Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main minority and indigenous communities: Amerindian (10.5 per cent), Portuguese (0.3 per cent) and Chinese (0.2 per cent) populations (2012 Census).
Main languages: English, Hindi/Urdu, indigenous languages
Main religions: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, indigenous religions
The majority of the population of Guyana is of African (29.2 per cent), mixed heritage (19.9 per cent) and East Indian (39.9 per cent) descent (2012 Census), with Indo-Guyanese being the dominant group. The rest of the population is of European, Chinese or indigenous origin.
The indigenous peoples are known locally as ‘Amerindians’ and comprise nine distinct groups, three in coastal areas, and six in the forest and savannah areas of the interior. The indigenous peoples include Arawaks, Wai Wai, Caribs, Akawaio, Arecuna, Patamona, Wapixana, Macushi and Warao.
Ninety per cent of Amerindian communities are located in the interior of the country. Their standard of living is lower than that of most citizens, and they have limited opportunity to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions or allocation of natural resources.
Most of Guyana’s indigenous peoples have undergone extensive cultural modification. Those of the coast share many cultural features with Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese. In addition, over the centuries there has been significant intermarriage between the coastal indigenous communities and Afro-Guyanese.
After decades of European contact all indigenous peoples have been considerably affected by the efforts of Christian missionaries and integrated in some way at the lowest levels of the national economy.
As in other former colonial territories, social class, skin colour, religion and ethnic appearance have long been key factors in the socio- political life of Guyana. Afro-Guyanese with a 300-year ancestral history of being involuntarily imported into the country essentially assimilated into the dominant Christian colonial European Creole culture. On the other hand Indo-Guyanese whose ancestors voluntarily migrated in the late 19th century tended to conserve their own traditions and to remain more culturally and religiously distinct. However, this does not take into account the significant amount of intermarriage, religious conversions and the cross-adoption of each group’s cultural traits over several generations.
While not the main reason for rising tensions, the continuing inter-ethnic friction can be attributed largely to political opportunism and competition for the allotment of scarce resources. Over the years relative social and economic positions have changed markedly between the two groups. In the country’s difficult economic environment any easing of ethnic tensions is usually directly tied to improvement in the country’s overall material condition.
Updated January 2018
The majority of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana’s inhabitants are concentrated along the coast, and are of African and East Indian descent, with Indo-Guyanese being the dominant group in government and business. Tensions between these two groups have been played out in the political arena, with rival parties regarded as representing the interests of one particular community. However, despite a long history of divided politics, the most recent elections in May 2015 saw the incumbent PPP toppled by an alliance between the APNU and a coalition of parties achieved victory on an explicitly inclusive platform that actively rejected the ethnic divisions that had characterized the preceding decades, bringing hope for a new chapter in the country’s troubled political climate. The composition of the current cabinet is diverse, including a number of Afro-Guyanese, Indo-Guyanese as well as a number of Amerindians. The question still remains whether the legacy of ethnically driven politics can so quickly be overcome.
Nevertheless, the country continues to suffer marked disparities between its centre and less developed hinterlands, creating significant inequalities that impact particularly on its indigenous population. Locally termed Amerindians, they are concentrated in the vast and remote savannah, riverain and heavily rain-forested interior. Amerindians share many national cultural traits with Afro- and Indo-Guyanese; however, the traditional Amerindian communal hinterland lifestyle and the use of ancestral idioms (as opposed to English) as their first language serve to set Amerindians apart from the more urban mainstream coastal population.
The standard of living of indigenous peoples in Guyana also remains lower than most of the non-indigenous population. Indigenous peoples continue to receive poor social services, inadequate education and lower incomes, and have limited opportunities to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions and allocation of natural resources.
Underlying much of these problems is the continued threat posed to indigenous communal territory, even titled land, by mining concessions. While the 2006 Amerindian Act was supposed to resolve these issues, problems persist with weak implementation and continued obstruction by authorities to community claims. During the 15th session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May 2016, for example, the Chairman of the National Toshaos Council testified on the need to reinforce its provisions to ensure indigenous land rights were respected in practice.
