UK spy agency files detail role in 1950s coup in Guyana
LONDON - It was a very British coup. The warship slipped into the harbor, the soldiers landed in darkness - and the diplomatic wives made sandwiches for the hungry troops.
Secret documents declassified yesterday by Britain’s MI5 security service reveal in dramatic and everyday detail how the United Kingdom under Prime Minister Winston Churchill overthrew the elected government of British Guiana - now Guyana - because he feared its left-wing leader and his American wife were leading the British colony into the arms of the Soviet Union.
The documents reveal how British spies kept up intense scrutiny on Cheddi and Janet Jagan, who founded the People’s Progressive Party to campaign for workers’ rights and independence from British rule for the sugar-producing colony in northern South America.
Christopher Andrew, the spy agency’s official historian, said the files provide new details of the coup, and “further evidence that MI5 played a more important part in British decolonization than is often realized.’’
The Jagans - a U.S.-educated former dentist and his Chicago-born wife - seem an unlikely threat. But the 39 folders of files released by Britain’s National Archives are crammed with full of tapped phone conversations, intercepted letters, and accounts of physical surveillance during over more than a decade.
In 1951, the year after the Jagans founded their party, an MI5 agent based on the Caribbean island of Trinidad described them as “something new in British Guiana politics.’’
“Both are able and intelligent and the mere fact that Janet Jagan is white, young and not unattractive in appearance lends considerable interest to her activities and those of her husband,’’ he said.
To British authorities, the Jagans were a headache. To the Americans, they were a potential Communist threatMI5 concluded that the party was “not receiving any financial support from any Communist organization outside the country.’’
Nonetheless, amid worsening strikes and unrest, Britain grew unhappy with the Jagans’ “disruptive antics.’’
After the party won a huge majority in British Guiana’s 1953 election, making Cheddi Jagan prime minister, Churchill decided to act.
“We ought surely to get American support in doing all that we can to break the Communist teeth in British Guiana,’’ Churchill wrote to his colonial secretary.
In the end, Britain acted alone, mounting a military operation code-named Operation Windsor. Churchill dispatched a warship, HMS Superb, and brought hundreds of troops by air and sea to secure key sites.
On Oct. 9, Britain suspended Guyana’s constitution, fired its legislators, and held the Jagans.
The surprise military operation went according to plan. The MI5 officer noted with quiet satisfaction that “it was obvious that the PPP leaders had no idea that the Constitution would be suspended .’’
For the next three years, British Guiana was ruled under emergency powers by the British governor and appointed officials.In the years that followed, MI5 softened somewhat toward Cheddi Jagan, acknowledging that he was an astute and popular politician - though the agent based in Trinidad strongly disliked Janet Jagan, whom he described as a committed Communist “uncompromising in her hatreds.’’