Guyana (09/09)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Co-operative Republic of Guyana

Area: 214,970 sq. km. (83,000 sq. mi.); about the size of Idaho.
Cities: Capital--Georgetown (pop. 150,000). Other cities--Linden (29,000) and New Amsterdam (18,000).
Terrain: Low coastal plain, hilly sand and clay region, forested highlands, interior savanna.
Climate: Tropical.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Guyanese (sing. and pl.).
Population (2008, Government of Guyana): 772,298.
Ethnic groups: East Indian origin 43%, African origin 30%, mixed 17%, Amerindian 9%.
Religions: Christian 57%, Hindu 28%, Muslim 10%, other 5%.
Languages: English, Guyanese Creole, Amerindian languages (primarily Carib and Arawak).
Education (2007): Years compulsory--ages 5-1/2 to 14-1/2. Attendance--primary 93.6%, secondary 93%. Literacy--98.8% of adults who have attended school.
Health: Infant mortality rate--30/1,000. Life expectancy--men 64 yrs., women 69 yrs.
Work force (2007 Bank of Guyana estimates): 333,900. Industry and commerce--36.4%; agriculture--30.2%; services--30.2%; other--3.2%.

Type: Republic within the Commonwealth.
Independence: May 26, 1966; Republic, February 23, 1970.
Constitution: 1980.
Branches: Executive--president (chief of state and head of government), prime minister. Legislative--unicameral National Assembly of 65 deputies. The ten administrative regions of the country elect 25 members, 40 are elected from party lists by proportion of the national vote. Judicial--Judicial Court of Appeal, High Court.
Subdivisions: 10 regions.
Political parties (voting seats in the National Assembly): People's Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) 36; People's National Congress (PNC) 22; Alliance for Change (AFC) 5, Guyana Action Party/Rise Organize and Rebuild (GAP/ROAR) 1; and The United Force (TUF) 1. Presidential and parliamentary elections were last held August 28, 2006.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.

Economy (2008, U.S. $)
Nominal GDP: $1.13 billion.
Real annual growth rate: 3.1%.
Per capita GDP (PPP): $3,800.
Agriculture: Products--sugar, rice, shrimp, fish, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Natural resources: Gold, bauxite, diamonds, timber.
Industry: Types--mining (gold, bauxite, diamonds), agriculture (sugar, rice, livestock, fresh fruits and vegetables), forestry, fisheries, manufacturing (beverage, foodstuff processing, apparel, footwear assembly, pharmaceuticals), construction, and services (distribution, financial, transport and communication).
Merchandise trade: Exports--$800 million: gold, sugar, bauxite, alumina, fish and shrimp, rice, timber, diamonds. Major export markets--U.S., Canada, U.K., Netherlands. Imports--$1.3 billion. Major suppliers--U.S., Trinidad and Tobago, Finland, Cuba, China.

Guyana's population is made up of five main ethnic groups--East Indian, African, Amerindian, Chinese, and Portuguese. Ninety percent of the inhabitants live on the narrow coastal plain, where population density is more than 115 persons per square kilometer (380 per sq. mi.). The population density for Guyana as a whole is low--less than four persons per square kilometer. Although the government has provided free education from nursery school to the university level since 1975, it has not allocated sufficient funds to maintain the standards of what had been considered the best educational system in the region.

Before the arrival of Europeans, the region was inhabited by both Carib and Arawak tribes, who named it Guiana, which means land of many waters. The Dutch settled in Guyana in the late 16th century, but their control ended when the British became the de facto rulers in 1796. In 1815, the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice were officially ceded to Great Britain at the Congress of Vienna and, in 1831, were consolidated as British Guiana. Following the abolition of slavery in 1834, thousands of indentured laborers were brought to Guyana to replace the slaves on the sugarcane plantations, primarily from India but also from Portugal and China. The British stopped the practice in 1917. Many of the Afro-Guyanese former slaves moved to the towns and became the majority urban population, whereas the Indo-Guyanese remained predominantly rural. A scheme in 1862 to bring black workers from the United States was unsuccessful. The small Amerindian population lives in the country's interior.

