CIA Covert Operations: The 1964 Overthrow of Cheddi Jagan in British Guiana
Cheddi Jagan speaking
Dr. Cheddi Jagan (source: Reality in Writing : Caribbean Political Economy)
Published: Apr 6, 2020
Briefing Book #700
Edited by John Prados and Arturo Jimenez-Bacardi
Washington, DC, April 6, 2020 – Cold War concerns about another Communist Cuba in Latin America drove President John F. Kennedy to approve a covert CIA political campaign to rig national elections in British Guiana, then a British colony but soon to be independent, according to declassified documents posted today by the National Security Archive.
U.S. intelligence concluded that Prime Minister Cheddi Jagan, one of the main presidential candidates in the upcoming 1964 elections, was a communist, although not necessarily under the sway of Moscow. Nevertheless, Kennedy decided Jagan would have to go and urged London to cooperate in the effort. As early as mid-1962, JFK informed the British prime minister that the notion of an independent state led by Jagan “disturbs us seriously,” adding: “We must be entirely frank in saying that we simply cannot afford to see another Castro-type regime established in this Hemisphere. It follows that we should set as our objective an independent British Guiana under some other leader.”
Today’s posting details a clandestine operation that is far less well-known than other CIA actions in Latin America and elsewhere during the Cold War. It provides a behind-the-scenes look at the intelligence process as it gives shape to a complex covert campaign and offers fascinating insights into the anti-Communist outlook of Kennedy and his advisers. The documents were obtained through archival research in presidential libraries and from CIA declassifications. They are part of the Digital National Security Archive publication “CIA Covert Operations III: From Kennedy to Nixon, 1961-1974,” the latest in the authoritative series compiled and curated by one of the world's leading intelligence historians, Dr. John Prados.
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The Overthrow of Cheddi Jagan in British Guiana
By John Prados and Arturo Jimenez-Bacardi
Attempts at influencing elections—that is foreign interference—are not new. In fact, the United States, using the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was an early practitioner of this tactic. The agency’s intervention in Italy in 1948 and after, while details remain vague, is a known example. But in British Guiana (present-day Guyana) in the 1960s we now have a virtually unknown yet well-documented instance of use of this technique. What makes this an extraordinary case also is that President John F. Kennedy did not begin this covert operation until 1962, after the Bay of Pigs failure, when that disaster had supposedly taught him to rein in the secret warriors.
The bugaboo which led to this was political ideology, specifically communism. Throughout the Cold War, Washington had difficulty appreciating that different political traditions applied in different lands, and that “communism” was not a monolithic, Soviet-led international movement. This time CIA wielded the covert scalpel against British Guiana, in fact a British Commonwealth member located on the northern coast of South America. Such was the overconcern with communism that the United States-United Kingdom alliance did not keep Washington from political intervention in a land that answered to an American ally. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., President Kennedy’s court historian and adviser on Latin America, several decades later observed that “we misunderstood the whole struggle down there.”
Schlesinger apologized, but by then it was too late. At the time, he wrote, “it was idle to suppose that communism in Latin America was no more than the expression of an indigenous desire for social reform.” He joined American leaders and spies to take the Guianese leftist and socialist Cheddi Jagan as a communist and plot against him—or, more accurately, Schlesinger took a more relaxed view of Jagan, became isolated in the Kennedy administration, and eventually ceased to oppose the CIA’s project. That regime change operation is documented in this electronic briefing book.
