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officially Co-operative Republic of Guyana
Country, northeastern South America.

Area: 83,044 sq mi (215,083 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 751,000. Capital: Georgetown. About half the people are of South Asian descent; most of the rest are of African ancestry. Language: English (official). Religions: Christianity (Protestant, Roman Catholic), Hinduism, Islam. Currency: Guyana dollar. Guyana has a narrow Atlantic coastal plain that extends up to 10 mi (16 km) inland and includes reclaimed land protected by seawalls and canals. Inland, a high rainforest covers three-fourths of the country. The Pakaraima Mountains in the west provide headwaters for the Essequibo River. Guyana has a developing market economy with both public and private ownership. Major exports include sugar, rice, and bauxite. It is a multiparty republic with one legislative house; its head of state and government is the president. American Indians inhabited Guyana prior to European settlement, but little is known of them except that their name for the land, guiana (“land of waters”), gave the country its name. It was colonized by the Dutch in the 17th century. The British occupied the territory during the Napoleonic Wars and afterward purchased the colonies of Demerara, Berbice, and Essequibo, which were united in 1831 as British Guiana. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, but emancipation of the 100,000 slaves in the colonies was not complete until 1838. From the 1840s, South Asian and Chinese indentured servants were brought to work the plantations; by 1917 almost 240,000 South Asians had migrated to British Guiana. It was made a crown colony in 1928 and granted home rule in 1953. Political parties began to emerge, developing along ethnic lines as the People’s Progressive Party (largely South Asian) and the People’s National Congress (PNC; largely black). The PNC formed a coalition government and led the country into independence as Guyana in 1966. In 1970 Guyana became a republic within the Commonwealth; in 1980 it adopted a new constitution. In the last decades of the 20th century, Guyana moved away from the socialist approach first taken following independence. At the beginning of the 21st century, it was still struggling to achieve economic and political stability.

Official name Co-operative Republic of Guyana
Form of government unitary multiparty republic with one legislative house (National Assembly [65])
Head of state and government President
Capital Georgetown
Official language English
Official religion none
Monetary unit Guyanese dollar (G$)
Population estimate (2008) 736,000
Total area (sq mi) 83,012
Total area (sq km) 214,999

officially Co-operative Republic of Guyana

country located in the northeastern corner of South America. It is bordered by Venezuela to the west, Brazil to the southwest and south, Suriname (along the Courantyne River) to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the north. Most of the country’s population occupies the narrow coastal strip. The capital and chief port is Georgetown.

Present-day Guyana reflects its British colonial past and its reactions to that past. It is the only English-speaking country of South America. Since independence in 1966, Guyana’s chief economic assets—its sugarcane plantations and bauxite industry—have come under government control, as has most of the country’s commerce. Guyana’s populace is mainly of colonial origin, although a small number of aboriginal Indians are scattered throughout the forested interior.

The more numerous coastal peoples are chiefly descendants of slaves from Africa and indentured workers from India, who were originally imported to work the coastal sugarcane plantations. Racial problems between the latter two groups have played a disruptive role in Guyanaese society.

Politically, Guyana has moved on a steady course toward socialism from the time of independence, although after the death of the first prime minister, Forbes Burnham, in 1985, ties with Western powers were strengthened. It is a member of the Commonwealth.

The land

The narrow plain that extends along the country’s Atlantic coast has been modified considerably by humans. Much of the area, which measures only about 10 miles (16 kilometres) at its widest point, has been reclaimed from the sea by a series of canals and some 140 miles of dikes. The coastal plain’s inland border is generally marked by canals that separate the plain from interior swamps. South of the coastal zone the forested land rises gently and has sandy soils.

About 40 miles inland from the coast is a region of undulating land that rises from 50-foot (15-metre) hills on the coastal side of the region to 400-foot (120–metre) ones on the western side. The area is between 80 and 100 miles wide and is widest in the southeast. It is covered with sands, from which it takes its name as the white-sands (zanderij) region. A small savanna region in the east lies about 60 miles from the coast and is surrounded by the white-sands belt. The sands partly overlie a low crystalline plateau that is generally less than 500 feet in elevation. The plateau forms most of the country’s centre and is penetrated by igneous rock intrusions that cause the numerous rapids of Guyana’s rivers.