The people drawn from these diverse origins have coexisted peacefully for the most part. Slave revolts, such as the one in 1763 led by Guyana's national hero, Cuffy, demonstrated the desire for basic rights but also a willingness to compromise. Politically inspired racial disturbances between Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese erupted in 1962-64, and again following elections in 1997 and 2001. The conservative and cooperative nature of Guyanese society has contributed to a cooling of racial tensions; however, such tensions do constitute Guyana's most sensitive social stress point.

Guyanese political history has been turbulent. The first modern political party in Guyana was the People's Progressive Party (PPP), established on January 1, 1950, with Forbes Burnham, a British-educated Afro-Guyanese, as chairman; Dr. Cheddi Jagan, a U.S.-educated Indo-Guyanese, as second vice chairman; and Dr. Jagan's American-born wife, Janet Jagan, as secretary general. The PPP won 18 out of 24 seats in the first popular elections permitted by the colonial government in 1953, and Dr. Jagan became leader of the house and minister of agriculture in the colonial government. Five months later, on October 9, 1953, the British suspended the constitution and landed troops because, they said, the Jagans and the PPP were planning to make Guyana a communist state. These events led to a split in the PPP, in which Burnham broke away and founded what eventually became the People's National Congress (PNC).

Elections were permitted again in 1957 and 1961, and Cheddi Jagan's PPP ticket won on both occasions, with 48% of the vote in 1957 and 43% in 1961. Cheddi Jagan became the first premier of British Guiana, a position he held for 7 years. At a constitutional conference in London in 1963, the U.K. Government agreed to grant independence to the colony but only after another election in which proportional representation would be introduced for the first time. It was widely believed that this system would reduce the number of seats won by the PPP and prevent it from obtaining a clear majority in Parliament. The December 1964 elections gave the PPP 46%, the PNC 41%, and the United Force (TUF), a conservative party, 12%. TUF threw its votes in the legislature to Forbes Burnham, who became prime minister.

Guyana achieved independence in May 1966, and became a republic on February 23, 1970--the anniversary of the Cuffy slave rebellion. From December 1964 until his death in August 1985, Forbes Burnham ruled Guyana in an increasingly autocratic manner, first as prime minister and later, after the adoption of a new constitution in 1980, as executive president. During that timeframe, elections were viewed in Guyana and abroad as fraudulent. Human rights and civil liberties were suppressed, and two major political assassinations occurred: the Jesuit Priest and journalist Bernard Darke in July 1979, and the distinguished historian and WPA Party leader Walter Rodney in June 1980. Agents of President Burnham are widely believed to have been responsible for both deaths.

Following Burnham's own death in 1985, Prime Minister Hugh Desmond Hoyte acceded to the presidency and was formally elected in the December 1985 national elections. Hoyte gradually reversed Burnham's policies, moving from state socialism and one-party control to a market economy and unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly. On October 5, 1992, a new National Assembly and regional councils were elected in the first Guyanese election since 1964 to be internationally recognized as free and fair. Cheddi Jagan was elected and sworn in as president on October 9, 1992.

When President Jagan died in March 1997, Prime Minister Samuel Hinds replaced him in accordance with constitutional provisions. President Jagan's widow, Janet Jagan, was elected president in December 1997. She resigned in August 1999 due to ill health and was succeeded by Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo, who had been named prime minister a day earlier. National elections were held on March 19, 2001. Incumbent President Jagdeo won re-election with a voter turnout of over 90%. President Jagdeo won re-election again in national elections held on August 28, 2006, the first non-violent elections held in more than 20 years.