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Cheddi Jagan was a dentist. Born of Indian immigrants who arrived in British Guiana as indentured servants, Jagan studied in Georgetown, Guiana’s capital, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, where he completed training. He also met and married Janet Rosenberg in Chicago, returning to South America in 1943, at age 25. Jagan’s background inclined him to socialism from the beginning. In 1946 he founded a political action committee, which he merged with another group in 1950 to form the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). Linden Forbes Burnham, the head of that other group, served initially as the new party’s leader and Janet Jagan as secretary. Jagan, already a member of the British-sponsored legislative council, obtained a PPP majority in 1953 elections and then led a Guianese government under British tutelage. Though there were no apparent links between Jagan and any Marxist party, the British government suspected and pressured him, and Jagan resigned after 150 days. The British abolished his office of chief minister and for seven years kept Guiana under military occupation. Jagan they made a political prisoner. When released, Jagan was restricted to Georgetown, but nevertheless won the majority of seats in a new council elected in August 1957. Forbes Burnham took a faction out of the PPP to form the People’s National Congress (PNC) a few months later. But Jagan was the acknowledged national leader and in new elections, held in August 1961, the PPP again swept him to power. Cheddi Jagan became prime minister. Already that March, a CIA estimate, anticipating those elections, predicted the PPP would probably get the nod to form a government, and said of Jagan that while he was not an acknowledged communist, his wife was, and his statements and actions bore the marks of communist influence.
This background shows the U.S. concerned with Jagan’s political orientation almost from the moment he emerged as Guianese leader, and it also introduces political competitor Forbes Burnham, who would become the CIA’s instrument against Cheddi Jagan in the project Kennedy mounted. Indeed, on May 5, 1961, at a National Security Council (NSC) meeting which considered new covert actions against Cuba and the Dominican Republic, the group agreed to have its Cuba task force look for ways (in cooperation with London) to forestall a communist takeover of British Guiana. Secretary of state Dean Rusk wrote British Foreign Secretary Lord Home on August 11, 1961, to ask if anything could be done to forestall a Jagan electoral victory. The British minister said no, and advised that it would be better to educate the Guianese leader. By the end of August the State Department was advocating offers of help to Guiana, nudging Prime Minister Jagan in a pro-American direction, combined with a covert operation to expose and destroy communists in British Guiana. President Kennedy approved that essential program on September 3, 1961. A September 4 cable, about which Arthur Schlesinger complained (Document 1) several days later, actually went so far as to speak of Jagan as a “possible sleeper” agent.
A round of U.S.-British talks took place in London during September. The general idea was to provide technical economic assistance on the one hand, with a covert intelligence gathering project to proceed alongside that. Then-CIA Director Allen W. Dulles worked on the concept. Ambassador David Bruce led the American delegation with Frank G. Wisner—CIA station chief and former head of the operations directorate—at his side. The British stipulated that the U.S. must in fact try and work with Jagan. Data on results on the intelligence side remains classified.
The Guianese leader was aware that others harbored suspicions of him. Jagan arranged a visit to the United States and Great Britain for the end of October. The State Department announced he would meet with President Kennedy. The meeting was scheduled for October 25, and a briefing memo for the president was prepared. President and prime minister sparred at their meeting but no open break occurred, as Jagan represented himself as a socialist in the style of British politician Aneurin Bevan, though American participants found him evasive on matters of detail. The White House announced that the U.S. would provide British Guiana with technical assistance. Jagan went on to New York and then London. FBI informants supplied details of Jagan’s comments at social events in New York, and U.S. diplomats followed his movements in London. Early in December, Schlesinger met with a Guianese labor leader and one from the United Steel Workers of America (Document 2). The contemplated covert operation had begun taking form as a political action.
It was a feature of governance in British Guiana (which did not end with Prime Minister Jagan) that leaders acted unilaterally and not in a democratic fashion. Given serious economic problems, in early 1962 Jagan introduced an austerity budget and a tax increase that fell mainly on Guiana’s African and mixed population, without consultation with the opposition. This led to a strike, and rioting in Georgetown, where much of the city was burned to the ground. Jagan could see the flames from his official residence, the “Red House.” He became convinced the CIA had fomented the riots. This is likely not true—the labor organizers who, allied with the agency, represented the Americans’ link to the Guianese opposition were not in the colony at the time.
But what did happen is that U.S. officials used the Georgetown riots as the excuse to write off Cheddi Jagan. On February 19, with smoke still rising from burned buildings, Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote Lord Home calling for “remedial steps” to counter Jagan’s “Marxist-Leninist policy” and adding that “I have reached the conclusion that it is not possible for us to put up with an independent British Guiana under Jagan.”
