June 29, 2003
Foreign Minister Rudy Insanally waxed lyrical last week on the matter of Guyana becoming a gateway to Latin America. The two projects which triggered this train of thought, were the upgrading of the Guyana-Brazil road, and the possibility of an artery linking Caracas and Georgetown. We reported him on Friday as telling journalists at a press briefing that Minister of Public Works Anthony Xavier would attend a meeting in Caracas which would discuss the integration of infrastructure development in South America. It was there, he said, that Guyana would have the opportunity to develop the idea of serving as a “gateway,” both aerial and maritime.
It could reasonably be asked, given Guyana’s tiny population, poorly monitored borders and impaired ability to enforce the law anywhere in these sovereign 83,000 square miles, whether the new highways are going to serve as a ‘gateway’ to Latin America, or a throughway for the convenience of larger continental nations. Along with our Guiana neighbour and courtesy of the Lethem-Georgetown link, for example, we will be providing the ring road which would connect the Brazilian state of Para with the Brazilian state of Roraima – although admittedly, given the limitations of the Guyana-Suriname ferry service that is unlikely to put us under any immediate pressure.
Where we could become a gateway is to Brazil’s Amazonian region, more especially if we facilitated our southern neighbour with a container port. Presumably, that was the reference which Minister Insanally was obliquely making when he spoke of us becoming a maritime and aerial portal. The Government appeared some time ago to have drifted into a decision in principle that a deep-water harbour would be constructed when the funding, etc, was found, and if it does become a reality in the short or medium-term, it would have huge implications for us as a nation - environmentally, territorially, culturally and population-wise.
Without any interior policy in place, and without any apparent plan in mind about how we will deal with the adverse effects of becoming a corridor to Brazil, we are now forging ahead with a road to Caracas. Venezuela will not be thrilled by the Brazil road, and a western artery would allow her to stake out her own sphere of interest. In fairness, Minister Insanally was quoted in the Chronicle on Friday as saying that we had “obviously to be cautious.” However, he then appeared to negate that by remarks about “closer cooperation in areas might help to minimise... dangers,” and that “We are willing to look at the proposal because this has the blessing of the entire region. So, I would hardly think that we would go into something like that to commit suicide.”
It might be observed, of course, that the blessing of the entire region for a road project is absolutely no guarantee that we won’t be committing suicide, and closer cooperation in whatever areas might not minimise dangers. Be that as it may, one would have hoped that following the experience of the last fifteen months, before steaming ahead with this project the Government would at least have considered the problem of our vulnerability to the drugs trade, and the fact that already we are being integrated into the trans-national narcotics routes.
According to Thursday’s Chicago Tribune, Venezuela is confronting serious problems on her 1,300-mile western border with Colombia. The US-backed campaign against the narcotics industry in that country - the world’s largest supplier of cocaine, and a significant producer of heroin - is having consequences for neighbouring countries. Venezuela in particular is suffering from the Colombian invasion of left-wing guerillas, a string of criminal gangs, thousands of refugees and most recently, the paramilitaries. Killing, kidnapping and extortion are rife in the border areas, and the Tribune reported “terrified residents” as saying that the Venezuelan authorities were “helpless in the face of such violence.”
As things stand, Venezuela is already a major transit route for the export of Colombian cocaine - some estimates suggest that one third of it is sent out through Venezuela - and now, says the Tribune, the increased anarchy along the frontier is making it possible for traffickers to expand coca and poppy cultivation across the border. It is thought that President Chavez’s attention has been diverted by the internal political crisis, which is why the problem is not being addressed in any systematic way.
If Venezuela, by not taking vigorous security measures on a problematic frontier, is allowing a situation of anarchy to develop, what makes us think that just by opening up our borders with road development but no carefully thought-out security plan in place, everything will be hunky dory? Surely there is more than one lesson to be learned by us in this instance (especially in relation to narcotics), in addition to some from Brazil after she opened up her Amazon region through a road network. Brasilia has been unable so far to enforce her environmental regulations on the ground, and as was reported last week, deforestation in that country has increased by 40 per cent.
There is no doubt that sooner or later we will have to be integrated with the continent by road. However, exactly
how that is done, in what context, and according to what time-frame is something which would require a great deal of careful thought and planning. In the absence of a coherent interior policy under which would be subsumed border, security, environment, Amerindian and development issues, we should not be ploughing ahead making agreements for trans-national infrastructural development. Furthermore, given the enormous implications for such linkages, the Government owes it to the people of Guyana to open a national debate on the subject, and listen to a wide cross-section of views and expertise on how we should proceed.