Guyana: A Short Political History

By David Hinds

Posted July 29th. 2009


Guyana is the only English-speaking country on the South American continent but because of cultural differences with the rest of the continent, Guyanese do not perceive themselves as South American. The country shares a common history and culture with the Anglophone Caribbean islands. Guyana is a relatively small country of 83,000 square miles, but possesses vast mineral resources such as bauxite, gold, diamond and uranium. It is an amalgamation of three counties -- Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice-- the same names as the three largest rivers. There are numerous other rivers, accounting for Guyana being known as the "land of many waters." Many waterfalls can be found along these rivers, with the Kaieteur Falls being the largest and most famous.

Apart from the division into counties, Guyana is also divided into different regions according to topography. These are the coastal plain, the hilly sand and clay belt region; the highland region; and the interior savannahs. The coastal plain, which is about 270 miles long and varying from 15 to 40 miles in width, is bordered to the north by the Atlantic Ocean. This strip of land is below sea-level, and because of the mostly clay soil, it is most conducive to agriculture, with sugar cane and rice, the two main export crops, growing very well. Almost 90 percent of Guyana's population of approximately 715,000 people lives in this region, which maintains temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit most of the year. Georgetown, the capital city with about 180,000 people, is situated in this region at the mouth of the Demerara River. Other major towns are New Amsterdam, situated at the mouth of the Berbice River in the east; Corriverton, situated further east at the mouth of the Corentyne River, which borders Suriname; and Anna Regina to the west on the Essequibo coast.

The hilly sand and clay belt region is located south of the coastal belt. In this region can be found large deposits of bauxite and extensive areas of timber, two of Guyana's main exports. Large deposits of bauxite and extensive areas of timber, two of Guyana's main exports can be found in this region. It is the second most populous region, with Wismar, Mackenzie and Bartica being the main population centers. The highland region -- made up mostly of mountains, forests, and rivers -- is sparsely populated. However, it is rich in gold and diamonds. The Rupununi savannahs, which lie to the southwestern part of Guyana bordering Brazil and Venezuela, are home to Guyana's indigenous peoples -- the Amerindians. Cattle ranching and subsistence farming are the key economic activities in the region. Lethem, located near the Brazilian border, is the main town.

Known also as the "land of six races," Guyana has one of the most multi-racial populations in the Americas. Descendants of African slaves constitute 30.2% percent of the population; those of East Indian indentured laborers make up 43.5%; and Amerindians, Portuguese, Chinese, Europeans and those of mixed races make up 9.2 %, 0.2%, 0.2%, 0.1% and 16.7% respectively. Guyana, which first attained self-rule in 1953, gained its independence from Britain in 1966 and became a "Cooperative Republic" in 1970. Britain had colonized the country since 1814 when the Dutch surrendered it. The territory had rotated among the British, Dutch, and French, circumstances that affected the ethnic composition of the country. The racial diversity of Guyana has had serious implications for politics in the country. The two major race groups, Africans and Indians, have historically found themselves in constant conflict--the roots of which lie in the deliberate divide and rule tactics of the colonial rulers.

One of the features of race relations in Guyana, especially between Indian and African Guyanese is the constant fluctuation between conflict and cooperation or what Kwayana (2004) calls "meeting and parting." The history of race and politics can be divided into four broad periods-1) the colonial period up to 1955 when the races, despite mutual distrust and tensions and deliberate divide and rule tactics by the colonizers, united in the face of a common enemy; 2) the decolonization and early independence period (1955-1974) when the races were in constant conflict; 3) the dictatorial period (1974-1992) when Walter Rodney and his party were instrumental in building a multiracial movement against the African authoritarian regime; and 4) the post-authoritarian period (1992-present) which has seen the return of conflict between the races.

Colonialism: The root of the problem

The roots of the racial problem lie in the country's historical development. Colonialism, which transplanted two different racial groups from their roots and placed in a hostile and alien environment, was pivotal in laying the foundations for the problem. Although racial conflict did not emerge as the single dominant factor in Guyanese socio- political history until the 1950s, race has always been a major factor in the country's development. The importation of indentured laborers -East Indians, Chinese and Portuguese -to take the place of the freed African slaves shortly after emancipation represented the seeds of the conflict. Ever since, political loyalty has been based race. Despite conflicts in the 1860s between the Africans and the Portuguese and Chinese immigrants, it was the East Indians with whom the Africans had the biggest quarrel. The Portuguese and Chinese had proven unsuitable for labor on the sugar plantations, but the Indians adapted easily, resulting in the importation of a much larger number of the latter. The terms of their contract meant that they worked for less wages than that demanded by the former slaves, who saw them as intruders. The Indians for their part perceived the Africans as being reluctant to work on the land and not hardworking as they were. These factors combined to create the deep suspicion and distrust that exist between the two groups. Kwayana (1988) refers to this development as the inter-racial dynamic.

