Joseph Wolf  

U.S. Intervention in British Guiana – Steven Rabe 

      The Historiography which currently exists on American intervention in British Guyana is relatively thin due to a lack of historical resources being made available.  Rabe attributes this to the U.S. Government knowing full well that its actions in British Guyana were reprehensible, and is therefore reluctant to release any records which might shed light on its actions. 

      Guyana has a population composed of a south Asian majority with a large African minority.  For much of the history of Guyana since the British first allowed elections in 1957, Guyana has had two main parties, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the party which has received traditional support  from the nation’s South Asian majority,  and the People’s National Congress (PNC), which has been historically supported by the black minority.

      After World War II, British decided that they could not afford to maintain the Empire and begin a policy of “decolonization.”  In 1957, the first free elections were held in Guyana and the PPP, a leftist, self-described socialist/communist party, came to power led by Cheddi Jagan, who was of South Asian descent.  Rabe casts a very sympathetic eye towards Jagan, who he paints as an almost naïve individual who came to power in the wrong time and place. The wrong time because Jagan came to power on the eve of the Cuban Revolution, following which the United States would take an almost paranoid-delusional view towards communist infiltration in the western hemisphere.  And the wrong place because during the Cold War the US had a double standard as far as western hemisphere nations were concerned.  Nations in the US “sphere of influence” following the Cuban Revolution which included all of Latin America would not be allowed to follow a neutral “third way” like India and Yugoslavia were permitted to do, being forced by the United States to either be “with” or “against” them.

      Thus, the United States after the Cuban Revolution could tolerate no uncertainty in its own “backyard,” and Jagan, a leftist politician, was therefore cast in an extremely suspicious light by U.S. policymakers.  Every action which he took was framed by American policymakers as proof that he was in league with the Soviet Union, in an effort to make him appear as a “wolf in sheeps clothing,” just like Castro had been when he had first come to power.  These actions were all taken by officials in the American government despite the fact that every other democratic nation in the world, including Great Britain and Israel, vouched for Jagan and his democratic nature.  

      Eventually, the Kennedy administration decided that it would attempt to force Jagan out of power at all costs, and so the CIA along with AFL-CIO affiliates began inciting rioting and racial hatred between South Asians and blacks in Guyana.  Furthermore, the administration managed to convince the British to get rid of the “first past the post” electoral system, and install a system of proportional representation.  Under this new system of proportional representation, the British, under American pressure, were able to remove Jagan from power in 1964 by getting two smaller minority parties, the PNC led by Forbes Burnham, who was black, and the smaller UF which was a party of middle class business interests, to form a “minority-majority” coalition, thus denying the PPP and the South Asian majority power despite the fact that they had won the majority of votes

      In 1966 independence was granted by the British to Guyana under Forbes Burnham, a person who basically, a person widely described by many political observes of the day as an unhinged demagogue.  Nevertheless, Burnham, who had been educated as a lawyer in Great Britain, knew how to use anti-communist rhetoric to shore up support for himself on the international stage, thus ensuring American backing for his regime.  Burnham’s regime would rig the next elections in 1968, along with every other election which would be held until 1992, turning the country into what Rabe describes as Burnham’s own personal “kleptocracy.”  Rabe says that Burnham practiced the “politics of squalor,” using murder, theft, persecution and racism to stay in power.  Guyana under Forbes Burnham essentially became an international pariah state.

      Following Burnham’s death in 1992 and the end of the Cold War, the United States finally encouraged free elections to be held in Guyana, resulting in the eletion of Cheddi Jagan once again as President.  Jagan served as President until his death in 1997, and the PPP remains in power through elections in Guyana to this day.

      Although I agree with much of Rabe’s conclusions concerning American intervention, the book is nevertheless very one-sided, without any appearance of author attempting to take a neutral point of view.  All of Cheddi Jagan’s actions which might in fact actually indicate that he was in a reality a pro-Soviet sympathizer are constantly pardoned by Rabe, with Rabe offering excuses as to why Jagan’s actions were simply being misconstrued by the United States.  It is after all a fact that Jagan did officially ally his party to the Soviet Union in 1969, although he claimed he took this action out of necessity because the West had already turned its back on him.  Despite this lack of objectivity, the book is an excellent read, casting much needed light on a topic which certainly deserves further study.