At the White House, Schlesinger countered that Cheddi Jagan was not a communist but a naïve “London School of Economics Marxist filled with charm.” The tax scheme, he added, had not been socialist but orthodox, something suitable for Britain. British official views mirrored those Schlesinger expressed. London resisted moving against Jagan.
President Kennedy held in place for the moment, more impressed by the case put by London than by Foggy Bottom. On March 8, 1962 he issued an order on British Guiana which he sent as a memo explicitly addressed to Secretary Rusk and the Director of Central Intelligence John A. McCone. He also issued the same directive as National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 135. It was highly unusual for a covert action instruction to appear as both a NSAM and a directed missive, and suggests the president was trying to stop something he felt was out of control. As it happened, the same day British Guiana was up for discussion at the 5412 Special Group (Document 3). The contents of Kennedy’s order reinforce the impression of urgency, and the 5412 discussion shows that the commanders of the secret wars followed the president’s instructions. NSAM-135 declared, “No final decision will be taken on our policy toward British Guiana” until after further discussions. Kennedy, further, delineated three questions to answer before any decision was made.
Within a few weeksof NSAM-135 the CIA weighed in with a pair of intelligence estimates on the Caribbean colony. In a memorandum to Director McCone the Office of National Estimates (ONE) commented on the Georgetown riots, agreeing that the tax bill had been the main catalyst, marking the PPP as “Communist-oriented” and the PNC as “socialist,” and portraying the British as much less concerned over the political orientation of Jagan and the PPP than was Washington. The CIA acknowledged that Jagan was not under Soviet control, but that did not satisfy some policymakers (Document 4). The ONE followed in April with Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) 87.2-62, discussing the short term outlook for British Guiana. The estimate argued that the “PPP leadership” had a clear record of “communist-line policies” and that Jagan was a communist (Document 5).
The CIA estimates answered two of President Kennedy’s three key questions—the agency projected that Cheddi Jagan would win the next election, even if opposed by a coalition of Burnham’s PNC and the United Force party, another small group led by one Peter d’Aguilar. The SNIE also estimated that there was no prospect that a Jagan government would agree to a coalition with the other parties, which it far outnumbered in the Guianese assembly. A Jagan administration could be expected to follow a non-aligned foreign policy to some degree friendly to the communist bloc.
Kennedy’s third question concerned the British—would they delay independence for British Guiana and provide for new elections there. Secretary Rusk held talks with Lord Home on the sidelines of a meeting in Geneva in mid-March, with British reluctance so evident that he reported back that covert action with or without London was necessary. Nevertheless, a program designed to bring about the removal of Cheddi Jagan became one option included in a State Department policy paper released on March 15. At the 5412 Special Group session on March 22, Director McCone was asked to assess the chances of various lines of covert action that could be adopted. The State options paper specified a covert political action. The main instrument for such a gambit would be international labor unions cooperating with the CIA. A month later, CIA support for labor operations would be the lead item at the 5412 Special Group, in a meeting attended by CIA operations chief Richard Helms and Deputy Director Marshall S. Carter (Document 6).
During May 1962 President Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan held direct talks, while the Guianese opposition leader Forbes Burnham visited Washington. These meetings cleared away some of the obstacles to covert action. Senior officials decided Forbes Burnham’s socialism was preferable to whatever-it-was that Jagan believed. Equally important, the British decided to delay independence, leaving an opening for a CIA operation. One key indicator of the crumbling of opposition to a covert operation would be when Arthur Schlesinger told Jack Kennedy, on June 21, that a Forbes Burnham government would cause many fewer problems for the U.S. than one led by Cheddi Jagan.
On June 14 the 5412 Special Group considered a CIA paper outlining a covert political action but deferred judgment pending solution of the basic political problem. That same day Dean Rusk sent the meeting minutes, State Department intelligence and FBI reports, and a draft action program to Kennedy, with the comment that replacement of the Jagan government should be set as the U.S. objective. This was the first formal request for a British Guiana covert operation. President Kennedy dictated a reply (Document 7), sent to Secretary Rusk, in which he expressed general agreement with Rusk’s position but preferred for the time being to follow the British line. Rusk temporarily withdrew his covert action proposal. In subsequent London talks, he then got the British to agree that Guianese independence would be delayed, and they began thinking more positively of a fresh election conducted by means of “proportional representation,” rather than a direct ballot. U.S. experts held that to be the only way to defeat Jagan at the polls. The U.S. plan was to change the electoral rules, then work to ensure Jagan’s party could not win an election.