As the plantation owners' drive for maximum profits intensified, the common suffering of the two groups became more evident. The working and living conditions of the Indians were no better than those of their African counterparts who had begun to move to the urban centers. The conditions of the "barrackyard" were similar to those in the "niggeryard." This common suffering precipitated united action between the two races, despite their historical differences and uneasy relationship. The two groups, therefore, managed to live in relative harmony or peaceful coexistence up to the 1950s. There were numerous instances of cooperation especially on the political and industrial fronts. One high point of this solidarity was during the famous "1905 riots" when a strike against unbearable working conditions by African workers in Georgetown was joined by Indian sugar workers in the rural areas.

Later, when strikes and demonstrations rocked the entire English speaking Caribbean during the1930s, the protests in Guyana for the most part assumed a multiracial character. The African based trade union, the British Guiana Labor Union (BGLU), and the Indian based union, the Manpower Citizens Association (MPCA), took a common stand against the poor working conditions in the colony and the excesses of the colonial state. This trend was manifested again in 1947, this time on the political front when in 1947 Cheddi Jagan, a young Indian dentist, won a seat in the Legislative Assembly in a constituency that was evenly populated by Africans and Indians. Although he was Indian he won the support of the majority of poor, working class Africans who rallied to his call for workers' power.

Jagan's election was the forerunner to the formation of the People's Progressive Party (PPP), the country's first mass based political party, which was founded in 1950. Its leadership included Cheddi and Janet Jagan, Ashton Chase, HJM Hubbard, Forbes Burnham, Martin Carter, Eusi Kwayana (Sydney King), Rory Westmaas and Boysie Ramkarran. This leadership represented a change from the old reformist type of political leadership--they were committed to the total dismantling of colonialism, not afraid to use socialist rhetoric in their campaigns and fiercely pro worker. Another significance of this leadership was its multiracial character, which enabled the party to speak to and on the behalf of members of both the major race groups. This brought the party into conflict with the local elites, who felt threatened by the new movement.

The 1953 election, the first held under Universal Adult Suffrage, therefore, emerged as a contest between the elites and the working class. The PPP won the contest with 18 out of 24 seats with 51 percent of the popular vote; a victory that was significant for race relations in the country for three main reasons: First, the PPP with an Indian leader won the majority of African votes. Second, and related to the first observation, is that class and not race played the major role in the voters' choice at least among the Africans. Although there is no empirical evidence to show that the Indians would have voted overwhelmingly for the PPP had the leader been an African, given the weakness of the two Indian parties that contested the elections, and the apparent unity of the PPP top brass, one can assume that the Indians would have voted for the PPP regardless of leader's racial background. Third, this was the last time that the two races voted overwhelmingly for the same party.

This PPP's victory, therefore, had serious implications for Guyana's future. While the PPP intended its triumph at the election to pave the way for national independence based on a democratic working class and multiracial ideology, the victory, nevertheless, turned out to be the catalyst for the dislocation of the nationalist movement and its seizure by the middle classes. The most serious outcomes were British and US imperialist penetration and the deterioration of race relations among the working class.

The country became a victim of the Cold War, as the US took an active role in the decolonization process. This development led to the suspension of the constitution and the ousting of the PPP from office after only 133 days, as Communism became part of the political debate. Second, the racial solidarity of the early 20th century and the 1950 1953 period gave way to the racial competition, which first stirred during the suffrage debate in 1945. Third, the split of the PPP in 1953 saw Forbes Burnham, an African and Cheddi Jagan, an Indian, emerge as the maximum leaders representing the two major races.

The Split of the PPP and the birth of the Politics of Ethnic Competition

Perhaps the most crucial development during the period under investigation was the emergence of racial competition as a decisive factor in the politics of Guyana. As was noted earlier, the PPP won a multiracial mandate at the 1953 election primarily because its leadership reflected the racial diversity of the populace. However, this multiracial coalition was at best tenuous since the top leadership position was in dispute. Both Jagan (the legislative leader) and Burnham (the party chairman) laid claim to this position.

Before the 1953 election, Burnham unsuccessfully challenged Jagan for the leadership of the party. However, his attempt was thwarted by Kwayana who successfully argued that Jagan had done nothing to warrant his removal as leader. According to Kwayana during the election campaign some Indian supporters of the party expressed their unhappiness at the large number of African candidates on the slate, and some African supporters questioned the role of African leaders. He sees this as "the perils of a hastily built party, resting on a hastily built unity and entering the race for office in an ethnically competitive situation" (1992:7).

Shortly after the election victory, Burnham made another bid for the leadership of the party with the battle cry of "leader or nothing." The challenge ominously had a more open racial tone than the previous one. According to Kwayana (1992:7) "Despite the unity which won the victory for the PPP, groups of very vocal people began to make the post a point of ethnic competition.... The spit press openly raised the race issue and with it the possibility of Indian control and takeover."

Although Burnham's bid failed again mainly because the African leaders stood by Jagan, irreparable damage was already done. Race emerged as the common denominator in Guyanese politics. So in 1955 when Burnham made yet another bid for the leadership, the fragile unity finally collapsed. Using his position as chairman, Burnham called a congress in Georgetown, where most of his supporters resided, which elected him as leader. The Jaganites insisted that Burnham's move was unconstitutional and walked out of the congress.

