U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Guyana, March 1998
Official Name: Co-operative Republic of Guyana
Area: 214,970 sq. km. (82,980 sq. mi.); about the size of Idaho.
Cities: Capital--Georgetown (pop. 248,500). Other cities--Linden
(27,200) and New Amsterdam (17,700).
Terrain: Coastal plain, inland highlands, rain forest, savanna.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Guyanese (sing. and pl.)
Ethnic groups: East Indian origin 51%, African origin 30%, mixed 14%,
Religions: Christian 50%, Hindu 33%, Muslim 9%, other 8%.
Languages: English, Guyanese Creole, Indian dialects.
Education: Years compulsory--ages 5 1/2-14 1/2. Attendance--93%;
Literacy--98% of adults who have attended school.
Health: Infant mortality rate--35/1,000. Life expectancy--men 61 yrs.,
Work force (245,000): Industry and commerce--45%, agriculture--33%,
Type: Republic within the Commonwealth.
Independence: May 26, 1966; Republic--February 23, 1970.
Branches: Executive--executive president (chief of state and head of
government), prime minister. Legislative--unicameral National Assembly
(53 directly, 12 indirectly elected members for five-year term 1992-97).
Judicial--Judicial Court of Appeal, High Court.
Subdivisions: 10 regions.
Political parties (voting seats in the National Assembly): People's
Progressive Party (PPP/CIVIC) 36; People's National Congress (PNC) 25;
Working People's Alliance (WPA) 2; The United Force (TUF) 2.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
GDP: $600 million.
Real annual growth rate: 7.9%.
Per capita GDP: $766.
Agriculture: Products--sugar, rice.
Natural resources: Gold, bauxite, diamonds, timber, shrimp, fish.
Industry: Types--gold and bauxite mining, manufacturing, processing.
Trade (1995): Exports--$495.7 million: sugar, bauxite, rice, gold,
shrimp, rum, timber, molasses. Major markets--U.S. (21%), U.K., CARICOM
countries, Canada. Imports--$536.5 million. Major suppliers--U.S. (26%),
U.K., Venezuela, CARICOM, Canada.
Exchange rate: 144 Guyana dollars=U.S. $1.
Guyana's population is made up of five main ethnic groups--East Indian,
African, American Indian, 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. Many school buildings are in poor
condition; there is a shortage of text and exercise books; the number of
teachers has declined; and fees are being charged at the university
level for some courses of study for the first time.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the region was inhabited by both Carib
and Arawak tribes, who named it Guiana, which means land of 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 sugar cane
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 East Indians and blacks erupted in 1962-64.
However, the basically conservative and cooperative nature of Guyanese
society contributed to a cooling of racial tensions.
Guyanese politics, nevertheless, occasionally 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; Cheddi Jagan, a U.S.-
educated Indo-Guyanese, as second vice-chairman; and his American-born
wife, Mrs. 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
seven 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. 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 Working
People's Alliance (WPA) party leader Walter Rodney in June 1980. Agents
of President Burnham are widely believed to have been responsible for
Following Burnham's death, 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 elections 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.
Legislative power rests in a unicameral National Assembly, with 53
members chosen on the basis of proportional representation from national
lists named by the political parties. An additional 12 members are
elected by regional councils elected at the same time as the National
Assembly. 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. 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. Only the
prime minister is required to be a member of the assembly; in practice,
most other ministers are also members. Those who are not members serve
as nonelected members, which permits them to debate but not 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
For administrative purposes, Guyana is divided into 10 regions, each
headed by a chairman who presides over a regional democratic council.
Local communities are administered by village or city councils.
Principal Government Officials
Executive President--Janet Jagan
Prime Minister--Samuel A. Hinds
Foreign Minister--Clement Rohee
Ambassador to the U.S. and OAS--Mohammed Ali Odeen Ishmael
Permanent Representative to the UN-Rudy Insanally
Guyana maintains an embassy in the United States at 2490 Tracy Place,
NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-276-6900).