On July 12 Rusk proposed anew that the United States aim to overthrow the Jagan government (Document 8). State presented essentially the same package with a more elaborate action plan that included diplomatic aspects, steps to influence the colonial congress about to take place in London, political action and propaganda in the colony, and economic aid. Commenting on the package, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy observed that “the case for the proposed tactics to be used in opposing [Jagan] is not so clear.” Specifically, “I think it is unproven that CIA knows how to manipulate an election in British Guiana without a backfire” (Document 9). Schlesinger also expressed nervousness about the CIA plan. As Bundy had suggested, President Kennedy took the action out of Rusk’s hands, and dealt directly with British ambassador Sir David Ormsby-Gore, following the line Rusk had suggested. Kennedy sought to lull the British by sidetracking the hard-charging secretary of state.
Thereafter things began to move. A short paper from CIA attempted to settle remaining doubts. That same day, July 20, Director McCone and Richard Helms met with the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board to discuss covert operations, including labor operations, secret funding of social and cultural groups, and a list of the political parties and leaders the CIA supported throughout the world. British Guiana came up in this discussion. Helms filled in details and answered questions. Then the agency’s June plan went back to the 5412 Group. The Western Hemisphere (WH) Division of the operations directorate carried the ball. Western Hemisphere was under long-time chief Joseph C. King. The branch of WH responsible for British Guiana was under another long-service veteran, Virginia Hall Goillot, who wrestled with the need to create an apparatus. In 1962 there was no CIA station in British Guiana, and even British counterintelligence was represented only by a regional officer. The agency recruited an expatriate psychiatrist whose brother was an aide to Forbes Burnham, and CIA officer Joseph B. Smith met the man in Barbados, training him in secret writing and other tradecraft. This was the link that led to Burnham’s Washington visit. That visit gave the CIA the opportunity to inform the Guianese leader that the U.S. was considering action against Jagan, to which Burnham readily agreed.
Once President Kennedy had approved the political action the CIA assumed full responsibility for security and planning (Document 13). It informed the State Department but ran operations directly. At a State-CIA meeting on August 8, 1962, U. Alexis Johnson and Richard Helms agreed to a joint approach to British officials preparing for a constitutional convention in London that fall (Document 10). This memo to Bundy explained that Johnson and Helms agreed that they should make a proposal to the British with the goal, “to bring matters to a head by forcing a consideration of political factors.” The CIA wanted London to consider what a post-Jagan cabinet might look like. Helms also here established himself as CIA’s point man on Guiana.
Going into the London conference in October 1962, the CIA contacted Peter d’Aguilar, the United Force leader. Both D’Aguilar and Burnham pledged to support the notion of proportional representation. The Jagan government resisted that voting formula and the constitutional convention collapsed over this issue (Document 13). During a period of months the British government became increasingly frustrated at the impasse, while the Guianese political parties traded barbed charges in Georgetown.
In early 1963, the U.S. diplomatic representation in Georgetown was elevated from a consulate to a general consulate and given a CIA communications backchannel. Meanwhile the CIA approached Forbes Burnham, who provided assurances regarding his political program and began to receive financial assistance from the agency. Agency officers also approached a prominent New York politician to enlist him in revitalizing the Help Guiana Committee, identified as a political affiliate of Burnham’s PNC operating from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The committee soon began supplementing its press releases with a biweekly publication “PNC Overseas News Letter.”
