GUYANA: ‘We are very anti-terrorism’
Thomas Cromwell

Guyana has had the bad luck to be noticed internationally only when its news is bad. There were decades of socialist government that made it a pariah; there was the killing of 11 Guyanese students aboard a Cubana airliner in 1976; there was the Jim Jones mass suicide tragedy in 1978; and recently there was the June 2007 revelation of a plot by four Muslim men, three of them from Guyana and one from Trinidad and Tobago, to blow up a fuel terminal at JFK.

So where is the good news?

Guyana’s ambassador to Washington, Bayney Karran, recently sat down with to talk about just that: the good news from Guyana, or perhaps at least the regular news which, as everywhere, has a mix of the good and the bad.

He called the recent involvement of Guyanese in a terror “a complete aberration.” For one thing, out of a Guyanese population of just 770,000 only 10 percent are Muslims (50 percent are Christians, and 35 percent Hindus).

For most Guyanese, news of their compatriots being involved in a terror plot “caused a deep sense of disappointment,” the ambassador said.

That is because within Guyana itself there is little tension among religions. “We don’t have religious intolerance,” the ambassador said. “And religious inter-marriage is common.”

He noted that the loss of 11 Guyanese students in the 1976 attack on the Cubana airliner over the Caribbean “left a scar on our soul. We are very anti-terrorism,” he said.

Muslim groups in the capital Georgetown have condemned the JFK plot. The ambassador said the Muslim community’s response has been “to cooperate with law enforcement in Guyana and the United States to make sure it does not happen again.”

Ambassador Karran said that the socialist legacy of his country is “not a problem.” He said that the transition to a market economy is complete. This process has been spurred by what he called the “bitter taste in peoples’ mouths” from the brand of socialism practiced in Guyana, which “left the economy in ruins.”

Furthermore, since socialist policy was reversed, starting in the 1980s, people have seen political and economic benefits. Thus, even though socialist ideals are still evoked by some political leaders, the general population has firmly turned its back on socialism.

This is important vis a vis Guyana’s relations with big neighbor Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez has taken a sharp leftward turn and is creating a radical socialist regime that grants him dictatorial powers. The ambassador said that despite this, relations are friendly and there is no evidence that Chavez is trying to export his brand of “21st Century Socialism” to Guyana, as he is to other Latin American countries, such as Bolivia and Nicaragua. “We have a very good relationship,” the ambassador said.

Guyana shares much of the natural beauty found in Venezuela: lush forests, grand mountains and plunging waterfalls, and to this day there is a dispute over its borders with Venezuela to the west and Suriname to the east.

“Venezuela still makes claim to two thirds of Guyanese territory,” the ambassador said. “But this government is less aggressive in trying to dispossess us of our territory.” In 1968 Venezuela annexed part of Guyana, and in 1969 it supported rebels in the south of Guyana.

One important reason to settle the offshore border dispute with Suriname is that large oil deposits have been identified beneath the sea. These cannot be exploited without a resolution, which is due later this year, but once that is agreed both countries stand to benefit, although Guyana is likely to come out the big winner, and it could become a major exporter of hydrocarbons.

To improve the economy, this government, whose president won re-election last year, is focusing on infrastructure development and administrative reform. There are two major construction projects it is pursuing. One is to complete a bridge and highway to Brazil, creating a transportation link between Brazil and the Caribbean; the other is to build a bridge across the Berbice River, which will help integrate the eastern part of the country with the capital.

Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America. The ambassador calls it “a typical Caribbean island.” The coastal area was laid out by the Dutch, but the capital, Georgetown, is noted for the English influence in its attractive wooden buildings. Trade, information and people flows connect Guyana to the Caribbean, and not surrounding countries, most of which are barely accessible by road.

“The Latin countries are a different world,” said the ambassador. “Culturally and historically.”

Dutch influence, in culture and language, has remained strong in neighboring Suriname, but in many other respects the two countries have a lot in common: diverse ethnic groups (European, Subcontinent Indian, African and Asian) with a fusion cuisine to match.

Guyana today suffers from a decades-old brain drain. Socialism offered few opportunities to young Guyanese, and even today 83 percent of graduates leave, many to the United States. “We suffer greatly from a brain drain,” the ambassador lamented.

The government is trying to reverse the tide, offering training programs and incentives to stay.

One of the other forces pushing people out has been a high crime rate, although “emigration started long before the crime wave,” the ambassador said.

“So now we have a large Diaspora community,” he noted. “There are about the same number of Guyanese living outside the country as in.” Cities with large Guyanese communities include New York, Toronto, Orlando, Miami, Atlanta and London. There are also a good number scattered across the Caribbean.

The upside of this is that many exiles have done well, and the remittances they send home are an important part of the Guyanese economy.

The ambassador said that President Bharrat Jagdeo, a member of the Hindu community, won reelection from a population that voted to continue his market-oriented policies. Jagdeo won praise for the National Development Strategy he had devised earlier, as a finance minister, and his sober implementation of policy has earned him a good reputation as a capable manager.

Yet the Millennium Challenge Corporation judges that Guyana has a ways to go to achieve good governance and create an environment that will support business and economic growth. Among other goals to reach: strengthening tax policy, administration and collection, and improve implementation of the value added tax (VAT).

The ambassador said that ethnicity has played an important role in national politics in Guyana, but in his view its importance is waning. Some 43 percent of the population is Indian, 30 percent is African, nine percent Amarindian (Indians native to the Caribbean area), and 17 percent a mixture of smaller ethnic minorities.

The ruling alliance typically wins the support of 50-54 percent of seats in parliament; the main opposition 40-44 percent. Working together, they control over 90 percent of the seats.

Ambassador Karran is aware of the problems created by the crime wave that has given Guyana a bad name. He said that too much has been spent by the government on social programs, and not enough on security and policing.

The crime problem is exacerbated to an “overwhelming” point by deportations of criminals from the United States. This is a problem experienced in many Caribbean nations, which are pressing Washington to change its deportation policies to reduce the number of those sent home for misdemeanor crimes.

“The US policy is widely perceived as contributing to crime and instability” in our countries, the ambassador said of Guyana and fellow CARICOM members. “The US can do more to show that it is addressing the concerns of our region.”

“We need to deepen our dialog,” he said of US-Caribbean relations. Although he described US-Guyana relations as “excellent.”

In the meantime, the government of Guyana is fighting back against the gangs. It has contracted the British police to modernize Guyana’s police force, and make it more effective.

On the economic front, Guyana is trying to improve economic output by ramping up targeted industries, such as tourism and production of agricultural products. The country is self-sufficient in beef, chicken, eggs and vegetables, and is eying the $5 billion/year CARICOM market for food imports.

This will be facilitated as the CARICOM single market comes into effect, a process under way now. A single market will not only help companies within the region, but fuel investment and trade from outside it.

“We expect to move to a common currency [like the Euro] in the next few years,” the ambassador said.

Right now CARICOM includes 13 countries, but excludes some significant Caribbean economies, such as the Bahamas.