Beyond the crystalline plateau, the Kaieteurian Plateau lies generally below 1,600 feet above sea level; it is the site of the spectacular Kaieteur Falls, noted for their sheer 741-foot initial plunge. The plateau is overlain with sandstones and shales that, in the south, form the extensive Rupununi Savanna region. The Acarai Mountains (Serra Acaraí), which rise to about 2,000 feet, rim the plateau on the southern border, and it is crowned on the western frontier by the Pakaraima Mountains, which rise to 9,094 feet (2,772 metres) in Mount Roraima. The Rupununi Savanna is bisected by the east–west Kanuku Mountains, which rise to almost 3,000 feet.

Guyana’s four main rivers—the Courantyne, Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo—all flow from the south and empty into the Atlantic along the eastern section of the coast. Among the tributaries of the Essequibo, the Potaro, Mazaruni, and Cuyuni drain the northwest, and the Rupununi drains the southern savanna. The coast is cut by shorter rivers, including the Pomeroon, Mahaica, Mahaicony, and Abary.

The rivers are part of the watershed of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, and the headwaters of the Rupununi in Brazil are often confused with those of the Amazon. Drainage is poor, because the average gradient is only one foot per mile, and there are swamps and flooding in the mountains and savannas. The rivers are not suitable for long-distance transportation because they are broken by interior falls, and in the coastal zone their mouths and estuaries are blocked by mud and by sandbars that may occur two to three miles out to sea.

The coastal soils are fertile but acidic. The fine-particle, grayish blue clays of the coastal plain are composed of alluvium from the Amazon deposited by the south equatorial ocean current and of much smaller amounts of alluvium from the country’s rivers. They overlie white sands and clays and can support intensive agriculture but must be subjected to fallowing to restore fertility. Pegasse soil, a type of tropical peat, occurs behind the coastal clays and along the river estuaries, while silts line the banks of the lower rivers. Reef sands occur in bands in the coastal plain, especially near the Courantyne and Essequibo rivers. The rock soils of the interior are leached and infertile, and the white sands are almost pure quartz.

High temperatures, heavy rainfall with small seasonal differences, high humidity, and high average cloud cover provide climatic characteristics of an equatorial lowland. Temperatures are remarkably uniform. At Georgetown the daily temperature varies from 74° to 86° F (23° to 30° C), and the mean temperature is about 80° F (27° C). The constant heat and high humidity are mitigated near the coast by the trade winds.

Rainfall derives mainly from the movement of the intertropical front, or doldrums. It is heavy everywhere on the plateau and the coast. The annual average at Georgetown is about 90 inches (2,290 millimetres), and on the interior Rupununi Savanna it is about 70 inches. On the coast a long wet season, from April to August, and a short wet season, from December to early February, are sufficiently well marked on the average, but in the southern savannas the short wet season does not occur. Total annual rainfall is variable, and seasonal drought can occur in July and August when the southeast trade winds parallel the coast. Variations in Guyana’s climatic patterns have a determining effect on tropical crop production.

Plant and animal life
Many plants of the coast, such as the mangrove and various saltwater grasses, grow in shallow brackish water and help to protect or extend the land. The wet savanna behind the coast has coarse tufted grasses and a wide scattering of palms, notably the coconut, truli, and manicole. High rain forest, or selva, covers about three-fourths of the land area and is of extraordinary variety and magnificence. Prominent trees include the greenheart and the wallaba on the sandy soils of the northern edge, the giant mora and crabwood on swampy sites, the balata and other latex producers, and many species such as the siruaballi and hubaballi that yield handsome cabinet woods. The interior savanna is mostly open grassland, with much bare rock, many termite hills, and clumps of ita palm.

All forms of animal life are immensely varied and abundant, though few, apart from birds and insects, are normally visible. The tapir is the country’s largest land mammal, and the jaguar is the largest and fiercest of the cats, which also include the ocelot; monkeys and deer are the most common animals. Among the more exotic species are the sloth; great anteater; the capybara, or bush pig; and armadillo. Birds include the vulture, kiskadee, blue sacki, hummingbird, kingfisher, and scarlet ibis of the coast and lower rivers; and the macaw, tinamou, bell-bird, and cock-of-the-rock in the forest and savanna. The caiman (a reptile similar to the alligator) is the most common of the larger freshwater creatures. The giant anaconda, or water boa, is the largest of the many kinds of snakes, and the bushmaster is the most vicious. Lizards are numerous and include the iguana in the lower rivers. Sharks and stingrays are found offshore. The snapper and grouper are common ocean fish, and shrimps abound in the muddy currents off the coast. The manatee is also common in Guyanaese waters. Among the freshwater fish is the huge piraucu, which attains lengths up to 14 feet.

