Guyana Facts
Area:    214,970 sq. km.
Capital:    Georgetown
Total Population:    708,000 (source: unknown, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Between 2001 and 2003, ethnic tensions increased, and unless the governing party, the East Indian-based People's Progressive Party, accommodates the concerns of the Afro-Guyanese, tensions are likely to continue in the immediate future, leading to frequent outbreaks of street violence between East Indians and Afro-Guyanese. Despite this tension and violence, and perhaps fueling the tension, East Indians tend to be in a more advantaged position economically and politically. Racial politics have long been played in Guyana with the PPP generally favoring the East Indian community and the PNC generally favoring the Afro-Guyanese. However, this overlooks the intermarriages, religious conversions, and the adoption of one another's cultural traits by members of each group. Since independence, each ruling regime has identified strongly with one of the dominant ethnic groups. When the PPP is in power, Afro-Guyanese complain of discrimination, and when the PNC has control Indo-Guyanese complain of discrimination. Though ethnic tensions seemed to decline slightly between the late 1980s and early 1990s, recent years have been marked by high political and ethnic tensions, including sometimes violent protests. The smaller ethnic communities do not appear to play a significant role in the country's politics. Coalitions with multi-ethnic leadership and support of the churches sprung up in the 1990s, but to date they have been unable to move the country along the path to racial harmony. The Caribbean Community continues to work to bridge the divide, including revision of the 1980 constitution, though progress has been irregular at best. Guyana experienced a negative growth rate in 1998 for the first time in the decade, and wages remain extremely low). Probably the only long term solution to Guyana's ethnic tensions is sustained economic growth and a power sharing system of government so neither group gets shut out from meaningful leadership. So long as these two elements elude the Guyana political and economic systems, ethnic tensions, distrust, and sporadic violence between the two groups will likely remain.

Analytic Summary

Ethnicity has been a key factor in the political history of Guyana since before independence (ETHDIFXX = 9). While the Afro-Guyanese assimilated into the dominant European culture, the East Indians maintained their culture (CUSTOM = 1) (BELIEF = 3). Half of the current population is of East Indian origin, while 36 percent are Afro-Guyanese, and the rest are of European, other Asian, or indigenous descent. African slaves were brought to Guyana to work on sugar plantations in the 1600s by the Dutch. The British later took over the colony, and when the British Empire abolished slavery in 1838, a labor shortage on the plantations led the British to import indentured servants from China and India (TRADITN = 3). By the turn of the 20th century, East Indians were dominant in rice production and small trade (GROUPCON = 2); they eventually became the country's dominant group. After a tense decade of unrest in the British Caribbean, the Moyen Commission of 1938 recommended that the Guyanese be given a greater say in government, as well as other economic, social and political reforms. The Guyanese formed the People's Progressive Party (PPP) following WWII. A power struggle with Indo-Guyanese members led the Afro-Guyanese to leave the party, eventually forming the People's National Congress (PNC).

The leftist PPP controlled the government in the pre- and post-independence periods. The opposition undertook a destabilizing campaign that involved riots and demonstrations during 1961-64. More than 150 were killed and a thousand homes destroyed in early 1964. That year, the

PPP lost its clear legislative majority; when the PNC formed a coalition with the United Front, they gained the majority and were able to choose a new Prime Minister. Forbes Burnham entered office in late 1964, and remained until his death in 1985, during a period of severe economic crisis. He was widely thought to have rigged elections held while he was Prime Minister. The Afro-Guyanan Desmond Hoyte then assumed the presidency, and amidst allegations of vote rigging and fraud, won the December 1985 elections to continue to rule the country. He began to implement economic reforms which eventually led to economic growth. Ethnic tensions under the Burnham and Hoyte regimes were high, though violence between the groups was minimal.

