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A Summary Of United States – Guyana Relations In Light Of ‘Oil’ And ‘2020’ Vision

Last Updated on Monday, 6 July 2020, 19:59 by Denis Chabrol

by History Professor,  Nigel Westmaas Phd.


The geo-political situation in the region and Guyana-US relations have attained a new level of intensity and focus amid the Exxon/Mobil contract. The 2020 elections and the apparent need of the Guyanese state (no matter the occupant) to “make good” with United States foreign policy and ideological orientation in the Caribbean region has shadowed the election and the aftermath. One dimension of this new situation has to do with the “tale of two contracts”. In 2019 the PPP announced that they had contracted Mercury LLC to assist in “strategic consulting” for the 2020 elections.  Likewise, apparently playing defence from hindsight in the wake of the March 2nd elections, the APNU-AFC government contracted the US lobbying firm J&B LLC. The JB & LLC contract inked by the APNU-AFC was even more startling as the document labelling the government as “pro-American” thereby attempting to flatten an independent foreign policy that was established from at least 1970 in Guyana. This would have alarmed the makers of Guyana’s foreign policy under the Forbes Burnham regime of the early 1970s. Both lobbying firms are redolent of the new dimensions with the arrival of oil, the election fight, and the geopolitical situation in which Venezuela is now at the centre.

In light of these new and ongoing geo-political dimensions this piece attempts a restricted summary of some main themes/developments in US-Guyana relations for over a two hundred year period.

The Early Period: Hornet vs Peacock
More than two hundred years ago, on February 24th 1813, two “sloops of war” representing the United States and England clashed off the coast of British Guiana (near Mahaica on the East Coast of Demerara). The encounter between the U.S.S Hornet and H.M.S Peacock lasted for all of eleven minutes resulting in the sinking of the British Navy Peacock. This naval battle was just one engagement of a resumed war that was raging then between the United States and Great Britain. The battle was unrelated to US-British Guiana relations, but was symbolic of the growing and turbulent diplomatic/political relations and association between the geographical entity of British Guiana (later Guyana) and the United States.

Both under British colonial rule and after independence in 1966, the United States invariably, but perhaps not always publicly, held Guyana as an important economic and political asset. At times within the period under review the ‘economic’ would achieve higher status. At other times the political imperative gained ascendancy. But the association in this early period was concentrated in the arena of trade and economic concerns.  For instance, it was the US that broke Guyana’s brief interlude (in the early 19th century) as the biggest cotton producer in the world. In fact, according to one historian, “in Guyana between 1789 and 1802 cotton production skyrocketed by a staggering 862% fueled by the concurrent import of about twenty thousand slaves into Surinam and Demerara”

As the huge American economy began to predominate on the world market, it affected both the import and export trade relations of the British colony. But reciprocal trade between the two countries began to pick up in the middle of the 19th century. The influential scholar Adamson argued that it was only when Britain removed the “special preference duties” in 1845 that America “dominated the export of food to British Guiana and continued to do so until the end of the century.”  This consisted mainly of sugar (from Guyana) and foodstuffs from the American side. In 1855 an American and British joint stock company was established. According to Adamson only “7.5% of the total value of colony’s sugar” was sold on the US market at that time.  By the end of the 19th century US trade ties had grown with British Guiana in sugar and molasses and other products. Between 1872 and the turn of the century, the famous “Demerara (sugar) crystals” had made a serious impact on the US market and significant trade relations had been established. The United States soon became an important destination of goods from British Guiana. These goods included bicycles, boots and shoes. Capital equipment from the United States also became more available by the 1890s.


The Monroe Doctrine Extended
At the political strategic level, the Americans were also flexing their muscles in the region, more potently at the end of the 19th century. With the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the United States began to take a hostile view of ‘foreign influences (especially Spanish and British) in the hemisphere. President James Monroe’s statement on the issue was categorical. It said the hemisphere, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power.” This would determine US behavior in the Caribbean up to the present. Armed and influenced by this political strategic philosophy, as subsequent performance testifies, the USA intervened in the Caribbean as a dubious anti-colonial power intent on disposing of Spanish colonialism. It launched two wars in the hemisphere against the Spanish in Cuba and in Puerto Rico – invading both countries in 1898. Indicative of its growing influence in the region US lawyers also appeared in support of Venezuela at the 1899 Tribunal Award hearing in Paris in the British Guiana -Venezuela Border talks that laid down the current frontier between the two countries. That Treaty was concluded as a true and final settlement. The United States was firmly in the Venezuelan camp consistent with its geo-strategic concerns. Significantly, a former US President Benjamin Harrison was also part of the US team. But at least one local scholar Noel Menezes discounts the relevance of the Monroe doctrine to the American involvement. This issue is now before the International Court of Justice.

