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Guiana" was the name given the area sighted by Columbus in 1498, comprising modern Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and parts of Brazil and Venezuela. The Dutch settled in Guyana in the late 16th century, when the Amerindians welcomed them as trading partners. However, colonial government and exploitation of the Amerindians--and later of African slaves--followed. Interrupted briefly by the French and British, Dutch control ended when the British became the de facto rulers in 1796. In 1815, the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice were officially ceded to Great Britain at the Congress of Vienna and, in 1831, were consolidated as British Guiana.

Following the abolition of slavery in 1834, thousands of indentured laborers were brought to Guyana to replace the slaves on the sugar cane plantations, primarily from India but also from Portugal and China. The British stopped the practice in 1917. Many of the Afro-Guyanese former slaves moved to the towns and became the majority of the urban population, whereas the Indo-Guyanese remained predominantly rural. A scheme in 1862 to bring black workers from the United States was unsuccessful. The small Amerindian population stills live in communal settlements in the interior.

The peoples drawn from these diverse origins have coexisted peacefully for the most part. Slave revolts, such as the one in 1763 led by Guyana's national hero, Cuffy, demonstrated the desire for basic rights but also a willingness to compromise. Labor disputes in the period following emancipation showed similar characteristics. The development of organized labor was led by H.N. Critchlow, the father of local trade unionism. Racial disturbances between East Indians and blacks erupted in 1962-64. However, the basically pacific nature of the Guyanese, contributed to a deescalation of racial tensions.

Guyanese politics has nevertheless occasionally been turbulent. The first modern political party in Guyana was the People's Progressive Party (PPP), established on January 1, 1950, with Forbes Burnham, a British-educated Afro-Guyanese, as chairman; Dr. Cheddi Jagan, a U.S.-educated Indo-Guyanese, as second vice-chairman; and his American-born wife, Mrs. Janet Jagan, as secretary general. The first PPP platform said that its two objectives were independence from the British and "a just socialist society." The PPP won 18 out of 24 seats in the first popular elections permitted by the colonial government in 1953, and Dr. Jagan became Leader of the House and Minister of Agriculture in the colonial government. Five months later, on October 9, 1953, the British suspended the constitution and landed troops because, they said, the Jagans and the PPP were planning to make Guyana a Communist state. These events led to a split in the PPP, with Burnham breaking away and founding what eventually becamne known as the People's National Congress (PNC). Elections were permitted again in 1957 and 1961, and Dr. Jagan's PPP ticket won on both occasions, with 47.5 percent of the vote in 1957 and 42.6 percent in 1961. Dr. Jagan became the first Premier of British Guiana, a position he held for seven years.

At a Constitutional Conference in London in 1963, the British agreed to grant independence to the colony, but only after another election in which proportional representation would be introduced for the first time. It was widely believed that this system would reduce the number of seats won by the PPP and prevent it from obtaining a clear majority in parliament. The December 1964 elections gave the PPP 45.8 percent, the PNC 40.5 percent, and the United Force (TUF), a conservative party, 12.4 percent. TUF threw its votes in the legislature to Forbes Burnham, and he became Prime Minister. Independence was achieved in May 1966, and Guyana became a republic on February 23, 1970, the anniversary of the Cuffy slave rebellion. From December 1964 until his death in August 1985, Forbes Burnham ruled Guyana in an increasingly autocratic manner, first as Prime Minister and later, after the adoption of a new constitution in 1980, as Executive President. The PNC increased its parliamentary majority to 66 percent in the 1973 elections and to more than 75 percent in the 1980 and 1985 elections. However, these elections were viewed, both in Guyana and abroad, as rigged. Human rights and civil liberties were suppressed, and two major political assassinations occurred, the Jesuit priest and journalist Bernard Darke in July 1979 and the distinguished historian and WPA party leader Walter Rodney in June 1980. Agents of President Burnham are widely believed to have been responsible for both murders.

Following Burnham's death, Prime Minister Hugh Desmond Hoyte acceded to the presidency and was formally elected to that position in the December 1985 national elections. President Hoyte gradually brought about a almost complete reversal of Burnham's policies, moving from state socialism and one-party control to a market economy and unrestricted freedom of the press and assembly.

On October 5, 1992, a new National Assembly and Regional Councils were elected in the first Guyanese elections since 1964 to be internationally recognized as free and fair. The PPP won 53.5 percent of the votes; the PNC, 42.3 percent; the Working People's Alliance (WPA), 2.0 percent; and TUF, 1.0 percent. The leader of the party with the largest vote, Dr. Cheddi B. Jagan, automatically became President; he was sworn in on October 9, 1992, the 39th anniversary of the day the British landed troops and suspended the colonial legislature he led. Former President Hoyte became Minority Leader in the National Assembly in an orderly and peaceful transition. Dr. Jagan appointed a Prime Minister and a cabinet consisting of 8 Indo-Guyanese, 4 Afro-Guyanese, and two Guyanese of Portuguese, one of Chinese, and one of Amerindian descent. Two members of the cabinet and 13 members of the National Assembly, from both major parties, are women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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