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A rising crime rate and a parliamentary impasse dominated Guyana's political scene throughout 2002, with representatives of parliamentary political parties and the Social Partners--a group comprising representatives from the business sector, the labor movement and the government--meeting in November to hammer out a common action plan for citizen security. The effort brought together officials from the ruling People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) and the main opposition People's National Congress/Reform (PNC/R), as well as three minor parties in parliament. The anticrime initiative came even as the PPP/C and the PNC/R traded bitter words over the issue of payment for opposition members engaged in a boycott of parliament, in effect since March 15. The PNC/R said that unless agreed-upon reforms of the parliamentary system were implemented, it considered participation in National Assembly debates to be meaningless. Independent observers noted that the impasse posed few immediate risks to political stability, given that PNC/R continued to participate in the Public Accounts Committee, which is the only standing committee in the assembly.
Guyana is a member of the Commonwealth. Descendants of indentured workers from India make up about half of the population, while about 36 percent are descended from African slaves. 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 the PPP/C, 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. From February to September 2002, nearly a dozen police officers and more than 50 civilians were killed in the crime spiral. In September the PPP/C-dominated parliament passed four anticrime initiatives; however PNC representative who boycotted the legislative session claimed that the measures would not solve Guyana's crime problem, but rather were meant "to arm the regime with the draconian powers of dictatorship." The outbreak of violent crime has exacerbated uneasy relations between the two main races.
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. Because the constitution lacks explicit guarantees, political rights and civil liberties rest more on government tolerance than on institutional protection. The rights of free expression, freedom of religion, and freedom to organize political parties, civic organizations, and labor unions are generally respected.
The judicial system is independent; however, due process is undermined by the shortages 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 for other former colonies in the region. 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 transshipment route for South American cocaine, which, together with a small domestic cultivation of marijuana, has caused local consumption of illegal drugs to increase markedly.
Police blame the escapees from a February 2002 jailbreak for much of the current violence. A controversial special police tactical squad, which has been concentrating on apprehending the gang and is said to be behind many of the crimes, has been accused by United States human rights activists and opposition parties of extrajudicial killings. In September 2000 the assembly passed four anticrime initiatives meant to modernize the justice system, including the penalization of terrorist acts and new rules for law enforcement monitoring deportees. The laws included changes in criminal law, crime prevention tactics, incitement of racial hostility, and the use of evidence in court proceedings.
The Guyana Human Rights Association, an autonomous and effective group backed by independent civic and religious groups, has charged the police with frequent recurrence to excessive force, sometimes fatal. Although authorities have taken some steps to investigate extrajudicial killing, and charges against some officers have been brought, abuses are still committed with impunity.
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. 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. The Racial Hostility Bill passed in September 2002 increased the penalties for race-based crimes.
There are nine groups or indigenous peoples in Guyana numbering approximately 80,000 people, or 10 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. Indigenous peoples' attempts to seek redress through the courts have been met with unwarranted delays by the judiciary. In 2002, an agreement between the government and Conservation International, establishing southern Guyana as a protected area, was criticized by indigenous groups as "gross disrespect," since the parties did not consult with six Indian communities whose ancestral lands will be encompassed by the accord. Violence against women is common in Guyana.