The party, therefore, was split into two factions; one led by Burnham and the other by Jagan. There have been two causes advanced for the split--race and ideology. It was widely thought that Burnham was not a communist; rather, he was more of a moderate Fabian socialist. When one takes into consideration that the influential African leaders, all Marxists, stayed in the Jagan camp and the Indian moderates went with Burnham, then the ideological explanation of the split seems more plausible. However, most of the African rank and file members especially in Georgetown appeared to have followed Burnham while the bulk of Indians remained with Jagan. The divide at the mass level, therefore, had much to do with race and less so with ideology. Kwayana (1988) thinks that the split was "brought about by competition for leadership with undertones of racial choice, ideology, tactics and such considerations."

Ideology assumed importance primarily because of the Cold War. After the suspension of the constitution, the British set up an interim government made up mostly of people who were loyal to the crown and viciously anti communist. Some of these elements considered Burnham less dangerous than Jagan, as they perceived the former to be a moderate. Washington had by this time begun to take a keen interest in Guyana. Although they supported independence for the colonies, they were adamant that these countries toe the U.S. line. This sentiment was echoed in a statement by then Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles:

The US government would be gravely concerned at the threat to the security of the hemisphere, which would arise if British Guiana fell victim of the International Communist conspiracy. Such a situation would also be a matter of Inter American concern under Inter American instruments

The 1953 government represented a high point of racial solidarity between Africans and Indians in the political arena. Yet it was also a moment of contradictions, first, the foremost African leader, Forbes Burnham attempted to wrest the position of maximum leader from the Indian leader, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, only to be thwarted by another African executive, Sydney King (Eusi Kwayana). King himself turned down the maximum leadership position when other executives put him forward as a compromise candidate King would later to reflect on the consequence of his decision in an assessment of Jagan when he observed had never served in a party in which he was not the maximum leader.

A second observation regarding 1953 was a rejected proposal by Kwayana that the PPP, rather than trying to win a majority should try to win enough to enable them to advocate for the reforms they desired. The thinking was that the party would be better able to concentrate on building the multiracial mass movement if it did not have the burdens of government. In hindsight had both of the above initiatives not been rejected the history of Guyana might have been different. In 1955 the PPP was split up into two factions: one followed Dr. Jagan and the other followed Mr. Burnham. A second split occurred in 1956 when the bulk of the African leadership left the PPP in response to what they saw as the movement of the party towards an embrace of race as both tactic and strategy.

Every free and fair election since 1955 has resulted in a widening of the country's racial divide and further deterioration of race relations that have in turn negatively affected governance and economic development. The 1957 election was followed by political realignments on both the African and Indian sides that solidified the 1955 rupture. The 1961 election was followed by the three years of racial upheavals that culminated in a near civil war. The end result was the removal of the Indian communist PPP from office by political manipulation on the part of US interests and local anti-communists.

Dr. Jagan's PPP won both 1957 and 1961 elections upon the resumption of electoral politics, but was unable to govern the country as both the British and Americans were opposed to the party's declared communist ideology. On the other hand the PPP's economic policies tended to favor its Indo-Guyanese constituency over the African community leading to the alienation of the latter from the government. It was the convergence of these two developments-African alienation and anti-communist destabilization- that mainly led to violence in 1961-64 and the ultimate removal of the PPP from the office in 1964.

Burnham's PPP joined forces with the conservative African United Democratic Party (UDP) to form the People's National Congress (PNC). Eusi Kwayana later joined the party and became its General Secretary but was expelled in 1961 when he and others issued a call for power sharing between the PPP and PNC with partition as a last resort. Both parties rejected the call and the PNC expelled Kwayana advocating racism. He later formed an Africanist organization, the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA), which became the largest mass African Guyanese organization in the country.

With the PPP moving more towards the communist camp and the racial divide becoming wider, the British and Americans along with local opposition conspired to change the electoral system from First Past the Post (FPTP) which favored the PPP to Proportional Representation (PR) which gave the opposition a better chance of unseating the PPP. Dr. Jagan played a fatal role in his development when he agreed to allow the British to unilaterally decide on the electoral system. His trust of the British, therefore, helped to hasten his downfall.

When the 1964 elections were held in the wake of communal violence that claimed scores of lives and caused major social dislocation, the PNC and the right wing United Force (UF) were able to form a majority coalition government although the PPP had won a plurality of the votes.

Ethnicity and the construction of Authoritarianism

For the next twenty eight years the PNC ruled Guyana in an authoritarian manner. Electoral fraud, denial of civil liberties and civil rights, political assassination and economic underdevelopment were the norm Elections in 1968, 1973, 1980 and 1985 were rigged. In the process, civil liberties were eroded and the economy declined progressively. The PNC government inherited the immense constitutional powers of the colonial state, with the Prime Minister having powers comparable to the governor.

In their drive to consolidate their hold over the state they, however, faced one big problem: they did not represent a majority of the population. They, therefore, tried to woo the Indian community by appointing some Indians to the government and advocating multiracialism. But due to the PPP's continued influence among Indians and the PNC's need to placate its African base, this move was not successful.

