The original Guiana was inhabited by semi-nomadic Amerindian tribes who lived by hunting and fishing; notably Arawaks and Caribs. It was divided by European powers into Spanish Guiana (Venezuela), Portuguese Guiana (Brazil), French Guiana, Dutch Guiana (Suriname) and British Guiana (Guyana). Colonial competition for territory began with the Spanish sighting in 1499. Probably temporary Spanish or Portuguese settlements were followed by Dutch settlement, first unsuccessfully at Pomeroon, and then (in 1627) under the protection of the Dutch West India Company on the Berbice River. Despite yielding from time to time to British, French and Portuguese invasions, the Dutch kept control until 1814, when the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice were ceded to Britain. The Europeans imported African slaves to develop their plantations, first of tobacco and later sugar, and to labour on constructing the coastal drainage system and the elegant city of Georgetown. Some slaves escaped to the forest. Referred to as bush-blacks, these slaves eked out a living by panning for gold, hunting and subsistence agriculture.
The British administration merged the three colonies into British Guiana in 1831, but retained the Dutch administrative, legislative and legal system, whereby the country was directed by a governor, advised by councils of plantation owners. After the abolition of slavery, Indian and smaller numbers of Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese indentured labourers were brought in to work the estates.
In 1928 a legislative council, with members appointed by the British government, was established, but members were elected after extensions of the franchise in 1943 and 1945. The country was by this period among the most advanced of the British colonial territories in the region, and became the headquarters of several regional educational and political institutions. CARICOM headquarters is located in Georgetown.
In 1953, a constitution with a bicameral legislature and ministerial system, based on elections under universal adult suffrage, was introduced. There was a general election, won by the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), led by Dr Cheddi Jagan. Shortly after the 1953 elections, the UK suspended the constitution, decided to mark time in the advance towards self-government, and administered the country with a government composed largely of nominated members.
When, in 1957, the UK did introduce elected members, the legislature voted for more representative government. The UK called a constitutional conference which was held in 1960 and provided for a new constitution with full internal self-government. In the elections held in August 1961 under this constitution, the PPP again gained the majority. The UK held further constitutional conferences in 1962 and 1963, to settle terms for independence. The political parties failed to reach consensus.
The UK then selected a form of proportional representation which was aimed at preventing the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) from forming the government. (It was also argued that, at this period of the ‘Cuba crisis’ with near-war between the US and USSR, the UK was under pressure to avoid allowing a Socialist government to come to power in Guyana.). Despite renewed disturbances, elections were held under the PR system, and brought to power a coalition of the People’s National Congress led by Forbes Burnham and The United Force (TUF).
The new government finalised independence arrangements at a further constitutional conference, which was boycotted by the PPP. Guyana gained independence and joined the Commonwealth in May 1966, and became a Republic four years later.
Guyana is a Republic, divided into ten (10) administrative regions, with an Executive President and parliamentary legislature. The 1980 Constitution, amended in 2001, provides for an executive presidency and a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly, with 65 members directly elected by proportional representation: 40 at a national level and 25 at a regional level. The normal life of a parliament is five years.
The President appoints the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet (which may include those from outside the Assembly), who are responsible to Parliament. The President is the leader of the largest party in the Assembly
Polpulation: 750,000 (2004). Most of the population live along the coast. There are pockets of communities in the inland areas. Guyana is a multiracial, multicultural and multireligious society. The country is composed of six major race groups – 50% East Indians; 36% Africans; 7% Amerindians; most of the remainder are Chinese, Portuguese and ‘mixed’.
English is the official language. An English-based Creole is widely used. Amerindian languages are also spoken.
The state-owned Guyana Chronicle and privately owned Stabroek News and Kaieteur are dailies. Mirror is published twice a week, and the Catholic Standard weekly. There are a number of Television (T.V.) stations and two Radio Stations.
Public spending on education was 9.4% or G$14.5 billion of GDP in 2004. There are six years of primary education and five years of secondary. The primary net enrolment ratio is 97.5%. The pupil – teacher ratio for primary is 25.1% and for secondary 17.1%. The school year commences in September.
Vocational schools include Georgetown Technical Institute, New Amsterdam Technical Institute, Carnegie School of Home Economics, and the Guyana Industrial Training Centre. Tertiary establishments include the Cyril Potter College of Education (for teacher training), Guyana School of Agriculture, Commonwealth Youth Programme Caribbean Centre (which trains youth workers), and the University of Guyana in Georgetown has law and medical schools with a Campus in Corentyne. There is also The International University (Guyana).