Theodore Roosevelt comes calling
In February 1916 former US President Theodore Roosevelt paid a visit to British Guiana arriving on a steamship appropriately titled SS Guiana to large crowds on the docks.  As president Roosevelt was considered a vigorous imperialist who implemented the Monroe doctrine with even more gusto than his predecessor William McKinley. During his time in office Roosevelt was involved in attacks on Cuba, the building of the Panama Canal, ensuring the propping up of so called “banana republics” in the Americas, shooting wild game in Africa, and a number of other controversial actions. He was also cited as the first US President to settle a labour dispute and was known for his fight against the monopoly of Wall Street and antitrust legislation. The president, who after leaving office was a naturalist and botanist, went to Guyana through the instrumentation of the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society (RACS). He spent approximately one week in the colony. The builder of the Panama Canal, imperialist and adventurer,  and who had farmed out a reputation for bellicosity and machismo was not in Guyana as a representative of the US government but was on a “private and informal visit” as a conservationist to assist with efforts to protect the environment. When he spoke at a function hosted by the RACS (Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society) Roosevelt said “I am speaking as a democrat, as a reformer and as a man of liberal tendencies, and I am convinced that just as you can’t afford to do without education you can’t afford to do without religion” Roosevelt also joked during his speech of his reputed bellicose side “I am not a professional peacemaker” he intoned. His visit to Guyana was part of a larger tour of South America and the Caribbean in his conservation pursuits in the wake of leaving office. His visit nonetheless brought with the symbolic pugnaciousness of US power in the region.

20th Century American Designs
Almost concurrent with Roosevelt’s visit, US interests in the Caribbean intensified in the early 20th century with the advent of Woodrow Wilson to the presidency. His expanded vision of American foreign policy in the hemisphere extended to the Caribbean and was buttressed where needed by military intervention (as in the US invasion and occupation of Haiti between 1915-1934). These interests also embraced the expansion of economic and social ties to the region. Roberta Kilkenny theorizes that US interests in British Guiana increased in intensity when US capital became actively involved in the exploration for, and exploitation of Guianese bauxite deposits.” ALCOA, the American Company involved had powerful connections to the Republican Party and its operations had “tremendous wartime significance.” While America had not yet entered the war in 1914 when negotiations were taking place, the fact of war impelled the Wilson administration in the hunt for raw materials. The British were initially resistant but the possibility of munition supplies being withheld by the Americans was a factor in their eventual acquiescence. The British Governor of Guiana faced American diplomatic pressure for lease of land to ALCOA. It is Carlo Lemur’s contention that the support ALCOA received from the US government was decisive. The fact that ALCOA was the “most complete private monopoly in the US at the time” and enjoyed the firm support of the US government quickly overcame any residual British opposition. Kilkenny suggests that American interests and pressure grew in the 1920s when “US and Guianese businessmen, with the support of the State Department, agitated for an exception to the British prohibition on foreign investment in strategic resources to allow for US involvement in the anticipated development of a Guianese petroleum industry.” The basis for  20th century US interest in British Guiana had been laid but petroleum has only now materialised. During the Second World War, the US War Department country survey stated that British Guiana had “three resources (bauxite, timber and sugar) of potential value to the parent country or other power which can control and develop them”.