Settlement patterns
The country is divided traditionally between the coast, where most of the population is concentrated, and the interior. The coastal population is heterogeneous, its inhabitants descended from the labourers brought in to work the sugarcane plantations. The interior, despite scattered ranching and mining settlements, is largely the province of the indigenous Indians.

Guyanese society is predominantly rural, most of the people occupying villages in the coastal region. The highest population concentrations are along the estuary of the Demerara River and between the mouths of the Berbice and Courantyne rivers. Village units are of distinctive rectangular shapes, with the settlement areas nearest the ocean and connected to one another by the coastal highway; each village’s farmlands extend inland, often for several miles, and are separated from neighbouring village lands by canals. Villages range in size from several hundred to several thousand persons. The commonly found wood and concrete-block dwellings are usually built on stilts above the flood-prone land and are connected by footbridges to the streets, which are built over the drainage and irrigation canals.

Georgetown is the country’s main port and its largest city. Located at the mouth of the Demerara River, it lies below sea level and is protected by dikes along both the river and the sea. Other important towns include the interior bauxite-mining centre of Linden and the market centre of New Amsterdam, located on the mouth of the Berbice River. Agricultural centres, such as the sugarcane plantation of Port Mourant, east of New Amsterdam, and the rice centre of Anna Regina, north of the Essequibo River estuary, provide commercial and marketing functions in the rural areas of the coastal zone.

The people
The indigenous peoples of Guyana are collectively known as Amerindians and constitute about 4 percent of the population. Indian groups include the Warao (Warrau), Arawak, Carib, Wapisiana (Wapishana), Arecuna, the mixed “Spanish Arawak” of the Moruka River, and many more in the forest areas. The Makusí (Macussí or Macushí) are the most prominent of the savanna peoples. Sizable concentrations of Amerindians inhabit the far west along the border with Venezuela and Brazil. They are rarely seen in the populated coastal areas, although a few have interbred with blacks and East Indians. Since 1970, traditional Amerindian lands near the international borders have come under government control, although Amerindians continue to hold village lands informally throughout Guyana’s interior.

The other major elements in the population are predominantly coastal dwellers. Descendants of African slaves form the oldest group; they abandoned the plantations after full emancipation in 1838 to become independent peasantry or town dwellers. The Afro-Guyanese constitute about one-third of the population. The East Indians came mostly as indentured labour from India to replace Africans in plantation work. They form the largest racial group in the country—about half the population—and have been increasing more rapidly than the others. The East Indians are the mainstay of plantation agriculture, and many are independent farmers and landowners, have done well in trade, and are well represented among the professions.

The Chinese and Portuguese also entered originally as agricultural labourers but are now rarely found outside the towns. They are active in business and the professions, and their influence is disproportionate to their numbers; they have not been increasing, however, and together they constitute only a tiny percentage of the population. Europeans other than Portuguese are few, and most are short-term inhabitants. While every kind of racial mixture may be found, mulattoes (persons of mixed white and black ancestry) are by far the most common. Most of them live in towns, and a high proportion are in clerical or professional work.

The major religions are Christian (chiefly Anglican and Roman Catholic) and Hindu. Fundamentalist Protestantism has made inroads in the 20th century, mainly in Georgetown. There is also a sizable minority of Muslims. Animistic religions are still practiced by some of the Amerindian peoples. The official and principal language is English, but a creole patois is spoken throughout the country. Hindi and Urdu are heard occasionally among older East Indians.

Immigration is no longer important, and by the late 20th century the number of foreign-born, long-term residents was insignificant. Emigration has been a drain on the country’s human resources as thousands of persons have left annually, going mainly to the United States, Canada, England, and Caribbean islands. Many of the emigrants have been skilled and professional people whose loss has intensified the country’s severe economic problems. East Indians have emigrated in large numbers to flee what they consider political persecution, a number of them having sought part-time work across the Courantyne River in western Suriname.

The economy
Since independence Guyana has remained locked into a typical colonial economic dependency on agricultural and mined products, most notably sugarcane and bauxite. Independence brought economic reforms under a socialist-leaning government, but the effect on the old economic cycle has been minimal. Although the government permits a three-sector economy—private, public, and cooperative—the public sector remains heavily dominant.

