Dwarfed by its larger neighbors, Guyana is often neglected by the international community; but for President Jagdeo, the country presents an enormous challenge. Aside from Haiti and Honduras, Guyana is perhaps the most hapless nation in Latin America. Located north of Brazil, the small Caribbean basin nation shares its contested western border with Venezuela. Ethnic strife, since before Guyana’s independence, has continued to severely splinter the country’s political infrastructure and prevent the nation from fully developing. This has not only had a detrimental effect on Guyana’s economy and society, but has also profoundly influenced the nation’s struggle for democracy. Guyana epitomizes current concerns over the legitimacy, vivacity and overall approval of democratic institutions throughout all of Latin America. With a small population of just over 700,000, the racial strife that has plagued the country since it was a British colony will remain unsolvable as long as political partisans claim that elections are unfair and rabid political rivalry persists.
After 38 years of independence, post-colonial Guyana continues to struggle to establish its national identity and find its place in the Western Hemisphere and the global economy. The nation faces a thicket of pressing issues, including potentially rancorous disputes regarding land and sea boundaries with its neighbors, Venezuela and Suriname. Most importantly, however, Guyana’s economy faces severe pressure from external sources. In 2000, the nation’s per capita gross domestic product was a mere $760, making it one of the poorest countries not only in the Western Hemisphere, but worldwide.
The nation’s heavy burden of foreign debt – totaling approximately $1.4 billion in 1998 – hinders economic and social development and highly restricts the availability of foreign exchange. This, in turn, impedes Guyana’s capacity to import necessary spare parts, raw materials and equipment, hampering its ability to modernize its decrepit industrial stock and agricultural infrastructure.
However, by 2002, this debt had been reduced to $850 million. In recent years, the international lending community recognized that the Guyanese economy was approaching free fall and came to its aid. Guyana has received substantial economic aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as part of the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Initiative. Under this program, Guyana managed to negotiate $256.4 million in debt forgiveness in May 1999, and an additional $334.5 million when it paid off $32.8 million of its debt in May 2004 to a number of countries, including Great Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Venezuela, as well as almost all of its debt to the U.S. While this debt relief indisputably improved the nation’s economy, it is only the first step on Guyana’s long road toward recovery and future advancement.
Devastating Ethnic Fissures
In conjunction with a struggling economy, one of the most significant obstacles confronting the country has been the ethnic divisions that have had a devastating effect on the nation’s fragile polity. Racial tensions, deeply rooted in Guyana’s history, have plagued the Caribbean nation and have had a debilitating impact on the country’s overall quality of life since its independence in 1963.
Originally, the Dutch, English and French established colonies in what is now known as Guyana. Subsequently, however, Britain gained control of the majority of the area during the Napoleonic wars and established British Guiana in 1831. During this period, African slaves were introduced to the land to work the sugarcane plantations, propelling the colony’s economy forward. In 1834, Britain’s abolishment of slavery led to a wave of indentured workers arriving from East India, Portugal and China.
A century later, the nation has one of the most diverse populations in the region – of the total population of Guyana’s residents, approximately 50 percent are of East Indian descent and 36 percent of African descent. There are also substantial populations of Chinese, Amerindian and mixed ethnicities. While half the population is Christian and English is the official language (although most citizens speak Creolese, or broken English), the country also boasts populations with Hindu and Muslim backgrounds. A variety of other languages are also used during religious ceremonies, including Hindu and Urdu.
The inhabitants of Guyana tend to remain devoted to their ethnic ties, creating numerous societal problems. In December 1950, a commission from Great Britain visited the Caribbean nation and reported the existence of profound racial discontent. While that body interviewed only middle and upper class East Indians, the tensions it found originated among the younger segment of the population, who actually expressed a desire for a more fully integrated Guyanese society. It was also reported that mutual interdependence was present among the different races living side-by-side. On the other hand, the commission observed that many Indo-Guyanese did not merely look forward to independence from Britain, but also to their inclusion in a future Indian Empire, a desire that strained the relations between the varying Guyanese communities.
