The Co-operative Republic of Guyana, is a sovereign state on the northern mainland of South America. It is, however, included in the Caribbean Region due to its strong cultural, historical, and political ties with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Guyana is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the north, Brazil to the south and southwest, Suriname to the east and Venezuela to the west. With 83,000 square miles (215,000 square kilometers), Guyana is the fourth-smallest country on mainland South America after Uruguay, Suriname and French Guiana. The region known as “the Guianas” consists of the large shield landmass north of the Amazon River and east of the Orinoco River known as the “land of many waters”. Originally inhabited by several indigenous groups, Guyana was settled by the Dutch before coming under British control in the late eighteenth century. It was governed as the plantation economy of British Guiana until independence in 1966, and officially became a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970. The legacy of British rule is reflected in the country’s diverse population, which includes Indian, African, Amerindian, and multiracial groups.
Guyana also has the distinction of being the only South American nation in which English is the official language. The majority of the population, however, speak Guyanese Creole, an English-based creole language with slight Dutch, Arawakan and Caribbean influences. In addition to being part of the Anglophone Caribbean, Guyana is one of the few Caribbean countries that is not an island in the West Indies. CARICOM, of which Guyana is a member, is headquartered in Guyana’s capital and largest city, Georgetown. Approximately three quarters of the country (159,542 square kilometers) is claimed by Venezuela. This territory is known as Guayana Esequiba. Guyana’s other neighbor, Suriname, claims approximately 15,600 square kilometers (called Tigri Area), which accounts for 7.26% of the country.
I previously recounted the pre-colonial history of Guyana, as well as the periods of Dutch and British colonialism, on A Stamp A Day in late September.
Guyana achieved independence from the United Kingdom on May 26, 1966. By the time independence was achieved, the country was enjoying economic growth and relative domestic peace. The newly independent Guyana at first sought to improve relations with its neighbors. For instance, in December 1965 the country had become a charter member of the Caribbean Free Trade Association (Carifta). Relations with Venezuela were not so placid, however. In 1962 Venezuela had announced that it was rejecting the 1899 boundary and would renew its claim to all of Guyana west of the Essequibo River. In 1966, Venezuela seized the Guyanese half of Ankoko Island, in the Cuyuni River, and two years later claimed a strip of sea along Guyana’s western coast.
Another challenge to the newly independent government came at the beginning of January 1969, with the Rupununi Rebellion. In the Rupununi region in southwest Guyana, along the Venezuelan border, white settlers and Amerindians rebelled against the central government. Several Guyanese policemen in the area were killed, and spokesmen for the rebels declared the area independent and asked for Venezuelan aid. Troops arrived from Georgetown within days, and the rebellion was quickly put down. Although the rebellion was not a large affair, it exposed underlying tensions in the new state and the Amerindians’ marginalized role in the country’s political and social life.
The 1968 elections allowed the People’s National Congress (PNC) to rule without the United Force (UF). The PNC won thirty seats, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) nineteen seats, and the UF four seats. However, many observers claimed the elections were marred by manipulation and coercion by the PNC. The PPP and UF were part of Guyana’s political landscape but were ignored as Burnham began to convert the machinery of state into an instrument of the PNC.
After the 1968 elections, Burnham’s policies became more leftist as he announced he would lead Guyana to socialism. He consolidated his dominance of domestic policies through gerrymandering, manipulation of the balloting process, and politicalization of the civil service. A few Indo-Guyanese were co-opted into the PNC, but the ruling party was unquestionably the embodiment of the Afro-Guyanese political will. Although the Afro-Guyanese middle class was uneasy with Burnham’s leftist leanings, the PNC remained a shield against Indo-Guyanese dominance. The support of the Afro-Guyanese community allowed the PNC to bring the economy under control and to begin organizing the country into cooperatives.
On February 23, 1970, Guyana declared itself a “cooperative republic” and cut all ties to the British monarchy. The governor general was replaced as head of state by a ceremonial president. Relations with Cuba were improved, and Guyana became a force in the Nonaligned Movement. In August 1972, Burnham hosted the Conference of Foreign Ministers of Nonaligned Countries in Georgetown. He used this opportunity to address the evils of imperialism and the need to support African liberation movements in southern Africa. Burnham also let Cuban troops use Guyana as a transit point on their way to the war in Angola in the mid-1970s.
In the early 1970s, electoral fraud became blatant in Guyana. PNC victories always included overseas voters, who consistently and overwhelmingly voted for the ruling party. The police and military intimidated the Indo-Guyanese. The army was accused of tampering with ballot boxes.
