Documents reveal MI5 role in Guyana coup

Cheddi and Janet Jagan

The Jagans

Secret intelligence documents declassified last week reveal that Britain’s Security Service, known as MI5, played a significant role in the lead-up to the 1953 coup that toppled the democratically elected government of British Guiana. The Latin American territory, which borders Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil, was once one of the British Empire’s most lucrative sugar-producing colonies. In 1963, after gaining its independence from Britain, it was officially renamed the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana. Instrumental in the fight for independence was Cheddi Jagan —an ethnic Indian former dentist who is today considered the father of the nation— and his American-born wife Janet (née Rosenberg). In 1950, the couple founded the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), which became the primary pro-independence political vehicle in the British colony. But dozens of folders of classified documents that were released last Friday by Britain’s National Archives show that MI5 was suspicious of the Jagans, and believed that Janet had been a member of the Communist Party of the United States in the 1940s. Several MI5 reports from the 1950s express concern that the PPP intended to establish close proximity between a newly independent Guyana and the Soviet Union. The declassified MI5 archives contain countless transcribed telephone conversations between the Jagans and their political allies, as well as copies of intercepted correspondence and reports of physical surveillance by MI5 informants. They reveal that British intelligence closely monitored the Jagans for at least a decade. Even though MI5 concluded that the PPP had no close contacts with Soviet agents or agencies, and that the party was “not receiving any financial support from any Communist organization outside the country”, it continued to describe Janet Jagan as “a committed communist” and remained apprehensive of the couple’s “disruptive antics”. The British government of Winston Churchill decided to take aggressive action in 1953, after a landslide election victory for the PPP in British Guiana elections. Even though Churchill wrote that London “ought surely to get American support in doing all that we can to break the Communist teeth in British Guiana”, Britain eventually acted alone. On October 9, 1953, 133 days after the British Guiana election results, Britain launched a military coup codenamed Operation WINSDOR. Hundreds of British soldiers onboard the warship HMS Superb stormed Guiana’s capital Georgetown and secured key sites. They suspended the Guianese constitution and arrested the territory’s democratically elected legislators, including the Jagans. The territory remained under direct British military rule for the next three years, during which the Jagans were held under house arrest, even during the birth of their two children. Eventually, Cheddi Jagan was released and became Prime Minister of Guyana in 1961. In 1992, he became the country’s President. Following his death, in 1997, he was succeeded by his wife, who remained President until 1999. The Associated Press, which accessed the newly declassified archives, contacted Professor Christopher Andrew, MI5’s official historian. He commented that the documents provide “further evidence that MI5 played a more important part in British decolonization than is often realized”.

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