Guyana’s energetic president Bharrat Jagdeo presides over the third-poorest state in the Americas, with a population well under a million and an economy entirely dependent on the export of sugar, bauxite and gold. But Jagdeo has wasted no time in recent years in realizing an entirely new kind of ‘comparative advantage’: a resplendent and intact Amazonian forest the size of England and Wales, which Europe and North America are ever more keen to conserve and offset against the ravages of carbon-intensive development.

The pragmatic leader of the formerly socialist Progressive Peoples’ Party (PPP), Jagdeo worked at the IMF in the 1990s before assuming the presidency as the protégé of Janet Jagan, herself one half of the dynamic couple who founded the state and introduced sweeping socialist reforms in the 1970s. Climate change became Jagdeo’s cause célèbre when he convinced global leaders at the Copenhagen conference in 2009 to include the conservation of standing forest as part of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) policies. Norway agreed to fund the country to the tune of $250 million over five years to 2015, and Guyana now eagerly awaits its first $30 million payment via the World Bank.

Assuring environmental conservation is a contentious issue on the streets of the capital, Georgetown, however, where forests are assigned little worth and recent expansion of the goldmining industry has brought in much larger amounts of foreign capital. Guyana’s business sector fears that the country will be prevented from future development through its collusion with the carbon-hungry North. Jagdeo’s plan to monetize forest carbon was never planned to be at the expense of mining – though it is inevitably a delicate balancing act when minimal state infrastructure is faced with an environmentally unsound mining industry as well as rising market prices. If it functions properly, REDD is supposed to channel funds to rural areas and promote sustainable livelihoods in Amerindian communities. These are regions that are often very poor, have minimal contact with the state, and are liable to exploitation by private contractors – whether Guyanese, Brazilian, or from further afield.

The spectacular waterfall on the Potaro river

Robert Coates

Socially, Guyana is still straggled by ethnic tensions between its Indo and Afro populations, which inform political allegiance. A series of high-profile crimes and massacres have shocked the nation over the last five years, events that the PPP has appeared powerless to influence. The high murder rate and widespread poverty continue to encourage migration overseas, a hugely damaging brain drain illustrated by the flight of young teachers. The law now requires two years of local teaching before they can leave, but there are nonetheless serious doubts over the quality of basic education.

Many of Guyana’s social problems can be traced back to the economic mismanagement that followed the Cold War era, with the painful process of privatization failing to bring the ‘trickle down’ that economic liberalization promised. The loss of preferential access to European markets was significant, though Jagdeo did secure a better deal from the Economic Partnership Agreement with the EU in 2008, as well as gaining a $700-million multilateral debt write-off. For the urban poor, income is more likely to come from relatives overseas, from alliances with the growing Brazilian informal mining community, or from the highly significant transnational cocaine trade and associated money laundering.

Despite its innumerable problems, Georgetown’s preserved colonial buildings, crumbling wooden houses and network of canals have their own charms, with vivacious street traders and lively cricket and nightlife scenes. As Brazilian influence and investment add a new current to Guyana’s traditional dependencies, there is a clear sense here of changing times ahead.

St Lucia

Photo by Guy Mansfield / panos.

Few sitting governments are brought before their own courts, but July 2009 saw St Lucia’s Government face charges of granting illegal tax concessions to tourism properties owned by its serving Health Minister. In what’s become known as ‘tuxedo-gate’, the entire cabinet of the ruling United Workers Party (UWP), led by the conservative Stephenson King, was found to have been complicit in allowing duty-free status on private property belonging to a member. With opposition St Lucia Labour Party (SLP) leader Kenny Anthony calling for the Government’s resignation, the island’s tumultuous local politics awaits either an appeal or an election – whichever arrives soonest.

Flag of St Lucia

The case is the latest in a string of allegations over nepotism which stretch back a decade – property and tax concessions that have left the population with little confidence in official structures. That most cases involve tourism development comes as no surprise; the issue remains a matter of high controversy, leading St Lucian Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott to chastise regional governments in 2008 for ‘selling our land like whores to foreign investors’.

St Lucia’s stunning beauty, capped by the famous twin peaks of the Pitons, hides a turbulent history. Home to Arawak and then Carib civilizations until their genocide under European settlement in the 17th century, St Lucia was bitterly fought over by the French and British, changing hands 15 times between 1660 and 1814 – when British domination of the Caribbean was finally affirmed. It was the French who introduced sugar to the island in 1760, bringing in thousands of Africans to slave in the lucrative canefields and establishing French patois (Creole) as the colloquial tongue. During the French Revolution slaves were freed and noble landowners executed under radical Republicans, a move which resulted in bands of freed slaves called Brigands instigating a terrifying 10-year guerrilla war against British troops, fearing re-enslavement by the incoming power. Sugar remained the primary crop through abolition and for 120 years after. The island achieved self-government in 1967 and independence from Britain finally in 1979; both events under the enigmatic leadership of long-time Prime Minister John Compton.