Considered a low point in the democratic process, the 1973 elections were followed by an amendment to the constitution that abolished legal appeals to the Privy Council in London. After consolidating power on the legal and electoral fronts, Burnham turned to mobilizing the masses for what was to be Guyana’s cultural revolution. A program of national service was introduced that placed an emphasis on self-reliance, loosely defined as Guyana’s population feeding, clothing, and housing itself without outside help.
Government authoritarianism increased in 1974 when Burnham advanced the “paramountcy of the party”. All organs of the state would be considered agencies of the ruling PNC and subject to its control. The state and the PNC became interchangeable; PNC objectives were now public policy.
Burnham’s consolidation of power in Guyana was not total; opposition groups were tolerated within limits. For instance, in 1973 the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) was founded. Opposed to Burnham’s authoritarianism, the WPA was a multi-ethnic combination of politicians and intellectuals that advocated racial harmony, free elections, and democratic socialism. Although the WPA did not become an official political party until 1979, it evolved as an alternative to Burnham’s PNC and Jagan’s PPP.
Jagan’s political career continued to decline in the 1970s. Outmaneuvered on the parliamentary front, the PPP leader tried another tactic. In April 1975, the PPP ended its boycott of parliament with Jagan stating that the PPP’s policy would change from noncooperation and civil resistance to critical support of the Burnham regime. Soon after, Jagan appeared on the same platform with Prime Minister Burnham at the celebration of ten years of Guyanese independence, on May 26, 1976.
Despite Jagan’s conciliatory move, Burnham had no intention of sharing powers and continued to secure his position. When overtures intended to bring about new elections and PPP participation in the government were brushed aside, the largely Indo-Guyanese sugar work force went on a bitter strike. The strike was broken, and sugar production declined steeply from 1976 to 1977. The PNC postponed the 1978 elections, opting instead for a referendum to be held in July 1978, proposing to keep the incumbent assembly in power.
The July 1978 national referendum was poorly received. Although the PNC government proudly proclaimed that 71 percent of eligible voters participated and that 97 percent approved the referendum, other estimates put turnout at 10 to 14 percent. The low turnout was caused in large part by a boycott led by the PPP, WPA, and other opposition forces.
Burnham’s control over Guyana began to weaken when the Jonestown massacre brought unwanted international attention. In the 1970s, Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple of Christ, moved more than 1,000 of his followers from San Francisco to form Jonestown, a utopian agricultural community near Port Kaituma in western Guyana. The People’s Temple of Christ was regarded by members of the Guyanese government as a model agricultural community that shared its vision of settling the hinterland and its view of cooperative socialism. The fact that the People’s Temple was well equipped with openly flaunted weapons hinted that the community had the approval of members of the PNC’s inner circle. Complaints of abuse by leaders of the cult prompted United States congressman Leo Ryan to fly to Guyana to investigate. The San Francisco-area representative was shot and killed by members of the People’s Temple as he was boarding an airplane in Port Kaituma to return to Georgetown. Fearing further publicity, Jones and more than 900 of his followers died in a massive communal murder and suicide. The November 1978 Jonestown massacre suddenly put the Burnham government under intense foreign scrutiny, especially from the United States. Investigations into the massacre led to allegations that the Guyanese government had links to the fanatical cult.
Although the bloody memory of Jonestown faded, Guyanese politics experienced a violent year in 1979. Some of this violence was directed against the WPA, which had emerged as a vocal critic of the state and of Burnham in particular. One of the party’s leaders, Walter Rodney, and several professors at the University of Guyana were arrested on arson charges. The professors were soon released, and Rodney was granted bail. WPA leaders then organized the alliance into Guyana’s most vocal opposition party.
As 1979 wore on, the level of violence continued to escalate. In October, Minister of Education Vincent Teekah was mysteriously shot to death. The following year, Rodney was killed by a car bomb. The PNC government quickly accused Rodney of being a terrorist who had died at the hands of his own bomb and charged his brother Donald with being an accomplice. Later investigation implicated the Guyanese government, however. Rodney was a well-known leftist, and the circumstances of his death damaged Burnham’s image with many leaders and intellectuals in less-developed countries who earlier had been willing to overlook the authoritarian nature of his government.
A new constitution was promulgated in 1980. The old ceremonial post of president was abolished, and the head of government became the executive president, chosen, as the former position of prime minister had been, by the majority party in the National Assembly. Burnham automatically became Guyana’s first executive president and promised elections later in the year. In elections held on December 15, 1980, the PNC claimed 77 percent of the vote and forty-one seats of the popularly elected seats, plus the ten chosen by the regional councils. The PPP and UF won ten and two seats, respectively. The WPA refused to participate in an electoral contest it regarded as fraudulent. Opposition claims of electoral fraud were upheld by a team of international observers headed by Britain’s Lord Avebury.
