CWIHP e-Dossier No. 54

 

 

Cheddi Jagan and Guyanese Overtures to the East: Evidence from the Czech National Archives

 

Jan Koura and Robert Waters 

 

Relations between the Soviet Bloc and the former British South American colony British Guiana (Guyana) have been a source of controversy since the charismatic figure of Dr. Cheddi Jagan came on the Guianese political scene in the late 1940s. Jagan was a known Marxist and an alleged Communist, although he routinely denied it. His wife, formerly Janet Rosenberg of Chicago, had been a member of the Young Communist League while a college student, but she also denied allegations that she was a Communist. Nonetheless, throughout their careers in British Guiana, which included Cheddi’s election to lead the colony in 1953, 1957, and 1961, opponents claimed that the Jagans and other top figures in their People’s Progressive Party (PPP) were Communists. The Jagans and other PPP officials habitually spoke well of Communist countries and their leaders, never found reason to criticize them even when directly asked, belonged to international Communist-front organizations, and travelled to Communist countries. This was enough to convince the US government – and for a time, the British – that the Jagans were Communists bent upon taking independent Guyana into the Soviet Bloc. Historian Stephen Rabe’s US Intervention in British Guiana is an extensive study of the US and British national archives and solidified the modern scholarly consensus that the Jagans were democratic Marxist socialists whom the United States government had misunderstood and therefore reflexively worked to remove from power. “Maybe, one day, the CIA will open its archives and let the public read the damning evidence that one of the agency’s spies collected in British Guiana,” Rabe wrote. “But the declassified intelligence record currently does not sustain charges that Jagan intended to take his country into the Soviet camp.”[i]

Since the CIA still has not released the “damning evidence,” historian Jim Hershberg encouraged US historian Robert Waters to look into the Eastern Bloc archives. Czech historian Jan Koura joined Waters in this endeavor. By using the Czech National Archives, they found answers to two key questions about Guyanese history and the relationship between British Guiana and the Soviet Bloc: Were the Jagans Communists? What sort of assistance did the Guianese request from the Soviet Bloc? Unfortunately, while documents in the Czech archives tell us what the Guianese requested, they do not always tell us what the Czechs gave them because for many important requests, the Czechs passed the requests on to the Soviet Union, where the trail grows cold.

Czechoslovakia and Latin America
Czechoslovakia had begun to develop diplomatic and trade relations with Latin America shortly after its  independence in 1918. In the interwar period, Czechoslovak companies primarily imported sugar and exported glass and textile products, engineering industry machinery, and later military supplies and arms, which became an important export commodity. Czechoslovakia had a substantial share in supplying several Latin American countries with arms. For example, Brazil was supplied with 100,000 rifles and Peru received 26 light tanks.[ii] Latin America did not rank among regions where Czechoslovak exports were primarily directed,[iii] but the increase in business activities in the second half of the 1930s indicated that, from the Czechoslovak point of view, this region was regarded as having great potential for the development of mutual trade relations. Among the most important companies that succeeded in entering Latin American markets at this time were the Baťa Company (shoes), the Škoda Pilsen Works (engineering industry products), and the Zbrojovka Brno Works (arms).

Diplomatic relations between the newly-established state of Czechoslovakia and Latin American countries developed a dynamic trade relationship. By the end of 1925, Czechoslovakia had eleven diplomatic corps in ten Latin American countries; by 1938 the number had increased to 33 offices (of which there were seven legations) in 20 countries.[iv] The booming trend was eventually slowed by the Nazi occupation of Czech lands on 15 March 1939, which resulted in the loss of Czechoslovak independence and the formation of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The Czechoslovak diplomatic corps in Latin America were ordered to stop their activities, and their diplomatic agenda was handed over to the representatives of the German Reich. Thus, the Czechoslovak diplomatic network, which had taken a few years of hard work to create in this region, ceased to exist within several days.[v]