Now Prime Minister Jagan maneuvered to neutralize the Guianese Trades Union Council (TUC), dominated by ethnic African workers led by Richard Ishmael. Jagan anticipated a general strike but expected the unionists would exhaust their strike funds and the government would then prevail. Here is where the CIA labor operation hit its stride. Though William Howard McCabe, labor organizer, was not in Georgetown when the strike began, he arrived soon after and helped the strikers. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Retail Clerks International Union, the American Newspaper Guild, and the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) played the main roles in the strike. Ishmael, for example, received training from AIFLD. A Latin American labor council, ORIT, also trained and paid a group of junior assistants who worked alongside McCabe in the field. Labor organizer Gene Meakins worked directly for the TUC. Historians Robert Waters and Gordon Daniels established that roughly $800,000 ($6.7 million in 2019) went to support the strike, which began in April 1963 and went on into the summer, for an average amount of about $10,000 per day ($84,000 in 2019). Whistleblower Phillip Agee identifies both McCabe and Meakins as CIA officers. In March 1964, when the Jagan government moved to expel Meakins from the country, U.S. consul Carlson intervened to prevent that (Document 18). Operative McCabe made a practice of short trips, cycling among British Guiana, other Latin countries, and Washington, trying to avoid Guianese government interference (Document 19).
The strike escalated with arson and bombings at government buildings, incidents at private homes. British troops stationed in Guiana were unable to quell the violence. At one point the Coldstream Guards were called into action to protect a Cuban freighter unloading food for the relief of Guianese. Janet Jagan’s car was attacked. Richard Ishmael and Forbes Burnham were both named in police reports. Violence ran both ways. Cheddi Jagan would be accused of instigating PPP goon squads. The police discovered caches of alleged PPP weapons, but planting phony weapons caches was a tactic the CIA had used widely, including in Guatemala and Mexico, and the agency’s plan for Operation MONGOOSE included phony caches as a course of action, so the veracity of these discoveries cannot be assured.
President Kennedy reviewed the state of play at the White House on June 21, 1963. John McCone and Richard Helms attended for the CIA. Kennedy was headed for talks with Prime Minister Macmillan. Helms reviewed the status of the general strike, commenting on Jagan’s insistence that trade unionists must return to work. Helms’s notes record, “It was clear that the President regards British Guiana as the most important topic he has to discuss with the Prime Minister.” Those talks took place in England nine days later. They cemented a British decision to unilaterally impose a proportional representation electoral format on British Guiana for a December 1964 election, after which it would become the independent nation of Guyana. Howard McCabe met with the Guianese unionists the next day. On August 15, the CIA produced a paper, still classified, presumably proposing a project to influence that election.
Cheddi Jagan was not blind to the forces gathering against him. As early as April 1963 he had written at length to President Kennedy, arguing his position and asking for Arthur Schlesinger to visit. Kennedy was noncommittal. The Guianese government maintained a public information office in New York City, pretty much inactive in 1962, but which suddenly erupted with materials arguing against elections before independence, and against proportional representation, spending over $6,000 ($50,600 in 2019) to get out the message. Jagan also unsuccessfully tried to meet with U.S. ambassador Adlai Stevenson on the sidelines of the 1963 U.N. General Assembly. When London went ahead to set the table for the elections, Prime Minister Jagan obtained, as he understood it, assurances from Forbes Burnham that a coalition would be acceptable, and approved only on that basis.
Jagan’s opposition, however, existed within the framework of a British colonial relationship. The United Kingdom had the option of re-imposing direct rule over British Guiana. That was the U.S. preference. John Kennedy’s assassination and the advent of President Lyndon B. Johnson did not alter Washington’s stance toward British Guiana. Talks with the British and Canadians in December 1963 gave Washington the opportunity to advocate for that. In a memo to McGeorge Bundy in advance of those talks (Document 15), Helms recounted the latest views of British colonial officials on direct rule. The next day (Document 16) Bundy gathered senior officials to discuss pressuring both commonwealth nations on the direct rule option. The demarche failed. A February 1964 report (Document 17) confirms that the “Sandys Plan”—named for the British commonwealth secretary Duncan Sandys—which sought to keep down the level of controversy by not recognizing Jagan’s opposition—remained London’s policy.