Legislative power rests in a unicameral National Assembly, generally referred to as Parliament, with 40 members chosen on the basis of proportional representation from national lists named by the political parties. An additional 25 members are elected by regional administrative districts. The Parliament is not directly elected; each party presents slates of candidates at the time of national elections. After the election, each party leader selects from the party lists the individuals who will represent the party in Parliament. The president may dissolve the assembly and call new elections at any time, but no later than five years from its first sitting.

Executive authority is exercised by the president, who appoints and supervises the prime minister and other ministers. As with members of Parliament, the president is not directly elected; each party presenting a slate of candidates for the assembly must designate in advance a leader who will become president if that party receives the largest number of votes. Any dissolution of the assembly and election of a new assembly can lead to a change in the assembly majority and consequently a change in the presidency. Most cabinet ministers must be members of the National Assembly; the constitution limits non-member "technocrat" ministers to five. Technocrat ministers serve as non-elected members of the National Assembly, which permits them to debate but not to vote.

The highest judicial body is the Court of Appeal, headed by a chancellor of the judiciary. The second level is the High Court, presided over by a chief justice. The chancellor and the chief justice are appointed by the president.

For administrative purposes, Guyana is divided into ten regions, each headed by a chairman who is appointed by the central government; the chairman presides over a regional democratic council. Local communities are administered by village or city councils.

Principal Government Officials
Executive President--Bharrat Jagdeo
Prime Minister--Samuel Hinds
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett
Ambassador to the U.S. and OAS--Bayney Karran
Permanent Representative to the UN--Charge d' Affaires George Talbot

In the United States, Guyana maintains an embassy at 2490 Tracy Place NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-265-6900), and a Consulate at 7th Avenue, Room 402, New York, NY 10001.

Race and ideology have long been the dominant political influences in Guyana. Since the split of the multiracial PPP in 1955, politics has been based more on ethnicity than on ideology. From 1964 to 1992, the PNC dominated Guyana's politics. The PNC draws its support primarily from urban Afro-Guyanese, and for many years declared itself a socialist vanguard party whose purpose was to make Guyana a nonaligned socialist state, in which the party, as in communist countries, was above all other institutions.

A majority of Indo-Guyanese have traditionally backed the People's Progressive Party. Rice farmers and sugar workers in the rural areas form the bulk of PPP's support. Indo-Guyanese who dominate the country's urban business community also have provided important support to both parties, depending on which was in power at the time.

Following independence, and with the help of substantial foreign aid, social benefits were provided to a broader section of the population, specifically in health, education, housing, road and bridge building, agriculture, and rural development. During Forbes Burnham's last years, however, the government's attempts to build a socialist society, including banning importation of basic foodstuffs, caused a massive emigration of skilled workers, and, along with other economic factors, led to a significant decline in the overall quality of life in Guyana.

After Burnham's death in 1985, President Hoyte took steps to stem the economic decline, including strengthening financial controls over the parastatal corporations and supporting the private sector. In August 1987, at a PNC Congress, Hoyte announced that the PNC rejected orthodox communism and the one-party state.

As the elections scheduled for 1990 approached, Hoyte, under increasing pressure from inside and outside Guyana, gradually opened the political system. After a visit to Guyana by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1990, Hoyte made changes in the electoral rules, appointed a new chairman of the Elections Commission, and endorsed putting together new voters' lists, thus delaying the election. The elections, which finally took place in 1992, were witnessed by 100 international observers, including a group headed by Mr. Carter and another from the Commonwealth of Nations. Both groups issued reports saying that the elections had been free and fair, despite violent attacks on the Elections Commission building on election day and other irregularities.

Cheddi Jagan served as Premier (1957-64) and then minority leader in Parliament until his election as President in 1992. One of the Caribbean's most charismatic and famous leaders, Jagan was a founder of the PPP, which led Guyana's struggle for independence. Over the years, he moderated his Marxist-Leninist ideology. After his election as President, Jagan demonstrated a commitment to democracy, followed a pro-Western foreign policy, adopted free market policies, and pursued sustainable development for Guyana's environment. Nonetheless, he continued to press for debt relief and a new global human order in which developed countries would increase assistance to less developed nations. Jagan died on March 6, 1997, and was succeeded by Samuel A. Hinds, whom he had appointed Prime Minister. President Hinds then appointed Janet Jagan, widow of the late President, to serve as Prime Minister.

