Leader: President Desmond Hoyte
Economy: GNP per capita $457 per year
Monetary unit Guyana dollar
Main exports: Sugar, rice, bauxite, gold
Health: Infant mortality: 45 per 1,000 live births
Life expectancy: 69 years
Percentage of population with access to clean water unknown
Culture: Ethnic groups are Indian (5 3%), African (35%), other (12%) including mixed, Chinese, Portuguese, other European and Amerindian
Religion: Hindu (34%), Protestant (34%), Muslim (9%), Roman Catholic (8%), other (15%)
Sources: Inter-American Development Bank, 1984; US Department of Commerce, 1984; International Fund for Agricultural Development, 1982.
THE Dutch colonised Guyana in the 17th century and made its coastal belt suitable for cultivation by the construction of a vast network of canals and dams, providing irrigation and sea defences for the low-lying land. From the late 17th century slaves were brought in to work on the sugar plantations.
The territory was handed over to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1814. After the abolition of slavery the plantation work was done by indentured workers imported from India, Portugal and China adding to the ethnic mix which characterises modern Guyana.
British Guyana was the home of the first trade union in the English-speaking Caribbean - the British Guyana Labour Union, formed in 1919. And in 1951 it took another first by electing a left-wing party, the People's Progressive Party (PPP), in the first elections held under universal adult suffrage. The PPP government led by Dr Cheddi Jagan lasted 133 days before the British government suspended the constitution and reintroduced direct rule, backed up by British troops. Subsequently a split in the PPP led to the creation of the People's National Congress (PNC) headed by Forbes Burnham which formed a government in 1964 after violent race clashes involving hundreds of deaths.
Guyanese politics are dominated by the race issue, with the PPP representing the 50 per cent plus of the people who are East Indian. The PNC which has remained in power since 1964 is dominated by the minority African sympathisers, and not surprisingly been accused of Tammany Hall style ballot-rigging. Following independence in 1966 the government adopted a non-aligned foreign policy and nationalised the key bauxite and sugar industries.
Despite Guyana's potential in gold, diamonds, oil and hydroelectric power the country is in economic crisis. Heavy government spending, inefficient management, continuing political strife and a large foreign debt add to the problems. Production in the bauxite, rice and sugar industries has fallen. The import of many food items has been banned while other consumer goods and spare mechanical parts are in short supply because of the lack of foreign exchange. There's a flourishing black market, with planes arriving loaded with tea, cheese, milk, flour and spares. Violent crime has increased and capital punishment was brought back in 1985.
The government under President Desmond Hoyte faces an uphill task to get the economy back on its feet. On-going concerns include border disputes with Venezuela and Surinam. This provides an ostensible reason for a large military force which could also be used against internal dissidents. Occasionally Guyanans look wistfully across the border at Venezuela:
'Venezuela should invade us' goes the street talk, 'It's got money and it's got real democracy and we need both.'