London announced voting districts in mid-April 1964. Voter registration took place in May. An election monitor certified the lists in June, but there were irregularities. The list for Georgetown, a PPP center, had been culled from the last election. More overseas votes would be cast than there were voters on the rolls. Around the turn of the year the CIA had moved to start a political party among Cheddi Jagan’s own East Indian ethnic group in order to draw off PPP support. In 1964 this operation got underway. The Americans also got Forbes Burnham and Peter d’Aguilar to agree on mutually supportive measures. U.S. money financed campaign activities, with leaflets, political buttons, and other paraphernalia, some of it produced in the United States and delivered free—as were advertising slogans and marketing tactics. Labor operatives, some Latino interns, and even some campaign workers were paid by the U.S., and Bundy had also approved paramilitary training for some PNC cadres.
Forbes Burnham pretended to cooperate but dragged his feet with allies all around. His PNC was also violent. Police Special Branch had collected evidence on PNC political violence back to 1962. As home minister the reports would have gone to Janet Jagan, so Cheddi’s protestations of ignorance in the fall of 1964 rang hollow. And there was reciprocal PPP violence to take into account. A United Front activist even suggested a coup d’état be mounted against the Jagan government (Document 20). By the summer, houses were being torched at a rate of five or more a day. More than 2,600 families (15,000 persons) had been forced from their homes. The political season brought nearly two hundred murders and a thousand persons wounded. That was real violence. Cheddi Jagan, Forbes Burnham, and Peter d’Aguilar were actually conferring one day in August 1964 on tamping down the violence when, down the street, the PPP headquarters and the import-export company it ran were bombed. “My God, it’s Freedom House!” Jagan exclaimed (Document 21).
All this afforded the Americans one more chance to step back. By the fall of 1964 Cheddi Jagan had offered concessions, the violence was being widely attributed to black Guianese (PNC), the CIA’s East Indian political party project had stalled, and the British continued to worry that Jagan would win anyway. Instead, at the end of July (Document 22) a high-level U.S. group rejected any visit by a Jagan emissary. Then, to top it all, in October a British election threw out Douglas-Home’s Conservative Party government and installed a Labor cabinet headed by Harold Wilson. Lord Home had been reluctant to play with the CIA in Guiana; the position of the leftist Laborites was even more in doubt.
Washington’s questions were answered in a most unusual way. For more than a year, London and the United States had been fencing over the prospect of a British sale of Leyland buses to Cuba, which the Americans wanted to block and the British needed for economic benefit. At length the British quashed U.S. objections—this still under Lord Home—and went ahead. In late October 1964 some 42 of these Leyland buses were loaded at the port of London on an East German freighter, the Magdeburg, which set sail in the wee hours of October 27. The Yamashiro Maru, a Japanese merchant vessel inbound on the Thames, promptly collided with the Magdeburg, which capsized and grounded with her load of buses for Castro. There were suspicions about what the CIA had to do with the collision—given the hostility between Washington and Havana. The new British foreign secretary, visiting Washington, was promptly asked if the incident was “an omen.” He rejected omens as a basis for foreign policy, but added, “However, I am as superstitious as the next man.”
Very promptly (Document 23), Anthony Greenwood, colonial secretary in the new Wilson government, rendered his account of the first Labor meeting with Cheddi Jagan to the American embassy in London. The new government shut out Jagan on every sally. Greenwood rejected the Guianese leader’s protest he would never have agreed to the Sandys Plan had he known the extent of Forbes Burnham’s meddling. The British replied he should have known, and defended their police performance in Guiana. It was too late to postpone the election or take other action.
Something now occurred that froze the Labor government into its position. The “Smithers affair” remains obscure to this day, but it concerned remarks from Peter H. B. O. Smithers, parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Foreign Office, which the Wilson government considered having openly denounced by Colonial Office officials in British Guiana (Document 24). Smithers was a Conservative Member of Parliament. The Americans considered it important. In Washington on November 2, the CIA sent a memorandum to the State Department clearly based upon “OPERATIONAL IMMEDIATE” reporting in agency channels. Frank Wisner, London station chief, had been approached by James Fulton, a senior aide to MI-6 director Sir Dick White, with an appeal for Ambassador Bruce to take up the “Smithers affair” with the Foreign Office, taking it out of intelligence channels and putting it into policy ones. Apparently there was a feeling at MI-6 that British diplomats were more flexible than the Colonial Office on a joint “CIA/MI-6 role” in British Guiana, while Anthony Greenwood had less political strength in the cabinet than his predecessor. By then, however, the election was just about a month away and it is not clear what a “CIA/MI-6” role could have been.