In national elections on December 15, 1997, Janet Jagan was elected President, and her PPP party won a 55% majority of seats in Parliament. Mrs. Jagan had been a founding member of the PPP and was very active in party politics. In addition to becoming Guyana's first female president, she had also been Guyana's first female prime minister and vice president, two roles she performed concurrently before being elected to the presidency.

The PNC, which won just under 40% of the vote, disputed the results of the 1997 elections, alleging electoral fraud. Public demonstrations and some violence followed, until a CARICOM team came to Georgetown to broker an accord between the two parties, calling for an international audit of the election results, a redrafting of the constitution, and elections under the constitution within 3 years. Elections took place on March 19, 2001. More than 150 international observers representing six international missions witnessed the polling. The observers pronounced the elections fair and open although marred by some administrative problems. As in 1997, public demonstrations and some violence followed the election, with the opposition PNCR disputing the results. The political disturbances following the election partially overlapped and politicized a major crime wave that gripped Guyana from the spring of 2002 through May 2003. By summer 2003 the worst of the crime wave had abated, and agitation over the election had subsided.

A lack of legal clarity over voter registration rules, in particular the legality of Guyanese remaining on the voter rolls after emigrating, fed a political stalemate that delayed the 2006 elections as opposition parties demanded a full house-to-house verification of the voter list. Ultimately, the election was held using the 2001 voting list--which the opposition had earlier deemed valid--plus new registrations. The Organization of American States and the Commonwealth observed the 2006 elections and considered them to be largely free and fair.

Municipal elections were last held in 1994, and are now more than a decade overdue. In 2008, in anticipation of nationwide municipal elections in 2009, electoral authorities completed a national voter re-registration exercise. This exercise was scrutinized by the major political parties, and was designed to produce a fresh and widely accepted voter list. However, no date has been set for the municipal elections.

A general lack of trust between the predominantly Indo-Guyanese PPP/C and the almost exclusively Afro-Guyanese PNC/R persists. Co-founded prior to the 2006 parliamentary elections by disaffected members of the PPP/C and PNC/R, the Alliance For Change party has attempted to bridge the political and racial divide, but holds only five seats in Parliament and has gained minimal traction.

Due to constitutional term limits, President Jagdeo is not eligible to run for reelection again when his terms concludes in 2011. There is no established frontrunner to succeed him.

In 2008, the real gross domestic product (GDP) grew 3.1%, compared to 5.4% in 2007, despite falling commodity prices in the second half of 2008 and the weak performance of the country’s vital sugar industry.

Agriculture and Livestock
Sugar industry output declined 15.1% in 2008. Delays in the startup of a major new factory, flooding, pest infestation and labor disputes contributed to this decline. However, rice industry output increased 10.5%, recording the highest annual production in five years as favorable price conditions encouraged farmers to expand acreage and upgrade equipment. Livestock and other crops production grew by 7.4% and 7.7%, respectively. A “Grow More Food” campaign launched in 2008 by the Ministry of Agriculture in response to high food prices contributed to this increase.

The fishing sector fell by 2%, as a result of a contraction in the fishing fleet, depletion of fishing stock in certain fishing grounds, the impact of higher fuel prices, and the lingering fallout from numerous incidents of piracy.

The forestry sector recorded a 15.5% decline due to temporary sanctions on logging companies for failure to comply with Guyana Forestry Commission regulations.

Mining and Quarrying
The mining and quarrying sector continued its strong performance by growing 6.1% in 2008. Gold production increased by 9.7%, spurred by prices approximately 25% higher than in 2007. The bauxite industry declined 6.7%, reflecting the drop in world demand in the second half of the year. Diamond production declined 37.2%, partly as a result of productive capacity being diverted to the gold industry.