Government management of the economy has become direct and significant. During the 1970s the government nationalized U.S. and Canadian bauxite holdings; in 1976 it nationalized the vast holdings of the Booker McConnell companies in Guyana, which included coastal sugarcane plantations as well as an array of light manufacturing and commercial enterprises. By the mid-1980s it was estimated that the government controlled directly more than 80 percent of Guyana’s economy. All nationalized businesses have been reorganized under the Guyana State Corporation. The state-owned Guyana Sugar Corporation controls the sugarcane plantations, and the Guyana Mining Enterprise Ltd. was established to oversee local mineral production.

The Guyanese economy has deteriorated under government management policies. Members of the ruling People’s National Congress (PNC) political party have been placed in managerial positions, leading to the exodus of former managers and clerical workers. Declining output, a reliance on volatile external commodity markets, and a reduced tax base have all increased financial deficits. External debt has risen precipitously, and a devalued currency has been eroded by speculation in the local black market. Reduced fuel imports have led to widespread power outages, and a government austerity program all but eliminated imported food and consumer goods. Guyana’s per capita income (estimated at about $600 in the late 1980s) places it among the world’s poorest countries. Improvements in economic conditions became dependent upon foreign aid and a variety of regional and reciprocal trade agreements.

Trade associations have an important influence in Guyanese government. The Trade Union Congress is an association of major unions, among which are the Guyana Mine Workers’ Union, which is composed almost exclusively of black workers, and the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union is a predominantly East Indian association.

The most important mineral resource is the extensive bauxite deposits between the Demerara and Berbice rivers. There are also significant deposits of manganese at Matthews Ridge in the northwest, about 30 miles east of the Venezuelan frontier. Diamonds occur in the Mazaruni and other rivers of the Pacaraima Mountains. Gold is found in both alluvial and subsurface deposits. Other minerals include copper, iron ore, molybdenite (the source of molybdenum), nickel, white sand (used in glass manufacture), kaolin (china clay), and graphite. The government has encouraged oil exploration, but no significant reserves have been found.

The main biological resource consists of the hardwoods of the tropical rain forest and especially the greenheart tree, which is resistant to termites, decay, and marine erosion. The shrimps off the coast and a few inland fishes form the basis of the nation’s fishing industry, and the grasses of the savanna regions are used for cattle grazing.

Most of Guyana’s energy must be imported; domestic electricity is produced largely by thermal generation and is available only on the coastal plain and along the lower reaches of the rivers. Hydroelectric potential in Guyana is considerable, especially at Tiger Hill on the Demerara River and Tiboku Falls on the Mazaruni. Development is hampered, however, by the remoteness of the falls and the large amounts of capital needed for generation and transmission facilities.

Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Agriculture is concentrated on the narrow sea-level coastal plain between the Essequibo and Courantyne rivers. Land-use patterns still reflect early Dutch and British water-control techniques. Arable land is laid out in strips between the sea or a river and inland swamps. It is protected on all sides by dikes and canals that are used for both irrigation and drainage. The land reclaimed from the sea is fertile but acidic; lost fertility must be returned to the soil by periodic fallowing or the addition of fertilizers.

Food crops include cassava, corn (maize), bananas, vegetables, and citrus fruits. Cash crops are mainly sugarcane and rice but also include coffee and cacao. Both sugarcane and rice are cultivated through a combination of mechanization and hand labour. Agricultural production increased during the mid-20th century, mainly because mechanization extended cultivable lands, although output stagnated in later decades as the entire economy foundered. East Indian workers overwhelmingly predominate in agriculture.

Livestock production is carried out on the Rupununi Savanna and on the coastal plain. Animals include beef cattle, dairy cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, and poultry.

Forestry activities are hampered by the lack of adequate transportation, the difficulty of cutting the extremely hard wood of Guyana’s trees, and the shortage of facilities for the sawing, storing, and shipping of timber. Most of the timber produced for the domestic market and for export is from the greenheart tree.

Many fishing facilities have been improved, and total production has increased as fishing has become a more important part of the economy. Shrimping is carried out primarily for export.

Guyana is one of the world’s largest producers of bauxite. All alumina (aluminum oxide occurring in hydrated form in bauxite) and most of the bauxite mined is produced at Linden. The rest of the country’s bauxite mining takes place on the Berbice River; a processing plant also operates downriver at Everton.