Race and ideology have been the dominant political influences in Guyana.
Since the split of the multi-racial PPP in 1955, politics has been based
more on ethnicity than on ideology. From 1964 to 1992, the People's
National Congress (PNC) dominated Guyana's politics. The PNC draws its
support primarily from urban blacks and for many years declared itself a
socialist party whose purpose was to make Guyana a nonaligned socialist
state, in which the party, as in communist countries, was above all
The overwhelming majority of Guyanese of East Indian extraction
traditionally have backed the People's Progressive Party, headed by
Cheddi Jagan. Rice farmers and sugar workers in the rural areas form the
bulk of PPP's support, but Indo-Guyanese who dominate the country's
urban business community have also provided important support.
Following independence, and with the help of substantial foreign aid,
social benefits were provided to a broader section of the population,
specifically in health (e.g., establishment of rural clinics),
education, housing, road and bridge building, agriculture, and rural
development. However, during Forbes Burnham's last years, the
government's attempts to build a socialist society 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 and 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 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. Mrs.
Jagan is a founding member of the PPP and was very active in party
politics. She was Guyana's first female prime minister and vice
president, two roles she performed concurrently.
In national elections, December 15, 1997, Janet Jagan was elected
president and her PPP party won a 55% majority of seats in Parliament.
She was sworn in on December 19. The PNC, which won just under 40% of
the vote, disputed the results and made allegations of 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 new elections under the new constitution within three
With a per capita gross domestic product of only $766 in 1996, Guyana is
one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. The economy made
dramatic progress after President Hoyte's 1989 economic recovery program
(ERP). As a result of the ERP, Guyana's GDP increased 6% in 1991 after
15 years of decline. Growth was consistently above 6% until 1995 when it
dipped to 5.1%. The government reported that the economy grew at a rate
of 7.9% in 1996, and 6.3% in 1997. It is estimated that the 1998 growth
rate will fall to 4.3%.
Developed in conjunction with the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund (IMF), the ERP significantly reduced the government's role
in the economy; encouraged foreign investment; enabled the government to
clear all its arrears on loan repayments to foreign governments and the
multilateral banks; and brought about the sale of 15 of the 41
government-owned (parastatal) businesses.
The telephone company and assets in the timber, rice, and fishing
industries were also privatized. International corporations were hired
to manage the huge state sugar company, GUYSUCO, and the largest state
bauxite mine. An American company was allowed to open a new bauxite mine
and two Canadian companies were permitted to develop the largest open-
pit gold mine in Latin America.
Most price controls were removed, the laws affecting mining and oil
exploration were improved, and an investment policy receptive to foreign
investment was announced. Tax reforms designed to promote exports and
agricultural production in the private sector were enacted.
Agriculture and mining are Guyana's most important economic activities,
with sugar, bauxite, rice, and gold accounting for 75%-80% of export
earnings. Ocean shrimp accounted for another 15% in 1990, but declining
catches reduced shrimp exports in 1994. Other exports include timber,
diamonds, garments, and locally assembled stoves and refrigerators. The
value of these other exports is increasing.
Since 1986, Guyana has received its entire wheat supply from the United
States on concessional terms under a PL 480 Food for Peace program. It
is now on a grant basis. The Guyanese currency generated by the sale of
the wheat is used for purposes jointly agreed upon by the U.S. and
Guyana's external debt of $2.1 billion was more than four times its GDP.