The economic crisis facing Guyana in the early 1980s deepened considerably, accompanied by the rapid deterioration of public services, infrastructure, and overall quality of life. Blackouts occurred almost daily, and water services were increasingly unsatisfactory. The litany of Guyana’s decline included shortages of rice and sugar (both produced in the country), cooking oil, and kerosene. While the formal economy sank, the black market economy in Guyana thrived.
In the midst of this turbulent period, Burnham underwent surgery for a throat ailment. On August 6, 1985, while in the care of Cuban doctors, Guyana’s first and only leader since independence unexpectedly died. An epoch had abruptly ended. Guyana was suddenly in the post-Burnham era.
Despite concerns that the country was about to fall into a period of political instability, the transfer of power went smoothly. Vice President Desmond Hoyte became the new executive president and leader of the PNC. His initial tasks were threefold: to secure authority within the PNC and national government, to take the PNC through the December 1985 elections, and to revitalize the stagnant economy.
Hoyte’s first two goals were easily accomplished. The new leader took advantage of factionalism within the PNC to quietly consolidate his authority. The December 1985 elections gave the PNC 79 percent of the vote and forty-two of the fifty-three directly elected seats. Eight of the remaining eleven seats went to the PPP, two went to the UF, and one to the WPA. Charging fraud, the opposition boycotted the December 1986 municipal elections. With no opponents, the PNC won all ninety-one seats in local government.
Revitalizing the economy proved more difficult. As a first step, Hoyte gradually moved to embrace the private sector, recognizing that state control of the economy had failed. Hoyte’s administration lifted all curbs on foreign activity and ownership in 1988.
Although the Hoyte government did not completely abandon the authoritarianism of the Burnham regime, it did make certain political reforms. Hoyte abolished overseas voting and the provisions for widespread proxy and postal voting. Independent newspapers were given greater freedom, and political harassment abated considerably.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Guyana to lobby for the resumption of free elections, and on October 5, 1992, a new National Assembly and regional councils were elected in the first Guyanese election since 1964 to be internationally recognized as free and fair. Cheddi Jagan of the PPP was elected and sworn in as President on October 9, 1992, reversing the monopoly Afro-Guyanese traditionally had over Guyanese politics. The poll was marred by violence however. A new International Monetary Fund Structural Adjustment programme was introduced which led to an increase in the GDP whilst also eroding real incomes and hitting the middle-classes hard.
When President Jagan died of a heart attack in March 1997, Prime Minister Samuel Hinds replaced him in accordance with constitutional provisions, with his widow Janet Jagan as Prime Minister. She was then elected President on fifteenth December 1997 for the PPP. Desmond Hoyte’s PNC contested the results however, resulting in strikes, riots and one death before a Caricom mediating committee was brought in. Janet Jagan’s PPP government was sworn in on 24 December having agreed to a constitutional review and to hold elections within three years, though Hoyte refused to recognize her government.
Jagan resigned in August 1999 due to ill health and was succeeded by Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo, who had been named Prime Minister a day earlier. National elections were held on March 19, 2001, three months later than planned as the election committees said they were unprepared. Fears that the violence that marred the previous election led to monitoring by foreign bodies, including Jimmy Carter. In March incumbent President Jagdeo won the election with a voter turnout of over 90%.
Meanwhile, tensions with Suriname were seriously strained by a dispute over their shared maritime border after Guyana had allowed oil-prospectors license to explore the areas.
In December 2002, Hoyte died, with Robert Corbin replacing him as leader of the PNC. He agreed to engage in ‘constructive engagement’ with Jagdeo and the PPP.
Severe flooding following torrential rainfall wreaked havoc in Guyana beginning in January 2005. The downpour, which lasted about six weeks, inundated the coastal belt, caused the deaths of 34 people, and destroyed large parts of the rice and sugarcane crops. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimated in March that the country would need $415 million for recovery and rehabilitation. About 275,000 people — 37% of the population — were affected in some way by the floods.
Scott #706 was released on October 1, 1983, part of a set commemorating the 150th anniversary of the use of British postage stamps in British Guiana. The 25-cent lithographed stamp, perforated 14, portrays a copy of Great Britian’s Scott #20 (Stanley Gibbons #37) — re-engraved 1 penny rose red (Die II), originally issued in November 1856 — canceled with the A03 obliterator used in Georgetown (Demerara). According to the Stanley Gibbons British Commonwealth Catalogue, Great Britain stamps were first supplied for use on letters in British Guiana from May 11, 1858, thus I’m not sure of the significance of the “April 1, 1858” date inscribed upon this particular stamp.