Guyana | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Guyana

Guyana

Free
75/100
Overview: 

Guyana is a parliamentary democracy that features regular elections, a lively press, and a robust civil society. However, discrimination against indigenous and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people and violent crime remain significant problems. The recent discovery of rich oil and natural gas reserves beneath Guyana’s coastal waters has prompted calls for continued progress on anticorruption reforms. The prospect of increased revenues also appears to be exacerbating traditional ethnopolitical divisions.

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • Several board members at the state-owned newspaper Guyana Chronicle resigned in March amid allegations of political interference, and in July lawmakers passed a cybercrime bill that opponents said could harm freedom of expression despite last-minute amendments meant to address such concerns.
  • Ethnopolitical tensions surfaced between the predominantly Afro-Guyanese government and the mainly Indo-Guyanese opposition during the year, especially in connection with a disputed appointment to the elections commission. The governing coalition, consisting of A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance for Change (AFC), lost ground in local elections in November.
  • The coalition narrowly lost a parliamentary confidence vote in late December. While some in the government initially appeared to accept that new elections would have to be held within 90 days, at year’s end the coalition was preparing to challenge the vote in court.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 32 / 40

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 11 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

The president, who serves as both chief of state and head of government, appoints the cabinet, though ministers are collectively responsible to the National Assembly. Parties designate a presidential candidate ahead of National Assembly elections, with the winning party’s candidate assuming the presidency. The president serves five-year terms.

David Granger, head of the APNU-AFC coalition, became president after the bloc won the 2015 National Assembly elections. However, the government narrowly lost a confidence vote in late December 2018, meaning elections originally due in 2020 would have to be held in 2019. A court challenge of the vote’s validity was pending at year’s end.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

Members of the unicameral, 65-seat National Assembly are elected to five-year terms; 25 representatives are elected in 10 geographical constituencies, while 40 are elected by proportional representation in one nationwide constituency. Up to seven unelected cabinet ministers and parliamentary officials may also hold ex-officio seats.

In the 2015 elections, the APNU-AFC coalition won 50.3 percent of the vote and 33 seats, ending 23 years of rule by the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C), which won 32 seats. While the APNU-AFC won the elections by a very tight margin, the transfer of power was smooth and peaceful. Observers reported a tense atmosphere on election day and recommended numerous electoral reforms, but they generally praised the conduct of the vote.

In November 2018, local elections were held for the second time since 1994. Turnout was low, at 36 percent, down from 47 percent in 2016. While the PPP/C made important gains, the APNU retained control in the capital and some other municipalities.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4

The Carter Center, after monitoring the 2015 polls, made multiple recommendations on how to improve the fairness and efficiency of electoral laws. It expressed some concern over the independence and capacity of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM).

GECOM was the subject of renewed concern in 2017 and 2018 after President Granger rejected multiple lists of candidates for the position of chairman that were put forward by the opposition and instead appointed James Patterson to the role unilaterally in October 2017, prompting protests from the opposition. The PPP/C filed appeals contesting the selection, but the Guyanese courts ultimately upheld the appointment in October 2018. A appeal to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) was pending at year’s end.

In June 2018, the CCJ ruled that a 2000 constitutional amendment barring presidents from serving more than two terms in office was valid, reversing decisions by Guyanese courts in 2015 and 2017 that struck down the term limit. The ruling would prevent opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo, who had already served two terms from 1999 to 2011, from seeking the presidency in the next elections.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 13 / 16

B1.      Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4

Political parties may form freely, and they generally operate without interference. A long-standing deadlock between two major parties organized on ethnic lines had softened somewhat in recent years, with the multiethnic AFC emerging to join the predominantly Afro-Guyanese APNU and the mainly Indo-Guyanese PPP/C on the political stage. However, observers warned that ethnopolitical divisions could be revived after an Indo-Guyanese AFC member switched sides to oppose the government in the 2018 confidence vote.

The 2015 Carter Center election monitoring mission noted that Guyana lacked legislation on the formation of political parties and recommended a new law whose requirements would promote the establishment and free operation of multiethnic parties. The mission also recommended allowing individual or independent candidates to stand for the presidency, which is currently not permitted.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4

The PPP/C ruled from 1992 to 2015, and the APNU-AFC victory in that year’s elections marked only the second democratic rotation of power in the country’s modern history. Nevertheless, the orderly handover demonstrated the ability of opposition parties to win elections and enter government.

B3.      Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4

Voters are largely free to make their own political choices. However, there is concern that political affairs could be improperly influenced by the largely Indo-Guyanese economic elite.

B4.      Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 2 / 4

Women and ethnic minorities have equal political rights under the law, though ethnic divisions have long played a powerful role in politics, with the two largest parties drawing most of their support from either the Indo-Guyanese or the Afro-Guyanese community. The indigenous minority, which represents about 10 percent of the population, generally remains politically marginalized. The interests of women are also not well represented in the political sphere. However, at least a third of each party’s candidate list must consist of women, and of 69 members of the National Assembly, 22 (32 percent) are women.

In 2017, the government initiated public consultations on planned constitutional reforms with representatives of religious minorities and indigenous communities, but little progress was reported in 2018.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 8 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4

The president and the legislative majority are generally able to create and implement policy without improper interference.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4

In recent years, the government has made progress in introducing durable safeguards against corruption, notably by strengthening controls on money laundering and empowering a new agency to audit state-owned companies. However, official corruption remains a serious problem, and the discovery of rich oil and natural gas reserves beneath the country’s coastal waters has added urgency to antigraft efforts. Discussion continued in 2018 over the best mechanisms for administering this new energy wealth.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4

Laws designed to ensure government transparency are inconsistently upheld. Guyana’s Access to Information Act came into force in 2013, but its provisions are weak, allowing the government to refuse requests with little or no justification.