With the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II, trade and diplomatic contacts with Latin American countries were being re-established. Within the three years of the existence of the Third Czechoslovak Republic (1945–1948), trade and diplomatic relations were unable to develop and reach the levels they had during the interwar period.  A radical breakthrough in relations with Latin America only took place after the Communist coup d’état of February 1948. Czechoslovakia found itself under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, and its trade as well as diplomatic relations shifted focus to Eastern Bloc countries. For these reasons, states such as Colombia and Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations with Prague. Czechoslovak foreign policy from 1948 followed directives coming from Moscow, which considered Latin America to be only marginally important and regarded  it as the sphere of influence of the United States. Before World War II, the Soviet Union only had diplomatic missions in Mexico (1924–1930) and Uruguay (1926–1935). Although the Comintern would send representatives to Latin America to help found local Communist parties through which Moscow’s influence was promoted, Latin American countries in the interwar period mostly directed their attention to the United States. In this respect, the situation did not change in the 1940s either, and at the time of Stalin’s death the Soviet Union only maintained diplomatic relations with Mexico, Uruguay, and Argentina.[vi]

The escalating Cold War and the growing popularity of leftist ideology in Latin America prompted Moscow to shift its effort with a more intensive interest in the region at the end of the 1950s; consequently, it could draw on Czechoslovakia’s past diplomatic and trading experience with Latin America. Even though Czechoslovakia’s involvement in the Third World was primarily in Africa and the Middle East after 1948, of all the Soviet Bloc states Czechoslovakia still had the most extensive diplomatic, trade, and cultural relations with Latin America. In 1956 it had further penetrated the region, with diplomatic missions in Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil.[vii]

After Czechoslovakia was integrated into the economic bloc – the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) – its economy began to focus on the production of engineering products and weapons. These products began to dominate Czechoslovak exports to Latin America in the 1950s, over time edging out traditional textile and glass products. Of all the products Czechoslovakia offered, weapons and military supplies were very popular goods in Latin American countries. Well-known instances of such trade were the arms supplies to Guatemala during Jacobo Árbenz’s rule and to Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

Moreover, as one of COMECON’s most advanced countries, Czechoslovakia was also involved in some branches of natural resources extraction or geological research, providing some Latin American governments with financial assistance. Czechoslovakia also became a popular destination for Latin American left-wing exiles including politicians like Árbenz (briefly); writers, some of whom would win a worldwide reputation, like Pablo Neruda and Jorge Amado; as well as university and college students. Beginning in the 1960s, Czechoslovak intelligence services became more involved in Latin America with agents operating in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Cuba.

As far as Latin American relations were concerned, even the leading members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) were aware of the exceptional significance of the region. According to the policy regulating the relations between Czechoslovakia and Latin American countries issued on 23 June, 1959, Czechoslovakia was supposed to assist other countries of the Eastern Bloc, especially the Soviet Union, by strengthening and widening relations with Latin American states. Business contacts had the goal of fostering the economic development of Latin American states and becoming an alternative to aid offered by the United States. The political importance of these relations was not neglected in this document, as the Communist Party leaders emphasized that the area was under considerable influence of Washington and that the Eastern Bloc could only benefit from any interference with this position.[viii]

The most important relationship Czechoslovakia developed was with Cuba, which began in the final weeks of Fidel Castro’s revolution against Fulgencio Batista. The Czechoslovaks had kept in desultory contact with young Cuban Communists since at least the early 1950s, but the contact with Castro specifically began in December 1958 when the Cubans, working through a Costa Rican import company front, requested weapons from the Czechoslovak Embassy in Mexico. The embassy quickly contacted Prague, which itself moved remarkably quickly and with enthusiasm to ask for Soviet permission, which was granted on 27 December, 1958, but with the strict proviso that the Czechoslovaks maintain the utmost secrecy and deniability. Five days later, Batista fled for the Dominican Republic.[ix]

The Czechoslovaks had the best intelligence contacts with Cuba among the Soviet Bloc, although they were not very good. The Soviets agreed to let them secretly sell rifles to Cuba in January 1960, and expanded the permission on March 29, 1960 to open a very favorable line of credit and provide regular supplies of as much military assistance as the Cubans wanted. Cuban Defense Minister Raul Castro visited Czechoslovakia in June 1960 because the Cubans believed the Americans would find this less objectionable than a visit to the Soviet Union itself. The Czech-Cuban relationship grew rocky by November 1961 when the Cubans complained to the Soviets that Czechoslovak intelligence agents were pushing too hard to recruit agents within the Cuban government. The Soviets warned the Czechoslovaks to ease up. Nonetheless, by March 1962, the Czechoslovaks had trained 178 Cuban military specialists, ranging from fighter pilots to tank commanders.[x]