General Dwight Eisenhower at Atkinson field , 1946

Atkinson Field

When the USA entered the Second World War after an initial hands-off policy and supported Great Britain and the allies in the fight against Hitler, US strategic interests took a “second wind”. This time the US negotiated their way into establishing naval and military bases in the Anglophone Caribbean. As part of this package, they signed a ninety-year lease in May 1941 when two US military bases described as the “first in South America” were established on Guyana soil. One of these was the Army base at Hyde Park on the Demerara River. This base, better known as Atkinson Field, together with a naval air Station at Makouria on the Essequibo River became part of the worldwide constellation of US bases being established at the time.  Under the 99-year lease 6,800 persons, including 5,007 Guianese, were involved in the construction of these bases over a twenty-month period.” The military  lease was not peculiar to Guyana but was established by agreement with Britain with several other countries in the hemisphere in exchange for 50 “near-obsolete destroyers.” They included naval bases in Antigua, the Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Bermuda. In the wake of the American military presence a few prominent local protesters including trade unionist Ayube Edun and trade-unionist-politician AA Thorne, called for the removal of the base. Unsurprisingly, the British did not assent to this request.

Premier Cheddi Jagan meets United States President, John F. Kennedy

Prior to the Second World war physical US diplomatic presence in Guyana was minimal. According to Kimani Nehusi’s text A People’s History of British Guiana 1838-1964 US diplomatic presence in British Guiana emerged in 1858 when a consular office was established at 60 Main Street in Georgetown. This was to last until 1932 after which the US consular office in Trinidad and Tobago handled US interests for  Guyana until it was resumed in 1953 on account of the political events of that year that brought the PPP to office.

Prior to the Second World war physical US diplomatic presence in Guyana was minimal. According to Kimani Nehusi’s text A People’s History of British Guiana 1838-1964 US diplomatic presence in British Guiana emerged in 1858 when a consular office was established at 60 Main Street in Georgetown. This was to last until 1932 after which the US consular office in Trinidad and Tobago handled US interests for  Guyana until it was resumed in 1953 on account of the political events of that year that brought the PPP to office.


Post-World War II Relations
After the Second World War, US trade with British Guiana expanded further. According to one statistic the US supplied 28% of the machinery Guyana imported. The little known rubber tapping industry was also part of the American interest in British Guiana.

Prime Minister Forbes Burnham with Lyndon Johnson

But political-strategic concerns of the Americans grew more intense in this period and even appeared to supersede its economic interests.

In the 1950s, as part of its growing influence in the region in general and concerned about the socialist PPP’s victory at the polls in 1953, the US Government began to take an even more proactive and public interest in Guiana’s internal affairs in context of the Cold War. This was preceded by years of consular facilitated intelligence gathering in the colony. Kilkenny has alluded to information gathering on “the intricacies of Guyanese economic and political life, and terrain…” in the period 1940 – 1945. In August 1954,  the Public Affairs Officer of the US Information Service L. E. Norrie arrived in the country and shortly thereafter the United States Information Service, opened an office in Georgetown.  This was part of the general design to counter socialist influence in the colony. Later the US became entangled in secret diplomatic negotiating with the British to persuade the colonial power to act more decisively against what the Americans perceived as British indecision in the face of the ‘communist’ threat. The 1950s and 1960s were the decades of “explicit” imperialism on the part of the Americans. The interventionist activities of the Americans has persisted up to the present albeit with more “soft” power. In assessing the various sides in the equation the Americans decided that the PPP regime constituted a grave threat. Consequently, they placed themselves in opposition to the Jagan regime. Newly released documents detailing British-American correspondence during this time suggest that the Americans and British disagreed on tactics in dealing with the PPP government.

Nonetheless both the Americans and the British saw the threat of a Jagan government as likely to be consequential for American and British ‘security’ concerns and acted accordingly. One analyst however observed that “despite concerns about Jagan’s ideological background, as well as US economic and strategic interests in and around British Guiana, the administration of John F. Kennedy sought to work with the Jagan government” This might be an exaggeration of the US approach. While Cheddi Jagan visited Washington in pursuit of economic aid, the Americans listened politely but ideological concerns prevailed.  No economic aid was forthcoming and the Americans persisted in their efforts to remove the PPP regime. Forbes Burnham for his part, even before independence stated that any government he led would accept the principle of neutrality: “Guyana, under any administration headed by me, would be no pawn of East or West…it will be the job, nay the duty, of our Diplomats abroad to translate this into practical terms and attitudes”

Most independent observers concur that the CIA actively intervened in the crises of “the sixties” in British Guiana using the US umbrella labor group AFL-CIO in pursuance of its agenda. Finally, the PPP was defeated electorally in 1964 as a result of a PNC-UF coalition. In 1966 Guyana won its independence from Great Britain and the newly independent country immediately established diplomatic relations with eight countries including the United States. The others were India, Canada, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, United Kingdom, West Germany and Venezuela.

