Guyana Chronicle
December 28, 2003

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FOR at least a dozen years Jamaica and Guyana have, respectively, been burdened with the biggest debt repayment problems among member states of the Caribbean Community, as their governments struggled to improve fiscal management and push ahead with social and economic development.

Coping with fiscal and administrative reforms in the public sector, as well as keeping the lid, as much as possible on the budget for public sector workers - as demanded by the international financial institutions - while pursuing initiatives to avoid decline in living standards of the general population, have also been similarities in both countries.

A most unflattering similarity they also shared, especially over the past two years, has been high murder rates and overall levels in criminal violence and armed robberies.

Of course, as is generally known, Jamaica remained well ahead of Guyana and all other CARICOM states during the now disappearing 2003, in killings and robberies.

Including, that is, the very bad example represented by Trinidad and Tobago, currently saddled with the unflattering social profile as the "kidnapping centre" of the 15-member CARICOM.

However, as the year was drawing to a close, there were some clear, encouraging signals of positive developments in both Guyana and Jamaica.

Indeed, the news recently coming out of Guyana's capital, Georgetown, contrasted sharply with a traditional flow of negatives - whether it is crime, state of the economy, or the political divisions:

Both private and public sector-owned media were reporting on the unprecedented development of the Guyana Government's success in securing further external debt relief to the level of some US$334 million (GUY$69 billion) over the next 20 years.

50 per cent debt cut
This translates into savings of approximately US$30 million annually that the government would be able to invest in social sector programmes - instead in servicing external debts that stood at some US$2.2 billion when the People's Progressive Party/Civic government came to power in 1992, and which it has reduced by 50 per cent over the past 10 years.

Hailed editorially by the privately-owned Stabroek News as "Good news and Opportunities", the public sector-owned Chronicle subsequently editorialised last week as "Guyana on the move".

The Chronicle noted that the country had now been upgraded from the category of one of the world's poorest nations to that of a "middle-income" country. This, of course, carries new challenges in fiscal and economic management.

Additionally, came news from the Chief Executive Officer of the state-run Guyana Office for Investment (Go-Invest), Geoffrey DaSilva, of the strides made during 2003 in attracting foreign and local investment involving some 189 projects valued at G$17 billion (G$190=US$1).

It would not have gone unnoticed to even the government's sharpest critics that this new change from "poor" to "middle income" status, for which three successive PPP/C administrations have been consistently engaged in debt-relief negotiations, was achieved against the background of Guyana being placed in a "Haitianisation" mould a few years before the change in government.

In Jamaica, media reports have been pointing to the country's own financial tribulations and glimmers of hope.

There was, for instance, the report by the Gleaner of an anguished Finance Minister Omar Davies being locked in sessions with Permanent Secretaries in efforts to overcome cash flow difficulties as the People's National Party administration manoeuvred to cope with an estimated staggering J$700 Billion (JS60=US$1) debt burden (local and external), approximately US$11 billion.

"Tough Times"
Later came the report - "Tough Times - But Patterson optimistic" - as headlined in last Wednesday's Observer - of Prime Minister P.J. Patterson admitting to a "tough economic year for Jamaica", but hailing efforts by both the private sector and trade unions in helping the country to weather the storm with a resurgent tourism industry.

With more than 60 per cent of the government's budget being utilised in servicing debts, the Patterson administration was reported to be placing great emphasis on new multi-million dollar investments by foreign and local entrepreneurs.

Also, an estimated US$150 million increase in tourism revenue - expected to gross US$1.3 billion this fiscal year - and a more positive demonstration in cooperation by the social partners of organised labour and the private sector.

While Jamaica and Guyana struggled to overcome financial hurdles in 2003, and may have good reasons to hope for better days ahead in socio-economic development, the news continue to be very discouraging for CARICOM member state, Dominica.

That Windward island stated had to face very tough fiscal measures to overcome a serious cash-flow problem in 2003, from which the recovery period remains uncertain, even with short-term assistance provided by some CARICOM states and IMF - adjustment measures.

But it is in Haiti that the situation remains very grim, both in economic and political terms, with regional and international experts discussing the problems of that oldest of independent nation in Latin America and the Caribbean in the context of a failed state.

Prime Minister Patterson, who as current CARICOM chairman, will head a delegation to Haiti next month for its official 200th independence anniversary celebration, will have a close-up -if he really needs one - of the extent of the problems confronting the mass of Haitians amid ongoing political violence and challenges to the governance politics of President Jean Bertrand Aristide.

On Boxing Day, latest report I received out of Port-au-Prince from human rights activists, placed the known death toll from political violence at 59 between September and Christmas Eve, largely at the hands of supporters of President Aristide and the police.

As we offer a prayer for Haiti, I take this opportunity to extend personal good wishes to all readers that 2004 results in a better environment to realise their hopes and aspirations.