Guyana's population is made up of five main ethnic groups--East Indian, African, American Indian, Chinese, and Portuguese. Ninety percent of the inhabitants live on the narrow coastal plain, where population density is more than 115 persons per square kilometer (380 per sq. mi.). The population density for Guyana as a whole is low--less than four persons per square kilometer.
Although the government has provided free education from nursery school to the university level since 1975, it has not allocated sufficient funds to maintain the standards of what had been considered the best educational system in the region. Many school buildings are in poor condition; there is a shortage of text and exercise books; the number of teachers has declined; and fees are being charged at the university level for some courses of study for the first time.
Following the abolition of slavery in 1834, thousands of indentured laborers were brought to Guyana to replace the slaves on the sugar cane plantations, primarily from India but also from Portugal and China. The British stopped the practice in 1917. Many of the Afro-Guyanese former slaves moved to the towns and became the majority urban population, whereas the Indo-Guyanese remained predominantly rural. A scheme in 1862 to bring black workers from the United States was unsuccessful. The small Amerindian population lives in the country's interior.
The people drawn from these diverse origins have coexisted peacefully for the most part. Slave revolts, such as the one in 1763 led by Guyana's national hero, Cuffy, demonstrated the desire for basic rights but also a willingness to compromise. Politically inspired racial disturbances between East Indians and blacks erupted in 1962-64. However, the basically conservative and cooperative nature of Guyanese society contributed to a cooling of racial tensions.
Guyanese politics, nevertheless, occasionally has been turbulent. The first modern political party in Guyana was the People's Progressive Party (PPP), established on January 1, 1950, with Forbes Burnham, a British-educated Afro-Guyanese, as chairman; Cheddi Jagan, a U.S.-educated Indo-Guyanese, as second vice-chairman; and his American-born wife, Mrs. Janet Jagan, as secretary general. The PPP won 18 out of 24 seats in the first popular elections permitted by the colonial government in 1953, and Dr. Jagan became leader of the house and minister of agriculture in the colonial government.
Five months later, on October 9, 1953, the British suspended the constitution and landed troops because, they said, the Jagans and the PPP were planning to make Guyana a communist state. These events led to a split in the PPP, in which Burnham broke away and founded what eventually became the People's National Congress (PNC). Elections were permitted again in 1957 and 1961, and Cheddi Jagan's PPP ticket won on both occasions, with 48% of the vote in 1957 and 43% in 1961. Cheddi Jagan became the first Premier of British Guiana, a position he held for seven years. At a constitutional conference in London in 1963, the U.K. Government agreed to grant independence to the colony, but only after another election in which proportional representation would be introduced for the first time. It was widely believed that this system would reduce the number of seats won by the PPP and prevent it from obtaining a clear majority in parliament. The December 1964 elections gave the PPP 46%, the PNC 41%, and the United Force (TUF), a conservative party, 12%. TUF threw its votes in the legislature to Forbes Burnham, who became prime minister.
Guyana achieved independence in May 1966, and became a republic on February 23, 1970--the anniversary of the Cuffy slave rebellion.
From December 1964 until his death in August 1985, Forbes Burnham ruled Guyana in an increasingly autocratic manner, first as prime minister and later, after the adoption of a new constitution in 1980, as executive president. Elections were viewed in Guyana and abroad as fraudulent. Human rights and civil liberties were suppressed, and two major political assassinations occurred: The Jesuit priest and journalist Bernard Darke in July 1979, and the distinguished historian and Working People's Alliance (WPA) party leader Walter Rodney in June 1980. Agents of President Burnham are widely believed to have been responsible for both deaths.
Following Burnham's death, Prime Minister Hugh Desmond Hoyte acceded to the presidency and was formally elected in the December 1985 national elections. Hoyte gradually reversed Burnham's policies, moving from state socialism and one-party control to a market economy and unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly.
On October 5, 1992, a new National Assembly and Regional Councils were elected in the first Guyanese elections since 1964 to be internationally recognized as free and fair. Cheddi Jagan was elected and sworn in as President on October 9, 1992.
When President Jagan died in March 1997, Prime Minister Samuel Hinds replaced him in accordance with constitutional provisions.
Executive authority is exercised by the president, who appoints and supervises the prime minister and other ministers. The president is not directly elected; each party presenting a slate of candidates for the assembly must designate in advance a leader who will become president if that party receives the largest number of votes. Any dissolution of the assembly and election of a new assembly can lead to a change in the assembly majority and consequently a change in the presidency. Only the prime minister is required to be a member of the assembly; in practice, most other ministers are also members. Those who are not members serve as nonelected members, which permits them to debate but not vote.
The highest judicial body is the Court of Appeal, headed by a chancellor of the judiciary. The second level is the High Court, presided over by a chief justice. The chancellor and the chief justice are appointed by the president.
For administrative purposes, Guyana is divided into 10 regions, each headed by a chairman who presides over a regional democratic council. Local communities are administered by village or city councils.