Diamonds continue to be mined by hand and by suction dredges in the interior rivers. Gold is mined by individual prospectors, and large-scale Canadian-financed gold mines were opened late in the 1980s.

The country’s many rice mills, like its rice fields, are generally small-scale and individually owned, although there are several large government mills along the coast. Other domestic industries are oriented toward the replacement of consumer imports such as cigarettes and matches, edible oils, margarine, beverages, soap and detergents, and clothing. Refined sugar, stock feeds, and rum and beer are also produced.

Finance and trade
The Bank of Guyana, established in 1965, has the sole right of note issue and acts as banker to the government and other banks. The country’s major commercial banks include three local banks and branches of Canadian and Indian banks. Other financial services are provided by the Guyana Cooperative Agricultural and Industrial Development Bank and the New Building Society; insurance companies, most of which are foreign-owned; and more than 1,500 cooperative societies, which serve as savings institutions and offer agricultural credit.

Guyana’s major trading partners are the United States, the United Kingdom, and Trinidad and Tobago. Guyana joined the Caribbean Free Trade Association (Carifta) in 1965 and then became a member of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom), which replaced Carifta in 1973. The major exports are bauxite and alumina, sugar, and rice. Shrimps, diamonds, molasses, rum, and timber are also sold abroad. Major imports include fuels and lubricants, machinery, vehicles, textiles, and foods.

The limited road and highway system is partly paved and partly made of burnt clay. The few hundred miles of paved roads are mostly in the coastal zone. The interior has few roads.

Guyana’s coastal railway, established in 1848 as South America’s first rail line, was discontinued in the 1970s, ending passenger service. A remaining freight line connects the manganese mines at Matthews Ridge with Port Kaituma on the Kaituma River, and another transports bauxite between Ituni and Linden.

Guyana Airways Corporation operates scheduled domestic and international flights. Timehri International Airport, established in 1968 and located 25 miles from Georgetown, is the country’s main airport and is served by several international airlines. Domestic commercial and private aircraft, chiefly carrying passengers and equipment, use landing strips and the quieter stretches of rivers.

Barges and small boats carry people and agricultural products in the canals of the coastal estates and villages. Larger boats traverse the estuaries that intersect the coastal plain. A pontoon bridge across the Demerara River opened in 1978; it is the only bridge to link major segments of the coastal plain. Bauxite is loaded into oceangoing ships at Linden and manganese ore at Port Kaituma, but otherwise the country’s external trade passes through Georgetown, which maintains connections with the West Indies, Suriname, French Guiana, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.

Government and social conditions
Guyana became an independent member of the Commonwealth in 1966 and in 1970 became a cooperative republic, involving citizens’ organizations in government. Under the constitution of Oct. 6, 1980, executive power is vested in the president, who leads the majority party in the unicameral National Assembly and holds office for the assembly’s duration. The president appoints the Cabinet, which is responsible to the National Assembly. The minority members of the assembly elect an opposition leader. The assembly is elected by universal adult suffrage for a term of five years.

The right to vote belongs to all Guyanese citizens 18 years of age or older. Voting is carried out by secret ballot under a system of proportional representation. Votes are cast for lists of candidates compiled by the political parties, and seats are allocated proportionally among the lists.

Since independence in 1966, Guyana has been ruled by one party, the People’s National Congress. Initially identified with the urban black populace, the PNC essentially established a one-party state under the direction of its first leader, Forbes Burnham. The PNC won power in an election marked by numerous reports of irregularities, many of which were related to the Guyana Defence Force (GDF), a military unit established in 1965 with strong ties to the PNC. Both the GDF and the police force are overwhelmingly black.

The People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the PNC’s official opposition, is the traditional party of the rural East Indians; smaller parties include the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), a newer party founded by the historian Walter Rodney and headed by black labour leaders and intelligentsia allied against alleged PNC corruption.

Local government is administered principally through the Regional Democratic Councils, each led by a chairman; they are elected for terms of up to five years and four months in each of the country’s 10 regions.

Guyana has two legal traditions, the British common law and the Roman-Dutch code, the latter now largely relegated to matters of land tenure. The constitution is the supreme law of the land. The court structure consists of magistrate courts for civil claims of small monetary value and minor offenses, the High Court, with original and appellate jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters, and the Court of Appeal, with appellate authority in criminal cases. The Court of Appeal and the High Court together constitute the Supreme Court.

