Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Guyana's political rights and civil liberties ratings declined 2 to 3, and its status from Free to Partly Free, due to the government's failure to fully investigate the emergence of anticrime death squads and the growing influence of the illegal narcotics trade on the country's political system.
A 2005 official inquiry that cleared a government minister of allegations of involvement with racially tinged anticrime death squads angered the Guyanese political opposition and soured an already tense atmosphere in the run-up to the 2006 elections. Increases in crime, violence, and political uncertainty were reflected in a growing unease about the appearance of drug gangs, with narcotics interests controlling as much as 11 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
From independence in 1966 until 1992, Guyana was ruled by the autocratic, predominantly Afro-Guyanese People's National Congress (PNC). Descendants of indentured workers from India-known as Indo-Guyanese-make up about half of the population, while about 36 percent are Afro-Guyanese descended from African slaves.
In 1992, Cheddi Jagan was elected president in Guyana's first free and fair election. Upon his death five years later, he was succeeded by his wife, Janet, who resigned in 1999 due to poor health. Her successor, Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo of the PPP/C-an alliance of the predominantly Indo-Guyanese People's Progressive Party (PPP) and the Civic Party-was reelected in March 2001 after 90 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots in voting that showed the country's continuing divisions along racial lines. Jagdeo's first initiative on 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.
A rising crime rate and a parliamentary impasse dominated Guyana's political scene throughout 2002. The PPP/C and the main opposition People's National Con-gress/Reform (PNC/R) traded bitter words over the issue of payment for opposition members engaged in a boycott of parliament that began in March 2002 and lasted for 14 months.
In 2002, an outbreak of violent crime exacerbated uneasy relations between the two main ethnic groups. In September, the PPP/C-dominated parliament passed four anticrime initiatives. However, PNC/R representatives 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." In January 2003, Amnesty International said that the recently adopted anticrime legislation's mandatory death penalty provisions for those committing a "terrorist act" were "in breach of international law."
The political climate appeared to improve, however briefly, in early 2004, when the two main parties announced that they had reached agreement on a wide variety of issues, including tax reform, procurement, and the composition of the commissions that control appointments, promotions, and discipline in the judiciary, the police, public administration, and public education.
Then, in January 2004, a police informant brought public accusations of the existence of death squads whose members included serving and former police officials, who enjoyed official sanction and had killed some 64 people. Investigations of gun licenses and telephone records revealed alleged links to Guyana's home affairs minister, and both the United States and Canada revoked the minister's visa without publicly stating their reasons. However, efforts to probe the charges, which created both a domestic and an international outcry, ground to a standstill when the informant himself was murdered in June and the chief magistrate heading the inquiry quit, following reports that she herself was on a death squad "hit list." The charges also spilled over into the political arena, when the PNC/R announced it was breaking off a "constructive engagement" dialogue with the government begun in May 2003.
Officials admitted that following the death of the informant-who alleged the death squads targeted Afro-Guyanese in majority-black villages-potential witnesses were afraid to come forward. In protest of the alleged involvement of the home affairs minister with the death squads, the PNC/R boycotted most sessions of parliament for several weeks, including the presentation and debate of the 2004 budget. The breakdown occurred just after the two parties announced agreement on a wide range of issues.
Although an official inquiry in 2005 largely exonerated Home Affairs Minister Ronald Gajraj of involvement with the death squads, it criticized various aspects of his conduct, such as using as an informant a known criminal who-it was later re-vealed-was a professional hit man, and granting firearms licenses before police background checks of applicants were finished. Significant questions remained unanswered regarding Gajraj's alleged involvement in serious criminal activities. The opposition called for an investigation that met minimum international requirements, such as a credible and secure witness protection program and a role for the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom) and other international bodies in the taking of evidence both inside and out of the country.
On March 1, 2005, the State Department's International Narcotics Control Strategy Report described Guyana as an increasingly important drug-transit country, whose inadequate resources for law enforcement, poor interagency coordination, and weak judicial system reflected a lack of political will to deal with the issue and was emblematic of counter-narcotics operations compromised by corruption and official interference. The informal economy, it said, is driven primarily by drug proceeds and may be equal to 50-60 percent of formal-sector economic activity.
In January 2005, the government declared Georgetown a disaster zone as severe flooding followed days of continuous rain. More than 30 people were killed, tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes, and widespread damage was done to agriculture. The record rainfalls helped dampen prospects for an economic turnaround.
