Nationalism in British Guiana took firm hold shortly after the 1943 homecoming of Cheddi Jagan, an Indo-Guianese dentist. Jagan had received his dental training in the United States, where he met and married Janet Rosenberg, a radical activist who had been a member of the Young Communist League (YCL). The Jagans immediately began organizing an anticolonial movement that became the radical and multiracial People's Progressive Party (PPP). Afro-Guianese in the PPP were led by Forbes Burnham, a charismatic lawyer. Under their leadership, the PPP overwhelmingly won the colony's first legislative elections held under universal suffrage in 1953 and was expected to lead British Guiana to independence. Instead, the Jagans and many of the PPP's leaders acted with unexpected radicalism. Convinced that the government was communist, the British government sent a warship to Georgetown, the colony's capital, and removed the PPP from power on 9 October 1953, just 133 days after its electoral victory.
Thereafter, Burnham split with the Jagans, claiming that they were communists, and formed a predominantly Afro-Guianese party. Jagan won the ensuing election with the support of East Indians and radical Afro-Guianese. He was reelected in 1961, and the British implied that he would lead the colony to independence.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy did not want Jagan to lead an independent Guyana. Following the April 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle, the prospect of a "Cuba on the South American mainland" greatly worried the Kennedy administration. After an October 1961 meeting with Jagan, Kennedy concluded that Jagan was a communist (or at least a fellow traveler) under his wife Janet's control and had to be removed from power. Under much U.S. pressure, the British reluctantly agreed.
In February 1962, Jagan proposed a bill that would raise taxes and institute compulsory savings. The bill would have its greatest impact on urban Afro-Guianese trade unionists and Portuguese businessmen. The labor unions called a general strike centered in Georgetown, and many businesses locked out those who refused to strike. Strikers were soon joined by the opposition parties. Riots broke out on 16 February, which led to arson that burned much of Georgetown's commercial district. Jagan quickly withdrew the bill.
The following year, Jagan proposed a union recognition bill, which he claimed was based on the New Deal's Wagner Act, that would have given his government effective control over the labor movement. Labor responded with an eighty-day general strike that increased racial tensions and violence but forced Jagan to withdraw the bill.
Both strikes received assistance from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), with the AFL-CIO providing approximately $1 million in strike relief in 1963. It was later revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had provided the AFL-CIO with the strike funding. It is unclear what role, if any, the CIA played in the arson and violence and what role British intelligence played.
On 31 October 1963, the British announced that before British Guiana could receive independence, there would be a final election, this time held under proportional representation. The furious Jagan launched a sugar workers' recognition strike in February 1964 in an effort to take over that industry, which primarily employed East Indians. Jagan called off the strike after 161 increasingly violent days, which the British and U.S. governments attributed to Cuban-trained East Indian youths and an Afro-Guianese terrorist cell.
Although the PPP received 46 percent of the vote in the 7 December 1964 election, Burnham was elected prime minister as the head of a coalition. On 26 May 1966, the British granted Guyana its independence. Burnham quickly jettisoned his coalition partner, made himself president for life in a series of rigged elections, and progressively moved to the autocratic Left. While the U.S. government was unhappy with this turnabout, it continued to support Burnham and his successor, Desmond Hoyte, to keep Jagan from power. Only with the Cold War's end did the United States pressure the Guyanese government to democratize. Jagan was elected president in 1992.
Robert Anthony Waters Jr.
Spinner, Thomas. A Political and Social History of Guyana, 1945–1983. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1984.