Education is free and compulsory. Primary and secondary instruction are separate, although the lack of facilities makes it necessary to hold some secondary classes in primary schools. In 1976 the government assumed full responsibility for education from nursery school to university. Government authority was extended over all church and private primary schools. Teachers are expected to teach loyalty to both the PNC and socialist objectives. The principal university is the University of Guyana, founded in 1963 and subsequently housed at Turkeyen, in the eastern part of Greater Georgetown. The school has also become politicized, attendance there being contingent upon prospective students completing a year of national service, usually at camps in Guyana’s interior. Thus many Guyanese seek education and training abroad. There are also a number of other colleges, including technical and teacher-training schools.

Health and welfare
Health standards declined after independence. Many doctors and other trained personnel have emigrated, and economic austerity programs have reduced supplies of medicine and soap. Food shortages have created widespread malnutrition, especially in Georgetown. Diseases formerly under control, notably beriberi and malaria, had reappeared by the early 1980s, and sanitation problems have also increased.

Under colonial rule public health was centred around government and plantation health clinics. After independence a universal health care system was instituted, and most hospital facilities came under government control. Health problems arise particularly along the easily flooded coast, where the many ditches and ponds provide ideal environments for the spread of disease. A minimal government pension plan for the sick and aged has continued beyond independence, its effectiveness reduced by inflation. Government housing projects, confined mainly to the Georgetown area, have not produced expected results.

The national social structure was inherited from the period of British colonial rule, under which the majority of East Indian and Afro-Guyanese labourers were directed by white planters and government officials. A poorly defined local middle class composed of teachers, professionals, and civil servants, and including a disproportionate number of Chinese and Portuguese, emerged during colonialism. Since independence the PNC political elite has replaced the white plantocracy at the apex of Guyana’s social order. The Amerindians remain apart from the country’s social structure as they did under the British.

Cultural life
Postindependence Guyanese culture still bears the imprint of its colonial heritage. Guyanese were taught to respect and covet European values during the colonial era, and this has not changed despite government exhortation. Yet ethnic identity continues to be important, with daily life centring around ethnic and family groups; the mother- and grandmother-dominated family among blacks differs from the father-oriented East Indian family. Men of both groups often commute long distances to work along the coastal highway. Daily dress normally does not distinguish one group from another.

Amerindian culture, which remains uninfluenced by national politics, is recognized as an important element in Guyanese museum displays and as an inspiration in local music and painting. Cultural institutions are concentrated in Georgetown, including the Guyana Museum, which includes the Guyana Zoo, with its impressive collection of animals from northern South America. Guyanese writers have made noteworthy contributions to literature; the works of Wilson Harris, A.J. Seymour, and Walter Rodney are among the foremost.

Much recreational activity is based upon the festivities that accompany Hindu, Muslim, and Christian holidays. The Guyanese share the passion for cricket that is prevalent throughout the English-speaking Caribbean.

The government has taken nearly complete control over local news media, including the one radio station and the single daily newspaper. Objections against censorship have been on the rise from opposing political and church groups. In 1988 Guyana’s first television station was established under government control.

The first human inhabitants of Guyana probably came into the highlands during the first millennium bc. Among the earliest settlers were groups of Arawak, Carib, and possibly Warao (Warrau). The early communities practiced shifting agriculture supplemented by hunting. Christopher Columbus sighted the Guyana coast in 1498, and Spain subsequently claimed, but largely avoided, the area between the Orinoco and Amazon deltas, a region long known as the Wild Coast. It was the Dutch who finally began European settlement, establishing trading posts upriver in about 1580. By the mid-17th century they had begun importing slaves from West Africa to cultivate sugarcane. In the 18th century the Dutch, joined by other Europeans, were moving their estates downriver toward the fertile soils of the estuaries and coastal mud flats. Laurens Storm van ’s Gravesande, governor of Essequibo from 1742 to 1772, coordinated these development efforts.

Guyana changed hands with bewildering frequency during the wars (mostly between the British and the French) from 1780 to 1815. During a brief French occupation, Longchamps, later called Georgetown, was established at the mouth of the Demerara; the Dutch renamed it Stabroek and continued to develop it. The British took over in 1796 and remained in possession, except for short intervals, until 1814, when they purchased Demerara, Berbice, and Essequibo, which in 1831 were united as the colony of British Guiana.

