Before the arrival of European settlers, the indigenous Warrau tribe controlled the territory of Guyana. In the early 17th cent. the Dutch established settlements about the Essequibo River, and England and France also founded colonies in the Guiana region. By the Treaty of Breda (1667) the Dutch gained all the English colonies in Guiana. Possessions continued to change hands in the late 18th and early 19th cent. until the Congress of Vienna (1815) awarded the settlements of Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo to Great Britain; they were united as British Guiana in 1831. Slavery was abolished in 1834. In 1879 gold was discovered, thus speeding British expansion toward the Orinoco delta and resulting in the Venezuela Boundary Dispute.

After World War II significant progress toward self-government was made. Under the 1952 constitution, elections were won (1953) by the PPP, headed by Cheddi Jagan, who formed a government. However, the British deemed the government pro-Communist and suspended the constitution. Subsequently the PPP split, and Forbes Burnham formed the PNC. The PPP again won elections in 1957 and (after self-government was granted) in 1961, but was politically weakened by strikes and unrest; it later emerged that much of the agitation was precipitated or funded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency at the instigation of the Kennedy administration. Proportional representation was then introduced, in response to PNC charges that the electoral system was unfair.

After the 1964 elections the PNC and the UF were able to form a ruling coalition, and Burnham became prime minister. Full independence was negotiated in 1966. In the elections of 1968 and 1973 the PNC won a majority, and Burnham continued as prime minister. Antagonism between the East Indians, who control a substantial portion of the nation's commerce, and Africans led to frequent clashes and bloodshed in the 1960s, but violence subsided by the 1970s.

Guyana became a republic in 1970, embarking on a socialist path that ultimately led to economic ruin. The boundaries with Venezuela and Suriname continued to be a matter of dispute, with Venezuela still laying claim to some 60% of Guyana's territory. In 2007 the disputed sea border with Suriname was settled by a UN Law of the Sea tribunal, but sections of the Suriname land border remain contested. Concessions granted by Guyana for offshore oil exploration revived the boundary dispute with Venezuela in 2015, and in 2018 the United Nations referred the dispute to the International Court of Justice. In 1978 more than 900 followers, mostly Americans, of a religious cult (the People's Temple) led by Jim Jones committed suicide in Jonestown, a jungle village in Guyana. In 1980 a new constitution was adopted, under which Burnham became president. In the early 1980s, the government instituted heavy media restrictions and openly harassed opposition parties.

After Burnham's death in 1985, he was replaced by Desmond Hoyte, who began some liberalization programs and invited foreign aid and investment. In the late 1980s, austerity policies implemented by the government caused considerable unrest, as opposition parties called for new elections. In 1992 Hoyte lost the presidency to the former prime minister (1957–64) and ex-Marxist Cheddi Jagan of the PPP. Under Jagan, the country saw economic growth, especially in the agricultural and mining sectors, and enjoyed continuing international support.

Jagan died in Mar., 1997, and his prime minister, Samuel Hinds, became president, naming Jagan's widow, Janet Jagan, as prime minister. In December of that year, she was elected president. Janet Jagan resigned in Aug., 1999, because of ill health and was succeeded by Bharrat Jagdeo, Guyana's finance minister. Jagdeo and the PPP were returned to power in elections held in March, 2001. Heavy rains, high tides, and drainage canals in disrepair resulted in severe flooding in Georgetown and coastal areas of Guyana in early 2005, disrupting the lives of almost half of the population. Jagdeo was reelected in Aug., 2006, and at the same time the PPP increased its legislative majority by two seats.

In the Nov., 2011, elections the PPP won the election but fell shy of a majority of the legislative seats; PPP leader Donald Ramotar became president. A threatened no-confidence vote by the opposition led in Nov., 2014, to the suspension and then dissolution of the legislature by the president. In early elections in May, 2015, a five-party coalition dominated by A Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change (APNU/AFC) narrowly won control of the legislature, and APNU/AFC candidate David Granger, a retired general, was elected president. In Dec., 2018, the government narrowly and unexpectedly lost a no-confidence vote. It subsequently challenged the result in court instead of calling a new election, but the Caribbean Court of Justice ultimately upheld (2019) the vote. Preliminary results from the Mar., 2020, elections suggested that Granger and his coalition had narrowly won, but results from the crucial election district that included the capital were questioned by the PPP and foreign observers. A recount, which was endorsed by CARICOM and other international bodies, gave the PPP the most votes and a majority of the seats, but Granger's coalition rejected it and sought to stymie its certification.

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