Czechoslovakia and British Guiana
Cheddi Jagan introduced himself and British Guiana to the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s leadership with a 1951 letter to its International Department. The 33-year-old Jagan told the Czechoslovaks that he was writing from East Germany, where he had spent almost five weeks as a guest of the Berlin Youth Festival Committee. He offered his bona fides as a man of the Left, explained British Guiana’s significance to American imperialism and the future of the British Caribbean, followed by a request for assistance. He explained that his PPP had grown out of “a small marxist [sic] group,” the Political Affairs Committee, and was now the strongest and “most militant” party in British Guiana. He said the party was under constant attack from the colony’s “capitalist” newspapers because of its support for “the Peoples [sic] Democracies, Soviet Union, and China against the Anglo-American bloc,” and because it sold Communist reading material imported from England and Eastern Europe.

Jagan made his plea that the PPP had an “urgent” need for assistance: “Firstly to fight for the cause of peace,” which, he explained in classic Leninist terms, meant “to fight the imperialist at their weak points – the colonies.” The “second reason,” he wrote, was “that our party will face a general election in 1952/53.” That Jagan began the letter with the broader anti-colonial appeal rather than his party’s own immediate needs suggests that he had received some East German coaching on how to present his case to the Czechoslovaks, whose “Third World” policy was described by Czech international relations professor Šárka Waisová as based on the “socialist ideology” that “aid provided to support the political fight for liberation would weaken the position of imperialism.”[xi]

Jagan asked the Czechoslovaks for mass quantities of Communist reading material that the PPP could sell to raise money, and asked for a modern printing press that would allow them to publish their monthly newspaper, Thunder, as a weekly. The authors could not find evidence in the Czech archives that the Czechoslovaks fulfilled Jagan’s request for Communist reading materials, but shortly thereafter, the colony was flooded with Communist propaganda until the British banned the importation of “subversive” materials in February 1953. The Czechoslovaks also discussed sending British Guiana a printing press, which finally arrived in British Guiana in the late 1950s.[xii]

Surprisingly, Jagan buried an important detail in his letter that, if directly stated, could have helped make his case. After describing the organizational problems the party faced due to lack of money, Jagan wrote: “Balance of power in Executive Committee of the party is with the communists.” [sic] The PPP’s fifteen-member executive committee included eight people who were considered to be radical: the Jagans, Cheddi’s brother Naipaul, Rory Westmaas, Martin Carter, George Robertson, Fred Bowman, and Lionel Jeffrey. Cheddi led the party and Janet served as general-secretary. No doubt these were the “communist” majority to which he referred. The Executive Committee’s seven other members presented themselves as non-Communist anti-colonial socialists. This is the closest Jagan ever came to an unadulterated statement that he was an orthodox Communist, and yet even here, in a private letter to a Communist government mailed from a Communist country, he did not state it directly.

After his stay in East Germany, Jagan visited Czechoslovakia in August 1951 and made a speech on Czechoslovak Radio.[xiii] With his visit, he continued his efforts to receive assistance, although the Czech archives have no records about this visit.

Jagan and the PPP won an overwhelming victory in the colony’s first national election on April 27, 1953. At this point the PPP was a multi-racial party in a country evenly divided between East Indians and other ethnic groups, the most numerous of which were Africans. Jagan and his colleagues repeatedly antagonized the British because the PPP claimed to be an opposition party in office but without power. Among his government’s first acts was to end the bans on “subversive” materials and visits to the colony by foreign Communists. Jagan’s government behaved so radically and irresponsibly that after only four months in office, Winston Churchill’s government removed them and threw him and then Janet in jail. In 1955, the PPP split: At first along ideological lines, with radicals sticking with the Jagans, but within two years the split became racial. In each succeeding election, the racial split became more pronounced and violent. After the PPP’s removal, Czechoslovak contact with British Guiana dramatically fell until Jagan was returned to power in the 1957 elections.