Post-Independence Relations
Between 1966 and 1970 the country’s voting record at the UN paralleled American global interests except for some political matters. In this period economic assistance was forthcoming.  At the domestic level, the PNC-UF acted (right up until their split in 1968) in ideological consort with each other in opposition to the leftist PPP. But from around 1970 Burnham and the PNC changed policy almost dramatically. During the 1970s relations between Guyana and the United States were strained largely on account of the Cold War and US hemispheric concerns.

Allied to this was a nationalization policy and welcome extended to the black power and Pan-Africanist movements in the US and elsewhere that angered the Americans. Guyana was however a peculiar case for the Americans. Unlike other countries where there was a “balance of power” in the form of relatively strong right wing and conservative parties, no such luxury existed for the US in Guyana. This can be seen in the array of political forces in the country. The ruling PNC had an aggressive foreign policy embracing relations with both the non-aligned movement and socialist countries. In the opposition was the PPP – an explicitly Marxist-Leninist organisation and officially a member of the world communist movement since 1969. Another political party, the WPA, a vibrant leftist opposition group had appeared on the scene by the mid-1970s posed serious problems for the Burnham regime. As all three main political parties were connected to the left in one form or another – the Americans were presented with a dilemma. In finding no rival organisation of any substance on the “right’ the US opted for maintaining regular if tense relations with Burnham. Still, subtle and open economic and political pressures were still being exerted and on a few occasions there were diplomatic shouting matches. The Americans reacted negatively to the left-oriented foreign policy of the Burnham regime in which it developed close ties with the socialist bloc in general and Cuba in particular.

In 1977 Guyana’s relations with the USA depreciated over Cuban military support to Angola over the South African invasion. Cuba had transferred tens of thousands of troops to Angola in support of the MPLA. The Burnham regime even allowed Cuban planes to refuel at the Guyanese airport in 1976 en route to Angola to give tangible solidarity to defeat the South African invasion of that country.

In 1978 the horror of Jonestown occurred when over 900 Americans were killed on the orders of the maverick Peoples Temple founder, Rev Jim Jones. This tragedy brought Guyana into the national consciousness of the US as a name and place defined, as Prime Minister Forbes Burnham once described it, an “American problem”. When US congressman Leo Ryan was murdered by Jim Jones henchmen the murder suicide unraveled, inevitably and inextricably linking Guyana with the US


Rashleigh Jackson and Henry Kissinger
Former foreign minister Rashleigh Jackson has written about the time when Kissinger confronted Guyana foreign minister and the Guyana UN delegation over the issue. According to Jackson, when Secretary Kissinger joined Minister Wills (at the UN), he introduced himself and said, “Mr Minister, I am told you have a formidable intellect. Now that I have dealt with Moynihan how do I deal with you?”

Jackson goes on: One of the issues Dr Kissinger raised was that of Cuban planes flying troops to Angola and stopping at Timehri airport to refuel. At that time, this was not public knowledge. Dr Kissinger asserted, “Mr Minister, I am not asking you if Cuban planes have stopped in your country, I am telling you that they have. We know that for a fact.”

More was to come that infuriated the US. In 1979 the New Jewel Movement (NJM) overthrew the authoritarian Eric Gairy regime in Grenada. It eventually came to light that the Guyana Defence Force helped train NJM cadres. While Manley was pressured out of office in Jamaica and the Grenada revolution of 1979 revolutionaries) went up in self-inflicted flames in 1983 (concurrently stoked by an American invasion of the island), Guyana continued to have normal economic and diplomatic ties with the US government.

After the death of Burnham in 1985, US relations with Guyana began to improve even more with the advent of the Desmond Hoyte regime. Relatively substantial aid packages resumed to Guyana when the Hoyte regime embarked on what it termed the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP). This was soon facilitated and buttressed by overseas assistance.