Prime Minister Jagan saw his future pass before him. A CIA field report on November 6 (Document 25) observed that he was very much concerned about the prospects for his People’s Popular Party. Jagan had no desire to make a coalition government with Forbes Burnham and the People’s National Congress.
Others were looking at the prospects too. The CIA did a number of assessments of the election’s likely outcome. In his stream of reports to the White House, Richard Helms took a guardedly optimistic view. We include one of these reports in this posting (Document 26). CIA foresaw that Jagan’s and Burnham’s parties would each take about 40 percent of the vote, D’Aguilar’s United Force would carry about 15 percent, and the CIA’s false-flag East Indian group, the Justice Party, would take about 5 percent.
The big day was December 7, 1964. The Americans thought it started well but then became more and more anxious. The election can usefully be viewed through the eyes of Gordon Chase, who was the NSC staff officer for intelligence activities. On the day, Chase reported very high turnout, perhaps even more than 90 percent, commenting “this is a good thing, assuming everybody votes the way we think” (Document 27). By the next day the outlook was not quite so rosy: “Cheddi is doing much better than expected,” and “this promises to be a real cliff hanger” (Document 28). Suddenly the odds that a potential Forbes Burnham coalition might have a majority of even one seat were judged no better than 6 to 5. On December 8 (Document 28), it finally looked like a defeat for Jagan and his PPP, and so it turned out to be.
But not without some further manipulation. In the 1961 election the PPP had received 43 percent of the vote, and that had sufficed to obtain 20 seats in the assembly. Despite all CIA’s political action efforts, in the 1964 election the PPP vote increased to 46 percent, but this was sufficient for only 24 seats in an expanded parliament. Burnham’s PNC got the same share of votes in both elections—41 percent—despite heavy gerrymandering of Guianese expatriate votes. With that relative failure, the number of PNC representatives nevertheless doubled, from 11 in 1961 to 22 in December 1964. The United Force party got 12 percent of the vote and 7 seats in the assembly. CIA’s child, the Justice Party, got no seats at all. Cheddi Jagan won the popular vote. Even under the proportional representation scheme his party obtained more seats in parliament. The British governor of Guiana turned away, however, offering Burnham alone the chance to compose a coalition. Peter d’Aguilar became finance minister.
An October 1965 estimative memorandum by CIA’s chief analysts (Document 30) looked ahead to the approaching day of independence. Conceding Burnham’s weaknesses, the estimators also acknowledged Cheddi Jagan’s continuing strength. The analysts believed that after independence Burnham would no longer need to show unity, and differences between the PNC and UF would emerge. The CIA believed that Burnham would need to gain a modicum of support from East Indians to be successful, would best do that through development projects favoring them, and would turn to the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada for aid to accomplish that.
The CIA got its way but the United States lost in this covert operation. Forbes Burnham turned out to be corrupt, arbitrary, and self-dealing. After a 1968 election—again with the CIA subsidizing Burnham, the leader of a renamed Guyana increasingly turned away from the United States, becoming a dictatorial figure. In 1970, despite all that CIA aid, Burnham turned to the left and adopted the very politics the United States had sought to fend off. He assumed the position of president and governed until his death on August 6, 1985.
In 1992, Cheddi Jagan finally ascended to the presidency of Guyana. He suffered a heart attack in 1997. Ironically, Jagan would be flown by U.S. military aircraft and treated at Walter Reed, the U.S. military hospital. He did not recover, passing away on March 6, 1997. Days later, Janet Jagan became the prime minister of Guyana, and in December 1997 its president, a post she held for two years until suffering heart ailments herself. She remained active in PPP politics.