Apart from the constitution, several factors helped to create the conditions and serve as a guise for the PNC's consolidation of the authoritarian state. Some of these were: (1) the African workers, having experienced racial discrimination by the PPP government, felt that with the PNC in power they were finally "on top"; (2) Africans were becoming "race conscious" with the rise of the Black Power Movement in North America and the Caribbean; (3) In the spirit of the Cold War, the Americans made it quite clear that under no circumstances were they going to tolerate a communist PPP government; (4) Because the working class was relatively developed ideologically they were not hostile to socialism; (5) Sections of the Indian petty bourgeois were uncomfortable with the PPP's ideological rigidity; and (6) Burnham and the PNC had no rival for the electoral support of Africans.

In the process of transforming the colonial state to a neo colonial authoritarian state, the PNC used several techniques such as nationalization, militarization and control of the judiciary. While naked force was often used, the manipulation of the legislative process was also employed. By using this instrument, the party was able to legitimize a number of undemocratic practices. The end result was the institution of the "paramountcy of the party" whereby the party and the state became indistinguishable.

Walter Rodney, the WPA and Multi-ethnic Resistance

Since the main opposition party, the People's Progressive Party (PPP) drew its support from the East Indian section of the population, its opposition to the African-dominated PNC government was represented by the latter, and sometimes interpreted by the African masses, as racially motivated Further, the Africans' participation in anti-government protests that included the PPP was viewed by the government as betrayal. This situation, therefore, hampered the development of a multiracial resistance movement until the appearance of the multiracial Working People's Alliance (WPA) in 1974. The WPA, led initially by world-renowned scholar Walter Rodney attracted a following that cut across racial lines. Its platform of multi- racialism or non-racialism struck a chord among a population tired of racial division and dictatorial rule. Starting out as an alliance of pressure groups consisting of Kwayana's African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA); RATOON led by Clive Thomas and Joshua Ramsammy; Moses Bhagwan's Indian People's Revolutionary Associates (IPRA), the WPA soon attracted several individuals such as Rupert Roopnarine and Andaiye and a group of young University of Guyana students.

By the mid-1970s, Indians and Africans were jointly protesting the economic policies of the government and its human rights abuses. In 1977, for instance, African workers gave material and moral support to Indian sugar workers who went on strike for better wages. Indian workers returned the compliment in 1979 when African bauxite workers went on strike for better wages and improved working conditions. In 1978 both racial groups protested a referendum called by the government on whether to abolish the existing constitution. This massive show of unity, which was also an inter-class effort, saw a successful boycott of the polls, estimated at between 85 and 90 percent of the electorate

The WPA and the PPP developed an alliance and the sight of Indians and Africans protesting together became a regular feature in Guyanese politics. This development was enhanced by the addition of four dissident trade unions, The Four Unions, which openly opposed the government policies, sections of the religious community, notably the leadership of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, and a group of right of center parties called the Vanguard for Liberation and Democracy (VLD).

Although this period was characterized by unity and coordinated protests, there were also instances of disunity within the protest movement. Disunity occurred whenever the issues of ideology and race entered the equation, either directly or indirectly. Ideology tended to be the more direct of the two, as the PPP felt that there was a socialist element in the PNC that should be accommodated and that the real problem was imperialism. This view was counter to that of the WPA, which labeled the PNC as pseudo- socialist and saw it as the principal source of the problems in the country. Race tended to manifest itself in a less direct manner. As an Indian-dominated party, the PPP was hostile to other groups seeking influence in the East Indian community. Such a development, along with others mentioned above, caused uneasiness in the anti-authoritarian movement, in particular between the PPP and the WPA.

The first serious challenge to the PNC regime came in 1979 when the WPA, led by Walter Rodney, succeeded in bringing thousands of people on to the streets in what is popularly referred to as a Civil Rebellion. Rodney, who had remained in Guyana despite being denied a job at the University of Guyana, had emerged as the leading opposition figure. His message of multiracial class solidarity, self-emancipation, and people's power had captured the imagination of the masses on both sides of the racial divide. In addition, he was able to expose the regime and its leaders and in the process remove the awe and fear that surrounded them.

Untainted by the politics of the past and possessing a rare gift of being able to transmit complex ideas in simple terms, Rodney became the perfect voice for the WPA's thrust of a new politics. Unlike other leftist Caribbean groups, the WPA was not doctrinaire or pro-Moscow. It for example rejected the PPP's ideological litmus test for participation in the anti-dictatorial movement. Instead it advocated a broad multi-class and multi-racial alliance both the struggle against the government and as a replacement of the government. Between 1974 and the beginning of 1979, the WPA had been engaged in popular education through public rallies, small bottom house meetings and its publication, Dayclean. Rodney, Clive Thomas, and Eusi Kwayana had also been engaged in teaching formal classes in labor economics and political economy to mainly workers and youth in Linden and Georgetown.

Several WPA leaders were arrested in early July after the PNC's headquarters, which was merged with a Government Ministry, was burned down. Rodney, Roopnarine and Omowale were eventually charged with the arson. The WPA, which became a political party on July 27, 1979 held large rallies across the country that brought thousands of people on to the streets demanding an end to the dictatorship. The Four Unions supported the rebellion by staging a successful strike in August. The government hit back by firing striking workers and harassing anyone suspected of being members and supporters of the WPA. Assassination and imprisonment also became part of the government's response. In July 1979, Catholic priest, Father Drake was murdered by members of the House of Israel, a religious group that provided thugs for the PNC, as he photographed a WPA demonstration. In November 1979 and February 1980, two WPA members Ohene Koama and Edward Dublin were murdered by the Death Squad, an arm of the police force. Finally on June 13, 1980, Walter Rodney was assassinated when a bomb that was given to him in a walkie-talkie by an ex-army officer who befriended the WPA while working for the PNC.

