Whose freedom at midnight? Machinations towards Guyana’s Independence, May 1966
By Clem Seecharan
September 3, 2008 in Guyana Review
Professor of Caribbean History and Head of Caribbean Studies, London Metropolitan University (forthcoming in Round Table October 2008)
Guyana (formerly British Guiana), the only British colony on the mainland of South America, became independent at midnight on 26 May 1966. But whose freedom was it? For nearly 20 years the Marxist leader of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), Cheddi Jagan (1918-97), of Indian extraction, buoyed by the independence of India and obsessed with the dominance of the British company, Booker, in the colony’s plantation economy, had championed Guyana’s ‘struggle’ for independence. Yet, on the big night it was the African leader of the People’s National Congress (PNC), L.F.S. Burnham (1923-85), who was the recipient of the prize. His politics, though left-wing, was characterised by a cultivated pragmatism, strategic ambiguity ─ the facility to ‘tack and turn as advantage seems to dictate…his whole political approach is opportunistic’, as a British politician had assessed him in 1954.i With the aid of the Portuguese and Coloured (mixed race) political party, the United Force (UF), led by a Portuguese businessman, Peter D’Aguiar, a rabid anti-communist, in conjunction with the decisive intervention of President Kennedy himself and the CIA, in 1962-3, the PNC resorted to violence to make British Guiana ungovernable. The latter proved effective: it delayed independence, while Anglo-American collusion brought a Burnham-D’Aguiar coalition to power in December 1964 and independence in May 1966. Cheddi Jagan was a virtual spectator to the celebrations of the country’s ‘freedom’.
Speaking in the National Assembly on Independence Day, Jagan made it clear that this was not his freedom
Former President LFS Burnham
Former President LFS Burnham
day. That had to be struggled for: foreign control of the economy had to be eliminated; only his party, the PPP, could achieve real liberation for the country. He meant disengagement from ‘imperialism’ and the capitalist system ─ the building of the communist utopia, following the path of the glorious Soviet Union. It was not an auspicious beginning for this troubled land:
[P]olitical independence has been attained under the continuation and consolidation of foreign economic control and the maintenance of the colonial type economy, based on primary production and extraction. This has already detracted from the living standards of the working people…The PPP, the vanguard of Guyana’s struggle for national liberation, is convinced that liberty is achieved only when it has been struggled for and won. It cannot be a gift of charity. For the people of Guyana, real freedom is still a prize to be won, and win it we will ─ as a reunited free people. i
Jagan and Burnham, founder-members of the PPP in 1950, had won the first general elections under universal adult suffrage in April 1953. But after 133 days the British suspended the constitution and evicted the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) government from office, convinced that Jagan was a pro-Moscow communist bent on subverting liberal democracy.iii His politics was anathema to the Fabian socialism of the British West Indies. The tenuous coalition, suggestive of African-Indian unity in the PPP, did not survive the report of the Robertson Commission sent by the Colonial Office to British Guiana in early 1954, following the suspension of the constitution. It sought to make a distinction between the ‘communism’ of Cheddi Jagan and the moderate ‘socialism’ of Forbes Burnham. But this was not merely a ‘divide and rule’ tactic; it was an astute exploitation of the seeds of ethnic division, immanent in the society, and marked by a tendency towards Indian triumphalism and African apprehension, since the freedom of ‘Mother India’ in 1947. They argued: ‘Mr Burnham (chairman of the Party) was generally recognised as the leader of the socialists in the PPP and as such to be in rivalry with Dr Jagan for the moral leadership of the Party as a whole…[T]here were many who thought that as the recognised leader of the socialists…Mr Burnham ought to have taken a much stronger line than he did in opposition to the more blatantly communist activities of the Jagans and their supporters. We came to the conclusion that…the ambiguous Mr Burnham…and a number of its less prominent leaders were socialists…We doubt, however, if they had the wit to see the essential difference between themselves and their communist colleagues or the ability to avoid being out-manoeuvred by them’.iv
As early as the elections of April 1953, 30-year old Burnham, a brilliant lawyer with considerable oratorical gifts and already identified as the premier African leader in the colony, had endeavoured to wrest the leadership of the PPP from the Indian leader, Cheddi Jagan. The mutual African-Indian suspicion permeating the wider colonial environment was reproduced in the Party, Jagan’s Marxist dogmas on the primacy of the class struggle notwithstanding. It was so bedevilling a feature of the PPP, in its so-called golden phase of racial unity, that Eusi Kwayana (formerly Sydney King), another founder-member of the Party, an African school teacher from the historic village of Buxton, fearing the escalation of racial rivalry if the assumption of power were to be confronted precipitately, had counselled that they should not contest more than eight seats. The Party should focus on forging a degree of genuine ethnic unity. He had advised Jagan and Burnham that they should seek not to win in 1953:
Some people like to ignore reality. I had moved in the PPP Executive that we should not win a majority, and my reason was that the country was not sufficiently united. I think only Martin Carter [the poet] and I supported the motion that we should not go for a majority. I knew we would win a majority, but I didn’t think the Party was prepared for it because although the racial unity was there ─ it was a kind of coalition ─ it was not well-grounded; it was tenuous. I told Jagan and Burnham we would win the elections. They didn’t believe it; they thought we would win about eight seats [out of 24]. I moved a motion that we fight about eight seats and try to do, in a multiple of eight, what Jagan alone had done [since 1947], and really try to unite the country [emphasis added].v
Kwayana was correct. African and Indians are separated by a cultural chasm that breeds mutual incomprehension. Indians were not a clear majority, but they constituted the largest group. Africans were afraid that with growing economic and cultural self-assurance, coupled with their demographic superiority, Indians under Cheddi Jagan’s leadership would soon lead British Guiana to ‘freedom’ from British rule. They were therefore apprehensive that independence would herald their permanent subjugation by a wily people. Indian rule was infinitely less tolerable than British colonialism. Indeed African Guyanese would have opted for remaining colonials indefinitely rather than support independence under a party led by an Indian. The instinct to categorise and calibrate everything on the basis of ethnicity is chronic in this polyglot, incoherent place.
Kwayana is a rare example of an individual at the heart of these seminal events in Guyana’s meandering path to independence, to speak frankly on racism in the colony. He contends that Jagan failed to address the fundamental fact of African insecurity in the early 1950s. Jagan thought that his Marxist truth, ‘scientific socialism’, the source of ‘total understanding’, would dissolve the question of race: a false problem in any case. He failed to comprehend, in Kwayana’s evocative phrase, ‘the hinterland of suspicion’ in the African community. Kwayana explains why the PPP split into two factions in 1955, one Indian (led by Jagan); the other African (led by Forbes Burnham:
The two major groups have stereotypes of each other. Africans tended to see Indians as clannish, as having more money, having an interest in land ─ a lot of them were selling out their lands to Indians when they went broke. Although they were doing it voluntarily, it also alarmed them. Then there was this rumour that someone from India had come and said who owned the land owned the country…A lot of Africans were unable to go beyond that. They would look at the behaviour of Indians near to them in judging the PPP (the PPP does not understand this until now).
If there is an aggressive [racist] member of the PPP in their district, this is how Africans see the PPP. Jagan never…[dealt] with these things at the subjective level, although he ha[d] a lot of rage against Imperialism.
That problem was never dealt with; that’s one of the reasons why I left the PPP [in 1956, the year after Burnham]. The psychology of the leader is crucial. We had to fight to get Africans to accept an Indian leader [Jagan]. He didn’t have that problem. He never had to accept a leader of another race so he didn’t know what it is. He talks about revolution, but the personal revolution ─ nothing. He had a cultural problem. Having rejected colonialism and its intellectual and cultural baggage he had to take something from somewhere else [Russian communism]; he didn’t rely on his own personality. If he had Hinduism, it would have made him a different person.vi
There were no intellectual or cultural foundations to Cheddi Jagan’s ideology. He had rejected his Indian cultural antecedents, so he absorbed the received Marxist dogmas uncritically. They took the place of the eclectic Hinduism of his boyhood. Yet, imprisoned by the intractability of racial identities in Guyana, Jagan was discernibly adept at garnering Indian loyalty ─ and keeping it, manipulating crucial Indo-Guyanese idioms with dexterity. That was why he was able to survive the split in the PPP in 1955, with the departure of Forbes Burnham, as well as that of Eusi Kwayana and Martin Carter in 1956, and proceed, on the basis of Indo-Guyanese invincibility under the first-past-the-post electoral system, to gain re-election in August 1957. Burnham’s faction of the PPP was vanquished so he decided to form a party with a less ambiguous identity, the predominantly African, People’s National Congress (PNC), in late 1957. Africans were demoralised. This was exacerbated by the fact that in 1960 the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan granted Jagan self-government with virtual assurance of independence, in a couple of years, after fresh general elections. Burnham was rudderless and his African supporters clueless (like their contemporary situation in Guyana). For Cheddi Jagan, independence was there for the take. He just had to know how to wait. He did not.
Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959 dazzled him. The circumspection and moderation he strained to project in 1957-9, since his re-election, did not sit easily with him. His constipated Marxist dogmas, the source of ‘total knowledge’, were battling within him for release. In 1991 he explained for V.S. Naipaul the illumination that was given him by some Marxist primers:
It was Janet [his American-born wife] who, when she came here [British Guiana] in 1943, brought me Little Lenin Library books ─ little tracts, pamphlets. It was the first time I read Marxist literature. And then…I began reading Marxist books like mad. I read Das Kapital after the Little Lenin series. And that helped me to have a total understanding of the development of society. Until then, all the various struggles ─ Indians, blacks, the American people ─ had been disjointed experiences. To put it in a way that was totally related to a socio-economic system came from the reading of Marxist literature. For instance, the women question was dealt with in Engels’s book, The Origins of the Family. The Marxist theory of surplus value brought a totally new understanding of the struggle of the working class ─ not only that they were exploited. It was exciting to me, an intellectual excitement because a whole new world opened to me, a total understanding of the world [emphasis added].vii
Such was the mesmeric spell of the received dogmas! He got the chance to break out of his brief, but stressful, play at moderation, in early 1960, when it became clear that Fidel Castro was a communist, and that the new Cuba would be guided by Marxism-Leninism. Cheddi was over the moon. He would not play ball with the ‘imperialists’ any longer. Even Ian Macleod, the liberal Secretary of State for the Colonies, who had defied several right-wingers in the Tory Party and committed himself to granting Jagan independence by 1962, would be construed as just another imperialist by Cheddi. After the constitutional conference in London, where it had become transparent that no ‘struggle’ was really necessary for independence, Jagan proceeded to Cuba, his new Mecca, twice in 1960. He was certain that Marxism-Leninism, the purest form of governance devised by humankind, was inevitable. Fidel had vindicated this. The days of capitalism were numbered ─ the communist utopia was around the next bend. He pontificated:
I completely support the Revolutionary Government of Cuba…[It] has the support of most of the Cuban people. I have no doubt the revolution will achieve all its objectives. Any revolutionary movement such as this which is tending towards social and economic emancipation will obviously have enemies both inside and outside the country, but if we take into account the times in which we are living, the speed with which the progressive forces of the world are advancing [the communist bloc], and the great support of the majority of the Cuban people, I have no doubts about the Cuban Revolution.viii
Cheddi boasted in September 1960 that ‘the only Government in Latin America which was openly supporting the Cuban Revolution was ours’. He was confident that time was on their side, guided by the Soviet Union and the so-called people’s democracies of Eastern Europe. He added that Marxism-Leninism was bound to win; Suez (1956) was a ‘turning point in the history of imperialism which is now on the defensive and is losing more and more positions every day. The process will grow not in arithmetic, but in geometric progression’. He predicted that the communist utopia was unstoppable: it would ‘emerge triumphant’, as capitalism was ‘becoming a moribund system’. Communism represented the logic of history; the Cuban Revolution was the watershed in the Western Hemisphere. He could not contain himself: ‘Fidel Castro is not only the liberator of the American continent but also the liberator of the century’.ix
It is arguable that without Castro’s Revolution and Cheddi’s consuming infatuation, he might have kept his head, his circumspection of 1957-9; he would not have stirred the Cold War venom of the United States. He would also have deprived his local enemies ─ Burnham’s People’s National Congress (PNC) and the rabidly anti-communist United Force (UF) and their allies, the Catholic Church ─ of the desperate ammunition that would resurrect their seemingly terminal fortunes. In spite of Jagan’s folly, in early 1961 Ian Macleod genuinely sought to persuade President Kennedy that Jagan was not a communist; he was more of a Laskiite radical (Kennedy was taught by Harold Laski at LSE): there was no need to be afraid of his political outlook.
Meanwhile, the Fabian socialist oriented head of Booker in Guyana (owner of most of the sugar plantations), Jock Campbell (a friend of Macleod), also, endeavoured to detract from Jagan’s fatal attraction to communism. This, however, was not easy for Kennedy to take. After the failure to overthrow Castro, the Bay of Pigs debacle of April 1961, the President became preoccupied that he would be seen as being too soft on communism. Therefore, he still harboured apprehensions about Jagan’s ideology, wary that an independent Guyana would become a Soviet beachhead for spreading the virus into the continent.