Guyana Forms Battling Political Parties
Guyana’s historical racial divisions are rooted not only in day-to-day social lifestyles, but also in the political realm. In 1950, Indo-Guyanese leader Cheddi Jagan and Afro-Guyanese Forbes Burnham – both remarkably talented in their own right – together formed the colony’s first modern political party, the Progressive People’s Party (PPP). Three years later, the constitution granted to Guyana by Great Britain initiated suffrage for adults and a ministerial form of government. Soon after, the party was dramatically weakened when Jagan and his U.S.-born wife were falsely accused by the British of planning to convert Guyana into a communist state. The short-lived constitution was then suspended and British troops were deployed to the colony. As a result, Burnham broke away from the PPP to form his own party, the People’s National Congress (PNC). His party then lost to the PPP in both the 1957 and 1961 elections, after which opposition-bred violence ensued from 1961 through 1964, marking a period of grave destabilization across Guyana. Since these early political joustings, Guyanese politics have been based more on ethnicity than ideology, thus founding fifty-plus years of destructive racial tensions manifested in every aspect of daily life in Guyana.
After conspiring with the U.S. for nearly a decade to oust Jagan from office, due to Washington’s fears that he would create a successful alternative to the capitalist model, the UK agreed to begin granting independence to the colony in 1963. In addition, Britain introduced a system of proportional representation in the Guyanese legislature in a cautious effort to prevent the controversial PPP from obtaining a clear majority in Parliament. The first election under this system was held in December 1964 and the PPP won 46 percent of the votes. Though at the time Guyana was one of the better-off countries in the region, the consequences of volatile racial disagreements with the PPP’s immensely gifted and gentle leader, Cheddi Jagan, were obvious: daily life in Guyana was marked by arson, mutilation, bombings, murder and rape. In the wave of Burnham’s progressive deterioration into hooliganism, mid-1964 saw nearly 150 dead and another 800 injured. On May 24, 1964, the predominately Indo-Guyanese village of Wismar was sacked, leaving over 200 houses burned and 2,000 Indians homeless. This triggered a surge of anti-Afro-Guyanese sentiment – ten days later, two Afro-Guyanese were mutilated and 60 beaten and robbed in the capital city of Georgetown. Eventually, a coalition of two opposition parties, the PNC and the United Force – which won 41 and 12 percent of the vote, respectively – forced Jagan from power.
After Burnham’s successful race in December 1964, Guyana achieved full independence in May 1966. It declared itself a republic four years later in February 1970, and Burnham was elected as the first prime minister of the newly independent country. Throughout the 1960s, however, antagonism between the Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese escalated and led to frequent clashes and bloodshed.
Following the adoption of a new constitution, Burnham was elected the country’s first president in 1980. Throughout his tenure, however, he faced mounting unpopularity; elections were viewed as fraudulent and human rights and civil liberties were routinely suppressed. Furthermore, agents of President Burnham were believed to have been responsible for the murders of a Jesuit journalist and an opposition Working People’s Alliance (WPA) party leader in 1980. These crimes raised further suspicions of Burnham’s integrity as the leader of a still-struggling nation.
The PNC remained in control of Guyana until the first internationally-sanctioned free and fair elections since 1964 were held in 1992. Cheddi Jagan, a now fully-resplendent leader, was sworn in as President and the country’s leadership was once again in the hands of the PPP. After Jagan’s death in March 1997, the presidency was assumed by the then-prime minister, Sam Hinds, until December when Jagan’s wife, Janet, was elected as president. She held the position for nearly two years until her resignation due to ill health. According to the constitution, Prime Minister Hinds became president once again for one week, after which the newly minted prime minister and now current president, Bharrat Jagdeo, an ethnic Indian, became Guyana’s president. In March 2001, he was elected to the position in his own right. This election was deemed free and fair by international observers, including the Organization of American States and the Carter Center. Despite this avowedly democratic procedure, attention was once again drawn to Guyana’s bitter racial tensions, as rioting broke out among Afro-Guyanese PNC supporters who accused the government of widespread fraud. In hopes of calming his colleagues, the PNC member on the Elections Commission, Haslyn Parris, declared the validity of the elections at the PNC headquarters. He was promptly brutally beaten by members of his own party, a tragic event in the wake of Guyana’s democratic successes.