From the 1960s, preferential access to European markets for bananas maintained St Lucia’s economy and, though the number of farmers has fallen to a quarter of what it was in the early 1990s due to increased competition from US farms in Latin America, UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s has ensured a future still exists for the St Lucian banana industry through recent fair trade deals.

Tourism has nonetheless replaced bananas as by far the largest economic sector, and recent governments have sought to capitalize on the island’s reputation for outstanding natural beauty with the construction of a host of high-end property developments and golf courses. St Lucia’s untamed Atlantic coast, home to numerous bird species and a nesting sight for giant turtles, was previously spared development due to its crashing wild waves – but controversial real-estate deals have recently seen the best beaches change hands, with artificial reefs put in to break the surf and local communities excluded. An ongoing theme is the lack of transparency over property deals, with accusations of cronyism and the awarding of concessions based solely on private discussion.

Though St Lucia has largely weathered the global recession, a steady increase in violent crime suggests unequal economic development and exclusion of the poorest. Prime Minister King remarkably secured significant World Bank grants in 2009 to mitigate the effects of climate change on its coastline – yet to many the far clearer danger lies from within the island’s boundaries. In the words of Walcott, regional development ‘is terrifying, all around there are huge hotels we are going to leave as monuments… It is about bribery, it is about corruption… Tell these investors we need a theatre, we need a museum.’ With a final punch at tourism policy, he added, ‘at least the slaves did not have to smile’.

Rob Coates

Map of St Lucia

Trinidad & Tobago

Pietro Cenini/ PANOS

The build-up to the Caribbean’s biggest Carnival in the twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), which takes place in February or March, starts well before Christmas. Costumes are chosen, money is saved, huge steel bands practise daily, and old-time calypsonians rehearse their lines for a witty, lyrical competition. In this most rainbow of nations, blacks, Indians, whites and others pull together as one people at Carnival.

Flag of Trinidad & Tobago

The tradition of Carnival satire goes back a long way. In the 19th century, huge bands of people masquerading as sailors paraded through the streets of the capital, Port of Spain, to ridicule the British navy and the wider colonial social fabric. At the 2009 event the title of Calypso Monarch was awarded to old-time teacher, historian and lyricist ‘Chalkdust’, whose hard-hitting satirical sketch of the fraught relationship between Prime Minister Patrick Manning and housing and trade minister Keith Rowley situated them in a hospital emergency room.

T&T is an anomaly among Caribbean states. Trinidad lies just eight kilometres from Venezuela and shares far more in common ecologically with its powerful neighbour than with Tobago – including having access to the vast wells of oil and gas that lie off the South American mainland. While Tobago was fought over by the Europeans for centuries as a highly productive sugar producer, Trinidad was an unwanted colony of the Spanish, who were far more interested in gold exploration on the mainland. Both slavery and full colonialism came to Trinidad relatively late, when French planters fleeing other Caribbean islands were granted land rights; Britain took colonial control in 1802, with Tobago following in 1814. From the 1840s onwards, the influx of indentured labourers from India (following the abolition of slavery) irrevocably changed the face of the island.

With a stunning natural environment, small population, high economic growth and low unemployment – secured by a government focused on the export of oil and gas – T&T is in theory well placed to realize its vision of gaining developed country status by 2020. There are, nonetheless, serious issues around crime and instability, associated with a large wealth gap and the country’s geographic position as a perfect point for transhipment of cocaine. The death penalty was reintroduced in 1999 in order to hang an important drug lord, but since then both murder rate and drug use have shot up and security across the country has rapidly deteriorated.

In contrast to Carnival, politics is distinctly racialized. Manning’s predominantly black Peoples’ National Party (PNP) won a categorical victory in 2007, but with a low turnout and the opposition vote split by a new, protesting, third party. The main opposition, the United National Congress, could not capitalize on the Government’s unpopularity due to their ageing and unelectable leadership and the perception by black voters that they only defend Indian interests.

Secure in power, members of the Manning Government have been accused of corruption related to their personal involvement in the energy industry – many ministers are geologists (including Manning himself) or engineers by profession. While the country has so far weathered the economic crisis through plans to expand gas exports, a major casualty has been Caribbean-wide insurance giant CLICO (formerly Colonial Life) – this was bailed out by the Government, but not before finance minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira allegedly withdrew her personal funds.

Hosting both the Fifth Summit of the Americas and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings in 2009 is a major coup for Manning, not least so he can be seen alongside Barack Obama, who is immeasurably popular across the region. That said, much of the population, plagued by food prices and crime, will see the high-profile posing as further evidence of a government bent on public relations and far removed from the issues that matter.

Rob Coates

Map of Trinidad & Tobago

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