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  • U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story
  • Hilbourne A. Watson
U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story. By Stephen G. Rabe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Pp. 240. Illustrations. Map. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $45.00 cloth; $19.95 paper.

In 1948, George Kennan advised the United States to abandon "unrealistic" objectives about human rights, raising the standard of living and democratization to prevent places like Guyana falling to communist subversion. Order based on security predominated within a framework in which the decline of imperialism and the construction of hegemony were parts of a single process. Rabe develops his argument cogently and parsimoniously, integrating literature on gender, ethnic studies, sociology, diplomatic history, and political science to produce a compassionate account of Guyana's travails, from the period from 1953 to 1969, by which time Cheddi Jagan [End Page 701] and the People's Progressive Party (PPP) had been removed from power and Forbes Burnham's dictatorship under the People's National Congress (PNC) had taken hold under Anglo-American auspices. Analyzing an impressive array of archival material from the British National Archives and U.S. sources, Rabe seeks to illuminate Guyana's experience with the Anglo-American Cold War project.

Rabe appreciates that anti-communism was not an adequate organizing concept to explain Guyana's predicament, citing a number of British and American sources that contradicted claims by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson about links between Jagan, the PPP, and Cuba. He explores the ways certain British and American state agencies and civil society entities—business interests, labor unions and religious organizations like the Catholic Church—collaborated with local forces in Guyana to derail Jagan and the PPP, while contrasting those tactics with the views of other British officials, Colonial Office technocrats, British Labor Party members, U.S. diplomats and CIA staff and British and Canadian business interests that contradicted British and American interpretations of Jagan's intentions. Rabe's assessment confirms that there was no monolithic ideology or strategy in the Anglo-American project.

Ironically, after 1954 domestic economic and political issues and changing international realities forced the United States to introduce civil rights reforms at home just as the U.S. was exploiting social divisions between Afro- and Indo-Guyanese to promote "racial" conflict for Cold War ends. For instance, Rabe stresses that the U.S. demanded that Britain impose Proportional Representation (PR) in Guyana as part of the Cold War strategy, with "racial" consequences. Although British Caribbean and Commonwealth countries objected to PR for Guyana, Washington remained unaccommodating. At the same time, Rabe's discussion of race and gender issues unnecessarily racializes Burnham's political repression, portraying Indo-Guyanese as victims and blacks as perpetrators and beneficiaries, while ignoring the negative consequences for broad segments of the black population. Indo-Guyanese did not flee Guyana simply to escape Burnham's repression: U.S. immigration reform legislation from 1965 on removed restrictions on Indian immigration.

While Rabe claims he was not writing international history from the angle of official Washington, he invokes Thucydides' pessimistic view of history and human nature that justifies big power chauvinism to explain how the Cold War affected Guyana. Archival material in the British National Archives shows that the British and Americans collaborated on a carefully managed plan for decolonization in the British West Indies, a plan that Jagan and the PPP were perceived to be violating. Rabe's notion that Cold War violence violated the "sacred principles of U.S. foreign relations" (pp. 175-76) ignores the necessity of domination and violence in producing the "liberal international ordering" that framed American hegemony. Thus, Rabe separates liberal democratic practices from Cold War violence at the expense of his otherwise systematic illumination of Guyana's predicament.

While critical of how the Cold War project affected Guyana, Rabe embraces its geopolitical and normative framework. He suggests that Moscow would have used [End Page 702] Guyana as a communist beachhead in South America, following the withdrawal of missiles from Cuba, even after arguing that Latin America's largely Catholic population and Guyana's majority Hindu and Muslim population were negative factors for the Soviets. He also understates the...


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