Having heard President Bharrat Jagdeo's stirring plea to his CARICOM colleagues to "project the reach" of the regional integration movement to exploit the geographical locations of Guyana and Suriname to open an "important gateway" to South America, it was surprising to learn that, three weeks later, rather than attend the important Second Meeting of South American Presidents in Guayaquil, Ecuador, he had dispatched Foreign Minister Rudy Insanally instead.
The First Meeting of South American Presidents in Brasilia in August-September 2000 had provided a unique opportunity for President Jagdeo to meet neighbouring Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Hugo Chavez Frias and Ronald Runaldo Venetiaan of Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname, respectively. More important, that meeting endorsed the 'Action Plan for Regional Infrastructure Integration in South America'. Prepared by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the Plan sought to develop policies on democracy; information knowledge and technology; illicit drugs and related crimes, and trade, all based on the South American countries' common geographical setting. That plan now seems to be at the heart of the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (Iniciativa para a Integracao de Infra-estructura Regional de America do Sul) - IIRSA.
Guyana is right to acknowledge the advantages of its geographical location on the South American continent and to marry its historical vocation to the Caribbean with the vision of a hypothetical continental integration initiative. But, too often, the sounds and the signs emanating from the Administration's policy-makers seem to be contradictory.
For example, when President Cheddi Jagan's Administration refused to support the 'Caribbean' candidate, Costa Rica's Foreign Minister Bernd Niehaus, for election as Secretary General of the OAS in March 1994 and gave its vote to Colombia's Cesar Gaviria, Guyana cheerfully cited its newly discovered 'continental destiny' as its justification for its change of mind. But that decision badly damaged Guyana's reputation as a reliable Caribbean partner while achieving nothing to enhance its standing as a continental State.
Guyana must be prepared to pay its membership dues to the continental club before it can expect to earn benefits. As a start, the Government will need to invest much in expanding and improving its diplomatic representation to play a serious role in the continent's affairs; acquiring and developing language skills to open channels of communication; and enhancing its infrastructure and institutional capacity to profit from the integration process.
The Plan of Action for Regional Infrastructure Integration in South America is not only about roads and bridges. It lays down, for example, ten wide-ranging 'core principles' which include creating a more integrated vision of infrastructure development; setting projects within a strategic planning framework; modernising regulatory systems; strengthening the capacity for policy-making; planning and regulating framework development; harmonising policies, plans and regulatory and institutional frameworks; taking into consideration the environmental and social dimensions of projects; pursuing projects that can raise the standard of living of local populations; constructing mechanisms that promote participation and consensus; developing new mechanisms for programming, executing and managing physical integration projects, and optimising the use of funding sources for developing common strategies. This agenda will certainly be a great challenge to the existing Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade and International Co-operation, not to mention the Public Service as a whole!
Reports seem to have glamourised the scheme for integrating the road transport network among Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela, indeed an important infrastructural objective for the continent's northern coastal zone. According to Foreign Minister Rudy Insanally, the concept of Guyana's being the gateway to the South has "captured the interest of South American leaders" who were "enthusiastic and supportive" of Guyana's being the link between South America and the rest of the world!
It would be silly for anyone to think, seriously, that South America has been waiting all the while for Guyana to become its gateway and link to the rest of the world. And, given the fact that the Guyana-Brazil road link has been twenty years in the making and is still incomplete, it is a wonder that an integrated road system with Venezuela and Suriname should even be given serious consideration as a practical course of action at this time. Nevertheless, it was heartening that Brazil's Alfredo Moscoso, leading a technical team to examine the possibility of a highway connection of the Brazil-Guyana-Suriname-Venezuela axis, was able to visit Guyana to meet with Minister of Public Works and Communications Anthony Xavier so soon after the Guayaquil summit. This is a hopeful step but there will be many rivers to cross.
IIRSA's agenda calls for building the State's capacity to interact more regularly with other South American states as well as for building the confidence of the public and private sectors, and the general population, in the new plans. Without serious commitment and change, the dream of a continental destiny will remain just that.