed cultural and student exchanges. Jagan left Cuba after a few days, although Janet Jagan stayed in Cuba for a longer period.60
Multiple interpretations can be offered about the journey to Havana by the Jagans. For U.S. officials, the trip confirmed their worst fears about the couple. They immediately concluded that any Cuban money that went to British Guiana originated in the Soviet Union. Using Cuba as its agent, the Soviet Union planned a new offensive in the Western Hemisphere. The State Department ordered its embassies in London, Moscow, Havana, and Georgetown to be on the alert. Janet Jagan stayed in Cuba because she was a “hard core” Communist and was probably “moving in Communist circles in Cuba for the purpose of obtaining support for Communist activity in British Guiana.”61 The United States accordingly asserted its hegemony. In September 1960, Secretary of State Christian Herter instructed the London embassy to inform the Colonial Office that “we presume the Cuban loan will delay British Guiana’s independence.” The United States felt certain that “Her Majesty’s Government would be loath to leave the colony to the mercies of a Jagan-dominated policy and Communist-assisted economy.” The United States and the United Kingdom should not give in to Jagan’s “blackmail tactics” of playing the West off against the Communist bloc. Herter warned that “weakness at this stage” would only make the United Kingdom’s tenure in British Guiana more difficult in the future.62
The Jagans undoubtedly admired the Cuban Revolution and saw themselves on the cutting edge in the global struggle against imperialism and international capitalism. But Western observers in London, Georgetown, and Havana offered more nuanced interpretations of British Guiana’s relationship with Castro’s Cuba than those born in Washington. Cheddi Jagan lived in the British Empire. In 1959-60, British diplomats in Havana did not depict Cuba as the command post for Communist subversion.63 Despite vehement U.S. protests, the United Kingdom preserved its diplomatic and commercial ties with Cuba. Prime Minister Macmillan dismissed U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba as “ridiculous in itself,” pointing out that Communist countries would learn to produce what the West denied them. With international trade accounting for 40 percent of its gross national product, the United Kingdom, wanted to expand its commercial ties with Communist countries.64 Jagan’s rice deal with the Cubans made economic sense for the colony and was politically advantageous to Jagan and the PPP. The rice producers were small landowners of Indian background who were thought to be “bourgeois” in their attitudes. Nonetheless, they would be naturally grateful to the PPP, if Jagan found new markets for their rice.65 Jagan also extended his search for help beyond Cuba. In September 1960, he was in Caracas asking neighboring Venezuela, which was led by President Rómulo Betancourt, a stout anticommunist, to help develop British Guiana’s timber industry and to contribute to the hydroelectric project to facilitate the colony’s capacity to smelt its bauxite. Jagan further inquired about a deal for rice. He told the Venezuelans that he expected that the Colonial Office would not let him accept the Cuban loan, but he hoped that it would stimulate London to be more generous with its aid.66 As to the issue of whether a Cuban loan would discourage U.S. support, the Colonial Office pointed out that Jagan would be unimpressed with the argument, because the United States had not aided British Guiana.67 The new U.S. consul in Georgetown, Everett K. Melby, seconded the Colonial Office’s reasoning and rejected the “blackmail” argument raised by Secretary Herter. British Guiana desperately needed capital and the United States would reap favorable publicity if it built roads and hospitals in the colony.68 Although he hardly drew on a sophisticated line of reasoning, Governor Ralph Grey weighed in with his analysis of the Jagans and Cuba. He discounted speculation that Janet Jagan was plotting in Havana, suggesting instead that her “most vivid” impression of Cuba was “those splendid, virile young men with their flashing eyes and curling beards.”69
Neither complex nor frivolous arguments about British Guiana swayed the Eisenhower administration during its last days in office. It initiated the campaign that accelerated during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies to deny power to Cheddi Jagan and the PPP. The administration began to interfere directly in the colony’s politics, covertly supporting anti-PPP groups. In August 1960, U.S. officials heard of a Catholic group, “Defenders of Freedom,” linked to conservative businessmen led by Peter D’Aguiar. D’Aguiar, who was of Portuguese origin, sold soft drinks and brewed British Guiana’s most popular beer, “Banks.” The Defenders of Freedom was reportedly affiliated with an anticommunist group in Connecticut, “Americans Safeguarding Freedom.” State Department officials immediately decided they would cultivate D’Aguiar and his supporters. They met in Washington with their representatives and promised to have the U.S. Information Agency, without attribution, provide them with anticommunist material.70 D’Aguiar’s friends asked for money. U.S officials did not respond directly to such requests but observed support could be obtained from Christian churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church, in the United States and from the Cuban exile community.71 The CIA had previously worked with the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the United States and Guatemala in the 1954 destabilization campaign against the Arbenz government. The agency was also in the process of building a close relationship with anti-Castro Cubans.72 In early January 1961, the State Department also hosted an associate of Forbes Burnham, who informed Washington that he would be seeking funds in the United States to help the PNC. U.S. officials did not ask Burnham’s friend to comment on Consul Melby’s earlier report that “Burnham is believed by some to be both anti-East Indian and antiwhite.”73 Cold War imperatives were about to overwhelm long-standing U.S. commitments to national self-determination, democracy, and racial justice.


AS PRESIDENT-ELECT John F. Kennedy prepared to take office on 20 January 1961, the United States and the United Kingdom were headed for a clash over the small, weak colony of British Guiana. The two Western powers had drawn different historical lessons from watershed events of the 1950s. To U.S. officials, the Cuban Revolution meant that communism was a clear and present danger in the Western Hemisphere. The region had become, in Kennedy’s words, “the most dangerous area in the world.”74 British Guiana could not be permitted to endanger the United States. British officials believed, however, that the Suez Crisis had taught them to abandon atavistic imperial practices and that the United Kingdom’s national security would be enhanced by quickly shedding its colonial possessions. From the British perspective, neither time nor money would be well spent holding on to a bothersome possession in South America that weighed little in the international balance of power.