Rodney's murder was a serious blow to the WPA and the anti-dictatorial movement. Although the party and the movement continued the pressure, Rodney's removal allowed the government to regain the upper hand. The new constitution was enacted and Burnham became the new Executive President. In December 1980, elections were held which the PNC predictably rigged. These elections also cause a rupture of relations between the PPP, which participated in the polls, and the WPA, which boycotted.

As the economy continued to decline and scarcity of essential food items hit the country, the PNC relied on naked force to stay in power. In this regard, its control of almost 80 percent of the economy and the armed forces were pivotal. This however did not deter the opposition, in particular the WPA, which continued to be militant, despite Rodney's death. In 1983, the WPA spearheaded a series of food protests in the bauxite industry and the sugar belt that once again brought the government to its knees. Significantly, those protests were opposed by the PPP, which was still smarting from the WPA's criticisms of its participation in the 1980 elections.

So confident opposition forces had become, they were able in 1984 to wrest control of the executive of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) from PNC control. Shortly after this opposition victory, the PNC and the PPP began talks on the possibility of forming a joint government, a development that the PPP did not share with its allies in the opposition. When Mr. Burnham died suddenly in August 1985, those talks were discontinued by his successor, Mr. Desmond Hoyte. Burnham's death marked a turning point in the country's politics. Immediately, Hoyte agreed to some nominal changes in the electoral arrangements, even as he kept the rigging machinery in place. In fact, the election that followed in December 1985 was the most massively rigged. The scale of the rigging caused the opposition parties to drop their differences and on the initiative of the WPA they formed the Patriotic Coalition for Democracy (PCD) whose main objective was the return to free and fair elections.

Between 1985 and 1992, the gradual breakdown of the authoritarian regime took place. It took persevering opposition both inside and outside of the country, a changed international environment following the end of the Cold War, and changes within the PNC regime, to push the situation to breaking point. Acting under the weight of mass opposition pressure for democratization and the dictates of the new international environment, the PNC regime initiated a transition period characterized by political reforms and economic liberalization beginning in 1985. Although the thrust of the political reform was less aggressive than its economic counterpart, it nevertheless spawned a less repressive political order that proved to be conducive to the opposition's crusade for electoral democracy.

While the fundamental tenets of the authoritarian state remained intact, the reforms created a degree of political space for the opposition that was hitherto denied them. For example, opposition parties were able to organize and agitate without overt government sabotage; harassment of opposition leaders markedly decreased; and for the fist time during its tenure, the PNC granted a license for an independent newspaper. The latter was significant in that the political opposition and Civil Society now had an independent medium through which to air their views.

After much campaigning and lobbying, both locally and internationally, the opposition, with the Carter Center acting as mediator, was able to negotiate an agreement with the PNC for free and fair elections. Understandably this development did not sit well with the hardliners in the PNC who viewed free and fair elections as a sure recipe for the party's removal from office. Ferguson (1995:216) reports once President Desmond Hoyte had agreed to free and fair elections, the hardliners were "traumatized, " and "puzzled by its underlying political calculations." The electoral reforms agreed to include the appointment of a new Elections Commission headed by an independent chairman, provisions for the counting of the ballot at the place of polling, and the admission of international observers to monitor the election.

But Hoyte, mindful of the changed global dispensation, in particular the changed stance of the US government, which had frozen all US aid to Guyana until electoral democracy was restored, and convinced that his economic liberalization program had set him apart from the repressive Burnham years, pressed on with the reforms. In fact his decision to agree with all the demands of the opposition parties was taken above the head of the party. According to Ferguson, "It is evident that Hoyte wished to marginalize the party in this area of decision making because he was not sanguine about his chances of getting support within Party councils" (p.216).

Democratization and the return of Ethnic Conflict

Since fraudulent elections were the basis upon which the authoritarian regime rested, many Guyanese felt free and fair elections would create the democratic opening for the country to restore itself to the family of democratic nations. Because of their minority status Africans dreaded such an eventuality while Indians saw the opportunity to recapture control of the state. To diffuse the situation, the PCD parties attempted to field a single slate of candidates. However, this did not materialize as the WPA and PPP could not agree on a consensus presidential candidate.

Apart from the PPP, PNC, and WPA, eight other parties contested the elections. Other interest groups were also formed such as the Elections Affairs Bureau (EAB), an elections watchdog group, and the Guyanese Union for Action and the Restoration of Democracy (GUARD) which had strong ties to the church and private sector. The PPP and PNC responded by launching their campaigns in their traditional constituencies. The election promised to be interesting from an ethnic standpoint, as for the first time in forty years a non-ethnic party was contesting a free election in Guyana. Given the unpopularity of the PNC, the PPP felt confident of winning even with a reduced portion of the Indian vote. At the level of the masses, some sections of the Indian community had begun to express the view that since the Africans had held power for almost three decades, it was time for them to "get a chance". The PPP did not officially support this position, but one of its major campaign themes was the discrimination Indians suffered at the hands of the Black PNC government.