The overwhelming majority of Guyanese of East Indian extraction traditionally have backed the People's Progressive Party, headed by Cheddi Jagan. Rice farmers and sugar workers in the rural areas form the bulk of PPP's support, but Indo-Guyanese who dominate the country's urban business community have also provided important support.
Following independence, and with the help of substantial foreign aid, social benefits were provided to a broader section of the population, specifically in health (e.g., establishment of rural clinics), education, housing, road and bridge building, agriculture, and rural development. However, during Forbes Burnham's last years, the government's attempts to build a socialist society caused a massive emigration of skilled workers, and, along with other economic factors, led to a significant decline in the overall quality of life in Guyana.
After Burnham's death in 1985, President Hoyte took steps to stem the economic decline, including strengthening financial controls over the parastatal corporations, and supporting the private sector. In August 1987, at a PNC Congress, Hoyte announced that the PNC rejected orthodox communism and the one-party state.
As the elections scheduled for 1990 approached, Hoyte, under increasing pressure from inside and outside Guyana, gradually opened the political system. After a visit to Guyana by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1990, Hoyte made changes in the electoral rules and appointed a new chairman of the Elections Commission and endorsed putting together new voters' lists, thus delaying the election. The elections, which finally took place in 1992, were witnessed by 100 international observers, including a group headed by Mr. Carter and another from the commonwealth of nations. Both groups issued reports saying the elections had been free and fair, despite violent attacks on the Elections Commission building on election day and other irregularities.
Cheddi Jagan served as Premier (1957-64) and then minority leader in parliament until his election as President in 1992. One of the Caribbean's most charismatic and famous leaders, Jagan was a founder of the PPP which led Guyana's struggle for independence. Over the years, he moderated his Marxist-Leninist ideology. After his election as president, Jagan demonstrated a commitment to democracy, followed a pro-Western foreign policy, adopted free market policies, and pursued sustainable development for Guyana's environment. Nonetheless, he continued to press for debt relief and a new global human order in which developed countries would increase assistance to less developed nations. Jagan died on March 6, 1997 and was succeeded by Samuel A. Hinds, whom he had appointed Prime Minister. President Hinds then appointed Janet Jagan, widow of the late president, to serve as Prime Minister. Mrs. Jagan is a founding member of the PPP and was very active in party politics. She was Guyana's first female prime minister and vice president, two roles she performed concurrently.
In national elections, December 15, 1997, Janet Jagan was elected president and her PPP party won a 55% majority of seats in Parliament. She was sworn in on December 19. The PNC, which won just under 40% of the vote, disputed the results and made allegations of electoral fraud. Public demonstrations and some violence followed, until a CARICOM team came to Georgetown to broker an accord between the two parties, calling for an international audit of the election results, a redrafting of the constitution, and new elections under the new constitution within three years.
Guyana has diplomatic relations with a wide range of nations. The European Union (EU), the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), the UN Development Program (UNDP), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Organization of American States (OAS), have offices in Georgetown.
Guyana strongly supports the concept of regional integration. It played an important role in the founding of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), but its status as the organization's poorest member limits its ability to exert leadership in regional activities. Guyana has sought to keep foreign policy in close alignment with the consensus of CARICOM members, especially in voting in the UN, OAS, and other international organizations.
As a member of CARICOM, which has its secretariat in Georgetown, Guyana strongly backed United States policy on Haiti and contributed personnel to the Multinational Force, which restored the democratically elected government in Haiti in October 1994.
Since its 1993 ratification of the 1988 Vienna Convention on illicit traffic in narcotic drugs, Guyana has been a member of all the major international agreements for cooperation against narcotics trafficking, and it cooperates closely with U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Two neighbors have long-standing territorial disputes with Guyana. Since the 19th century, Venezuela has claimed all of Guyana west of the Essequibo River--62% of Guyana's territory. At a meeting in Geneva in 1966, the two countries agreed to receive recommendations from a representative of the UN Secretary General on ways to settle the dispute peacefully. Diplomatic contacts between the two countries and the Secretary General's representative continue. Neighboring Suriname also claims the Territory east of Guyana's New River, a largely uninhabited area of some 15,000 square kilometers (6,000 sq. mi.) in southeast Guyana. Guyana regards its legal title to all of its territory as sound.
President Hinds joined President Clinton and 14 other Caribbean leaders in May 1997, during the first-ever U.S.-regional summit in Bridgetown, Barbados. The meeting strengthened the basis for regioinal cooperation on justice and counternarcotics, finance and development, and trade. The U.S. expects to maintain positive relations with Mrs. Jagan's government.
Following the 1992 elections, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States increased their aid to Guyana. U.S. assistance had ceased in 1982 due to economic and political differences with the Burnham regime, but in 1986, the United States began to supply humanitarian food aid to the country, to a total value of nearly $500 million in the years 1986-93. Altogether, since 1955, the United States has provided Guyana with more than $171 million in assistance.
U.S. military medical and engineering teams have conducted training exercises in Guyana, digging wells, building schools and clinics, and providing medical treatment.
The U.S. embassy in Guyana is located at the corner of Duke and Young Streets, Georgetown (tel. 592-2-54900/9; fax: 592-2-58497).