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Incumbent President Bharrat Jagdeo was reelected on March 19, 2001, after 90 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots in voting that showed the country's continuing deep divisions along racial lines. Pronounced by international observers to be free and fair, the elections nonetheless were held amid great tension and marred by some administrative irregularities. Jagdeo's first initiative upon being declared the winner was to make a televised national appeal to his countrymen to begin a process of national healing. In mid-2001, violence erupted in several small towns in protest against crime, poverty, and poor public services. Indigenous rights continued to be one of the country's main human rights concerns.
Guyana is a member of the Commonwealth. Indo-Guyanese outnumber Afro-Guyanese, 52 percent to 36 percent. From independence in 1966 until 1992, Guyana was ruled by the autocratic, predominantly Afro-Guyanese, People's National Congress (PNC). The 1980 constitution provides for a strong president and a 65-seat national assembly elected every five years. Twelve seats are occupied by elected local officials. The leader of the party winning the plurality of parliamentary seats becomes president for a five-year term. The president appoints the prime minister and cabinet.
The first free and fair elections were held in 1992, and 80 percent of the eligible population voted. The PNC lost to an alliance of the predominantly Indo-Guyanese People's Progressive Party (PPP) and the Civic party. PPP leader Cheddi Jagan, having moderated his Marxism since the collapse of communism, became president with 52 percent of the vote; PNC leader Desmond Hoyte took 41 percent. A third candidate from the Working People's Alliance (WPA), the only mixed-race party in the country, won less than 2 percent. In the legislature, the PPP won 36 of 65 seats; the PNC, 26; the WPA, which campaigned on a platform of multiracial cooperation, won 2 seats; and the centrist United Force took 1.
Fear and distrust of the Indo-Guyanese ruling party continued among Afro-Guyanese, despite Jagan's record of governing in a relatively evenhanded manner. He was slow to move on promised constitutional and electoral reforms, but in 1995 got to work with an eye towards the next elections, due in 1997.
Jagan's work was cut short by his death in March 1997. He was replaced by Samuel Hinds, a member of Civic, the PPP's coalition partner. Hinds called elections for December 15, 1997. Cheddi Jagan's widow, Janet, beat the PNC's Hoyte by a 5 to 4 margin, or roughly 60,000 votes. The vote was bitterly disputed as rigged. The army was called upon to help quell civil disturbances, even after a special commission sent by the Caribbean Community (Caricom), the regional multilateral group, found no evidence of election fraud. In 1998, progress was made on constitutional reform as parliament began the process of setting up a broad-based committee to oversee changes in the 1980 constitution.
Ill health forced Janet Jagan to resign in August 1999, and she was replaced by Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo, who promised to heal racial and political divides and to welcome foreign investment. In 2000, President Jagdeo paved the way for general elections to be held in January 2001, although these were eventually postponed until March. Jagdeo also urged action to implement the recommendations for reform of the 1980 constitution that were submitted to parliament by a constitution reform commission.
In the run-up to the 2001 elections Hoyte, at the head of a PNR/Reform coalition, alleged that the government had sought to disenfranchise as many of his supporters as possible. In the aftermath of the bitterly-fought contest, retired General Joe Singh said that the country's updated electoral register had been 95 percent accurate. However, Singh added that the electoral process then in place was "archaic, bureaucratic and fraught with potential errors," and for that reason should be replaced. In December, Venezuela and Guyana agreed to re-launch a high-level bilateral commission on mutual cooperation, despite remaining at odds over the exploitation of natural resources in Essequibo--a mineral- and forest-rich region to which Venezuela maintains over a century-old claim.
Citizens can change their government through direct, multiparty elections. The 2001 elections generated a broader consensus about the importance of election reform to the democratic process. Despite some technical problems, there was no repetition of the irregularities that marred the 1997 contest and resulted in two years of political and social turmoil. In January 2001, a judge ruled that the irregularities from the1997 elections had rendered that poll null and void; however she also noted that the problems detected would not have changed the final result. The Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) ordered a review of the March 13 elections as a preliminary step to reform of the entire electoral system.
Under the 1980 constitution, the president has wide powers and immunities. Because the constitution lacks explicit guarantees, political rights and civil liberties rest more on government tolerance than institutional protection. The rights of free expression, freedom of religion, and freedom to organize political parties, civic organizations, and labor unions are generally respected.
Several independent newspapers operate freely, including the daily Stabroek News. Only two radio stations operate; both are government owned. The government owns one television station. Seventeen privately owned television stations freely criticize the government.
The judicial system is independent; however, due process is undermined by the shortage of staff and funds. Prisons are overcrowded and conditions poor. Guyana is the only Caribbean country to have cut all ties to the Privy Council of London, the court of last resort of other former colonies in the region. Guyanese officials have complained that U.S. efforts to deport Guyanese from the United States to Guyana caused an upsurge in violent crimes such as carjackings and shootouts with police. Indigenous peoples are routinely denied the right to a fair trial and due process of law, due in particular to the failure to provide translation services at trial and the absence of defense counsel.
The Guyana Defence Force and the Guyana Police Force are under civilian control, the latter invested with the authority to make arrests and maintain law and order throughout the country. Guyana's porous and largely unpatrolled borders have made the country an increasingly attractive transhipment route for South American cocaine, which, together with a small domestic cultivation of marijuana, has caused local consumption of illegal drugs to increase markedly. Guyana's counternarcotics agencies are believed to interdict only a small percentage of the Peruvian and Colombian cocaine and coca paste that enters the country. Antidrug efforts, including the apprehension and prosecution of drug traffickers, are hampered by an antiquated judicial structure and an outdated legal framework, as well as inadequate resources dedicated to law enforcement.
The Guyana Human Rights Association, an autonomous, effective group backed by independent civic and religious groupings, has charged the police with frequent recurrence to excessive force, sometimes causing death. In August 2001, Amnesty International said that the killing of three smuggling suspects, including a 15-year-old boy, by Guyanese police, and the fatal shooting of two people protesting the deaths, were "part of a pattern of extrajudicial executions and excessive use of force by law enforcement." Although authorities have taken some steps to investigate extrajudicial killings, and charges against some officers have been brought, abuses are still committed with impunity. The police are also prone to corruption, particularly so given the penetration by the hemispheric drug trade.
Labor unions are well organized. In 1995 the government sought to dilute the right to strike among some public sector unions. Companies are not obligated to recognize unions in former state enterprises sold off by the government.
Racial clashes have diminished within the last decade; however, long-standing animosity between Afro- and Indo-Guyanese remains a concern.
There are nine indigenous peoples in Guyana numbering approximately 80,000 people, more than ten percent of the population. Human rights violations against them are widespread and pervasive, particularly concerning the failure of the state to adequately respect indigenous land and resource rights. Logging and mining concessions, which cover vast areas of Guyana, often cause substantial environmental degradation, which in turn causes a decline in indigenous subsistence resources and health. As indigenous land and resource rights are fundamentally related to cultural rights, the latter are also curtailed when the former are violated. Indigenous attempts to seek redress through the courts have been met with unwarranted delays by the judiciary. Legislation pertaining to indigenous peoples is outdated and discriminatory, vesting in government ministers arbitrary and far-reaching powers that do not apply to other Guyanese citizens. Intergovernmental oversight bodies have criticized this legislation and recommended its revision on a number of occasions to no avail. There is widespread discrimination with regard to the provision of education and health services in indigenous communities and disregard for their customary laws and institutions of governance.
Domestic violence against women is troubling, as is the government's reluctance to address the issue. There is no legal protection against sexual harassment in the workplace.