But Jagan was re-elected in August 1961, and it seemed as if the Kennedy administration could be persuaded to follow the British and put up with him, hoping that power would breed responsibility and moderation. However, Jagan organised a tawdry triumphalist parade to celebrate his victory. His jubilant Indian supporters repeatedly behaved in a manner humiliating to African bystanders: they dragged the symbol of the PNC, the broom, behind their vehicles; some displayed small coffins marked ‘PNC’. Africans were demoralised by another electoral defeat and deeply apprehensive that Indians were about to collect the big prize: ‘freedom’ for Guyana. Jagan’s pretext for the parade was that it would dispel whatever doubts the imperialists had of the strength of his support. This was unnecessary: independence was there for the take ─ whoever won the elections had earned the right to collect the prize. The meretricious display, the perceived arrogance of Indians, magnified the fears of Africans that dark times were ahead when Jagan got independence, which the British were committed to granting. Africans viewed independence with foreboding: freedom for the ‘coolies’; slavery for them.
In August 1961 Jagan had all the trumps; few envisaged that he would pull defeat from the jaws of victory.
Ever a fantasist, he believed passionately that Marxism-Leninism was superior in comprehending the laws of development ─ it constituted a science of society ─ and that the mighty United States was in line for the fall. So his meeting with President Kennedy in the Oval Office, in October 1961, to procure aid for development, was potentially fatal. He was going to see the President precisely at a time when he was buoyed by the Cuban Revolution and impatient to create the communist utopia on which he thought Fidel had embarked. The British Embassy in Washington had sought to counsel Jagan to moderate his stance when he met the President, eschewing words or expressions that Americans tend to construe as synonymous with communism. This proved futile. A little before he met Kennedy, Jagan explained his political philosophy to the Washington Press Club: ‘I believe…that the economic theories of scientific socialism [Marxism] hold out the promise of a dynamic social discipline which can transform an underdeveloped country into a developed one in a far shorter time than any other system. We may [therefore] differ from you in the way we [choose to] organise our economic life’.x He could not comprehend that it was not simply a matter of differential approaches to economic development; it was a deeply contentious question, its implications for the Cold War. He had taken his little country into it, on the side the Americans deemed abominable ─ a peril to ‘freedom’ in the Hemisphere. British Guiana was on the verge of becoming another Cuba.
Jagan did not excel either, in his appearance on ‘Meet the Press’ on 15 October 1961. The President was watching the programme, and the moderator had asked Jagan whether there was freedom in the Soviet Union and China. He waffled:
All I can say ─ I haven’t been to China, I haven’t been to Russia, but the experts who have been there have said ─ for instance, you have this chap who is a writer on the question, an expert apparently, who writes for the London Observer, I can’t recall his name right now. But he has said in his latest book that life in the Soviet Union is growing day by day better and better. The standards of living are improving, and as such, we are concerned. We want to know how this is done.xi
When he met President Kennedy on 25 October 1961, he virtually committed suicide by leaving the President with no doubt whatsoever that he was a communist. No aid would be forthcoming, and in view of Kennedy’s apprehension that he was being perceived as soft on hemispheric subversion, he soon became obsessed with the future of little British Guiana. The British must not give independence to Jagan; a second Cuba must not emerge. By early 1962, therefore, Jagan’s enemies in the colony were aware that the American President was on their side. The PNC and UF therefore used the budget of February 1962 as a pretext for fomenting trouble: they mobilised African, Coloured and Portuguese resistance to Jagan’s government, in the capital Georgetown. A vast section of the commercial district was burnt down. It is noteworthy that Burnham was in favour of independence before the elections of August 1961; by early 1962, with the Americans on his side, he had changed his mind. He was prepared to use violence to make the place ungovernable. His aim was to delay a date for independence, which many had anticipated as forthcoming in May 1962. In fact, Jagan’s Government had printed a stamp for official documents that read: ‘Freedom Year, 1962’.
Burnham’s socialist pretensions and his craving of Third World credibility, however, had inhibited his capacity to initiate any form of subversion of Jagan’s Government. In late 1961 he was floundering. He was saved by the United Force and the Catholic Church, which were closely aligned and had been propagating a rabidly anti-communist crusade against Jagan. They did not prevaricate. Although their support-base was smaller, they had a consistency of focus engendered by a hatred of Castro and ‘godless communism’ ─ the ‘red peril’. In May 1961, for instance, the Catholic Standard observed that Jagan’s government had never ‘uttered one breath of criticism of any of Castro’s doings ─ to them, he is apparently perfect. It means that…they support all of Castro’s methods (as well as aims) in Cuba. Among these are: the denial of freedom; the destruction of free trade unions; suppression of the free press; mass arrests.’xii They also deemed Jagan an enemy of freedom of worship, as the paper cited, week after week, incidents of persecution of the Catholic Church in Cuba. The organ of the United Force, the Sun, and a daily newspaper largely owned by Peter D’Aguiar, leader of the Party, the Daily Chronicle, sustained a veritable ant-communist crusade against Jagan. They were clearly sustained by Jagan’s declared admiration for Castro; they were also energised by the presence in the White House of the first Catholic President. This was the context, in early 1962, in which Burnham was resurrected. His socialist rhetoric notwithstanding, he dexterously exploited the virulent anti-communist passions of the Portuguese and Coloured minority in order to make British Guiana ungovernable. In the process, the Kennedy administration settled on him as their man. President Kennedy himself would put relentless pressure on Harold Macmillan to ensure that independence was not granted to Cheddi Jagan.