The manufacturing sector (excluding sugar processing and rice milling) continued to show mixed performance, with sub-sectors such as rum, some beverages, and paint recording increased production, while others such as flour declined. The manufacturing sector contracted by 2% overall in 2008.

Construction and Engineering
The engineering and construction sector grew 8.5% in 2008 with the completion of a number of major public infrastructure projects, continued strong construction activity in the industrial and commercial sectors, and sustained expansion in residential housing development.

The service sector continued to grow strongly in 2008. The transport and communications sub-sectors grew by 9.9%; transportation increased given higher levels of activity and interaction between coastal and interior regions. The distribution sector grew by 11.8%, reflecting both increased domestic agricultural output and imported consumer and intermediate goods. Financial services continued its strong performance, growing by 12% while rental of dwellings grew by 4.5%.

The inflation rate was 6.4% in 2008, a significant decrease from the 14% experienced in 2007. The first half of 2008 saw an upward movement in food and commodity prices (including fuel) on the world market, which a reduction of prices in the second half of 2008 partially countered.

Exchange Rate
The exchange rate remained stable, trading around G$203/U.S.$1 according to the Bank of Guyana. Trading increased on the foreign exchange market, with foreign currency transactions totaling U.S. $4.8 billion in 2008, a 21.2% increase over the previous year. The currency’s stability resulted from the increased inflows in the form of export receipts and remittances roughly matching the rising value of imports.

Merchandise Trade
The trade deficit rose to $500 million in 2008. This reflected a rise in the value of imports that more than offset the increase in export earnings.

Export receipts in 2008 amounted to $800 million, which was up from 2007. This increase was a result of favorable world market conditions for Guyana’s primary commodities. Gold export earnings increased by 28.8% to $203.7 million as a result of increased volumes and strong prices. Bauxite export earnings increased by 29.2% to $131.1 million, despite a tapering of prices and volumes in later months. Rice exports also increased significantly, by 56.9% to $118 million, reflecting favorable price conditions. Export receipts from sugar suffered an 11.2% decline to $133.4 million, due to the lower volumes shipped and the impact of European price cuts. Guyana's primary export markets in 2008 were: Canada (29%), U.S. (16%), the U.K. (14%), Ukraine (5%), Netherlands (5%), Jamaica (4.1%), Germany (4%), and Trinidad and Tobago (3%).

The value of merchandise imports in 2008 grew by 20.6%, to $1.3 billion. The increase reflected activities associated with a 42.7% increase in the value of imported fuel and lubricants. The increase in the value of merchandise imports also reflects an 18.3% increase in imports of non-fuel immediate goods, a 17.2% increase in consumption goods, and a 9.1% increase in capital goods. Guyana's primary imports in 2008 were from the U.S. (29%), Trinidad and Tobago (27%), Venezuela (6%), the U.K. (5%), China (4%), Netherlands Antilles - Curacao (4%), Japan (3%), and Suriname (3%).

Debt Management
The stock of external debt grew by 16% in 2008 to $833.7 million, reflecting disbursements for multilateral projects along with bilateral loans. Debt service payments increased by 11% to $21 million. The government continued its effort to secure and conclude debt relief arrangements with all bilateral and remaining commercial creditors on terms comparable to those obtained from the Paris Club. Guyana concluded a debt cancellation agreement with Venezuela, which wrote off 100% of the $12 million outstanding debt.

After independence in 1966, Guyana sought an influential role in international affairs, particularly among Third World and nonaligned nations. It served twice on the UN Security Council (1975-76 and 1982-83). Former Vice President, Deputy Prime Minister, and Attorney General Mohamed Shahabuddeen served a 9-year term on the International Court of Justice (1987-96).

Guyana has diplomatic relations with a wide range of nations. The European Union (EU), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the UN Development Program (UNDP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Organization of American States (OAS) have offices in Georgetown. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has its Secretariat headquartered in Georgetown.

