Isolated from its mainland neighbors by roadless expanses of forest and grassland, Guyana is in many ways like an island. The UK had long desired to be rid of this underdeveloped, unprofitable and often troublesome colony, but it wanted it to be reasonably stable. When the South American colony now known as Guyana was due to gain independence from Britain in the 1960s, U.S. officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations feared it would become a communist nation under the leadership of Cheddi Jagan, a Marxist who was very popular among the South Asian (mostly Indian) majority.
CIA funded strikes and riots that crippled Guyana in 1962 and 1963 and led to pushing out Jagan's governing People's Progressive Party in the December 1964 elections. The CIA funneled its secret payments that placed Forbes Burnham in power through the AFL-CIO and AFSCME. Although to this day the CIA refuses to confirm or deny involvement, CIA funding, through a program run by the AFL-CIO, helped foment the labor unrest, race riots, and general chaos that led to Jagan's replacement in 1964. The political leader preferred by the United States, Forbes Burnham, went on to lead a twenty-year dictatorship in which he persecuted the majority Indian population.
The immediate postwar period witnessed the founding of Guyana's major political parties, the People's Progressive Party (PPP) and the People's National Congress (PNC). These years also saw the beginning of a long and acrimonious struggle between the country's two dominant political personalities--Cheddi Jagan and Linden Forbes Burnham. The end of World War II began a period of worldwide decolonization. In British Guiana, political awareness and demands for independence grew in all segments of society. At the same time, the struggle for political ascendancy between Burnham, the ""Man on Horseback"" of the Afro-Guyanese, and Jagan, the hero of the Indo-Guyanese masses, left a legacy of racially polarized politics that remained in place in the 1990s.
Guyana's oldest political party, the PPP, was founded in 1950 by Cheddi Jagan as a means to push for independence. After the 1961 elections, however, the party came to represent almost exclusively the Indo-Guyanese community. A long-time Marxist-Leninist, Jagan declared in 1969 that the PPP was a communist party and advocated state ownership of all industry. The PPP won elections in 1953, 1957, and 1961, but its leftist policies led to internal unrest and opposition from the British colonial authorities.
The PPP's coalition of lower-class Afro-Guyanese and rural Indo-Guyanese workers, together with elements of both ethnic groups' middle sectors, made for a formidable constituency. Conservatives branded the PPP as communist, but the party campaigned on a center-left platform and appealed to a growing nationalism. The other major party participating in the election, the National Democratic Party (NDP), was a spin-off of the League of Coloured People and was largely an Afro-Guyanese middle-class organization, sprinkled with middle-class Portuguese and IndoGuyanese. The NDP, together with the poorly organized United Farmers and Workers Party and the United National Party, was soundly defeated by the PPP in elections in 1953.
The British promulgated a new constitution in 1957. Elections in that year and in 1961 resulted in more PPP victories. Under the new constitution, considerable power resided in the hands of the governor, who was appointed by the British. The PPP administration headed by Jagan was therefore unable to implement most of its radical policy initiatives. The Marxist rhetoric, however, intensified. Convinced that independence under a PPP administration would result in a communist takeover, the British authorities permitted and even encouraged a destabilization campaign by the opposition PNC.
The 1957 elections held under a new constitution demonstrated the extent of the growing ethnic division within the Guianese electorate. Following the 1957 elections, Jagan rapidly consolidated his hold on the Indo-Guyanese community. Though candid in expressing his admiration for Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and, later, Fidel Castro Ruz, Jagan in power asserted that the PPP's MarxistLeninist principles must be adapted to Guyana's own particular circumstances. Jagan advocated nationalization of foreign holdings, especially in the sugar industry. British fears of a communist takeover, however, caused the British governor to hold Jagan's more radical policy initiatives in check.
The 1961 elections were a bitter contest between the PPP, the PNC, and the United Force (UF), a conservative party representing big business, the Roman Catholic Church, and Amerindian, Chinese, and Portuguese voters. Jagan's administration became increasingly friendly with communist and leftist regimes; for instance, Jagan refused to observe the United States embargo on communist Cuba. After discussions between Jagan and Cuban revolutionary Ernesto ""Che"" Guevara in 1960 and 1961, Cuba offered British Guiana loans and equipment. In addition, the Jagan administration signed trade agreements with Hungary and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
From 1961 to 1964, Jagan was confronted with a destabilization campaign conducted by the PNC and UF. Riots and demonstrations against the PPP administration were frequent, and during disturbances in 1962 and 1963 mobs destroyed part of Georgetown. In 1964 outbursts of violence soon escalated beyond the control of the authorities. On May 22, the governor finally declared another state of emergency. The situation continued to worsen, and in June the governor assumed full powers, rushed in British troops to restore order, and proclaimed a moratorium on all political activity.
As Jagan feared, the PPP lost the general elections of 1964. The socialist PNC and unabashedly capitalist UF had joined forces to keep the PPP out of office for another term. Jagan called the election fraudulent and refused to resign as prime minister. The constitution was amended to allow the governor to remove Jagan from office. Burnham became prime minister on December 14, 1964. Under the new administration, events stabilized, and independence was set for May 26, 1966.
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