A re-evaluation of the communist label of Cheddi Jagan is needed

Dear Editor,

During his lifetime, Dr Cheddi Jagan was skewered, humiliated, and removed from government in 1953 and again in 1964 after being labelled a “communist”. More recently, in his article captioned, Cheddi Jagan, Communism and the African Guyanese (Stabroek News, March 22, 2018), Professor Clem Seecharan writes “… Having graduated in dentistry in the United States, he (Cheddi Jagan) and his Chicago-born wife, Janet Rosenberg (1929-2009), settled in British Guiana in 1943… They were both communists…”

The brief bio-sketch preceding the article notes “He (Professor Seecharan) is working on a book on Cheddi Jagan and the Cold War to be published by Ian Randle Publishers”. One may ask, why another book on Cheddi Jagan? After all, his life and times have been documented in numerous articles and several books, including Stephen Rabe’s U.S. Interven-tion in British Guiana: A Cold War Story, and Colin Palmer’s Cheddi Jagan and the Politics of Power: British Guiana’s Struggle for Independence. Why not a book on the life and times of Forbes Burnham? And why was Mr Burnham never labelled a “communist”? He was the one who recognized and supported the communist USSR, China and Cuba with exchange of ambassadors; welcomed the US arch-enemy, Fidel Castro, into the country; made the economy almost totally state controlled; and proceeded to deemphasize Christmas. Yes, Jagan did support some of these initiatives, but he was not the initiator, and Burnham remained in power while the Cold War still raged.

In labeling Cheddi Jagan as “communist”, Professor Seecharan may be relying on Dr Jagan’s qualified answer to a question from his long-time nemesis and prominent lawyer, Lionel Luckhoo, at the Wynn Parry Commission hearing into the disturbances of February 1962. Jagan was badgered by Luckhoo into giving an answer, and what is often missing, in restating Jagan’s admission to being a “communist”, is (Jagan’s) his definition of communism and commentary. Incidentally, Jagan’s definition of the communism he believed in, has its origin in the Biblical Book of Acts 4:32-35. Also, it was the basis of the Liberation Theology preached by many Latin American Catholic Bishops in the 1970s who were protesting against the poverty in their countries.

Of the heated exchange between Luckhoo and Jagan at the hearing, in a July 3, 1962 letter by Sir Ralph Grey, then British Governor, to the Colonial Office, regarding a dinner-party he hosted for a visiting US State Department Official for Caribbean Affairs, Governor Grey writes “…Lionel Luckhoo was there and I purposely teased him a little about his cross-examination of Jagan before the Commission and said that while it might have been a forensic triumph it did not seem to have any particular purpose, that it had wrung out of Jagan admissions that would be widely publicised in their simple form but that were in fact much hedged about with qualifications, etc., and that this would do the country no good abroad…” US declassified documents have now proved the accuracy of the Governor’s view about “doing the country no good abroad”. It gave the US the rationale for covert action in the country which not only led to the ultimate removal of Jagan from government, but also to the racial polarization which haunts the country to this day.

With the availability now of official documents previously kept secret by the British and the US governments, a re-evaluation of the communist label of Cheddi Jagan is needed. In a February 12, 2007 article captioned, The ‘coup’ in British Guiana, 1963 (http://markcurtis.info/ 2007/02/12/the-coup-in-british-guiana-1963/), Mark Curtis, historian and former Research Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, writes “The US files vary between describing Jagan’s PPP programme as ‘communist’ and ‘nationalist’… The British believed, according to the US files, that ‘Jagan is not a communist’ but ‘a naïve, London School of Economics Marxist filled with charm, personal honesty and juvenile nationalism’… Therefore, the threat posed by Jagan’s PPP was essentially a radical nationalist one, replicated on numerous occasions throughout the postwar era, but invariably described as ‘communist’ for public relations, as in the 1953 overthrow.”

Earlier, in 1990, Victor Navasky, in an article, Schlesinger & the Nation, Remembering an eminent activist historian whose passing has left the public sphere much poorer (https://www.thenation.com/article/schlesinger-nation/), states that at a luncheon hosted by the Nation magazine, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Harvard’s history professor and key member of President Kennedy’s staff who had plotted against Cheddi Jagan, apologized to Jagan for what he called “a great injustice” he and his Kennedy colleagues had helped to perpetrate. Subsequently, in a 1994 article, A Kennedy-CIA Plot Returns to Haunt Clinton (https://www.nytimes. com/1994/10/30/world/a-kennedy-cia-plot-returns-to-haunt-clinton.html), Tim Weiner states that Schlesinger “acknowledges” that his account of the Kennedy-Jagan meeting of 1961 as documented in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Thousand Days, “is incomplete” and the history should be revised. Further he quotes Schlesinger as saying “We misunderstood the whole struggle… He (Jagan) wasn’t a Communist. The British thought we were overreacting and indeed we were. The CIA decided this was some great menace, and they got the bit between their teeth. But even if British Guiana had gone communist, it’s hard to see how it would be a threat… The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”

Professor Seecharan also writes “Jagan’s ideological inflexibility and his limitations of statesmanship (particularly during his meeting with President Kennedy in the White House on 25 October, 1961), eventuated in the Ameri-can saddling Guyana with the increasingly dictatorial regime of Forbes Burnham, from 1964 to his death in 1985”. This is the account (which is now accepted as fact) that was stated by Schlesinger in A Thousand Days, an account he “acknowledges” to Tim Weiner that “is incomplete” and should be revised. The released documents show that the US was pressuring the UK to prevent Jagan from winning the elections held on August 21, 1961 as can be seen in this extract from a telegram dated August 11, 1961 (i.e. just ten days before the elections) from the US Secretary of State to the British Foreign Secretary: “… we do believe that Jagan and his American wife are very far to the left indeed and that his accession to power in British Guiana would be a most troublesome setback in this Hemisphere. Would you be willing to have this looked into urgently to see whether there is anything which you or we can do to forestall such an eventuality?” The October 21 meeting was thus a “cover” for public relations purposes for what was to follow later, i.e. covert action resulting in the removal of Jagan from office and preventing him from leading the country into independence. Professor Seecharan should not be gullible now that the relevant documents are in the public domain.

With his planned new book on Cheddi Jagan, one hopes that Professor Seecharan will fulfill the duty to history by rewriting it, as suggested by a repentant Arthur Schlesinger Jr, a former History Professor at Harvard and plotter against Cheddi Jagan, who conceded “He (Jagan) wasn’t a communist”.

Yours faithfully,

Harry Hergash

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