The WPA reminded the nation of the consequences of the conflicts of the 1960s. One popular WPA slogan was "When the WPA wins, all races win." The party ran a strictly non-racial campaign, and sought to appeal to the need for racial unity as the prerequisite for national development. While not expected to win the most votes, observers expected the WPA to get enough votes to deny either major party a clear majority.

However, contrary to popular expectations, the electorate voted overwhelmingly for the two race-based parties. The PPP got 52 percent of the votes and the PNC 44 percent. The WPA got 2 percent and the other eight parties combined received about one percent. On Election Day itself, riots broke out in Georgetown when Americans, sensing that the PPP would win, sought to subvert the elections on the urging of the PNC. Indians were openly attacked and their business places were looted and burnt. This rioting continued for four days and was abated only when the PNC leader at the urging of the US State Department conceded the elections to the PPP. Dr. Jagan was sworn in as President in a tense atmosphere that threatened to erupt any minute.

The PPP's first term was characterized by racial witch hunting on the part of the government and non-cooperation by the opposition. Upon taking office, the government embarked on a campaign of witch hunting aimed at top officials in the state who it deemed to be sympathetic to the PNC. In the meantime the PNC was rocked by the suspension of its deputy leader, Hamilton Green, as part of the fallout from the 1992 loss at the polls. Green went on to form his own party, the Good and Green Guyana (GGG), which surprisingly defeated both the PPP and PNC in Georgetown at the local government elections held in 1994.

When President Cheddi Jagan suddenly died in office in March 1997, the country once again faced a period of transition. Along with Burnham, Jagan had dominated the country's politics since the birth of the nationalist movement in the 1940s. His passing heightened speculation as to who would succeed him as leader, especially since he had never named a deputy leader during his tenure. It was felt that despite the argument between the two parties, the fact that Jagan was sufficiently respected by African Guyanese, served to prevent the situation from exploding. Prime Minister, Sam Hinds, who was not a PPP member, was sworn in as Prime Minister as constitutionally mandated, but the PPP quickly named Mrs. Janet Jagan, Dr. Jagan's widow, as the new Prime Minister. This was a clear signal that she would be the party's presidential candidate at the upcoming elections.

Dr. Jagan's funeral marked the beginning of the PPP's election campaign. In a massive countrywide mobilization, the party ensured that the event became a show of party strength. This was out of step with the show of respect for the fallen leader by the African Guyanese community and the political opposition. The election campaign got off to a bad start. First, there were disagreements over the voters list and the general prepositions for the polls. Second, the announcement of Mrs. Jagan as the PPP presidential candidate was met with rejection by the PNC which viewed her as a very divisive personality. This led to a bitter exchange of words the characterized the rest of the campaign.

One of the charges made by the PNC against the PPP was government discrimination against African Guyanese in the allocation of resources. This was of course refuted by the PPP, which correctly pointed to among other things the number of schools and roads it either built or repaired in African Guyanese communities. But PPP's case against the racial discrimination suffered a severe blow when Mrs. Jagan announced that should the PPP win a second term, and in the event that she had to step down from office, Bharrat Jagdeo, the finance minister, instead of Prime Minister Sam Hinds would assume the presidency.

The elections, which were held in December 1997, engendered a period of heightened political instability that pushed the country to the edge of a full-scale explosion reminiscent of the 1961-64 period. Racial violence, labor unrest and non-cooperation by the opposition PNC characterized the period. As was expected, the PPP won the election. However, the Elections Commission took more than a week to announce the results particularly in Georgetown, the PNC's stronghold. This led to speculation of malpractice among PNC supporters. The chairman of the Elections Commission, without consulting the other commissioners, and with the counting of the ballots not completed, then declared Mrs. Jagan the winner and proceeded to have her sworn in. The PNC moved to the courts and secured an injunction restraining her from being sworn in, but by the time it could be served the swearing in ceremony was already in progress. When the Marshal served the injunction on Mrs. Jagan she contemptuously threw it over her shoulder.

That action served as the catalyst for a spate of PNC led demonstrations that marked the beginning of a long season of instability and acrimony that has gripped the country ever since. The demonstrations, mainly marches through the streets of Georgetown, degenerated into looting of mainly Indian business places by sections of the marchers. Eventually on January 18 scores of Indian citizens were beaten after the court ruled that the PNC's challenge to the election did not have merit. This development prompted the PPP to seek the help of CARICOM, which sent a team of three reputed Caribbean persons, Sir Shridath Ramphal, Sir Henry Ford and Sir Alister McIntyre to try to resolve the situation. The team was able to broker an agreement, the Herdmonston Accord, which called on the PNC to cease street demonstrations and required the PPP to give up two years of its term in office. The Accord also required the two parties to institute constitutional reform and to engage in a dialogue and a forensic counting of the ballots by a Caribbean expert. A few months later when it was established that the PPP had indeed won the election new demonstrations erupted prompting a second intervention by CARICOM and the signing of a supplementary agreement called the St. Lucia Accord.

