Reviewed by Gerald Loftus, "Avuncular American"
It is 1953, and the voters of British Guiana have elected leftist leader Cheddi Jagan as leader of the colonial parliament. In a turbulent period that would soon witness the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, few were surprised when London sent in warships to remove Jagan and preempt what the UK saw as an incipient communist takeover.
This vignette sets the theme of Gerald Horne’s book, wherein labor organizers – who later will lead their countries -- fight for worker rights, independence and federation of the islands. That is a tall enough order, made harder by the shadow of the United States, which seeks to expand its influence in a region often called “the American lake” or “America’s third border.” (That uncomfortable reality is underscored every time Florida becomes a beachhead for boat people.)
This book should be of particular interest to all Foreign Service personnel who served in the English-speaking Caribbean. Professor Horne, of the University of Houston, has authored numerous books on the Cold War, the left and the African diaspora. As that list of topics suggests, there is a definite slant to his writing; he is a contributing editor to Political Affairs: A Marxist Monthly, and describes himself as coming from “the Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois tradition.” But Cold War in a Hot Zone is extremely well researched and surprisingly lively, despite a writing style that at times borders on the fussy and archaic (holding a “confab;” to “sashay”).
Horne draws on a rich source in the National Archives: dispatches from U.S. consuls in the British West Indies warning Washington of disturbing volatility within the colonies’ labor movements. During World War II, U.S. shortages of farm and industrial workers had attracted thousands of West Indians to America. As he notes, British intelligence was wary of what it saw as the radicalizing influence of African-Americans on those workers, and we learn of MI5 operatives eavesdropping on NAACP meetings in Harlem and infiltrating historically black universities.
The author’s documentation of the racism on American military bases in the region is solid, but he probably exaggerates when he credits assertions that Americans introduced racism into the already caste-conscious Caribbean. Still, he gives us many intriguing details on what he calls the “transmission belts” of mutual inspiration between the American civil rights movement and the West Indies.
Though the internecine struggles between the left and right wings of the Caribbean Labor Congress might bore generalists, U.S. reactions to West Indian political activism -- especially in the words of American diplomats -- should matter to anyone who ever wrote a reporting cable. While wartime anti-fascist sensibilities still reigned in 1946, Consulate Kingston officer Paul Blanshard could write of a Jamaican labor leader’s “fascist” tendencies dangerously bolstered by local elites, reminiscent of Benito Mussolini’s rise to power. Only a few years later, in full Cold War mode, diplomatic reporting saw communist influence as the greatest danger, and conservative labor leaders were favored by London and its “ally-cum-rival” in Washington.
Horne’s lament for the short-lived CLC may overstate the influence it and the “labor-left” had in the postwar Caribbean. For instance, he contends that Jagan’s 1953 overthrow “crippled” chances for regional federation and irretrievably condemned Guyana to poverty. But what of Jagan’s subsequent years in power, which should have given him ample opportunity to redress matters? Ultimately, though, even the clearly reluctant Horne gives the single-market, capitalist Caribbean Community (CARICOM) due credit for keeping the dream of federation alive there.
In any case, read Cold War in a Hot Zone more for its many archival gems than its sweeping ideological conclusions.
This first appeared in The Foreign Service Journal, February 2008.