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In 2008, President Bharrat Jagdeo’s government was rocked by a series of high-profile crimes that underscored how precarious the country’s security situation had become, and relations between the ruling party and the opposition remained tense.
Guyana gained independence from Britain in 1966 and was ruled by the autocratic, predominantly Afro-Guyanese People’s National Congress party (PNC) for the next 26 years. In 1992, Cheddi Jagan of the largely Indo-Guyanese People’s Progressive Party (PPP) won the presidency in Guyana’s first free and fair elections. He died in 1997, and the office passed to his wife, Janet, who resigned in 1999 for health reasons. She was succeeded by Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo of the PPP-C, an alliance of the PPP and the Civic Party. President Jagdeo was elected in his own right in 2001.
Guyanese politics remained split between descendants of indentured workers from India, known as Indo-Guyanese, who make up about half of the population and generally back the PPP-C, and Afro-Guyanese, who compose 36 percent of the population and are descended from African slaves. A rising crime rate and a parliamentary impasse dominated the political scene during Jagdeo’s first term. The PPP-C and the main opposition PNC-Reform party (PNC-R) traded bitter words over the issue of payment for opposition members engaged in a boycott of the National Assembly that began in March 2002 and lasted for 14 months.
In 2004, the political climate showed brief signs of improving 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 controlled appointments, promotions, and discipline in the judiciary, the police, public administration, and public education. Then, however, a police informant revealed the existence of death squads that included serving and former police officials. The groups allegedly enjoyed official sanction and had killed some 64 people. An investigation revealed apparent links to the home affairs minister, Ronald Gajraj, and both the United States and Canada revoked the minister’s visas. To protest Gajraj’s alleged wrongdoing, the PNC-R boycotted most sessions of the National Assembly for several weeks, including the presentation and debate of the 2004 budget. The breakdown effectively eclipsed the two parties’ recent policy accord. Gajraj was largely exonerated by an official inquiry in 2005 that nevertheless criticized his use of a criminal informant who—it was later revealed—was a professional hit man, and his practice of granting firearms licenses to applicants without the required police background checks.
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 were displaced, and agriculture suffered widespread damage. According to the United Nations, Guyana sustained $465 million in losses that affected more than a third of the population.
Violence escalated in 2006 ahead of that year’s elections. In the spring, Agriculture Minister Satyadeo Sawh was brutally slain by masked gunmen, and four newspaper employees were shot dead on the outskirts of the capital in early August. The National Assembly was dissolved amid acrimony and mudslinging, and the elections were delayed by several weeks as deep conflicts within the seven-member Guyana Elections Commission undermined the credibility of the process. Despite those concerns, the elections unfolded without incident in August, due in part to the heavy presence of international observers.
President Jagdeo handily won another five-year term as his PPP-C received 54 percent of the vote and 36 seats in the 65-member National Assembly. The PNC-R won 34 percent of the vote and 21 seats. A new party, the Alliance for Change (AFC), won 5 seats, and two minor parties, the United Force and the Justice for All Party, each won a single seat. The emergence of the multiracial AFC suggested that the fierce racial divide of Guyanese politics was on the wane. Nevertheless, relations between the government and opposition remained tense. In 2008, opposition leader Robert Corbin of the PNC-R reported receiving death threats after making allegations that linked a powerful drug lord to Jagdeo’s government.
A September 2007 ruling by a UN tribunal gave both Guyana and Suriname access to offshore oil deposits that could radically change Guyana’s economy. The country is one of the poorest in Latin America and the Caribbean, with a per capita gross domestic product of about US$1,000. In 2008, the government took measures to protect citizens from the effects of rising food prices, and Guyana was one of the few Caribbean countries poised to benefit economically due to its large agricultural sector.
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 racial lines, as symbolized by the establishment of the multiracial AFC. The main opposition party remains the PNC-R. Other significant political parties or groupings include the Alliance for Guyana, the Guyana Labor Party, the United Force, the Justice for All Party, the Working People’s Alliance, and the Guyana Action Party, which enjoys strong support from indigenous communities in the south.
Guyana was ranked 126 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, the worst ranking in the English-speaking Caribbean. The country is a transshipment point for South American cocaine destined for North America and Europe, and counternarcotics efforts are undermined by corruption that reaches to high levels of the government. The informal economy 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. In 2007, the government launched an advertising boycott of the paper in retaliation for its critical coverage during the 2006 elections. However, in advance of the Caribbean Media and Communication Conference, held in Georgetown in May, government officials announced an end to the boycott. The state owns and operates the country’s sole radio station, which broadcasts on three frequencies. Seventeen privately owned television stations freely criticize the government, although in July 2008, a senior television reporter was banned from covering the prime minister due to his critical reporting. Opposition party leaders complain that they lack access to the state media. There are no government restrictions on the internet.
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 right to form labor unions is also generally upheld, and unions are well organized. However, employers are not required to recognize unions in former state enterprises that have been sold off by the government. In May 2008, members of the Guyana Trades Union Congress protested the presence of Prime Minister Hinds at a May Day rally, forcing him to leave the event.
The judicial system is independent, but due process is undermined by shortages of staff and funds. In 2005, Guyana cut all ties to the Privy Council in London, the court of last resort for other former British colonies in the region, and adopted the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice as its highest appellate court. Prisons are overcrowded, and conditions are poor.
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 taken few concrete steps to implement the proposed reforms. In June 2007, Guyanese authorities were shocked to learn that a naturalized U.S. citizen from Guyana and two Guyanese nationals had been arrested for an alleged plot to blow up fuel lines at a New York City airport. In 2008, a series of violent crimes—namely killings in Lusingnan, Bartica, and Lindo Creek that left over 30 dead—raised public concerns about government ineffectiveness. The murder rate grew by 26 percent in 2008.
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. Racial clashes have diminished in the last decade. However, long-standing animosity between Afro- and Indo-Guyanese remains a serious concern. A Racial Hostility Bill passed in 2002 increased the penalties for race-based crimes. Guyana’s new foreign minister, appointed in April 2008, was the first woman and the first indigenous person to hold that post.
Domestic violence and violence against women in general are widespread. Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal, but it often goes unreported and is infrequently prosecuted. 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 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.