The dialogue, arising out of the Herdmonston Accord and supervised by a facilitator appointed by CARICOM, never really got off the ground as the PPP insisted that it could not treat the PNC as an equal. The constitutional reform process was a bit more successful despite bitter wrangling between the two parties. The presence of smaller parties, in particular the WPA, was crucial in this regard. As the constitutional reform process was going on, public service workers began to protest for higher wages. This industrial conflict quickly became part of the political/racial conflict, as the public servants were mainly African Guyanese and supporters of the PNC. After a series of street demonstrations reminiscent of the PNC demonstrations the government eventually set up a tribunal to arbitrate the matter.

As the deadline for the completion of the constitutional reform neared, the temperature once again rose. When it became clear that the reform process would not be completed in time for the election attention was turned to what would happen when the deadline for the PPP being in office arrived. The PPP insisted that it should stay in office while the PNC insisted that it demit office. The WPA then proposed a compromise in the form of an interim government made up of all the parliamentary parties that would remain in office for the two years that the PPP had given up. This was rejected by the PPP, which accused the WPA of wanting to get into power through the backdoor. Though the PNC did not reject the proposal, it did not support it. So the country was once again thrown into election mode with all the acrimony that comes with it. To compound matters the court finally ruled on an election petition brought by the PNC that the 1997 election was null and void because the use of identification cards was unconstitutional. This was a moral victory for the PNC. The PPP on the other hand claimed the victory in that the ruling did not uphold the claim of electoral fraud. It was in this atmosphere that the country went to the poll in March 2001.

Like previous elections the 2001 elections was fiercely contested with both parties appealing to its racial constituency. When the results were announced, not unexpectedly, the PPP was declared the winner. As was the case in 1997, this outcome led to demonstrations by the PNC and African Guyanese. Unlike in 1997, however, the 2001 demonstrations were centered in Buxton, a PNC stronghold on the East Coast of Demerara. The village, which for a long time had been a WPA stronghold, had voted overwhelmingly for the PNC since 1992. The demonstrations were initially supported by all village leaders but when PNC activists from outside of the village took over some village leaders withdrew. The peaceful demonstrations quickly became violent with villagers attacking Indians and damaging the highways. The situation reached a point where the leaders of the two parties decided to have a historic meeting, thus beginning a second round of dialogue. They came up with a menu of issues that needed immediate resolution and set up bi-partisan committee to oversee these issues. However the dialogue quickly ran into problems as the government was either slow or refused to implement decisions taken by the leaders and committees.

In February of 2002 five prisoners escaped from the main prison in Georgetown. Shortly afterwards a spate of killings erupted and the prisoners were located in Buxton. Thus began a wave of terror that targeted Indians and other supporters of the PPP. Neither the PNC nor the PPP was able to put a dent in the situation. When the police proved incapable of dealing with the problem, the government deployed units of the Guyana Defense Force to the village. The GDF however claimed that policing was not part of its duty and that its main aim was to support the police. But members of the GDF seemed sympathetic to the criminals and for the next year the country was held under virtual siege by this group operating out of Buxton, which was referred to by some African Guyanese spokespersons as freedom fighters. Three prominent African Guyanese objected to the activities in the village much to the consternation of other African Guyanese leaders.

Several Indian businessmen in collusion with the government set up what became known as Phantom Squads as retaliation to the Buxton operation, eventually an American diplomat was abducted and taken to Buxton and was only released after a ransom was paid. This led to the direct involvement of the Americans, which summoned the leaders of the two parties to put an end to the violence. They eventually signed a communiqué, which in effect was a cease fire and a return to the dialogue agenda. The new PNC leader, Mr. Robert Corbin, who succeeded Mr. Desmond Hoyte when the latter died suddenly in December 2002, was heavily criticized by some Black extremists for signing the agreement primarily because it led to the police entering Buxton and summarily executing some of the criminals. What followed was the mysterious execution of other criminals by the Phantom Squads.

The PNC clamed that the PPP was not implementing decisions arrived at by the two leaders and eventually pulled out of the dialogue. This action was accompanied by a revelation by a citizen that he had been part of the Phantom Squad, which he claimed was directed by the Minister of Home Affairs. This revelation led to a call for a commission of inquiry by the opposition parties. The government initially resisted this call, but eventually set up a commission. The opposition parties formed the People's Movement for Justice (PMJ), which kept up the pressure. The commission found that while he had knowledge of the squad, the minister was not guilty of any wrongdoing.

The 2006 Election

Shortly before the 2006 election a new party, the Alliance For Change (AFC), was formed by former members of the PPP, PNC and the WPA. Khemraj Ramjattan and Raphael Trotman, former executive members and parliamentarians of the PPP and PNC respectively, teamed up with Shelia Holder, the WPA's lone Member of Parliament to form the new party. Ramjattan was expelled from the PPP while Trotman and Holder simply left their parties even though they continued to sit in parliament. The PNC announced its intention to contest the election as part of a "Big Tent" with or without the PNC leader as presidential candidate. In the meantime the other opposition parties-- the WPA, ROAR, GAP-- and some prominent individuals formed a "Third Force", which was quickly disbanded over disagreements on an alliance with the PNC. The PPP, for its part, closed ranks even in the face of displeasure by its supporters at the way the government was handling the issue of safety. The violence emanating from the group in Buxton continued to claim lives including a government minister and members of his family.