A Paris Club rescheduling under Naples terms has reduced the debt to
$1.5 billion. Guyana hopes to benefit from the newly proposed IMF and
World Bank assistance programs but it is unclear when Guyana will
qualify. Debt service payment obligations were equal to 40% of its
earnings from exports. About half is owed to the multilateral
development banks and 20% to its neighbor Trinidad, which until 1986 was
its principal supplier of petroleum products. Almost all debt to the
U.S. Government has been forgiven. Net international reserves had
improved to $246 million by the end of 1993. Guyana's extremely high
debt burden to foreign creditors has meant limited availability of
foreign exchange and reduced capacity to import necessary raw materials,
spare parts, and equipment, thereby further reducing production. The
decline of production has increased unemployment. Although no reliable
statistics exist, combined unemployment and underemployment are
estimated at about 30%. Emigration, principally to the U.S. and Canada,
After years of a state-dominated economy, the mechanisms for private
investment, domestic or foreign, are still evolving. The shift from a
state-controlled economy to a primarily free market system began under
Desmond Hoyte and continued under Cheddi Jagan. The new Jagan
administration recognizes the need for foreign investment to create
jobs, enhance technical capabilities, and generate goods for export.
The foreign exchange market was fully liberalized in 1991 and currency
is now freely traded without restriction. The rate is subject to change
on a daily basis, but the Guyana dollar has dropped in value by only 15%
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 nine-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 (IADB), the UN
Development Program (UNDP), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the
Organization of American States (OAS), have offices 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 the organization's poorest member
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
As a member of CARICOM, which has its secretariat in Georgetown, Guyana
strongly backed United States policy on Haiti and contributed personnel
to the Multinational Force, which restored the democratically elected
government in Haiti in October 1994.
Since its 1993 ratification of the 1988 Vienna Convention on illicit
traffic in narcotic drugs, Guyana has been a member of all the major
international agreements for cooperation against narcotics trafficking,
and it cooperates closely with U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Two neighbors have long-standing territorial disputes with Guyana. Since
the 19th century, Venezuela has 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. Neighboring Suriname also
claims the Territory east of Guyana's New River, a largely uninhabited
area of some 15,000 square kilometers (6,000 sq. mi.) in southeast
Guyana. Guyana regards its legal title to all of its territory as sound.
U.S. policy toward Guyana seeks to promote democracy, sustainable
development, and human rights. 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 were also improved by Hoyte's efforts
to respect human rights, invite international observers for the 1992
elections, and reform electoral laws. The United States also welcomed
the Hoyte government's economic reform and stimulus efforts, which
stimulated investment and growth. The 1992 democratic elections and
Guyana's reaffirmation of sound economic policies and respect for human
rights have placed U.S.-Guyanese relations on an excellent footing.
Under President Cheddi Jagan and President Hinds, the United States and
Guyana continued to improve relations. President Jagan was committed to
democracy, followed a pro-Western foreign policy, adopted more free
market policies, and pursued sustainable development for Guyana's
President Hinds joined President Clinton and 14 other Caribbean leaders
in May 1997, during the first-ever U.S.-regional summit in Bridgetown,
Barbados. The meeting strengthened the basis for regioinal cooperation
on justice and counternarcotics, finance and development, and trade. The
U.S. expects to maintain positive relations with Mrs. Jagan's
Following the 1992 elections, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United
States increased their aid to Guyana. U.S. assistance had ceased in 1982
due to economic and political differences with the Burnham regime, but
in 1986, the United States began to supply humanitarian food aid to the
country, to a total value of nearly $500 million in the years 1986-93.
Altogether, since 1955, the United States has provided Guyana with more
than $171 million in assistance.
U.S. military medical and engineering teams have conducted training
exercises in Guyana, digging wells, building schools and clinics, and
providing medical treatment.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--James F. Mack
Deputy Chief of Mission--Hugh V. Simon
Chief, Political and Economic Affairs--Gregory Thome
Consular--Theresa A. Hebron
Economic and Commercial Officer--Graham Webster
Peace Corps Director--Gary Thompson
U.S. AID Country Director--Robert McDuff
The U.S. embassy in Guyana is located at the corner of Duke and Young
Streets, Georgetown (tel. 592-2-54900/9; fax: 592-2-58497).
OTHER CONTACT INFORMATION:
U.S. Department of Commerce
International Trade Administration
Trade Information Center
14th and Constitution, NW
Washington, DC 20230
Caribbean/Latin American Action
1818 N Street, NW, Suite 310
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: (202) 466-7464
Fax: (202) 822-0075
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