The slave trade was abolished in 1807, when there were about 100,000 slaves in Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo. After full emancipation in 1838, black freedmen left the plantations to establish their own settlements along the coastal plain. The planters then imported labour from several sources, the most successful group being indentured workers from India. Indentured labourers who had earned their freedom settled in coastal villages near the estates, a process that became established in the late 19th century during a serious economic depression caused by competition with European sugar beet production.

Settlement proceeded slowly, but gold was discovered in 1879 and a boom in the 1890s helped the colony. The North Western District was organized in 1889 and was the cause of a dispute in 1895 when the United States supported Venezuela’s claims to the territory. Venezuela revived its claims on British Guiana in 1962, an issue that went to the United Nations for mediation in the early 1980s but was not immediately resolved.

The British inherited from the Dutch a complicated constitutional structure. Changes in 1891 led to progressively greater power being held by locally elected officials, but reforms in 1928 invested all power in the governor and the Colonial Office. In 1953 a new constitution—with universal adult suffrage, a bicameral elected legislature, and a ministerial system—was introduced.

From 1953 to 1966 the political history of the colony was stormy. The first elected government, formed by the People’s Progressive Party led by Cheddi Jagan, seemed so procommunist that the British suspended the constitution in October 1953 and dispatched troops. The constitution was not restored until 1957. The PPP split along racial lines, Jagan leading a predominately East Indian party and Forbes Burnham leading a party of African descendants, the People’s National Congress. In the elections of 1957 and 1961, the PPP was returned with working majorities. From 1961 to 1964 severe rioting involving bloodshed between rival blacks and East Indians and a long general strike led to the return of British troops.

To answer the PNC allegation that the existing electoral system unduly favoured the East Indian community, the British government introduced for the elections of December 1964 a new system of proportional representation. Thereafter the PNC and a smaller, more conservative party formed a coalition government, led by Burnham, which took the colony into independence under its new name, Guyana, on May 26, 1966. The PNC gained full power in the general election of 1968, which was characterized by questionable rolls of overseas voters and widespread claims of electoral impropriety. On February 23, 1970, Guyana was proclaimed a cooperative republic within the Commonwealth. A president was elected by the National Assembly, but Burnham retained executive power as prime minister. Burnham declared his government to be socialist and in the later 1970s sought to reorder the government in his favour. In 1978 one of the most bizarre incidents in modern history occurred in Guyana when some 900 members of a religious cult in a commune known as Jonestown committed mass suicide at the behest of their leader, the Reverend Jim Jones.

In 1980, under a new constitution, Burnham became executive president, with still wider powers, after an election in which international observers detected widespread fraud. Two major assassinations also occurred at this time. Jesuit priest and journalist Bernard Darke was killed in July 1979 and prominent historian–political leader Walter Rodney in June 1980; many observers accused Burnham of involvement in the killings. In the following years Burnham was faced with an economy shattered by the depressed demand for bauxite and sugar and a restive populace suffering from severe commodity shortages and a near breakdown of essential public services. Burnham enforced austerity measures, and he began leaning toward Soviet-bloc countries for support. Burnham died in 1985 and was succeeded by the prime minister, Hugh Desmond Hoyte, who pledged to continue Burnham’s policies. In elections held that year Hoyte won the presidency by a wide margin, but once again charges of vote fraud were raised.

In the late 1980s Hoyte gradually shifted away from Burnham’s ideology, denouncing communism and granting more rights to the Guyanese. His administration, facing worsening financial and economic problems, moved to liberalize the economy. He also bowed to pressure for electoral reform, and elections held in 1992 were considered free and fair by international observers. The PPP triumphed in the elections and Jagan became president. In contrast with the strong socialist views he held decades earlier, Jagan now advocated policies more conducive to democratization and economic reform. After Jagan’s death in 1997, his wife, Janet Jagan, was elected president in elections held later that year. The PNC disputed the results of the elections; many demonstrations and protests ensued. Janet Jagan stepped down in 1999, attributing her resignation to ill health. Bharrat Jagdeo was appointed president; he was reelected in 2001.

The beginning of the 21st century found Guyana confronting an increase in violent crime, struggling to improve the economy, and dealing with ethnic tension and episodic political unrest. Guyana continued to work with international organizations and foreign countries to increase economic stability and strengthen international relations.




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