This time Jagan and his colleagues governed more moderately and toned down their rhetoric in order to win the confidence of the British government to facilitate decolonization, but the change in tone only lasted until Fidel Castro’s January 1, 1959 triumph in Cuba.[xiv] Thereafter, high-level PPP contacts with Czechoslovakia increased.

As the colony prepared for elections in 1961 – expected to be the first step in a rapid movement to independence – high-ranking PPP leader Moses Bhagwan,[xv] a journalist who worked for Thunder and led the PPP’s youth arm, the Progressive Youth Organization (PYO), attended a late 1960 Soviet-sponsored international conference for journalists in Baden, a small town outside Vienna, Austria, where he requested a meeting with the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s Central Committee. Taken to Prague, he met with an official named Novotný from the Communist Party’s international section.[xvi] Bhagwan carried a letter on PPP stationery (although Czechoslovak Communist Party records note that it had an “illegible signature”) which said that he was “empowered to interact with Communist Parties to ask for assistance with the upcoming election” that was slated for Spring 1961. Bhagwan told the Czechoslovaks that the election would determine the end of colonialism in British Guiana. This is the first documented case of Jagan’s government seeking electoral assistance from the Soviet Bloc.

The Czechoslovak Central Committee noted that they would consult with the Soviet Communist Party to determine how it should respond to the PPP’s request, but the authors could not find documents indicating what the Soviets told them to do. From Czechoslovakia, Bhagwan went on to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, presumably to make the same request. In a recent interview, Bhagwan did not recall requesting funds from the Communist Parties; instead, he said his tour of Communist countries turned him away from orthodox communism.[xvii]

Jagan and the PPP won the August 1961 election. In February 1962, an anti-government general strike led to riots in the African-dominated capital, Georgetown. Rabe argues that the United States was behind the rioting, although the evidence is ambiguous.[xviii] Looting led to arson that burned a significant portion of the city’s business district. Jagan again turned to the Czechoslovaks for assistance, according to a June 1962 Czechoslovak document. He sought to open economic relations with the Communist Bloc in general, and “especially with Czechoslovakia.” The Czechoslovaks had been in contact with Jagan through visits by intelligence agents who were accredited to Czechoslovak embassies in Mexico and Brazil, and they sent a trade delegation that included intelligence agent Ladislav Mercl in July 1962. According to Czechoslovak intelligence, the Státní bezpečnost (StB), the meeting was arranged through Rudolf David, an Afro-Guianese who was studying film in Czechoslovakia and had “promised us every help.” The StB transparently code-named David “Black” and described him as a “close friend” of Cheddi Jagan, who had personally selected him to study in Czechoslovakia. When Janet Jagan toured the country in January 1962, the StB reported, she met with David and told him that he would be appointed minister of education when he returned home.

David provided StB agent Mercl with letters of introduction to prominent Guianese leaders. Mercl met with Cheddi and Janet Jagan and other leading figures. Mercl’s most important conclusion from his talks was that Czechoslovakia should open a trade mission in Georgetown that would include an StB agent who “could put effective pressure on the British Guiana government and members of the PPP to remove British influence and US imperialism.” Mercl emphasized: “There are good conditions in this country for work against our main enemy,” i.e., the United States.

In March 1963, in the midst of another violent anti-government general strike, this time definitely backed financially by the United States, the Soviets asked the StB if they had secret code connections with British Guiana that the Soviets could use. The StB said they did not, but added that they hoped to have them if the trade mission negotiations were successful. Later that year, the British rejected the trade mission, ending the possibility of establishing an intelligence outpost, and the StB closed its file on British Guiana. In June 1963, Cuban intelligence sent two agents to British Guiana, which filled the Soviets’ need for a conduit.[xix]

The last important contact between the PPP leadership and the Czechoslovak government came in July 1964 while British Guiana was in the midst of a violent pro-government sugar-workers’ strike. Jagan sent an Afro-Guianese emissary, George David, to meet with the Central Committee. The country faced another election, slated for some time at the end of the year, and David requested assistance to help the PPP get its message out, including two motorbikes, six loudspeakers for street agitation, twelve short films about Czechoslovakia, and a collection of Communist written materials. The Central Committee approved each of these requests. In a follow-up meeting shortly before he left Czechoslovakia for Cuba, David also asked for weapons: hand grenades, pistols, ammunition, and small explosives. The Central Committee decided not to provide weapons because they considered the method David suggested – shipping them from East Germany with the delivery of Czechoslovak beer – “risky and unrealistic.” The Czechoslovaks informed Jagan of their decision through the Central Committee of the British Communist Party.