Ethnic Violence a Vicious Cycle
As tensions remain dangerously high, the Indo-Guyanese community bears the brunt of the ongoing ethnic violence, as its rising population is surpassing that of the Afro-Guyanese. Recent evidence points toward the existence of a group of Afro-Guyanese militants, ostensibly independent of the PNC, who have been conducting an armed struggle against the Indo-Guyanese. In June 2001, the Guyana Police stated that “selected targets” (namely Indians) were being attacked in a “clear pattern of criminal activities designed to create a climate of instability.” In mid-July 2003, hundreds of Indo-Guyanese were mercilessly beaten, sexually violated, abused and robbed. Frequent incidents of the molestation of Indian girls have been reported, including one involving a young girl who was forced to perform sexual acts for Afro-Guyanese men in broad daylight in the streets of Georgetown. However, Indo-Guyanese extremists have shamelessly promulgated reports of such incidents, but often do not manage to offer legitimate evidence to buttress their charges. According to one highly respected local observer interviewed by COHA, even though Indian extremists claimed these acts happened, without sufficient evidence, they cannot be taken seriously.
On the other hand, accusations against Indo-Guyanese attacking Afro-Guyanese are minimal, if not virtually non-existent. In December 2003, President Jagdeo denied talk of ethnic tensions in Guyana and declared that he is “president for all the people and feel[s] supported by all.” He attributed crime in Guyana to involvement by some in the Colombian drug trade, the return of Guyanese deportees and disputatious domestic problems. Jagdeo further claimed that his country’s ethnic violence, while lamentable, does not compare to that of other countries around the world (for example, Trinidad experiences far more abductions for ransom than Guyana). The government’s evasion of responsibility suggests there is little serious effort on its part to tangibly attempt to bridge Guyana’s ethnic divides. This failure to face up to realities reflects poorly on the future prospects of this Caribbean nation.
A Divided Nation Aches for Change
The racial tensions and ethnic violence over the past several decades have left Guyana with multiple problems that its citizens have struggled to overcome. One such issue is the increasing competition among the Guyanese for scarce economic resources. In 1992, the nation’s poverty rate averaged around 80 percent. Twelve years later, it had dropped to approximately 34 percent, a vast improvement considering the country’s delicate economic situation. The government’s plan to reduce poverty focuses on the creation of jobs and the improvement of social services to address current problems and enhance prospects for future generations.
Problems such as insecurity, violence, inadequate education and limited medical facilities are directly related to Guyana’s high rate of poverty and the government’s perpetual fiscal crisis. With the help of the HIPC, Guyana has begun to implement programs that have slowly started to restore its economy and remedy the country’s systematic social problems.
A number of specific initiatives have been implemented to improve Guyana’s weak healthcare system. One organization, made up of both locally and internationally-based Guyanese businessmen, has agreed to help by providing cost-free patient care and medical prescriptions to those unable to afford them. On March 30, 2004, the World Bank approved $10 million to fund HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment efforts, and to care for those affected by the epidemic, especially young orphans. HIV is a worrisome issue for this poor country, which suffers the second highest infection rate of all Caribbean nations. On April 24, 2004, Guyana participated in Vaccination Week in the Americas, a program geared toward completing vaccination and immunization programs. These projects mark a giant step forward in Guyana’s efforts to improve public health and reduce poverty.
To address Guyana’s housing shortage, the Central Islamic Organization of Guyana (CIOG), the Ministry of Housing and Water, Food for the Poor and Guyana Sawmills have together provided many low-cost, durable homes for the poor. On April 29, the British Department for International Development donated $10,000 to the local branch of Habitat for Humanity to support these efforts. In recent years, the government has also taken action in recent years to upgrade and improve potable water supplies in poor communities.
Guyana’s labor force has suffered significant shortages due to massive emigration, especially during Burnham’s term when fears that Guyana’s government would turn socialist caused a major exodus of skilled workers in all fields. The restoration of Guyana’s labor force is underway: programs have been implemented to strengthen the educational system, and an increasing number of students have enrolled in high school, universities and technical institutions. This development will hopefully improve job skills and decrease poverty in years to come. In 2003, 22 volunteers from the UK traveled to Guyana where there was a dire need for their skills and expertise in the education system, especially in helping students who have been performing poorly in math, science and English. A $133 million training institute with workshops for masonry, electrical works, joinery, mechanics, carpentry and information technology has also been constructed in hopes of bringing Guyana’s once highly skilled labor force back to an acceptable level. These programs are another sign of the government’s efforts to provide the country with a credible social and economic infrastructure.
