The search for our destiny
By Christopher Ram
February 1, 2004
To the north are the islands of the Caribbean, many of which are fellow members of the close but small regional trade group Caricom. With them Guyana shares a common colonial legacy, a common language and a passion for cricket. The total land mass of these countries can fit several times over in Guyana while the people number just about five million.
And to the south there is Brazil, a giant of a country with a population approaching 200 million people occupying five million square miles of territory. They speak Portuguese, have a passion for football, carnival and music. Indeed the energetic and affable Brazilian Ambassador to Guyana, Mr Ney Do Prado Dieguez, recently commented that Brazil and Guyana have signed more agreements in the last two years than in the past thirty years! Such a statistic is purely academic to the thousands of Guyanese nationals from the hinterland region who are probably as comfortable in Brazil as they are in Guyana.
Where do we look?
Significantly,the initiative to increase contacts is as much at the governmental as it is at the level of the predominantly Amerindian communities and the private sector. It is particularly heartening to see our chambers of commerce, tourism association and several individuals commit to the Brazil cause. It seems therefore that such contacts and the building of stronger relationships will become greater and assume more economic significance.
Yet the moves are still not as steady as they should be. Guyana seems caught somewhere between - as some would like to say to the north, 'history,' and those to the south, our 'continental destiny.' Among the second group are those who have had contact, including many of those who have already acquired real estate in Brazil at prices which makes Georgetown sound like downtown Manhattan! On the other hand, there are the more insular Guyanese who think that already there are too many Brazilians here - some legally and others illegally - taking away our minerals and our logs, corrupting our officials(!) and bringing drugs into the country. Some among us worry about the impact of Brazilian crime, including the callous disregard for the environment and that country's indigenous people. The more paranoid are even concerned about tilting the composition of the Guyanese population, forgetting that we are all in fact the product of colonization and migration. They fear that strengthening our ties with Brazil suggests a moving away from Caricom.
Ties can bind
Apart from the difference in land mass and population, there does seem to be an awful lot of similarities between our countries. Look at their GDP and you see forestry, fishery, tourism, mining, agriculture, manufacturing and services. Does that not sound like Guyana? Their urban/rural population distribution is similar and their male-dominated culture would be easily recognised. There is in that country a sharp social divide - much sharper than here, and they are as famous for their street children and urban police excesses as they are for the Rio Carnival.
Democracy now appears to have taken root in a country where coups were not unknown up to a couple of decades ago. Their current leader, President Lula, is enormously popular and has taken a firm place on the world stage, much to the discomfort of some in the US administration. Because of its size perhaps, but also because of its growing reputation as a major player in Latin and South America, the developing countries and even among the powerhouses of Europe and North America, Brazil has no qualms about reaching out and supporting the developing countries, even if it offends the world's superpower.
President Bharrat Jagdeo is confident after meeting with President Lula that Caricom's lobbying efforts for special and differential treatment within the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) would receive that country's support. And it is clear that Brazil counts in all the fora of the world, as we saw in Cancun recently and with its strongly held view that the road to FTAA would not be dictated by the USA. Even more boldly, Brazil is also moving to restore the strength of the developing world as President Lula's recent visit to India demonstrated.
Riding on the crest of his image and popularity President Lula has also expressed an interest in Africa, and in facilitating an agreement between Caricom and MERCOSUR. For his part President Jagdeo is reported to have promised Guyana's support for this process. Where that would leave the FTAA, which is clearly not as urgent as some would like, is anyone's guess, but there must be now strong evidence that Guyana needs to use the momentum to increase trade ties with Brazil.
Our private sector complains about the small internal market, but in a recent address in Guyana the Brazilian ambassador was categorical in inviting the Guyanese business person "to aggressively cross the border and conquer the Brazilian market, a market that comprises 170 million consumers."
While energy cost is a major deterrent to businesses in Guyana, most of Brazil's energy which comes mainly from renewable sources, particularly hydroelectricity, is dirt cheap by Guyana standards. There are no apparent efforts at this stage for Guyana to tap into their system, but there are no reasons why we should not seek to go there in some kind of joint venture arrangements.
Not that the openness is one-sided, or that it is pure altruism on our neighbour's part, but there is everything right, and indeed by definition that is what trading is about. Brazilian entrepreneurs are of course very interested in some of this country's larger contracts, and their need for access to the Atlantic is quite great. There are as well dangers about opening the road from Brazil to the boys from Brazil, but that is what management and laws are about. There is also the issue of the action brought by sugar countries including Brazil, which could adversely affect Guyana's preferential access to the European market. That is a matter which warrants action at the Presidential level of the two countries.
The Brazilian economy with international trade exceeding $100B dwarfs that of Guyana and there is already tangible interest in our rice. Is that not a good place to start? And while trade increases, is there not a possibility that one of our commercial banks could team up with one from Brazil and introduce banking to the interior? And can someone in our private sector not think of the possibilities offered by a school offering English for Portuguese students? And as the private sector does this, could the governments of the two countries not take the leap and negotiate a double taxation treaty to facilitate trade by removing the double taxation of the same income?
Business Page considers that the time is as good as it has ever been for the widening and deepening of trade and other commercial relations between our two countries. Caricom will always be important to us and has been beneficial to Guyana. That will not go away. Perhaps the way to view our role and relationship with Brazil is not only to expand our own trade opportunities but also to act as the bridge between Caricom and Brazil and the rest of South America. Will anyone quarrel with that?