Updated January 2018
The Co-operative Republic of Guyana is located on the northern coast of South America. It is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the east by Suriname, on the west by Brazil and Venezuela and on the south by Brazil. Guyana has an area of 214,969 square kilometers, however as a result of its history as a plantation colony about 90 per cent of the population is concentrated on the 435 km long coastal strip.
The territory now known as Guyana was first inhabited by indigenous groups such as the Carib (Galibi or Kalinago), Arawak (Taino), Warrau, Wayana and Akawai.
The first Europeans to settle were from Holland. In 1621 the Dutch West India Company acquired a charter to colonize and monopolize trade in the Americas and in Africa where they established a chain of slave trading and collection forts along the western African coast to supply slave labour for the Americas.
The first of many hundreds of shiploads of enslaved Africans began arriving in Guyana in 1640 to work on the Dutch slave labour plantations. The extremely harsh treatment led to short lifespans, regular escapes and a very major slave rebellion in 1763 which was only finally put down with the arrival of warships and European troops.
For most of the 17th and 18th centuries the Dutch prevailed over colonizing attempts by French and British rivals. Dutch administration was instrumental in establishing the main towns. Slave labour was used to build the remarkable system of large drainage canals, dikes and sluices that form a protective barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the low lying coastline where the majority of the population still lives.
Abolition and indenture
The Dutch finally surrendered the territory to the British in 1803, after which it became a British colony officially established as British Guiana in 1831.
19th century life on British controlled plantations was hardly better for the enslaved Africans. In 1823 another major slave revolt ended with hangings and the public display of the bodies of those involved. Slavery was finally abolished in 1833 but the newly emancipated slaves were still required to provide an additional five years of compulsory but paid labour, which was called ‘apprenticeship’.
To combat the labour shortage from 1835 onwards Portuguese from the island of Madeira were imported under indentureship contracts but could not endure the harsh local conditions. Almost a thousand Portuguese immigrants died within the first two years. They rapidly moved off the estates to the main urban centres becoming traders and shopkeepers, eventually coming to dominate commerce and political life.
At the end of their ‘apprenticeship’ period the fully emancipated Africans increasingly deserted the plantations. They moved to the towns or pooled capital to jointly purchase abandoned sugar estates along the coast, which they turned into independent collective farms and free villages.
East Indian indentured labour was brought in as a solution to the labour shortage. In 1838 the first of several thousand East Indian labourers arrived from colonial Calcutta under contract for a five-year period. Along with free passage they were housed and given rations, but received no payment in the initial period. Their material conditions differed very little from those during slavery. At the end of the first five-year period many opted for a free return passage and repatriated to India in 1843.
Nonetheless very substantial East Indian indentureship immigration continued for the rest of the 19th century until its eventual abolition in 1917. The vast majority of the immigrants remained in the colony firmly tied to the plantation economy well into the 20th century.
From 1853 onwards contract Chinese labourers were also brought to British Guiana. Like the Portuguese they too quickly left the estates and entered commerce in the main towns and villages.
With the discovery of gold in 1878 Afro-Guyanese became prospectors in the interior further severing their connection with the plantation system and agricultural labour and enhancing the material development of the free villages. The later establishment of bauxite mining would continue this pattern.
The 1878 gold rush also encouraged significant additional migration of African descendants from other West Indian islands. This strengthened the predisposition of Afro-Guyanese to see themselves more as a ‘Caribbean people’ with family and cultural links extending to the islands.
The increasingly urban Afro-Guyanese actively pursued education offered by Christian denominational schools and eventually came to dominate the manual trades and the available positions for local teachers, clerks, nurses and in the junior ranks of the colonial security services. They were also in the forefront of trade union organizing and the anti-colonial movement.
Meanwhile by the mid-20th century due to high birth rates the predominantly rural Indo-Guyanese population had grown more rapidly than all others. Furthermore while remaining the mainstay of plantation agriculture they had also used their savings to rent or buy land and educate their children. They increasingly became independent farmers and landowners and moved into commerce and the professions.
