Freedom in the World
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Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Guyana’s political rights rating improved from 3 to 2, and its status from Partly Free to Free, because the country’s 2006 general elections were widely considered to be free and fair, and the emergence of the new Alliance for Change Party helped to increase the openness of the political system.
Following weeks of rising violence and political uncertainty, President Bharrat Jagdeo handily won another five-year term in office when his People’s Progressive Party–Civic (PPP-C) received 54 percent of the vote and a 36-seat majority in the 65-member National Assembly. The August 28 elections were characterized by lower-than-expected turnout but were considered relatively free and fair, proceeding without the violent protests that many feared would spark wider disorder. The emergence of the new multiracial Alliance for Change Party helped increase the openness of the political system.
From its 1966 independence from Britain until 1992, Guyana was ruled by the autocratic, predominantly Afro-Guyanese People’s National Congress party (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 of the predominantly Indo-Guyanese People’s Progressive Party (PPP) 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 PPP and the Civic Party—was reelected in March 2001 after 90 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots, largely 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 as residents protested 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 Congress–Reform party (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.
That year’s 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. The groups allegedly enjoyed official sanction and had killed some 64 people. An investigation of gun licenses and telephone records revealed apparent links to Guyana’s home affairs minister, Ronald Gajraj, and both the United States and Canada revoked the minister’s visas without publicly stating their reasons. However, efforts to pursue the charges ground to a halt when the informant himself was murdered in June, and the chief magistrate heading the inquiry quit following reports that she too was on a death squad “hit list.” 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 effectively eclipsed the two parties’ recent policy accord. Although an official inquiry in 2005 largely exonerated Gajraj, it criticized various aspects of his conduct, such as his use of a criminal informant who—it was later revealed—was a professional hit man, and his award of firearms licenses before police background checks of applicants were finished.
In January 2005, the government declared Georgetown a disaster zone as days of continuous rain led to severe flooding in which more than 30 people were killed, tens of thousands of people were displaced, and agriculture suffered widespread damage. Two years later, Guyana was still struggling to recover. According to the United Nations, Guyana sustained $465 million in losses that affected more than one-third of the country’s population.
In 2006, Guyana endured escalating violence ahead of the August 28 elections. In the spring, the country was shaken by the brutal slaying of a top government official, Agriculture Minister Satyadeo Sawh, by masked gunmen. In early August, four newspaper employees were shot dead in a brazen attack on the outskirts of the capital. Many observers viewed the high-profile crimes as part of an effort to create a climate of instability around the elections. The country’s Parliament was dissolved amid acrimony and mudslinging, and the elections were delayed by several weeks as deep conflicts within the seven-member Guyana Elections Commission threatened to undermine the credibility of the process.
Despite those concerns, the elections unfolded without incident, due in part to the heavy presence of international observers. President Jagdeo handily won another five-year term in office when his PPP-C received 54 percent of the vote and a 36-seat majority in the 65-member National Assembly. The PNC-R won 34 percent of the vote and 21 seats in Parliament. A new party, the Alliance for Change (AFC), won five seats, and two minor parties, the United Force and the Justice for All Party, each won a single seat. The emergence of the Alliance for Change as a multiracial political party indicates that the extent to which Guyana’s fierce racial divide drives the country’s politics may be softening.
Guyana is an electoral democracy. The 2001 elections generated a broader consensus about the importance of electoral 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 with a plurality of parliamentary seats becomes president for a five-year term, and appoints the prime minister and cabinet.
The 2006 elections strengthened the hand of the ruling PPP-C, but also demonstrated that some Guyanese are beginning to vote across ethnic lines, a development symbolized by the establishment of the multiethnic AFC. The main opposition party remained the PNC-R. Other significant political parties or groupings in Guyana include the Alliance for Guyana, the Guyana Action Party, the Guyana Labor Party, the United Force, the Justice for All Party, and the Working People’s Alliance.
Guyana was ranked 121 out of 163 countries surveyed by Transparency International’s 2006 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 counternarcotics efforts undermined by corruption that is allegedly widespread and reaches to high levels of government, but remains uninvestigated. In a 2005 report, the department said Guyana’s inadequate resources for law enforcement, poor interagency coordination, and weak judicial system reflected a lack of political will to deal with the issue. The informal economy, it said, is driven primarily by drug proceeds and may be equal to between 50 and 60 percent of formal economic activity.
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. Seventeen privately owned television stations freely criticize the government. However, opposition party leaders complain that they lack access to the state media. There are no government restrictions on the internet. In February 2006, the Guyana Elections Committee launched a 15-member independent media monitoring unit to assess whether the media were providing unbiased news or stoking ethnic tensions.
Guyanese generally enjoy freedom of religion, and the government does not restrict academic freedom.
The government largely respects freedoms of assembly and association in practice. The freedom to form labor unions is also generally respected, and unions are well organized. However, companies are not obligated to recognize unions in former state enterprises that have been sold off by the government.
The judicial system is independent, but 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. In June 2006, the Inter-American Development Bank approved a $25 million loan to Guyana to help modernize the justice system.
The Guyana Defence Force and the national Guyana Police Force are under civilian control. Racial polarization has seriously eroded law enforcement, with many Indo-Guyanese complaining that they are victimized by Afro-Guyanese criminals and ignored by the predominantly Afro-Guyanese police. Meanwhile, many Afro-Guyanese claim that the police are manipulated by the government for its own purposes. Official inquiries have repeatedly pointed to the need for improved investigative techniques, more funding, community-oriented policing, better disciplinary procedures, greater accountability, and a better ethnic balance in the police force, but 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 relative impunity. According to the Guyana Human Rights Association, the effectiveness of the Police Complaints Authority steadily increased despite severe staff shortages, and more than 160 of the 257 registered complaints against police were handled by the end of 2006, including three that led to criminal charges and another 31 that required disciplinary action.
Racial clashes have diminished within the last decade. However, long-standing animosity between Afro- and Indo-Guyanese remains a serious 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.
Guyana is home to nine indigenous groups with a total population of about 80,000. Human rights violations against them, particularly with respect to land and resource use, are widespread and pervasive. Indigenous peoples’ attempts to seek redress through the courts have been met with unwarranted delays by the judiciary. The Guyana Action Party enjoys strong Amerindian support in the country’s south.
Domestic violence and violence against women in general are widespread. Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal, but often goes unreported and is infrequently prosecuted. While increasing numbers of victims have been willing to approach authorities, they continue to face social stigmatization. In May 2006, Amnesty International released a study criticizing Guyana’s justice system for not prosecuting rapes. It reported that only 9 of 647 cases between 2000 and 2004 ended with convictions. 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 a maximum sentence of life in prison. Guyana has the second highest HIV prevalence rate in Latin America and the Caribbean.