Continental destiny

Stabroek News
February 27, 2000

We are constantly being told that Guyana has a 'continental destiny,' i.e. that the nation's future is bound up with the countries of the continental land mass, and not with the islands of the Caribbean or the leviathans of the north. Less frequently it is suggested that Guyana, as the only English-speaking country on the continent, could become the 'stepping-stone' for anglophone states to access Latin America.

While there can be no dispute about Guyana's geographical situation or the economic and technological changes which are sweeping the hemisphere and which will, in due course, make it impossible for us to remain insulated from our continental neighbours, no one either in Government or outside of it has yet mapped out the details of what the nature of our destiny is. It is not an abstract question. The three Guianas perch precariously on the Latin shoulder, next door to nations whose populations and physical area are so much vaster than theirs. One of those nations within the next two decades or so, will be listed among the world's heavyweights, and eventually is likely to secure a permanent seat on the Security Council. If we are not to be swallowed up and lose our distinctive cultural identity, among other things, then we will have to devise policies and strategies which will allow us to maintain an authentic independent voice in the company of giants.

This will require, to begin with, the crafting of carefully delineated foreign, border and interior policies. The last mentioned, for instance, would have to resolve the competing claims of the environment, the Amerindians and resource extraction investors. How we choose to 'develop' and integrate our interior will affect our ability to maintain control of our land space, and influence the kind of stance we can adopt towards our neighbours. It hardly needs repeating that a border policy is essential to the preservation of our territorial integrity, which apart from the traditional threats, is also under pressure from drug interests and from garimpeiros who could eventually become hinterland squatters if the experience of other countries is anything to go by.

The vagueness of our current foreign policy does not help us very much. With the declared emphasis on promoting our economic interests, the Government has taken a posture strongly supportive of the road to Brazil without any concomitant positions on how we would protect ourselves from being swamped by Brazilian nationals, among other things. In the longer term, of course, we run the risk of becoming a kind of adjunct to the provinces of Roraima and Para, not only because we would constitute part of the communication link between those two Brazilian states, but also because potentially we would become the means whereby Brazil would have the kind of access to the Caribbean basin which would allow her to become a Caribbean power. (She currently has access to the basin through Venezuela, but that access gives her little flexibility because the latter nation cannot easily be influenced and certainly can never become an appendage.)

This does not mean that there should be no road to Brazil; that is something which cannot be avoided. It does mean, however, that until we have coherent policies in place, and until we can monitor the proposed Georgetown-Lethem highway and our borders effectively, we should not be rushing to have an artery which exceeds the standard of other better quality, interior roads, and we certainly should not be thinking of a deep water harbour to facilitate Brazilian container traffic. A surface which would cater for four-wheel-drive vehicles would serve our temporary needs adequately. We may eventually become Brazil's Amazon port; but that can only be contemplated after policies in all the relevant areas have been devised, strategies have been implemented and safeguards have been instituted.

In general, our economic weakness coupled with our political weakness dictate that our approaches to the continent should be in conjunction with others. Our natural allies are in the Guianas, but we have handled Suriname relations rather badly, and we have never pursued common goals with the French. In today's The Week in Europe (page 11), David Jessop discusses the significance of the forthcoming meeting between French President Jacques Chirac and Caribbean leaders; one can only hope that for once the Government will take this opportunity to think out the geo-political and geo-strategic problems of our situation, and make some meaningful suggestions to the French for the evolution of a new relationship. Suriname is a more problematic neighbour, because of concessions made by this Government without any quid pro quo, which have emboldened her on frontier matters and made common foreign policy positions difficult to attain.

It has to be said too, that at the moment we need the support of our Caricom partners when dealing with the continent. As it is, the administration has always appeared to be ambivalent in its approach to the regional organization which has not helped to persuade our sister territories to adjust to Guyana's perspective. Trinidad, of course, has made its independent overtures to the South American mainland. Owing to the strength of her economy, however, she can afford to thumb her nose at Caricom and go it alone, and that economy too will enable her to become the stepping stone between the anglophone and Latin worlds which Guyana longs to be.

As long as we remain economically vulnerable, we will also be vulnerable in other areas. Economic development premised on political accommodation would give us greater leeway to pursue a more adventurous foreign policy in relation to our continental destiny.