As early as the 1530s, the Spaniards tried to establish
themselves on the coast of Guyana, but were displaced by the
indigenous people. As a result of activities in the
Caribbean, the Dutch West Indies Company established trading
stations along the coast of present-day Guyana between 1616
and 1621. The British first established themselves in
present-day Surinam in 1663, but exchanged with the Dutch
colony Nieuw-Amsterdam (New York) in 1667.
The Netherlands therefore controlled the coast of
present-day Guiana, Suriname and French Guiana until 1796,
when the British fleet took control of the coast in the
context of the Revolutionary War. The Dutch regained control
in 1802, but already the following year, the British were
back in place and also incorporated the areas of Essequibo,
Berbice and Demerara which from then on were called British
Guiana. The final border Venezuela were established in 1899,
and the disputed Essequibo area (closer to 2 /
3 of the country) accrued British Guiana.
The conflict between Guyana and Venezuela over the right
to Essequibo still prevails, especially after the
independence of Guyana in 1966. See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Guyana.
The Dutch started tobacco - and later sugar production in
the colony - and introduced a large number of African slaves
for this purpose, as the local Native American population
failed to work. The most famous slave revolt took place in
1763 and resulted in the deaths of about half of Europeans.
The leader of the rebellion, Cuffy, is now considered a
national hero. Slavery was abolished in 1838, and as early
as 1842 the plantations were hit by extensive strikes where
the former slaves demanded the right to own property.
From the mid-1800s Indians, Chinese and Syrians also
began to immigrate to the country, and the population
composition has influenced the policy.
Even before independence in 1966, internal politics was
characterized by progressive parties led by intellectuals.
Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham both formed the leadership
of the People's Progressive Party (PPP), established in
1950. Although the party won an overwhelming victory in
1953, the colony was ruled by the British governor until
internal self-government was introduced in 1957. PPP became
then split into an Indian faction led by Jagan and an
African faction led by Burnham. The latter created his own
party, the People's National Congress (PNC), which gained
power in 1964. Burnham received support from both the United
States and the United Kingdom to avoid Jagan, with his more
orthodox Marxist policies, coming to power.
In 1970, Burnham proclaimed Guyana as a cooperative
republic. Between 1971 and 1976, the bauxite industry,
shipyards, sugar and timber production were nationalized.
The new policy was self-sufficient, and Guyana became more
strongly linked to the socialist countries, while Burnham
did much to emerge as one of the most important leaders in
the Alliance-free Movement. The PNC used its political power
to dominate the entire community and would not admit that
politics did not work. Widespread corruption and smuggling
economy characterized the country, and in the growing
economic and social crisis of high unemployment, crime and
strikes, Burnham even cemented his sovereignty in a
questionable referendum in 1979.
The assassination of author and politician Walter Rodney
gave rise to a political movement across the Caribbean, and
Burnham's dealings with fanatical religious groups led to a
strained relationship with the United States. In November
1978, an American congressman was killed in the jungle of
Guyana, where US minister Jim Jones and his People's Temple
had founded "Jonestown." The drama ended with more than 900
members of the sect committing collective suicide (see the
In connection with the Falklands War in 1982, the
controversy over Essequibo and Venezuela's demands in the
area flared up again, especially because of supposed gold
When Burnham died in 1985, Prime Minister Desmond Hoyte
took over as president. His political line was more
concentrated on the country's economic problems than the
political prestige and socialist profile that Burnham
represented. The opposition party PPP has made strong
attempts to achieve a division of power between the two
traditionally rival parties. Economic reforms to encourage
foreign investment began in 1986, and the United States has
lifted Guyana's export restrictions.
PPP to power
Opposition politician Cheddi Jagan (PPP) finally came to
power in the 1992 elections. PNC's almost unshakable power
since independence from the UK was possible due to
widespread electoral fraud more than voters' favor. Jagan
and the PPP have accused the PNC of tampering with electoral
lists every year, and a revision and modernization of the
electorate only took place in 1991 after strong pressure on
then-President Desmond Hoyte. Jagan's government tried
unsuccessfully to privatize the bauxite plants and sugar
When Jagan died in 1997, extraordinary elections were
held, which were won by widow Janet Jagan. She retired for
health reasons in 1999 and was followed by Bharrat Jagdeo.
Since the late 1990s, the political goals have been to unite
the ethnic contradictions in the country, facilitate foreign
investors and liquidate state ownership of the industry; the
most tangible results have come in the latter area.
The continued strong concentration on sugar production
reinforces the economic vulnerability. An occasional armed
border dispute with neighboring Suriname over access to oil
resources was brought before a UN court in 2004. In Jagdeo's
first five-year period, the country's debt burden was
significantly reduced, but the country is heavily dependent
on US financial support. At the beginning of the new
millennium, Guyana was still one of the poorest among
America's developed countries, with 30% of the population
living below the poverty line.