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October 30, 1994

A Kennedy-C.I.A. Plot Returns to Haunt Clinton

WASHINGTON -- It was a small clandestine operation in a little South American country three decades ago. President Kennedy ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to subvert the country's leader. The leader fell, and the C.I.A.'s men quietly left town.

Time passed, and the wheels of history turned. The cold war ended, and with its end the fallen leader was elected President of what is now independent Guyana. United States law says it is time to unseal the secret documents that detail Kennedy's plot against him.

But State Department and C.I.A. officials refuse to release them, saying it is not worth the embarrassment.

Keeping secrets can cause embarrassment too. In June the Clinton Administration prepared to send a new Ambassador to the little country -- apparently unaware that the prospective nominee had helped to undermine the restored leader.

The events of 30 years ago may be filed and forgotten in Washington; they are fresh in the memory of those who lived through them.

The story begins in 1953, when British Guiana, an English-speaking colony peopled by the descendants of slaves and laborers from Africa and India, elected its first native-born Prime Minister: Cheddi Jagan, a son of the colonial plantations, an American-educated dentist and an admirer of the works of Karl Marx.

Four months later, Churchill suspended British Guiana's Constitution and ordered its Government dissolved. Dr. Jagan was too leftist for Churchill's taste, though the people of British Guiana liked him.

Dr. Jagan and his wife, the former Janet Rosenberg of Chicago, were freed from jail after the British restored constitutional government, and he was re-elected in 1957 and 1961.

The latter year saw Kennedy's disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, aimed at overthrowing Cuba's leader, Fidel Castro. A newspaper cartoon of the day depicted a double-barrel shotgun aimed at the United States. One barrel was labeled "Cuba," the other "British Guiana."

On Oct. 25, 1961, Prime Minister Jagan went to the White House, seeking financial aid and offering assurances.

"I went to see President Kennedy to seek the help of the United States, and to seek his support for our independence from the British," he said in a recent interview. "He was very charming and jovial. Now, the United States feared that I would give Guyana to the Russians. I said if this is your fear, fear not. We will not have a Soviet base. I raised the question of aid. They did not give a positive response. The meeting ended on this note."

The meeting was recorded by the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in "A Thousand Days," his memoir of the Kennedy White House. "Jagan was unquestionably some sort of a Marxist," he wrote, but also "plainly the most popular leader in British Guiana," adding, "The question was whether he was recoverable for democracy." Another question was whether he and his nation of 600,000 represented a threat to the United States.

Kennedy told Dr. Jagan that United States policy toward his country was clear: "National independence. This is the basic thing. As long as you do that, we don't care whether you are socialist, capitalist, pragmatist or whatever. We regard ourselves as pragmatists." A joint statement was issued, committing Dr. Jagan "to uphold the political freedoms" that were his inheritance.

After Dr. Jagan left Washington, Kennedy met in secret with his top national security officers. A pragmatic plan took shape.

Still-classified documents depict in unusual detail a direct order from the President to unseat Dr. Jagan, say Government officials familiar with the secret papers.

Though many Presidents have ordered the C.I.A. to undermine foreign leaders, they say, the Jagan papers are a rare smoking gun: a clear written record, without veiled words or plausible denials, of a President's command to depose a Prime Minister.

In short order, things started going badly for British Guiana.

"It was after the meeting with Kennedy that the cold war heated up here," recalled Janet Jagan, then a minister in her husband's Government.

Previously unheard-of radio stations went on the air in the capital, Georgetown. The papers printed false stories about approaching Cuban warships. Civil servants walked out. The labor unions revolted. Riots took the lives of more than 100 people.

The key was the unions, whose rebellion crippled the Government and the economy. And the unions were taking advice and money from an interesting assortment of American organizations.

Among them, say the Jagans and historians familiar with the events, was the American Institute for Free Labor Development, headed by a labor official named William C. Doherty Jr.

The institute, an international program run by the A.F.L.-C.I.O., long has aided anti-Communist unions abroad. In the 1950's and early 1960's, former United States intelligence officers say, the C.I.A. slipped money to the institute. The ties between the agency and the institute have long since been severed.

The agitation grew throughout 1962 and 1963. "A fire was set in the center of town," Dr. Jagan said. "The wind fanned the flames, and the center of the city burned. There are still scars. Then they changed their tactics. This is where the C.I.A. support came in full. They imposed a full blockade on shipping and airlines. We were helpless. We had no power."

The British, at the suggestion of the Kennedy Administration, delayed their colony's scheduled independence and changed its electoral system in October 1963. Now the electorate had to vote for parties instead of people, and a still popular but politically weakened Dr. Jagan fell from power. Once he fell, the British granted independence to the new republic of Guyana.

For the next 20 years the country was governed by Forbes Burnham -- "as the British described him, an opportunist, racist and demagogue intent only on personal power," to quote from "A Thousand Days." He held power through force and fraud until his death in 1985.

He ran up a foreign debt of more than $2 billion, a sum more than five times Guyana's gross domestic product. Interest on that debt now consumes 80 percent of the country's revenue and more than half of its foreign earnings.

"They made a mistake putting Burnham in," Janet Jagan said. "The regrettable part is that the country went backwards." One of the better-off countries in the region 30 years ago, Guyana today is among the poorest. Its principal export is people.

In 1992, in the country's first free elections in three decades, Dr. Jagan was elected President. In June of this year, unaware of the still-classified Kennedy-Jagan documents, the Clinton Administration prepared to nominate a new Ambassador to Guyana: William C. Doherty Jr., executive director of the American Institute for Free Labor Development.

"I was flabbergasted," President Jagan said. "We let it be known that we were not happy." His unhappiness derailed plans to nominate Doherty, who has declined several requests for an interview.

Dr. Jagan said the documents about the plot against him should be published, and he laughed at the idea that they might anger him or embarrass the United States.

"Everybody in Guyana knows what happened," he said. "I don't understand why they should be kept secret. I'm not going to use these documents to blackmail the United States. Maybe President Clinton doesn't know our history, but the people who advise him should at least know their own history."

The law demands the declassification of Government papers after 30 years, unless they compromise national security secrets. Dozens of Kennedy Administration documents on British Guiana remain locked away, and the State Department and the C.I.A. say they should stay that way.

Another volume dealing with Japan is in limbo, because it details the Kennedy Administration's secret support for Japanese conservatives, Government officials said. If either set is blocked, it would a first. No full volume of the State Department's foreign policy documents has ever been withheld because of Government secrecy.

Schlesinger, whose "Thousand Days" offers the best-known account of the Kennedy-Jagan encounter -- an account that he now acknowledges is incomplete -- said the documents should be released, so history can be revised.

"We misunderstood the whole struggle down there," Schlesinger said. "He wasn't a Communist. The British thought we were overreacting, and indeed we were. The C.I.A. decided this was some great menace, and they got the bit between their teeth. But even if British Guiana had gone Communist, it's hard to see how it would be a threat."

The full story, he said, proved the truth of Oscar Wilde's witticism: "The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it."

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