George David’s request may not have been the first such request from the Guianese. An StB agent in Havana reported to Prague that when Janet Jagan met with Fidel Castro in early 1962, Castro told her she could be confident that if she asked the Czechoslovaks for weapons, they would provide them. The Cuban ruler made his point with a typical flourish, the agent reported, when “Castro symbolically gave her a Czech pistol.” The Czechoslovak files do not show if Mrs. Jagan followed Castro’s advice, but Czechoslovak Bren guns had reportedly made their way into PPP hands by April 1964.[xx]

On December 7, 1964, the PPP lost the election to a coalition of its opponents under a new constitution designed to remove Jagan democratically. Jagan’s successor, Forbes Burnham, cut off relations with Czechoslovakia and every other Communist country until he began to move to the Left in 1970. Unfortunately, the Czechoslovak national archives for the Burnham years (1964-1985) are in too much disarray to uncover documents on Burnham’s relationship with Czechoslovakia.

Jan Koura would like to thank Olga Kovarova for translation and Petr Koura for advice regarding archival research. Robert Waters would like to thank his dean, Catherine Albrecht, for support and translation assistance; Ohio Northern University for funding; Jan Stodola and Sabrina Harris of the University Studies Abroad Consortium for making the collaboration possible; Kristina Andělová for introducing him to Jan; and Jim Hershberg for pushing him to work with Central and Eastern European scholars. Both authors would like to thank Pieter Biersteker for his fine editorial work.

 

List of Documents

 

Document No. 1
Letter to Minister of Interior Lubomir Strouga, 'Jaroslav Mercl - Proposal to Send Him to British Guiana, 15 June 1962
[Source: Archiv bezpečnostních složek (ABS), fond I. správy SNB – operativní svazky, reg. č. 11667, č.j. A/1-00243/21-62, 15. června 1962. Obtained and translated for CWIHP by Robert Waters and Jan Koura.]

Document No. 2
Letter to Minister of Interior Lubomir Strougal, Report on 'Business Trip of Jaroslav Mercl to British Guiana, 17 August 1962
[Source: Archiv bezpečnostních složek (ABS), fond I. správy SNB – operativní svazky, reg. č. 11667, č.j. A/1–00317/21–62, 17. srpna 1962. Obtained and translated for CWIHP by Robert Waters and Jan Koura.]

Document No. 3
Letter from Velebil to 2nd Department of the 1st Directorate, 'Abstract From the Telegram No. 80 From Havana From 25 March 1963', 28 March 1963
[Source: Archiv bezpečnostních složek (ABS), fond I. správy SNB – operativní svazky, reg. č. 11667, Výpis ze zprávy č. 80 z Havany ze dne 25. 3. 1963, 28. března 1963. Obtained and translated for CWIHP by Robert Waters and Jan Koura..]

Document No. 4
Final Report, File Number 1667, 23 June 1965
[Source: Archiv bezpečnostních složek (ABS), fond I. správy SNB – operativní svazky, reg. č. 11667. Obtained and translated for CWIHP by Robert Waters and Jan Koura.]

Document No. 5
Proposal to the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Part of Czechoslovakia, 'Help to the People's Progressive Party of British Guiana,' 15 July 1964
[Source: Národní Archive Praha, ÚV KSČ 02/1, Ústřední výbor 1945-1989, Praha, Předsednictvo 1962-1966, sv. 71, aj. 75, b. 17. Obtained and translated for CWIHP by Robert Waters and Jan Koura.]

