Freedom Rating: 2.0
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 2
In 2000, President Bharrat Jagdeo paved the way for general elections to be held in January 2001. Jagdeo, who took office the year before when President Janet Jagan stepped down, also urged action to implement the recommendations for reform of the 1980 constitution that were submitted to parliament by a constitution reform commission. The protection of Guyana's small indigenous populations continued to be one of the most important human rights issues yet to be faced by the country's ruling elite.
Guyana is a member of the Commonwealth. Indo-Guyanese outnumber Afro-Guyanese, 52 percent to 36 percent. From independence in 1966 until 1992, Guyana was ruled by the autocratic, predominantly Afro-Guyanese, People's National Congress (PNC). The 1980 constitution provides for a strong president and a 65-seat national assembly elected every five years. Twelve seats are occupied by elected local officials. The leader of the party winning the plurality of parliamentary seats becomes president for a five-year term. The president appoints the prime minister and cabinet.
The first free and fair elections were held in 1992, and 80 percent of the eligible population voted. The PNC lost to an alliance of the predominantly Indo-Guyanese People's Progressive Party (PPP) and the Civic party. PPP leader Cheddi Jagan, having moderated his Marxism since the collapse of communism, became president with 52 percent of the vote; PNC leader Desmond Hoyte took 41 percent. A third candidate from the Working People's Alliance (WPA), the only mixed-race party in the country, won less than 2 percent. In the legislature, the PPP won 36 of 65 seats; the PNC, 26; the WPA, which campaigned on a platform of multiracial cooperation, won 2 seats, and the centrist United Force took 1.
Fear and distrust of the Indo-Guyanese ruling party continued among Afro-Guyanese, despite Jagan's record of governing in a relatively evenhanded manner. He was slow to move on promised constitutional and electoral reforms, but in 1995 got to work with an eye towards the next elections, due in 1997.
Jagan's work was cut short by his death in March 1997. He was replaced by Samuel Hinds, a member of Civic, the PPP's coalition partner. Hinds called elections for December 15, 1997. Cheddi Jagan's widow, Janet, beat the PNC's Hoyte by a 5 to 4 margin, or roughly 60,000 votes. The vote was bitterly disputed as rigged. The army was called upon to help quell civil disturbances, even after a special commission sent by the Caribbean Community (Caricom), the regional multilateral group, found no evidence of election fraud. In 1998, progress was made on constitutional reform as parliament began the process of setting up a broad-based committee to oversee changes in the 1980 constitution.
Ill health forced Janet Jagan to resign in August 1999, and she was replaced by Finance Minister Jagdeo, who promised to heal racial and political divides and to welcome foreign investment. In 2000, indigenous-rights issues continued to be a primary human rights concern, as only 6,000 out of 24,000 square miles recommended for titling, or demarcation as indigenous-owned, land by a 1969 government commission had actually been titled to Native Americans by the end of the century. Indigenous lands, titled and untitled, are frequently allocated to mining and logging interests or set aside as protected areas, mostly without any attempt to inform the affected communities or seek their participation or consent.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Citizens can change their government through direct, multiparty elections. Claims by the opposition PNC concerning vote rigging and mismanagement in the 1997 elections were judged by a Caricom-selected investigative commission to be largely without merit, although numerous administrative shortcomings were detected. In 1997, an effort was made to reduce the possibility of the fraud and impersonation that had marred previous contests by requiring voters to have identification cards bearing their photographs when they went to the polls.
Under the 1980 constitution, the president has wide powers and immunities. Because the constitution lacks explicit guarantees, political rights and civil liberties rest more on government tolerance than institutional protection. The rights of free expression, freedom of religion, and freedom to organize political parties, civic organizations, and labor unions are generally respected.
Several independent newspapers operate freely, including the daily Stabroek News. Only two radio stations operate; both are government owned. The government owns one television station. Seventeen privately owned television stations freely criticize the government.
The judicial system is independent; however, due process is undermined by the shortage of staff and funds. Prisons are overcrowded, and conditions poor. Guyana is the only Caribbean country to have cut all ties to the British Privy Council, the court of last resort of other former colonies in the region. Guyanese officials have complained that U.S. efforts to deport Guyanese from the United States to Guyana caused an upsurge in violent crimes such as carjackings and shootouts with police. Indigenous peoples are routinely denied the right to a fair trial and due process of law, in particular the failure to provide translation services at trial for indigenous defendants and the absence of defense counsel.
The Guyana Defence Force and the Guyana Police Force are under civilian control, with the latter invested with the authority to make arrests and maintain law and order throughout the country. The Guyana Human Rights Association, an autonomous, effective group backed by independent civic and religious groupings, has charged the police with frequent recurrence to excessive force, sometimes causing death. Although authorities have taken some steps to investigate extrajudicial killings, and charges against some officers have been brought, abuses are still committed with impunity. The police are also prone to corruption, particularly so given the penetration by the hemispheric drug trade Popular disaffection with the police could be seen when, in February 2000, Guyana's most-wanted criminal was killed after an 11-hour gun and grenade battle with police. A week later, he was given a hero's funeral attended by thousands of people.
Labor unions are well organized. In 1995 the government sought to dilute the right to strike among some public sector unions. Companies are not obligated to recognize unions in former state enterprises sold off by the government.
Racial clashes have diminished since the 1992 election, but long-standing animosity between Afro- and Indo-Guyanese remains a concern. The government has formed a multiparty race relations committee to promote tolerance.
There are nine indigenous peoples in Guyana numbering approximately 80,000 people, or ten percent of the population. Human rights violations against them are widespread and pervasive, particularly concerning the failure of the state to adequately respect indigenous land and resource rights. Logging and mining concessions, which cover vast areas of Guyana, often cause substantial environmental degradation, which in turn causes a decline in indigenous subsistence resources and health. As indigenous land and resource rights are fundamentally related to cultural rights, the latter are also curtailed when the former are violated. Indigenous attempts to seek redress through the courts have been met with unwarranted delays by the judiciary. Legislation pertaining to indigenous peoples is outdated and discriminatory, vesting in government ministers arbitrary and far-reaching powers that do not apply to other Guyanese citizens. Intergovernmental oversight bodies have criticized this legislation and recommended its revision on a number of occasions to no avail. There is widespread discrimination with regard to the provision of education and health services in indigenous communities and disregard for their customary laws and institutions of governance.
Domestic violence against women is troubling, as is the government's reluctance to address the issue.
Disclaimer: © Freedom House, Inc. · All Rights Reserved