Throughout the last decade, more social benefits have been made available to a broader range of people – more scholarships have been awarded and more nurses and teachers have been trained. This has greatly decreased Guyana’s poverty rate, while the Guyanese economy has also enjoyed moderate economic growth in the last five years.
The Dawn of a New Future?
Since his accession, President Jagdeo has also initiated several notable improvements that may begin to alter Guyana’s future. In August 2002, his government declared crime-fighting its top priority. On May 6, 2003, Jagdeo and Robert Corbin, leader of the PNC reform party, together pledged to continue constructive engagement between the opposing parties. In August 2003, the United Nations’ (UN) Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism and racial discrimination and intolerance visited Guyana in July. He reported the existence of ethnic polarization between Indo- and Afro-Guyanese segments of the population, which has greatly affected the structure of state mechanisms and may be responsible for the country’s economic and social underdevelopment.
The two leaders agreed to a number of parliamentary and constitutional reforms that will attempt to address and implement the UN’s findings. The changes highlight a number of pressing issues in Guyana, including the questionable operations of its police force and the current state of its ethnic relations.
As a part of Jagdeo’s desires to address and repair his country’s problems, the Ethnic Relations Commission, whose task is to investigate and respond to complaints of racial discrimination, was created and its members appointed in the mid-2003. The Disciplined Forces Commission (DFC) was also established to inquire into a wide range of issues, including pay, training, structures, the need for an ethnically-balanced police force and the disposition of human rights complaints. Between August and November 2003, the DFC received over 100 submissions from various sources, including government officials, non-governmental organizations and members of the public. In 2003, there were 29 fatal shootings by Guyanese police officers, and a number of officers have been charged with murder – though none were convicted. Further allegations have centered on degrading and inhumane treatment, including torture in detention centers and the routine unlawful use of force. Before the end of the year, the Commission had announced that the police needed “urgent, serious and wide-ranging reform,” a step that will be crucial in creating a balance among all levels of Guyanese society.
As in some of its Caribbean counterparts like Trinidad and Jamaica, crime, insecurity and the lack of rectitude of some officials are very serious problems in Guyana and President Jagdeo has sought to address them. For example, Minister of Home Affairs Ronald Gajraj was recently accused of having close links with a “death squad” used to hunt down and kill criminals. Jagdeo has since appointed a commission to investigate the allegations. Although the PNC has spearheaded the charges, it refuses to cooperate with the commission, raising suspicions of the PNC’s own possible involvement in criminal activities.
The federal courts of Guyana imposed the death penalty as punishment for murder and terrorist acts, including violence that threatens freedom of expression and association. These changes are intended to curb rising crime and may possibly make a difference in solving the deep-rooted factional feuds in the nation. While no executions had taken place through the end of 2003, two men have been charged with conspiring to overthrow the lawfully elected Government of Guyana by force. If convicted, both men will most likely face the death penalty.
Guyana has also sought an influential role in international affairs in recent years, especially within the Third World and the community of nonaligned nations. Since its independence, Guyana has twice been on the UN Security Council and former Vice President Mohamed Shahabuddeen has also served a nine-year term on the International Court of Justice. Guyana played an important role in the founding of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM). The nation has since fought to keep its foreign policy in close alignment with the CARICOM members’ consensus in voting in the UN, Organization of American States and other international bodies.
Despite significant efforts by Guyanese authorities, the struggling nation still faces significant challenges in creating a viable civic infrastructure and economic base. Polarization between Guyana’s two major ethnic identities persists as a result of increased competition for resources, education and public funds. Observers note that Guyana’s leaders must learn to stop squabbling over racial issues and start to serve the needs of the nation as a whole. Failure to do so will only intensify the already daunting economic, political and social problems that the country faces. Such problems provide scant grounds for optimism. A 1999 article in The Economist aptly posed a fundamental question: “Will the shift to a new generation bring a chance of peace [in Guyana]?” Its answer: “Probably not.”