As Kennedy’s chief political assistant, Professor Arthur Schlesinger, documented:
[I]n May 1962 Burnham came to Washington. He appeared an intelligent, self-possessed, reasonable man, insisting quite firmly on his ‘socialism’ and ‘neutralism’ but stoutly anti-communist…In the meantime, events had convinced us that Jagan though perhaps not a disciplined communist had that kind of deep pro-communist emotion…[that] the United States could not afford…when it involved a quasi-communist regime on the mainland of Latin America. Burnham’s visit left the feeling, as I reported to the President [on 21 June 1962], that ‘an independent British Guiana under Burnham…would cause us many fewer problems than an independent British Guiana under Jagan’. And a way was open to bring it about because Jagan’s parliamentary strength was larger than his popular strength… …An obvious solution would be to establish a system of proportional representation [PR]. This, after prolonged discussion, the British Government finally did in October 1963; and elections held…at the end of 1964 produced a coalition government under Burnham. With much unhappiness and turbulence, British Guiana seemed to have passed safely out of the communist orbit’.xiii
But Schlesinger had not told the whole tale: the machinations of the President and the CIA to ensure that their man, Forbes Burnham, would take Guyana to independence. Burnham, with the priceless support, also, of the Portuguese leader, Peter D’Aguiar, was now on the road to eclipsing Cheddi Jagan. By 1963 the CIA had got into the act, providing funds through diverse front organisations, to fight Jagan Government’s Labour Relations Bill. It was a measure to empower the Minister of Labour to recommend a poll to resolve jurisdictional disputes between contending trade unions. The main reason, of course, was that although the overwhelming majority of the workers in the sugar industry were Indians, Jagan’s supporters, they were still represented by a union, the Manpower Citizens’ Association (MPCA), which the PPP deemed a company union that was collaborating with Burnham in subverting their Government. They had founded their own union, the Guyana Agricultural Workers’ Union (GAWU), and were seeking to get it recognised by a poll in the strategic sugar industry. If the Bill were passed, they would require two-thirds of the workers’ votes to unseat the MPCA. The PNC and UF had found another issue for galvanising more resistance to Jagan and delay independence. The Labour Relations Bill was framed as a pernicious measure to eliminate unions deemed enemies of the PPP ─ a threat to free trade unions. The first half of 1963 was marked by an 80-day general strike ostensibly against the Bill; it was sustained primarily with money from the CIA.xiv
The constitutional conference held in October 1962 had collapsed because the PNC and UF had stalled on all the contentious issues, knowing that the US was on their side. As in 1962 the aim was to delay independence further. The general strike of 1963 degenerated into racial violence throughout the colony.
Apart from economic disaster, Africans and Indians were consumed by racial hatred and violence, even ‘ethnic cleansing’ in some districts.
This, in conjunction with the destruction of most of the commercial section of Georgetown the previous year, provided President Kennedy with the ammunition he needed to pressure the British to delay independence and to change the electoral system to proportional representation, which, as Schlesinger had argued, was bound to secure the defeat of Jagan.
Kennedy met Macmillan in England on 30 June 1963: the destruction of Cheddi Jagan was the principal item on the agenda. The President made his case forthrightly: ‘It was obvious if the UK were to get rid of British Guiana now it would become a communist state. He thought the thing to do was to look for ways to drag the thing out [no immediate independence]…He [argued] that Latin America was the most dangerous area in the world. The effect of having a communist state in British Guiana in addition to Cuba in 1964 [the Presidential elections], would be to create irresistible pressures on the Unites States to strike militarily at Cuba’.xv Coming after the Cuban missiles crisis of October 1962 and the consuming fear that the world was on the brink of nuclear war, Kennedy’s pressure to get rid of Jagan, which the British had hitherto sought to deflect with much conviction, now carried the force of a moral imperative.