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A brief history of Guyana

Before the arrival of Europeans the region was inhabited by both Carib and Arawak tribes, who named it Guiana, which means “land of waters.” The coast was sighted by Columbus in 1498 but was ignored by Spanish settlers. The Dutch settled in Guyana in the late 16th century. Although the indigenous people welcomed the settlers, the settlers chose to exploit them, decimating the population, then bringing in African slaves to make up for the lost labor force. A slave revolt in 1763 was led by Guyana’s national hero Cuffy.

British rule began in 1796. Following the abolition of slavery in 1834, thousands of indentured laborers were brought to Guyana, replacing slaves on sugar cane plantations, primarily from India but also from Portugal and China. The practice continued until 1917. Organized labor was led by H. N. Critchlow, the father of local trade unionism. The first modern political party was the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), established on January 1, 1950, with Forbes Burnham as chairman, Cheddi Jagan as second vice chairman, and Mrs. Januaryet Jagan as secretary general. The PPP won 18 out of 24 seats in the first popular elections in 1953 and Cheddi Jagan became leader of the house and minister of agriculture. On October 9, 1953, the British suspended the constitution and landed troops, saying the Jagans and the PPP were planning to make Guyana a Communist state. This lead to a split in the PPP with Burnham forming the People’s National Congress (PNC). In 1957 Cheddi Jagan’s ticket won. He became the first premier of British Guiana.

At a constitutional conference in London in 1963 the decision to grant independence called for an election in which proportional representation would be introduced for the first time. The December 1964 elections gave the PPP 46 percent, the PNC 41 percent and the United Force (TUF), 12 percent. TUF voted for Burnham, who became prime minister. Guyana gained independence in May 1966, becoming a republic on February 23, 1970, the anniversary of the Cuffy slave rebellion. From December 1964 until his death in August 1985 Burnham ruled Guyana in an autocratic manner, first as prime minister and, after the adoption of a new constitution in 1980, as executive president. The elections of 1973, 1980 and 1985 were considered fraudulent. Human rights and civil liberties were suppressed, and two major political assassinations occurred: Jesuit priest and journalist Bernard Drake in July 1979 and the distinguished journalist and Working People’s Alliance (WPA) party leader Walter Rodney in June 1980. After Burnham’s death Prime Minister Hugh Desmond Hoyte reversed most of Burnham’s policies. 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, and Cheddi Jagan became president and was sworn in on October 9, 1992, the 39th anniversary of the day British troops landed and suspended the colonial legislature he led.

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