Maruf Hossain, Dhaka
Attempts at influencing elections—that is foreign interference—are not new. In fact, the United States, using the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was an early practitioner of this tactic. The agency’s intervention in Italy in 1948 and after, while details remain vague, is a known example. But in British Guiana (present-day Guyana) in the 1960s we now have a virtually unknown yet well-documented instance of use of this technique.
When the South American colony now known as Guyana was due to gain independence from Britain in the 1960s, US officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations feared it would become a communist nation under the leadership of Cheddi Jagan, who was very popular among the South Asian (mostly Indian) majority.
Although to this day the CIA refuses to confirm or deny involvement, evidences show that CIA funding, through a program run by the The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), helped foment the labor unrest, race riots, and general chaos that led to Jagan’s replacement in 1964. The political leader preferred by the United States, Forbes Burnham, went on to lead a twenty-year dictatorship in which he persecuted the majority Indian population.
It’s not been the only case of US using the labour issues or the labour organizations for creating unrest followed by regime change. AFL-CIO has been implicated in political interference and/or regime change in many countries, including the Dominican Republic, Chile, South Africa and Nicaragua. While its espoused objective has been to promote democracy and workers’ rights, the results in most of the cases have been the opposite as Guyana.
“They (US) talk about protecting labor rights. But in reality their main goals are different. Although it talks about democracy and human rights, the United States is directly or indirectly involved in the biggest human rights violations in the world,” Says Shiblee Noman, the author of the Bengali book named ‘CIA thekey NED: Gonotontrer Feriwala naki Markin Meddling Machine (From CIA to NED: Democracy Promotor or US Meddling Machine).
The author furter states, “Looking at the history of regime change by the United States, it is clear that initially they directly used the Intelligence Agency, but later they used labor organizations and labor leadership. They have invested a lot of money in these works. More recently, it has created a quasi-government organization called the Endowment for Democracy, which has similar allegations against it. It is only when the United States rushes against a country with these weapons, when they have geopolitical interests there or they want to change something there. Interestingly, they are not always successful.”
This Bangladeshi journalist opined that US may have such ambitions in his country as well. With the recent experience, he says, “I don’t see anything wrong with the recent talk by the United States about the labor issue in the RMG sector in Bangladesh, and the apparel leaders here are alleging political interests behind it. Rather, it is normal. Their past history says so.”
Mr. Noman also claims that in Bangladesh, the controvercy about the role of the United States on labor issues is not new. He says, “Emilio Garza, who was sent as the South Asian representative of the Asian American Free Labor Institute before the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with his family, was a CIA agent, the organization’s whistleblower Philip Agee wrote in his book. Peter James Cannon has written in his book what kind of work the organization was doing in Dhaka at that time and what report it sent to Washington.”
“The pointsman of Garza, Richard Olahan was expelled from Dhaka in 1975 by the then government. At that time, the work of that organization was also stopped in this country. But after the killing of Bangabandhu, they got another chance to work here again,” Shiblee Noman added.
The world’s longest general strike in Guiana funded by CIA
The Bangla Herald obtains some Declassified Documents from the Digital National Security Archieves which clearly shows the full show of the Guiana incidents. Cheddi Jagan was a dentist. Born of Indian immigrants who arrived in British Guiana as indentured servants, Jagan studied in Georgetown, Guiana’s capital, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, where he completed training. He also met and married Janet Rosenberg in Chicago, returning to South America in 1943, at age 25. Jagan’s background inclined him to socialism from the beginning. In 1946 he founded a political action committee, which he merged with another group in 1950 to form the People’s Progressive Party (PPP).
The lead-up to the 1964 elections included a concerted effort by officials from the United States to ensure that Jagan did not win the election, due to fears about Jagan supposed communist views. A March 1961 CIA estimate opined that Jagan’s wife, Janet, was a communist, and that Jagan was under communist influence. Jagan had also expressed support and encouragement for the Cuban Revolution. The United Kingdom and United States differed on their opinions of how to solve the situation, with the British suggestion being that Jagan should be educated rather than removed from power.
Jagan’s meeting with Kennedy in 1961 did not significantly change the American opinion of his political leanings. The Americans decided that Burnham’s policies were preferable to those of Jagan, and began to take actions against Jagan, including delaying independence from Britain, advocating a proportional representation electoral system which would be to the detriment of Jagan’s electoral chances, and providing support for strike action. These actions continued despite Jagan contacting Kennedy to protest his case. The CIA helped fund and organise the protests that led to the February 1962 demonstrations, and in April 1963 the CIA used $1 million of allocated funds to support the 80-day general strike. This strike action would later be cited as evidence that Jagan was not capable of governing British Guiana.
In October 1963, a constitutional conference was called. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan summoned the three main Guyanese political leaders (Jagan, Forbes Burnham and Peter D’Aguiar)to London where Colonial Secretary Duncan Sandys announced the holding of fresh elections (previously the agreement was that independence would be granted before any further elections were called), a delay in the date of independence from 1963 to 1964, and a change in the electoral system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation. In a letter to President Kennedy, MacMillan explained that if Jagan refused to cooperate, Britain would suspend the constitution.Jagan agreed to elections in 1964 under proportional representation, but John Prados posits that this was only because he received assurances from Forbes Burnham that a coalition between the two parties would be acceptable. The Guiana United Muslim Party and Justice Party were both set up with the assistance of the CIA to split the Indo-Guyanese voting bloc, and the United States funded Burnham’s campaign activities against Jagan’s party.