Ethnicity and anti-colonial politics
Following a decade of unrest in the British Caribbean, and riots on the local sugar estates in 1948, the Guyana electorate became the first in the region to be granted adult suffrage. This led to the formation of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) by young educated Indo- and Afro-Guyanese professionals. The then multi-ethnic party represented the interests of both the rural agricultural workers (mostly Indo-Guyanese ) and the urban working class (mostly Afro-Guyanese).
The first election under universal adult suffrage in 1953 brought the PPP to power but protests by the newly elected representatives over lack of any real cabinet power led the British colonial authorities to suspend the Constitution. The House of Assembly was disbanded, British troops were brought in and all political activity forbidden. In the power struggle that emerged the PPP split along ethnic and demographic lines with urban Afro-Guyanese leaving the party to eventually form the People’s National Congress (PNC).
By the time the Constitution was restored in 1957 the PPP under the left leaning first generation Indo-Guyanese Dr Cheddie Jagan mainly focused on the interests of the rural agricultural Indo-Guyanese constituency. The PNC led by Forbes Burnham was much more concerned with the needs of urban working class Afro-Guyanese.
The ongoing turmoil in Guyana meant that the country now lagged behind neighbouring Caribbean territories like Jamaica and Trinidad, which by 1958 had already received Cabinet status and become members of the West Indian Federation.
In 1961 the PPP was again victorious in elections aimed at internal self-government. However with independence looming and left- wing revolutionary forces proving triumphant in Cuba, Cheddie Jagan’s admission of Communist leanings seriously alarmed Britain and the US. They both feared the establishment of a Soviet backed communist beachhead on the South American mainland, and strongly favoured the opposition parties led by the Afro-Guyanese Forbes Burnham (PNC) and Portuguese Guyanese Peter D’Aguair (United Front).
Playing on pro-western anti-communist sentiments the opposition together with externally funded trade unions undertook a series of destabilizing anti-government demonstrations and riots between 1961 and 1964. Lives and homes were destroyed as ethnic mistrust and suspicion grew and formerly integrated rural neigbourhoods began to devolve increasingly along ethnic lines.
The institution of proportional representation in 1964 greatly exacerbated the trend since it allowed the political parties parliamentary seats based on percentage of votes. Racial politics began to completely dominate the national debate as party strategists on both sides sought to increase their vote shares by blatantly appealing to ethnic sentiments and underlying fears of domination. When the PPP lost power in the 1964 elections, the PNC formed a coalition with the United Front, thereby producing a majority and allowing Forbes Burnham to become the new prime minister.
Fearing the consequences of British departure and a locally run post-colonial administration many middle class Guyanese (mostly mixed race) began immigrating in large numbers to North America. This initiated the out-migration trend of well-trained but apprehensive nationals that has continued ever since.
Post-independence ethnic relations
In 1966 the country was granted independence and became known as Guyana, opting to become the Co-operative Republic of Guyana in 1970.
In elections of 1968 and 1973 the PNC retained power. This established a pattern that would be reflected in all subsequent political activity. Ethnicity would play a major role; the PPP would generally favour the East Indian community; the PNC would generally court Afro- Guyanese and whoever lost would charge fraud and challenge the validity of the polls.
Opposition to the PNC and ethnic tensions grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s and government relations with the church and human rights movements also deteriorated after opposition leaders were arrested. In efforts to create a more self-reliant economy the PNC government banned the importation of many popular food products and nationalized the major industries. This included some items that were central to East Indian cultural life (for example potatoes and wheat flour) and the measures were perceived as more evidence of PNC insensitivity and bias.
In the late 1980s, social unrest and industrial disruption, that included a six-week strike in the sugar and bauxite industries, hampered further government attempts at reform.
Forbes Burnham died in 1985, after two decades in office and a period of severe economic crisis. Ethnic tensions though high were relatively free from violence. During this period although not dominant in politics, Indo-Guyanese had increasingly consolidated their economic position becoming more urbanized and ascendant in the commercial sector and the civil services.