Document No. 6
Record of the Meeting Between Moses Bhagwan and Central Committee of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, 22 November 1960
[Source: Národní Archive Praha, ÚV KSČ, 100/3, Ústřední výbor 1945-1989, oddělení mezinárodní, sv. 41, aj. 187. Obtained and translated for CWIHP by Robert Waters and Jan Koura.]

Document No. 7
Letter to Czechoslovak Embassy in Moscow on Moses Bhagwan of the People's Progressive Party of British Guiana, 2 December 1960
[Source: Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, France. Obtained by Enrico Fardella and translated by Garret Martin.]

Document No. 8
Letter from Cheddi Jagan to International Department of Czechoslovak Communist Party, 13 September 1951
[Source: Národní archiv Praha (NA), ÚV KSČ 100/3, Mezinárodní oddělení, sv. 41, aj. 187, č. j. 1091. Obtained for CWIHP by Robert Waters and Jan Koura.]

Document No. 9
File Annotation: 'On the State of British Guiana,' 12 October 1982
[Source: Archiv bezpečnostních složek (ABS), fond I. správy SNB – operativní svazky, reg. č. 11667. Obtained and translated for CWIHP by Robert Waters and Jan Koura.]


[i] Rabe, US Intervention in British Guiana, 178-179.

[ii] Vladimír Nálevka, Československo a Latinská Amerika v letech druhé světové války (Praha, 1972), 18.

[iii] For example, in 1935 Latin America was targeted with 2.8 % of Czechoslovak exports, in 1936 it had grown to 3%. See Nálevka, Československo a Latinská Amerika v , 19.

[iv] Hana Bortlová, Československo a Kuba v letech 1959–1962, Praha 2011, 24; see also, Josef Opatrný, “Czechoslovak-Latin American Relations 1945-1989,” CEJISS, vol. 7 (September 2013): 13-18, http://static.cejiss.org/data/uploaded/1393887975565903/cejiss_7.3_eJour...

[v] To read more on the subject, see e.g. Nálevka, Československo a Latinská Amerika v , 30–31; and Opatrný, “Czechoslovak-Latin American Relations,” 18-20.

[vi] Bortlová, Československo a Kuba, 14-15.

[vii] Ibid., 26; see also, Opatrný, “Czechoslovak-Latin American Relations,” 20-37.

[viii] Opatrný, “Czechoslovak-Latin American Relations,” 22-25.

[ix] Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 12-13.

[x] Ibid., 25, 36, 46, 50, 374-375n.42, 166.

[xi] Ladislav Cabada and Šárka Waisová, Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic in World Politics (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2011), 89.

[xii] A 1957 document said that Czechoslovakia refused to send a printing press, but a 1960 document (dealing with Moses Bhagwan’s visit) mentions that the Czechoslovaks had previously provided the Guianese with a printing press. The authors cannot find any documents that say when the press was delivered or the terms of the deal.

[xiii] Cheddi Jagan, My Fight for Guyana’s Freedom, with Reflections on my Father by Nadira Jagan-Brancier (Milton, Ontario, Canada: Harpy, 1998). The authors could not find any reference to this article in the Czech archives.

[xiv] Clem Seecharan, Sweetening “Bitter Sugar”: Jock Campbell, the Booker Reformer in British Guiana, 1934-1966 (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 2004), 241-244, 488.

[xv][xv] The Czechoslovaks transliterated his name as Bhagvan Mozert.

[xvi] Not Antonín Novotný.

[xvii] Bhagwan email to Waters, September 9, 2013.

[xviii] Rabe, US Intervention in British Guiana, 92-94; Gordon O. Daniels and Waters, “The British Guiana Trades Union Council Strike of 1962,” paper presented at the North American Labor History Conference, Detroit, Mich., October 21, 2005.

[xix] See Waters and Daniels, “The World’s Longest General Strike,” Diplomatic History, vol. 29 (2005): 279-307; Waters and Daniels, “Striking for Freedom? International intervention and the Guianese Sugar Workers’ Strike of 1964,” Cold War History, vol. 10 (2010): 548-552.

[xx] Tom Stacey, “Violent Prelude to British Guiana Poll,” Sunday Times (London) (April 26, 1964); Stacey email to Waters, July 25, 2006.