Public spending on health was G$6.5bn in 2004/5. The Public Hospital at Georgetown is the national referral hospital; there are 30 hospitals and 170 health centres, with both public and private care available, the former free. 94% of the population has access to improved drinking water source and 95% to adequate sanitation facilities
New Year’s Day – 1st January, Republic Day/Mashramani – 23rd February, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Labour Day – 1st May, Indian Arrival Day – 5th May, Independence Day – 26th May, Caricom Day (first Monday in July), Freedom Day – 1st August, Christmas Day – 25th December, Boxing Day – 26th December. The following are also public holidays but follow lunar calendar and thus the actual day varies annually: Hindu Holidays – Phagwah – Spring Festival (usually March) and Deepavali – the Festival of Lights (in November). Muslim Holidays – Eid ul Fitr (end of Ramadan), Eid ul Azah – Feast of the Sacrifice, and Youman Nabi.
The People’s National Congress (PNC) led by Forbes Burnham was returned in the 1968 elections and remained in power until 1992 (despite repeated documented fraudulent elections). In the 1970s, it followed a strong socialist line and 80% of the economy was nationalised. These were years of considerable unrest and increasing economic difficulty, as debt increased and world price for the major exports fell. The People’s Progressive Party (PPP), led by Dr Cheddi Jagan remained in opposition.
Executive presidency was introduced in 1980. In 1985 Burnham died and was replaced by Desmond Hoyte. In 1988, after discussions with the IMF, the second and more stringent Economic Recovery Programme began, encouraging foreign investment, privatisation and tight monetary policy. However, social unrest continued, and there were demands for electoral reform.
The elections due in 1990 were postponed twice, in part because the Commonwealth observer team invited by Desmond Hoyte’s administration reported irregularities in the voters’ polls and proposed that certain preparatory arrangements should be revisited.
When the first free and fair elections were held since independence, in October 1992, the PPP-Civic coalition, led by Dr Cheddi Jagan, won 53.5% of the vote, giving it 28 seats; the PNC won 23, TUF and the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) one each. The Commonwealth observers described the elections as ‘a historic democratic process’ which expressed the people’s genuine will. Jagan was sworn in as President.
In March 1997 Jagan suffered a heart attack and died. Samuel Hinds, Prime Minister in Jagan’s PPP-Civic government, became President and Janet Jagan, was appointed Prime Minister and Vice-President. Mrs Jagan was one of the four founders of the PPP, and had served in two previous Cabinets.
In the December 1997 elections the PPP-Civic coalition claimed a decisive victory with 56% of the officially-counted votes. Mrs Jagan became Guyana’s first woman President and appointed Hinds Prime Minister.
However, the opposition PNC refused to accept the declared results. Increasingly violent demonstrations followed and were only ended when, in mid-January 1998, CARICOM brokered an agreement between the PPP-Civic and PNC. Under the Herdmanston Accord, CARICOM would undertake an audit of the election results, to be conducted by a team selected by the then CARICOM chair, Dr Keith Mitchell, the Prime Minister of Grenada. A broad-based Constitutional Reform Commission would be established, to report to the National Assembly within 18 months and there would be new elections within 18 months after presentation of the report.
The CARICOM audit team reported that although the management of the count left much to be desired, the results of their recount varied only marginally from that of the final results declared by the Chief Elections Officer. But the PNC remained dissatisfied and violent demonstrations broke out again. A settlement was finally reached at the CARICOM summit in St Lucia in July 1998, under which the PNC agreed to take their seats in the National Assembly.
President Janet Jagan resigned after suffering a mild heart attack in August 1999 and was succeeded by Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo.
The Constitutional Reform Commission’s proposals were enacted in 2000. These included establishment of a permanent elections commission and new national identity cards. The 2001 elections were to be the first to be held under a new electoral system. In the general election of March 2001, the ruling PPP-Civic coalition won 34 seats (53% of the vote), Jagdeo retaining the presidency and Desmond Hoyte of PNC-Reform (27 seats and 42%) leading the opposition. Voter turnout was nearly 90%. Although the election result was seen by international observers to reflect the will of the people, in the weeks following the elections, opposition supporters continued to mount violent demonstrations expressing doubts about the accuracy of the poll.
These demonstrations were only allayed when in April 2001 Jagdeo and Hoyte initiated a dialogue among parliamentarians and civil society on constitutional and electoral reform. However, this dialogue broke down in March 2002 over differences between PPP-Civic and PNC-Reform on implementation of what had been agreed. The deadlock continued until late August 2002 when, at the government’s request, the Commonwealth Secretary-General appointed a special envoy, former Governor-General of New Zealand Sir Paul Reeves, to facilitate resumption of the dialogue between the opposing parties. During 2003 constructive dialogue proceeded between President Jagdeo and the new Leader of the Opposition, Robert Corbin, political tension eased, and opposition members returned to parliament.
In April 2004, the Leader of the Opposition called off structured dialogue with President Jagdeo and boycotted parliament.