By the time of the election the PNC's "Big Tent" had floundered despite attempts to win other parties. Except for the WPA none of the other established parties joined the platform. But on the eve of the election the WPA pulled out after its membership rejected a slate with PNC leader Robert Corbin as the presidential candidate. In the end the PNC contested the election with a PNC slate with Keith Scott, a onetime WPA member who headed the small National Front Alliance (NFA) being the only non-PNC candidate. As was expected the PPP easily won the election. But there were some new developments. First, the PNC's support was markedly reduced. Second, the AFC which captured the dissident PNC votes became the first "third" party since 1964 to win more than five percent of the popular votes. Third, despite positioning itself as a multi-ethnic party the AFC's vote came almost entirely from the African Guyanese community. Fourth, the PPP won the election despite its dismal stewardship of the government and its inability to guarantee the security of its constituency. Fifth, the WPA's non-participation in the election brought an end, at least for the time being, to that party's role as a player on the national stage. Sixth, unlike the two previous elections, the PNC accepted the results and there were no post-election protests and violence. In the final analysis while the AFC could claim some satisfaction from its performance, the big winner was the PPP, which achieved its objective of staging the election despite attempts to derail it.

Having secured its objective, the PPP, as it did when presented with previous breathing spaces, pressed ahead with its agenda of dominance. Despite promises of national cooperation the party continued to ignore the opposition. Instead the government embarked on what has been described as a vindictive agenda. It withdrew government advertisement from the independent newspaper, the Stabroek News, and suspended the license of a popular television station owned by an opposition politician. Second, in its boldest move, it overlooked perceived anti-PPP military officers and promoted those it felt were less hostile to the PPP. It also confirmed as Commissioner of the police forces an officer who many in the opposition felt was too compromised to hold the position. Third, allegations of torture by prisoners point to increase human right abuses. Fourth, the right to assembly has also suffered as opposition protestors have been arrested ostensibly for illegal demonstrations. Finally, charges of corruption continued to surface with the auditor general revealing instances where government funds could not be accounted for.

On the opposition side, the PNC has not been able to regroup. The main issue has been leadership. Party leader, Robert Corbin, was accused of being weak and uninspiring but he refused to demit office. Under his leadership the REFORM wing of the party has peeled away and other so-called moderates have also left. The party's 2007 Congress saw a much publicized challenge to Corbin from party stalwart, Vincent Alexander. Amidst charges of irregularities Corbin was returned as leader. The Alexander team walked out of the Congress and disciplinary actions were later brought against some members.

The AFC also had its problems. Despite its representation in parliament, the party has not been able to provide much representation or build on the optimism it engendered in the pre-election period. This was partly the result of the limited scope for the opposition in the political system and partly because the party put all its eggs in the formal political process. The AFC also had its internal fallout as one of its executives resigned in the wake of a dispute over who should occupy one of the parliamentary seats.


1 Figures taken from the 2002 census.
2 See Kwayana's, Two Diasporas in Kampta Karran's Race and Power Sharing (2003)
3 See Kwayana's Afro Guyanese and the Nation, an unpublished paper presented at a conference to mark the 150th anniversary of Emancipation.
4 See Walter Rodney's History of the Guyanese Working People 1881-1905.
5 See Kwayana's Guyana's Race Problems and my part in them
6 See Kwayana's Guyana's Race Problems and my part in them
7 For a thorough account see Cheddi Jagan's West on Trial
8 See Kwayana's Afro Guyanese and the Nation
9 US State Department ,1953.
10 See Kwayana's Guyana's Race Problems and my part in them
11 See Jagan's 1956 Congress Paper and Kwayana's Response
12 Kwayana was part of the African Society for Racial Equality (ASRE) which called for a Joint Premiership between the PPP and PNC leaders with Partition as a last resort.
13 ASCRIA gave support to the PNC between 1964 and 1971 but later joined with other organizations to form the Working People's Alliance (WPA).
14 For a ringside account of the events of this period from a PPP perspective see Dr Jagan's West on Trial
15 For a comprehensive analysis of the rise of the authoritarian state in Guyana, see Clive Thomas' The Rise of the Authoritarian State in Peripheral Societies
16 This estimate came from reports by the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (CDD) an umbrella organization of political parties and a committee of Civil Society organizations that organized a boycott and monitored the polls.
17 These unions were the two sugar unions, GAWU and NAACIE; the CCWU; and the UGSA.
18 The leaders included, Brindley Benn, Gunraj Kumar and Llewelyn John.
19 See Tyrone Ferguson's Structural Adjustment and Good Governance: The Case of Guyana
20 Andaiye, Eusi Kwayana and David Hinds issued a statement in September 2002 condemning the violence. For an account and analysis of the Buxton terror, see Kwayana's Morning After
21 The citizen, George Bacchus, was eventually murdered in mysterious circumstances.


David Hinds lectures in Caribbean and African Diaspora Studies at Arizona State University in the USA. His writings on Politics in Guyana and the Caribbean can be found on his website.