The months preceding the December 1964 elections were marked with extensive civil disorder. Arson was a daily occurrence, nearly 200 people were murdered and 1000 were injured, and more than 15,000 people were forced from their homes. Violence came from both PPP and PNC supporters. On one occasion in August, a conference between the three political party leaders was interrupted when the PPP party headquarters was bombed on the same street.
In the December 1964 elections, the PPP won a plurality of votes and actually increased their vote share to 46%, but Burnham’s party, the People’s National Congress, and the conservative United Force held a majority of seats and were invited to form the government by Governor Richard Luyt. However, Jagan refused to resign, and had to be removed by Luyt. Jagan would begin his role as leader of the opposition. After 28 years in opposition,
The Labour Imperialism of US
Jeff Schuhrke, a labor historian, journalist, and union activist calls the whole process as ‘the labour imperialism of US’.
As he wrote, two days after Bolivia’s socialist president Evo Morales was forced from office in a right-wing military coup last November, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka condemned the coup on Twitter and praised Morales for reducing poverty and championing indigenous rights. In doing so, Trumka joined Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other prominent figures of the Left in countering the US political and media establishments’ dominant narrative that Morales’s violent ouster was a win for democracy.
While it’s fitting for the president of the nation’s largest union federation to denounce a right-wing coup against a leftist foreign leader — which was endorsed by the State Department and CIA — it also represents an important break from precedent for the AFL-CIO. Though rarely discussed, the federation has a long record of supporting the US government in disrupting leftist movements around the world, including through coups d’état in Latin America.
Throughout the Cold War, the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council and International Affairs Department were run by zealous anticommunists determined to undercut the rise of left-wing trade unions overseas. Like their counterparts in the US government, George Meany, AFL-CIO president from 1955–1979, and Lane Kirkland, his successor who served until 1995, understood that if allowed to thrive, class-conscious labor movements would pose a serious threat to global capital.
Meany, Kirkland, and other AFL-CIO officials subscribed to a philosophy of “business unionism,” meaning they had no desire to topple capitalism but instead promoted the idea that class collaboration and limited workplace bargaining over “bread and butter” issues would bring workers all the prosperity they needed. They championed economic nationalism over transnational labor solidarity, reasoning that US workers would see higher wages and lower unemployment as long as US corporations had easy access to foreign markets to sell products made in the United States — a version of the kind of nationalist ideology that has fueled racism and xenophobia among segments of the US working class and aided Trump’s rise to power.
From aiding US-backed military coups in Brazil and Chile to cheerleading ruthless counterinsurgency wars in Vietnam and El Salvador, the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy during the Cold War was fundamentally geared toward the interests of US empire. By the 1970s — just as capital launched a renewed, decades-long attack on workers’ rights around the globe — the US labor federation had lost whatever credibility it might have had as a vehicle for international working-class liberation, derided by anti-imperialists at home and abroad as the “AFL-CIA.”
As we enter a new decade, the prospects for a rejuvenated US labor movement are strong: a new generation of exploited workers are eager to unionize, the number of workers on strike just hit a thirty-year high, the rapidly growing Democratic Socialists of America is aiming to pull unions leftward through the rank-and-file strategy, longtime labor ally Bernie Sanders has plans to double union membership if elected president, and militant labor leaders like Sara Nelson (who could be the AFL-CIO’s next president) are rising in prominence.
It’s a good time, then, for both labor activists and left labor leaders to reckon with the history of US labor imperialism — a history largely unknown to younger labor activists and leftists who came of age in the early twenty-first century. Wrestling with that history can help ensure that a resurgent US labor movement plays a positive and effective role in building global worker solidarity rather than one that props up an imperialist order that hurts the working class both within the United States and around the world.
Though decades of corporate propaganda have tried to tell us otherwise, there is power in a union. Not only the power to raise wages or win paid time off, but the power to overthrow governments and bring national economies to a screeching halt. During the Cold War, the US government understood this very well. To US officials determined to preserve and expand international capitalism in the face of an increasingly influential global left, trade unions around the world posed a serious threat.
Unions abroad therefore became a crucial target of US imperial intervention: rather than allow them to mount an effective challenge to capital by radicalizing workers and fueling leftist political movements, unions would need to be turned into instruments for containing the revolutionary potential of the working class. In the process, organized labor’s most powerful weapon — the strike — would be co-opted and used to pursue reactionary goals, namely, to undermine leftist governments.
To subvert overseas unions for their own imperial ends, the State Department and CIA found an enthusiastic ally in the AFL-CIO. The Cold War largely coincided with the period when the US labor movement was at its strongest. More US workers were unionized in the 1950s and 1960s than at any other time in history, giving labor leaders like Meany considerable political clout.
As anticommunists, AFL-CIO officials chose to use this power to assist the US government in undermining leftist influence in foreign trade unions. In practice, this meant interfering in the internal processes of other countries’ trade unions, stoking internecine rivalries, creating and financially propping up splinter labor organizations, grooming cadres of conservative business unionists, and using the power of the strike to sabotage progressive governments.
After decades of such imperial interventions, organized labor across the world was left divided and weakened, making it easier for transnational capital to exploit workers in the era of neoliberalism.