Citizens of Guyana can change their government democratically. The 2001 elections generated a broader consensus about the importance of election reform to the democratic process. The 1980 constitution provides for a strong president and a 65-seat National Assembly, elected every five years. An Assembly Speaker is also elected, and two additional, nonvoting, members are appointed by the president. The leader of the party winning the plurality of parliamentary seats becomes president for a five-year term, and the president appoints the prime minister and cabinet.
The PNC/R has said it will not run in the 2006 election unless the Guyana Elections Commission carries out a full re-registration of voters to cleanse the electoral roll and thus prevent ballot rigging. Critics also say the commission should be reconstituted as a nonpartisan body after the 2006 elections, rather than have its members continue to be nominated by the two main parties. The most important political parties or groupings in Guyana are the Alliance for Guyana (AFG; including the Guyana Labor Party and the Working People's Alliance); the Guyana Action Party (GAP); the Guyana Labor Party (GLP), the People's National Congress/Reform (PNC/ P), the People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C); Rise, Organize and Rebuild (ROAR); The United Force (TUF), and the Working People's Alliance (WPA).
Guyana was ranked 117 out of 159 countries surveyed by Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index. The U.S. State Department has declared the country to be a transshipment point for South American cocaine destined for North America and Europe, with counter-narcotics efforts undermined by corruption that is allegedly widespread and reaches to high levels of government, but remains uninvestigated.
Several independent newspapers operate freely, including the daily Stabroek News. The government owns and operates the country's sole radio station, which broadcasts on three frequencies, and there are no private radio stations. Seventeen privately owned television stations freely criticize the government. However, opposition party leaders complain that they lack access to the state media. There were no government restrictions on the internet.
Guyanese generally enjoy freedom of religion, and the government does not restrict academic freedom.
The government largely respects freedom of assembly and association in practice. The freedom to organize labor unions is also generally respected. Labor unions are well organized. However, companies are not obligated to recognize unions in former state enterprises sold off by the government.
The judicial system is independent, although due process is undermined by shortages of staff and funds. Guyana was the only former British colony in the Caribbean to have cut all ties to the Privy Council of London, the court of last resort for other former colonies in the region. In 2005, Guyana was one of only a handful of Caribbean countries to adopt the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice as its highest appellate court, replacing the Privy Council. Prisons are overcrowded, and conditions are poor.
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. Racial polarization has seriously eroded Guyana law enforcement. Many Indo-Guyanese say they are victims of Afro-Guyanese criminals at the same time that they are largely ignored by the predominantly Afro-Guyanese police; many Afro-Guyanese claim that the police are manipulated by the government for its own purposes. Although official inquiries have repeatedly pointed to the need for improved investigative techniques, more funding, community-oriented policing, better disciplinary procedures, and greater accountability-as well as a better ethnic balance-in the police force, the government has given mostly lip service to the proposed reforms. While authorities have taken some steps to investigate extrajudicial killings, and charges have been brought against some officers, abuses are still committed with impunity.
Racial clashes have diminished within the last decade. However, long-standing animosity between Afro- and Indo-Guyanese remains a deep concern. A Racial Hostility Bill passed in September 2002 increased the penalties for race-based crimes. In May 2003, the government appointed an ethnic relations commission to help combat discrimination and reduce social tensions.
Nine groups of indigenous peoples in Guyana number approximately 80,000 people. 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. On a positive note, in September 2005, five Amerindian communities were presented with land titles. However, a month later, a joint coalition of indigenous nongovernmental organizations charged that some provisions of a new Amerindian bill were unacceptable, as their rights to lands, territories, and resources and to self-determination were neither adequately recognized nor protected, and that those provisions were incompatible with the constitution and international human rights laws. The Guyana Action Party enjoys strong Amerindian support in the country's south.
Violence against women, including domestic violence, is widespread. Although rape, including spousal rape, is illegal, it is a serious but infrequently reported or prosecuted problem. While increasing numbers of victims report these crimes to the authorities, victims are socially stigmatized. The Guyana Human Rights Association has charged that the legal system's treatment of victims of sexual violence is intentionally and systematically humiliating. Sodomy is punishable with up to life in prison. Guyana has the second highest HIV prevalence rate in Latin America and the Caribbean.