The Hoyte Thaw
In the 1990s, relations between the United States and Guyana thawed even further. By the 1992 general elections in Guyana-American influence was obvious. It was also a sign of a “relaxed” United States when their former arch-enemy on the left in the hemisphere Cheddi Jagan was elected to office. This turnaround was facilitated in large measure by Guyanese lobbying efforts at home and abroad in the US and elsewhere, and the intervention of several prominent Americans.  Former US president James Carter led the mission named after himself to Guyana to pressure the Hoyte regime into conceding the count at the poll.  The end of the ‘distinctive’ Cold War was another factor in improved relationsThis shift was palpable in Dr Jagan’s statement at the 24th Congress of the PPP in 1991: “in this era when the West can do business with Gorbachev and the USSR, US investors are prepared to do business with the PPP/Civic government. They are concerned more with political stability than with ideology.”

By 1999, US assistance to Guyana reached over $12. 5 and was supported by US PL-480 agreement which allowed the government of Guyana to improve infrastructure, farming, drainage and irrigation and sea defence.

At the “end” of the Cold war in the 1990s, there appeared to be no significant ‘ideological’ conflict with “any occupant” of the Guyana nation-state. The issues that preoccupied the relationship in the era of global ideological rivalry were either absent or residing below the surface.  Yet, imperial arrogance persisted. For example, in the 1990s, faced with the prospect of perpetual servility and inequality exemplified by agreements like the ‘Ship-Rider’, which former Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliot Abrams arrogantly described as a “beneficial erosion of sovereignty” several Caribbean governments signed on to this agreement that allowed American entry into the respective territories in pursuit of drug traffickers.

Modern US ‘soft power’
The Carter Center has been consistent since the early 1990s up to the present and has been emblematic of US ‘soft power’. However, it appears that the Carter Center still does not fully understand race relations in Guyana. The nimbleness with which President James Carter originally dealt with Guyana was absent in the current Carter mission. In 2004, Carter expressed some disappointment with the Jagdeo led PPP of that time stating:

“Jagdeo is an intelligent and capable leader, but he takes full advantage of the ancient “winner take all” system in Guyana. Following my meeting with him, I was very doubtful that his political party (PPP) would commence new dialogue with the PNC, be willing to make any substantive moves to implement the National Development Strategy, share political authority with other parties, or permit members of parliament to be elected by their own constituencies instead of being chosen from party lists on a proportional basis.”

From that time to now there has been no movement on the front of power sharing and what we have instead is American observer power “after the fact” rather than proactivity in the years before an election.

In 2020, Guyana is still inextricably bound up with its large neighbour on account of several realities. One connection not to be underestimated is the huge Guyanese diaspora in North America that links the two countries even tighter than formal diplomatic relations. But American foreign policy has flexed its muscles, both subtlety and blatantly against Guyana many times in their long relationship. As indicated earlier, the recent elections in Guyana together with the Exxon oil find has raised the stakes and placed Guyana back in the strategic spotlight. The fight over the results of the elections since March 2 has exposed the underbelly of the relationship between the United States and Guyana. It is not surprising then the most powerful political parties in the contest, PPP/C and APNU-AFC, have both sought to hire top US lobbying firms to negotiate their way into the favour of Washington.

Now we have, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, an almost complete capitulation to the Exxon-Mobil contract on the part of all parties, in and out of government. There will hardly be public criticism of the revelations about the contractual submission to Exxon – the fact is that Guyana has been sold down the river, to a form of neo-liberalism that has also infected the Third World more generally. To this day men and women in suits who happen to be white still instill a form of psychological dependence on nation-states, a phenomenon best described by Frantz Fanon (Black Skin White Masks), that is,  a fawning approach to global capitalism.  Of course, the cry of “realism” will be invoked. This “realism” chant has been in vogue since the 1980s when the ERP (Economic Recovery Programme) was implemented to much hardship on the Guyanese working people. The balance of power between Guyana and the US is unambiguously uneven, and Guyana has no warships even as shaky as Britain possessed in the naval battle of 1813.  But the country must stake out its own dignified posture and routine in the hemispheric and international settings. This will require internal cohesiveness and national unity, rekindling the non-aligned spirit and using its oil resources, demonstrably for the Guyanese people. However, if the past is prologue the country’s future is not too bright. Three diseases gnaw away at the Guyanese nation state: the early onset of  “Dutch disease” signified by the abysmal contract for its oil resources; COVID-19; and the long nightmare of ethnic division and conflict.

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July 2020