In 1985 Afro-Guyanese Desmond Hoyte assumed the presidency, amidst more allegations of vote rigging. Pressured to conduct free and fair elections, in 1990 Hoyte announced new elections for October 1992 and for the next two years attempted to implement economic reforms that had a notable effect. From the late 1980s onwards bauxite mining, gold and rice production increased and the economy began achieving annual growth rates in excess of 6 per cent.
Return of the PPP
In the elections of 1992, which were deemed reasonably free and fair by international observers, the PPP returned to power with Cheddi Jagan once again becoming president. However the ousting of the PNC led to serious riots by mainly Afro-Guyanese supporters who complained of fraud and election rigging.
With the PPP in power it was Afro-Guyanese who now began to complain of discrimination. Ethnic tensions increased; especially criticisms regarding the firing of civil servants who had served under the previous administration (mostly Afro-Guyanese), and their replacement with Indo-Guyanese.
The economy continued growing during the Jagan years, but average wages remained low, and labour unrest continued. Following Jagan’s unexpected death in 1997, his American-born widow was elected president and sworn in during a secret ceremony just prior to being served a court order barring her from office.
Janet Jagan’s regime was marked by a sharp increase in racial rancor, work stoppages and protests against the PPP. Investment declined, the economy deteriorated. Guyana experienced a negative growth rate in 1998 for the first time in the decade, and wages remained extremely low. The outward exodus of people continued; many of them Indo-Guyanese economic migrants.
In 1999 Janet Jagan resigned and was replaced as president by Indo-Guyanese Bharrat Jagdeo under strong protests by the PNC who challenged the legality of the transfer. Elections scheduled for 2000 were delayed until the following year, with support from both the business community and human rights groups.
Despite the high tensions under the Burnham and Hoyte regimes, violence between the groups had been minimal, however when the PPP won a third term in 2001, the results ignited riots across the country, shutting down much of the economy. The resulting stand-off between President Bharrat Jagdeo and opposition leader Desmond Hoyte heightened tensions further and partially led to an increase in violent acts between Afro- and Indo-Guyanese. In March 2002, the PNC began a boycott of parliament charging exclusion. This impasse lasted until 2003 when the two parties agreed to resolve their differences.
Continuing discord in the early 2000s between Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese both within the government and the general society also led to a countrywide crime wave, which was attributed to Afro-Guyanese gangs, however most of the victims were also Afro-Guyanese.
Citing mishandling of the crime wave, the PNC charged the PPP government with favouritism and exclusion. The charges included ignoring of the African descendant community, discriminating against them in the distribution of land, lack of representation on boards of state agencies and especially the condoning of extra-judicial killings of Afro-Guyanese by police. There were protests by members of the Afro-Guyanese community and confrontations between security forces and protesters sometimes resulting in death.
End of PPP rule
The PPP lost control of the government in 2015 when a coalition called the Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change won the national election under the leadership of David Granger, who assumed the presidency. Granger had previously led the PNC but now ran on a coalition platform to end ethnically driven politics. While the PPP queried the result, international observers called the election free and fair.
For decades, Guyana’s political environment has suffered from deep-seated tensions between the country’s two main political parties, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the People’s National Congress (PNC). The composition of their popular support was heavily split along ethnic lines, with the PPP prioritizing the interests of the country’s Indo-Guyanese (who amount to around 40 per cent of the population) while the PNC focused on the Afro-Guyanese population, who also comprised around 30 per cent of the country’s citizens.
The PNC was able to hold power until 1992 although it was accused of vote rigging and manipulation. When free and fair elections were finally allowed, the PPP subsequently held onto power through a series of elections in 1997, 2001, 2006 and 2011, when despite the PNC (now reformed as A Partnership for National Unity, APNU) and other opposition parties winning the greater share of votes, as the leader of the largest party the PNC’s Donald Ramotar nevertheless served as the country’s President.
In recent years, however, there has been a movement away from ethnic politics towards a more inclusive, multi-ethnic platform. It remains to be seen whether this positive step will substantially transform Guyana’s political environment. The current president is David Granger, who has a background in the PNC, but headed a coalition between the APNU and other parties. The coalition won the 2015 election.
Updated January 2018
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