October 25, 1961. President John F. Kennedy meets with Prime Minister Cheddi Jagan of British Guiana in the Oval Office. Credit: Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Public Domain.

At what cost democracy? Remembering JFK’s Covert Interventions on Guyanese Independence Day

A madcap tale of American election interference in the 1960s destabilized this tiny Caribbean nation — here’s what Guyana and JFK teach us about democracy and the For the People Act today.

This week in 1966 — on the heels of a covert American intervention like no other — the Caribbean nation of Guyana gained independence from Britain. And while one might think a tale of British and American squabbling over a tiny South American colony 55 years ago has no bearing on today, the wild fate of Guyana is a cautionary tale. It’s a tale of what happens when the will of a people is subverted by political forces — one that we’d do well to remember in this American moment, when the very integrity of our democracy is on the line. Here’s one story I heard as a budding young historian doing my thesis work in Guyana in the 2000s: In October 1961, then-British Guiana’s newly elected prime minister, Cheddi Jagan, visited with U.S. President John F. Kennedy at the White House to seek aid and reassure Kennedy that an independent Guyana would not be the Soviet puppet some American experts prophesied. Smarting privately from the American debacle of the Bay of Pigs, which had cast doubt on Kennedy’s ability to handle communism in his own backyard, the U.S. president was polite. But moments after Jagan left, Kennedy turned to his aide, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and said, “Burn their capital to the ground.” Within months, the stately colonial buildings of Georgetown, Guyana, were ablaze.

Like many such stories, this one is unverifiable. What certainly is verifiable is this: The CIA long denied involvement in Guyana, though a former CIA staffer has since admitted the agency’s records on Guyana were simply burned. And lately released public records confirm that during the 1960s, the U.S. spent over $2 million for covert actions in this country of fewer than 600,000 people. Why? In the context of the burgeoning Cold War, Guyana’s organic people’s power movement — populated by cane-cutters and day-laborers — looked too much like communism for American comfort. And the U.S. could not afford Communist dominoes falling in the West.

Of course, from what Guyanese independence leaders told me themselves, professionalized communism or socialism was hardly on their minds. “We didn’t think about socialism,” former Guyanese head of state Janet Jagan said as we sat in her cramped Georgetown office in 2005. “We just saw conditions of the workers on the sugar estate and had to do something, and socialism was what it ended up being called.”

Colonial tactics of “divide and conquer” had made Guyana — the only English-speaking nation on the South American continent — a hotbed of artificially amplified racial divisions, particularly among the descendants of enslaved Africans and indentured South Asians. Though this animosity initially ensured the people would not organize against the British Empire, British Guiana pioneered a daring new vision as the world was swept by independence movements: The pro-worker People’s Progressive Party was a truly multi-racial movement headed by a charismatic duo, salt-of-the-earth Indo-Guyanese organizer Cheddi Jagan and cosmopolitan Afro-Guyanese orator Forbes Burnham.

The party won an overwhelming victory in 1953, when the British allowed the colony to hold its first national election on the path to self-rule. But America in particular could not brook a free Guyana under leadership they feared was too neutral and independent-minded; in the Cold War clash of greater powers, everyone had to choose a side. Egged on by American and British leaders who hoped to see their unique independence movement fail, Burnham and Jagan and their supporters splintered into new party factions. Though Jagan emerged as British Guiana’s prime minister in the elections of 1961, the U.S. increasingly favored Burnham as a more palatable leader. Knowing Jagan would prevail in a future election under the same conditions, the U.S. successfully negotiated for the British to delay granting Guyanese independence until America’s preferred leader could be victorious. “The U.S. plan was to change the electoral rules, then work to ensure Jagan’s party could not win an election,” according to a by the National Security Archive analyzing declassified documents.

In short, America’s strategy was to manipulate elections, subverting the will of the voting populace to achieve its desired outcome.

Ultimately, though, this fateful intervention created decades of catastrophe. Under the Americans’ preferred electoral system, Burnham prevailed, beginning what American historian Stephen G. Rabe identified as a “twenty-year dictatorship.” Guyana did not have free and fair elections until 1992, when an aged Cheddi Jagan came back to power. Racialized party lines persist even now, and Guyana’s elections to this day are marked, like clockwork, by domestic instability and violence. Thanks to this legacy, Guyana has (until the recent discovery of oil) often held the title of the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.

In a surprising turn 30 years after the fact, Arthur Schlesinger for his role in what happened in British Guiana. But it’s cold comfort. The consistent through line of every interview I conducted in Guyana, from thought leaders to taxi drivers, was a distrust of both governance and each other. The subversion of their people’s movement created a loss of faith. And I am struck today by how eerily familiar that loss of faith feels. When American Senator Mike Lee declares that “democracy isn’t the objective” — when elected leaders insist that the U.S. presidency was stolen, despite all evidence to the contrary — I know the true consequences. Whatever the small personal gains of mendacious politicians, it is the entire nation that pays the price.

A more cynical person might see today’s American instability — a deeply divided nation, and an insurrection that cost lives at the U.S. Capitol — as the chickens coming home to roost. But not me. In a twist of fate, I became an Elections Counsel in the U.S. House, and worked on what is today the — the most sweeping democracy reform America has seen since the Civil Rights movement. Its reforms would ensure the stability and integrity of American elections, and assure every voter that her vote was counted, that her voice mattered.

I was on the House Floor when the bill passed for the first time in 2019. And I cried. Because one tiny effect of America destabilizing my birth nation is that my little family left, and my mercenarily optimistic immigrant mother made it her mission that we would contribute to this democracy, knowing we’d never had a chance to contribute to our own. With the For the People Act before Congress again, we as Americans have another chance to honor the democratic experiment.

It not only does justice to this great nation and her people, but — with Guyana’s experience in mind on this independence anniversary — it may go some way to atoning for the sins of our past.

— Elizabeth Hira, May 2021

Social justice lawyer with an emphasis on gender equity, former Congressional staffer, Founder of @NotOnRuthsWatch.