Pressured to conduct free and fair elections, Hoyte announced elections would be held in October 1992, after a two-year postponement. The PPP regained the upper hand in the legislature, but ethnic tensions increased throughout that administration. The PPP president Cheddi Jagan was criticized particularly for firing civil servants who had served under Hoyte, most of whom were Afro-Guyanese, and replacing them with East Indians. Though the economy continued to grow during Jagan's years in office, the average wage remained low, and there continued to be labor unrest as well. After he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1997, his widow PPP was elected president with 56 percent of the vote. She was sworn in during a secret ceremony just before she was served a court summons barring her from performing the duties of president. While Elections Commission had acknowledged serious problems with vote counting, Jagan swore in a new prime minister and Cabinet members amidst opposition threats and demands for a recount. Her regime was marked by a further increase in racial tensions, including violent demonstrations and work stoppages throughout 1998. When she resigned in 1999 (due to heart problems), her Finance Minister was sworn in as her successor, though the PNC announced that it would not recognize the legality of the Jagdeo administration.

Elections scheduled for 2000 were delayed until the following year, with support from both the business community and human rights groups. When the PPP won a third term in the 2001 elections, the results ignited riots across the country, shutting down much of the economy. Post-election talks quickly broke down between the PPP and the PNC. The resulting 7-month stand off between President Bharrat Jagdeo and opposition leader Desmond Hoyte created a tense environment, partially leading to an increase in violence between Afro-Guyanese and East Indians. In March 2002, the PNC quit its 27 seats in the 65-seat national assembly over the issue of not having representation on state agencies in the new government, and it was more than a year later when the PNC and PPP agreed to resolve the political impasse. Between 2001 and 2003, tensions between Afro-Guyanese and East Indians both within the government and also the greater society led to a crime wave spreading throughout the country; much of the crime has allegedly been tied to Afro-Guyanese gangs, though it was not always clear from the sources who exactly were the main parties responsible, if any. Further, it seems that most of the victims of the crime spree were Afro-Guyanese. Some activists from the Indian community, such as the leader of Rise, Organise And Rebuild (ROAR, started in 1999), have called for the country to be partitioned, with one half reserved for Afro-Guyanese, and the other for the East Indians. Citing complete mishandling of the crime wave, the PNC called for the resignation of Home Affairs Minister and Police Commissioner and an investigation into police tactics. Also, during this period, Hoyte and the PNC have complained that the PPP government has ignored the black community, particularly with respect to extrajudicial killings by police, discrimination in the distribution of land and the community's lack of representation on boards of state agencies. There were regular protests by members of the Afro-Guyanese community between 2001 and 2003, with confrontations between security forces and protesters at times resulting in death. As the currently dominant group, Indo-Guyanese do not suffer from economic or political discrimination (ECDIS03 = 0, POLDIS03 = 0).


Guyana: A Country Study. 1992. Washington D.C. Library of Congress.

Lexis/Nexis news wires including: Inter Press Service, BBC, The

Guardian, the L.A. Times, and Reuters, 2001-2003.

Premdas, Ralph R. 1995. Ethnic Conflict and Development: The Case of

Guyana. Brookfield, VT.: Avebury.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Guyana 2001-2003.

IPS-Inter Press Service. November 18, 2002. "Crime-Ridden Guyana Hears Calls For Partition." Date accessed: 11/17/2004.

IPS-Inter Press Service. September 13, 2002. "Politics-Caribbean: Civil Society Brings Together Guyana's Leaders." Date accessed 11/18/2004.

Latinnews Daily. May 13, 2003. "GUYANA: Main Parties Resolve Year-Long Political Impasse." Date accessed 11/18/2004.

BBC Monitoring International Reports. July 29, 2002. "GUYANA: ARMY ON ALERT BECAUSE OF COUP Rumours". Date accessed 11/18/2004.

BBC Monitoring Latin America. November 1, 2002. "Guyana: Opposition Calls For Inquiry Into The Operations Of The Police Force." Date accessed 11/18/2004.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.