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Guyana - Independence

The independent Guyana inherited by the PNC on May 26, 1966 was one of the least-populated and least-developed countries in South America. Located on the northeast coast of the continent just north of the equator, the Idaho-sized country is wedged among Venezuela, Brazil, and Suriname (former Dutch Guiana). More than 90 percent of the population lives within five or six kilometers of the sea. This coastal plain, constituting only 5 percent of the country's total area, was originally low swampland but was transformed by the Dutch into the country's most productive agricultural land. Inland from the coastal plain lies the white-sand belt, site of most of Guyana's mineral wealth of bauxite, gold, and diamonds. Farther inland are the interior highlands, consisting of largely uninhabited mountains and savannahs.

Guyana's ethnic mix at independence, still the same in 1993, consisted primarily of Indo-Guyanese about half the population and Afro-Guyanese slightly more than 40 percent of the total. Smaller numbers of Amerindians, Asians, and Europeans completed Guyana's ethnic melange. More than two-thirds of the population was Christian, with significant Hindu and Muslim minorities. Established by the British, the school system has resulted in high literacy rates (more than 90 percent).

The small military, the Guyana Defence Force, existed primarily as a deterrent to Venezuela's territorial claim. Venezuela's claim to the western three-fifths of Guyana, a dispute that dated from the colonial era, was thought to have been settled by arbitration in 1899. When later evidence showed that one of the judges had been influenced to vote against Venezuela, that country declared the arbitration settiement invalid and in the 1960s aggressively pursued its territorial claim on western Guyana. This border dispute was to flare periodically after Guyana's independence.

The first years of PNC administration after independence saw Prime Minister Burnham vigorously establishing control over Guyana's political and economic life. The 1968 elections were won by the PNC, despite charges of widespread fraud and coercion of voters. As the government's control over the country's political institutions increased, Burnham began nationalizing industries and financial institutions. In 1970 Guyana was declared a "cooperative republic," and government control of all economic activity increased. The 1973 elections were considered the most undemocratic in Guyana's history, and by 1974 all organs of the state had become agencies of the ruling PNC.

In the late 1970s, a number of events increased opposition to the Burnham regime. The economy, which had grown immediately after independence, began to contract because of nationalization. In addition, in 1978 negative international attention was focused on Guyana when more than 900 members of the People's Temple of Christ led by Jim Jones committed mass murder and suicide at their community in western Guyana. As opposition to the government increased, the government responded by violence against opposition members and meetings. The authoritarian nature of the Burnham government caused the loss of both foreign and domestic supporters.

A new constitution was promulgated in 1980, shifting power from the prime minister to the new post of executive president, but the political and economic situation continued to decline. Government programs had been financed by increasing the foreign debt, but in the early 1980s, most foreign banks and lending organizations refused further loans. The quality of life deteriorated: blackouts were frequent, and shortages of rice and sugar, Guyana's two largest crops, appeared.

In 1985 in the midst of this turbulence, Burnham died while undergoing throat surgery. Vice President Hugh Desmond Hoyte became the country's new executive president. He had two stated goals: to secure political power and revitalize the economy. Establishing political control was easy. The PNC chose Hoyte as its new leader, and in the 1985 elections the PNC claimed more than 79 percent of the vote. Economic growth, however, would require concessions to foreign lenders. Hoyte therefore began to restructure the economy. An economic recovery plan was negotiated with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, allowing for new loans in exchange for free-market reforms and reversal of the Burnham administration's nationalization policies. To win favor with Western governments and financial institutions, Hoyte also moderated the previous administration's leftist tilt in international relations.

The results of economic reform were slow to appear, but by 1990 the economy began to grow again. The last legitimate date for new elections was December 1990. Sensing, however, that the PNC might be able to win a fair election (and thus regain a measure of international respect) if the economy continued to improve, the government invoked a clause in the constitution allowing elections to be postponed a year.

Seeing a chance for an honest election, a group of Guyanese civic leaders created the Elections Assistance Board (EAB) to monitor the upcoming elections. The EAB appealed to the Carter Center in Atlanta for international support in its effort. Despite threats and intimidation, in July 1991 the EAB conducted a door-to-door survey to verify voter lists. When the lists were shown to be grossly inaccurate, the Hoyte administration, under pressure from the EAB and the international community, declared a state of emergency and agreed to postpone the elections until October 1992 and implement a series of reforms suggested by the Carter Center.

The reforms included appointment of a new election commissioner and agreement that the ballots be counted at polling centers in view of poll watchers instead of being taken to government centers and army bases for tallying.

The election date was finally set for October 5, 1992. Hoyte based the PNC campaign on the improving economy, which he credited to his free-market reforms. The PPP, still headed by Jagan after forty-two years, renounced its past Marxist policies and embraced elements of a free-market economy. In a reversal of decades of racial politics, Jagan attempted to downplay the country's ethnic polarization by naming an Afro-Guyanese, Sam Hinds, as his running mate.

Monitored by an international team of observers headed by former United States PresidentJimmy Carter, election results gave an alliance of the PPP, the smaller Working People's Alliance (WPA), and the United Force (UF) 54 percent of the vote, and the PNC, 45 percent. These results translated into thirty-two seats in the National Assembly for the PPP, thirty-one seats for the PNC, and one apiece for the WPA and the UF. Foreign observers certified the elections as "free, fair, and transparent."

The PNC conceded defeat on October 7 and, after twenty-eight years, stepped down from power. Following brief consultations, the PPP formed a coalition government with the WPA and the UF (named the PPPCivic coalition) and named Jagan executive president.

Two days of rioting and looting in Georgetown and Linden in eastern Guyana followed announcement of the election results. By the time the army and police restored order, two demonstrators had been killed and more than 200 injured. Many analysts attributed the violence to the fear that a PPP government would mean fewer economic benefits for the Afro-Guyanese population. Former President Carter, however, stated that the violence was localized and the looting unrelated to the voting.

In a radio broadcast on October 13, Jagan outlined the direction of the new government. He stated his intention to build a political consensus that cut across ethnic lines and to continue the privatization policies of his predecessor. Analysts speculated that the new administration would have difficulty in getting measures approved by the National Assembly and would face strong opposition from the PNC-dominated military and civil service. Election observers noted also the need to lower racial tension in a society that some characterized as one of the most racially divided they had witnessed.

The motto on the Guyanese coat of arms proudly proclaims, "One people, one nation, one destiny." In 1993, however, this motto remained a distant goal.

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Page last modified: 14-05-2017 18:32:55 ZULU