Guyana strongly supports the concept of regional integration. It played an important role in the founding of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), but its status as one of the organization's poorest members limits its ability to exert leadership in regional activities. Guyana has sought to keep foreign policy in close alignment with the consensus of CARICOM members, especially in voting in the UN, OAS, and other international organizations.

A longstanding maritime boundary dispute with Suriname was resolved largely in Guyana's favor in August 2007. The dispute had flared up in June 2000, when a Canadian company drilling for oil under a Guyanese concession was forced to cease operations by Surinamese military gunboats. After several failed attempts at negotiation, in 2004 Guyana took the dispute to the UN Law of the Sea tribunal, which unanimously determined that the vast majority of the area in contention belonged to Guyana. The resolution of this dispute will likely have significant ramifications for Guyana's economy in the long term, as the seabed is estimated to contain approximately 15 billion barrels of oil.

Another territorial disagreement remains unresolved, however. In 1962 Venezuela challenged a previously accepted 1899 international arbitration award, and claimed all of Guyana west of the Essequibo River--62% of Guyana's territory. At a meeting in Geneva in 1966, the two countries agreed to receive recommendations from a representative of the UN Secretary General on ways to settle the dispute peacefully. Diplomatic contacts between the two countries and the Secretary General's representative continue, with a quiet détente on the issue currently prevailing.

U.S. policy toward Guyana seeks to develop robust, sustainable democratic institutions, laws, and political practices; support economic growth and development; and promote stability and security. During the last years of his administration, President Hoyte sought to improve relations with the United States as part of a decision to move his country toward genuine political nonalignment. Relations also were improved by Hoyte's efforts to invite international observers for the 1992 elections and reform electoral laws, which resulted in the election of Cheddi Jagan of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) as President. A few months after his death in 1997, Jagan’s wife Janet, a former U.S. citizen, was elected President. She served until 1999, when due to ill health, she delegated her responsibilities to Bharrat Jagdeo. Jagdeo was first formally elected as President in 2001 and re-elected in 2006. This succession of democratic elections, and the first largely peaceful elections in 2006, as well as Guyana’s close cooperation with the U.S. on the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program, have placed U.S.-Guyanese relations on an excellent footing.

In an effort to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS in Guyana, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) opened an office at the U.S. Embassy in 2002. In January 2003, Guyana was named as one of only two countries in the Western Hemisphere to be included in PEPFAR. CDC, in coordination with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is administering a multi-million dollar program of education, prevention, and treatment for those infected and affected by the disease. Guyana also benefits from a $6.7 million, two-year threshold country program under the U.S. Millennium Challenge Account developmental program.

U.S. military medical and engineering teams continue to conduct training exercises in Guyana, digging wells, building schools and clinics, and providing medical treatment. In 2007, medical personnel aboard the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort provided free health care services to more than 10,000 Guyanese at six sites along the coast. In 2008, more than 6,000 residents in the remote Region One received free medical services when the USS Kearsarge visited Guyana.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Charge d'Affaires--Karen L. Williams
Political and Public Affairs Officer--Ken Reiman
Economic/Commercial Officer--Richard A. Bakewell
Chief, Consular Affairs--Malia Heroux
Management Officer--David Smale
Regional Security Officer--Millie Dominguez
Peace Corps Director--James Geenan
USAID Country Director--Carol Horning
Military Liaison Officer--Lt. Col. Melba Hernandez
CDC Country Director--Wrenn Slocum

The U.S. Embassy in Guyana is located at the corner of Duke and Young Streets, Georgetown (tel. 592-225-4900/9; fax: 592-225-8497).

Other Contact Information
U.S. Department of Commerce
International Trade Administration
Trade Information Center
14th and Constitution, NW
Washington, DC 20230
Tel: 800-USA-TRADE

Caribbean/Latin American Action
1818 N Street, NW, Suite 310
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: (202) 466-7464
Fax: (202) 822-0075