The Carib people migrated to Guyana from the Caribbean long before Dutch explorers arrived in the 1600s. The Dutch enslaved much of the local population and imported West Africans for additional forced labor. Sir Walter Raleigh and his writings about the legend of El Dorado, a city of gold hidden somewhere in South America, drummed up interest in the region, and eventually Holland was forced to cede Guyana to the British in 1815. Two decades later, the British abolished slavery. However, the colonists still needed cheap labor for the rice and sugar plantations, so they brought in indentured workers mainly from India, China and Portugal. As a consequence, Guyana has one of the largest Indian populations outside the subcontinent, and Indians now make up the largest ethnic group in the nation.
In 1831, three years before the end of slavery, the three colonial settlements of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice merged to become British Guiana. British Guiana eventually gained independence from Britain in May 1966 and changed its name to Guyana. In 1970, it became the Co-operative Republic of Guyana with an elected president. However, for most of the 1970s and 1980s, Guyana was a socialist nation that got progressively poorer. Many of the country’s educated citizens left to take jobs in North America.
Guyana’s potential for economic development has been hampered by two century-old border disputes with its neighbors Venezuela and Suriname. Venezuela claims two-thirds of the country (the area west of the Essequibo River), and Suriname disputes ownership of territory and maritime interests in the east. Both areas are rich in gold, diamonds, bauxite, other minerals, timber and possibly oil.
Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, a British-educated lawyer, became British Guiana’s first prime minister in 1964. He led the country to independence in 1966 and then in 1980, as head of the People’s National Congress (PNC), assumed the title of president-a position he held until his death at age 62 in 1985. He was succeeded by Hugh Desmond Hoyte.
Cheddi Jagan, an American-educated dentist of East Indian heritage and head of the People’s Progressive Party (PPC), was elected president after winning elections in 1992. When he died in 1997, his wife, Janet, a U.S. citizen of Jewish heritage, became his successor in the next election.
Burnham and Jagan are widely regarded as the founding fathers of Guyana’s political freedom from colonialism and capitalism. They started out as personal friends but ended up staunch political rivals. The volatile division resonates today, as the PNC and PPP are separated not only politically, but along racial lines as well.
In the summer of 1999, 37-year old Bharat Jagedo assumed the presidency upon the resignation of President Janet Jagan. He was re-elected in 2001 and again in 2006 with nearly 55% of the popular vote. President Jagdeo has introduced internal reforms that are slowly improving the country’s debt position and deeply rooted corruption, but much work remains to create a viable and nimble government capable of delivering services without foreign aid.
In the minds of many outside of Guyana, Jagdeo’s most remarkable accomplishments are in the realm of conservation. Developing significant partnerships with NGO’s like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, and gaining the outspoken support of notables from The Prince of Wales to Harrison Ford, Jagdeo has embarked on an ambitious plan to create investment schemes that assign value to Guyana’s standing rainforests that exceed their value as export timber. His vision to essentially ‘lease’ Guyana’s jungles as a comprehensive carbon offset for Europe have yet to be fully realized, but the effort appears to be gaining traction.
Visitors to Guyana quickly realize that Jagdeo’s “Low Carbon Development Strategy” and all that it entails are a frequent topic of conversation for absolutely every Guyanese.
Guyana’s current president is David Granger. He was sworn-in as the ninth Executive President of the Republic of Guyana on 16 May, 2015. His election signalled the first change from longstanding rule of the People’s Progressive Party since 1992.