In February 2018, a long-dormant integrity commission tasked with reviewing officials’ asset disclosures was finally reestablished, though it was not expected to be fully operational until early 2019. By the end of 2018, over 400 financial declarations had been submitted to the commission by government officials.

Guyana’s application for membership in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which asks countries to submit reports detailing the proceeds they have gained from the extraction of their natural resources, was accepted in 2017.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 43 / 60 (+1)

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 15 / 16

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4

Although freedom of the press is generally respected, government officials have initiated libel lawsuits and have occasionally made outright threats against journalists in response to negative coverage.

Amendments to the Broadcasting Act adopted in 2017 prompted concerns due to a lack of prior consultation with broadcasters and the possibility that the act could be used to suppress unfavorable political coverage. In 2018, the Guyana National Broadcasting Authority (GNBA) began more strictly enforcing licensing regulations, launching initial proceedings against some outlets for content violations related primarily to obscenity.

In March 2018, four directors resigned from the board of the state-owned Guyana Chronicle after the newspaper’s editor in chief fired two columnists who were regularly critical of the government. The editor and the government insisted that the paper was free from political interference.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4

Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected in practice. Rules limiting visas for foreign missionaries and barring blasphemous libel are not actively enforced. Religious groups can register places of worship and receive associated benefits without difficulty.

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4

Academic freedom is largely upheld.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4

People are generally free to express their views without fear of retaliation or other repercussions. In July 2018, lawmakers approved a controversial cybercrime bill with last-minute amendments designed to address concerns about freedom of expression. However, opponents argued that the final legislation still contained problematic provisions on sedition, secrecy, and offenses against the state that could be used to stifle dissent.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 11 / 12 (+1)

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4 (+1)

While police violence toward protesters has been an issue in the past, the authorities have more recently upheld the right to peaceful assembly, including in 2018. For example, Guyana’s first gay pride parade proceeded in June without incident.

Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because authorities have generally upheld the right to peaceful assembly in recent years.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely. The government has consulted with NGOs on various policy initiatives, including measures designed to combat human trafficking.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4

The rights to form labor unions, bargain collectively, and strike are generally upheld, and unions are well organized. However, laws against antiunion discrimination are poorly enforced.

F. RULE OF LAW: 8 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4

The functioning of the courts is impaired by political disputes. The Granger government has publicly emphasized the importance of an independent judiciary, but it has struggled to appoint senior jurists due to disagreements with the opposition. According to the constitution, the president must obtain the agreement of the leader of the opposition to appoint the chancellor of the judiciary and the chief justice; both positions remained vacant in 2018, with officials serving in an acting capacity. Other judges are appointed by the president on the advice of a Judicial Service Commission, most of whose members are also chosen with input from the opposition. Staff shortages and lack of resources hamper the judiciary’s effectiveness.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4

Observance of due process safeguards is uneven. Defendants are often held in pretrial detention for periods longer than their maximum possible sentence if convicted. The police do not always operate with professionalism, and some officers have reportedly accepted bribes. Recent years have featured efforts to prosecute police officers engaged in a variety of crimes. A new police commissioner took office in August 2018 with a mandate to make reforms and improve police conduct.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4

Reports of police violence, abuse of detainees, and harsh, overcrowded prison conditions persist in Guyana. The rate of violent crime has fallen somewhat in recent years but remains among the highest in the region.

The limited threat of territorial conflict with Venezuela lingered in 2018 following the collapse of a UN-sponsored mediation process. In January, the United Nations recommended that the dispute be resolved by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and Guyana submitted an application against Venezuela with the ICJ in March. In late December, the Venezuelan navy drove off an ExxonMobil ship in Guyanese waters, claiming the ship was in Venezuelan territory.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4

Laws barring discrimination based on race, gender, and other categories are not effectively enforced. Women continue to suffer from workplace bias and significantly lower pay compared with men. Despite some recent advances, Guyana’s nine principal indigenous groups face disparities in the provision of health care, education, and justice. Same-sex sexual activity is punishable with harsh jail terms, and the LGBT community is subject to police harassment and discrimination.   

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 9 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4

There are no undue legal restrictions on freedom of movement, including with respect to residency, employment, and education. However, factors including bribery, racial polarization, and neglected infrastructure in some regions limit this right in practice.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4

The legal framework generally supports the rights to own property and operate private businesses, but corruption and organized crime sometimes inhibit business activity. The land rights of indigenous communities are impaired by flawed consultation and demarcation procedures, as well as by unauthorized exploitation of titled indigenous lands.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4

Individual freedom on personal status matters such as marriage and divorce is generally respected, though same-sex marriage and civil unions are prohibited. Legal exceptions allow marriage before age 18 with judicial or parental permission, and such marriages are reportedly common.

Domestic abuse is widespread, and conviction rates for such abuse and for sexual offenses are low. A string of murders and an apparent spike in domestic abuse cases in 2017–18 prompted concerns about the adequacy of the government’s response.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4

Legal protections against exploitative working conditions are not enforced consistently. Those working in the informal sector and extractive industries in the country’s interior are particularly vulnerable to abuses.

The US State Department detailed Guyana’s continued efforts to address human trafficking in 2018, citing increased funding of victim-support programs and expanded identification of victims. However, there were few successful prosecutions, and support for child or male victims was limited. Trafficking of Venezuelan nationals has reportedly increased in connection with that country’s economic and humanitarian crisis.