Country profile :
by Marcus Colchester
You either love George- town or you hate it. The potholed roads, filthy rubbish-choked gutters and the suspiciousness of the racially divided society put many visitors off. Others are charmed by the rich cultural diversity, the beautiful if poorly maintained colonial wooden buildings and the quick intimacy of social gatherings. Inland the lush rainforests, spectacular waterfalls and lost world table-mountains of the Guiana Highlands are a draw to eco-tourists and adventure travellers. If youre Guyanese, love it or hate it, its home, but home after uneasy times.
At independence in 1966, Guyana was hailed as the jewel of the Caribbean and its economic prospects seemed bright. But British-colonial and CIA manipulations of the political system to try to engineer a government friendly to the foreign capital which owned the countrys mines and plantations had fatally damaged its capa- city for self-governance. Racial violence and polarized party politics led to power-grabbing and electoral fraud and for 20 years the country was run as a one-party dictatorship.
The institution of Co-operative Socialism in the early 1970s saw foreign capital chased from the country. For a few years, despite cronyism, bureaucratic bloat and chronic financial mismanagement of the new State-run enterprises, the economy grew as world prices for primary commodities boomed. However, oil shocks in the 1970s and the debt crises of the early 1980s put an end to this illusion of growth.
By the mid-1980s, Guyana was bankrupt, the infrastructure wasted, industries run-down, with production of minerals, rice and sugar in serious decline. The social fabric was rent by serious human-rights abuses and growing poverty. Nearly a third of the population, particularly the wealthier and more educated, emigrated, mainly to Canada, Britain and the US.
The international community, which had reluctantly kept the country afloat with aid, withdrew support and pressed for political and economic liberalization.
After some false starts, the Govern-ment acceded to one of the World Bank and IMFs early experiments with structural adjustment. However, the decaying bauxite mines and run-down sugar estates were hardly tempting prospects for foreign investors, especially as the Government was wary of giving them full control. The World Bank decided that Guyanas future lay in exploiting the deep interior for non-traditional exports gold, diamonds and timber. The previously undeveloped hinterland was now for sale.
Today, nearly nine million hectares of forests, an area the size of Portugal, are open to pillage by foreign loggers and about a third of the interior has been granted in concessions to foreign miners. Key timber species, like greenheart, are rapidly approaching extinction, while the miners have ruthlessly polluted waterways and scarred the forests. In one disastrous mining accident three million cubic metres of cyanide-laced toxic sludge sloshed into the countrys main river from a Canadian gold-mine.
Those to suffer the most from this economic and environmental assault have been the countrys 60,000 Amerindians, who live scattered in some 120 small communities in the sparsely populated interior. Increasingly they are speaking out against the destruction of their lands and cultural heritage and recently they sued the Government for failing to respect their land rights.
Guyana has yet to find a middle way between the excesses of foreign-dominated capitalism and the straitjacket of one-party rule in the guise of socialism. The best hope lies in the countrys increasingly credible democratic processes. NGOs have been allowed to flourish, the press has regained its freedom and civil society is beginning to assert its right to participate in decision-making. The problem remains that with a national economy wholly dependent on exports and foreign investment, real self-governance is a distant dream.
AT A GLANCE
Leader: President Janet Jagan.
Economy: GNP per capita $690 (Grenada $2,880, Canada $19,020).
Monetary Unit: Guyana Dollar. Main exports: Sugar (46%), bauxite (19%), rice (12%), gold (8%), timber.
Main imports: Fuels and lubricants (40%), machinery & transport equipment (12%).
External debt: $1,500 million. People: 847,000. Pop growth 0.7% per annum.
Health: Infant mortality 59 per 1,000 births (Jamaica 10 per 1,000). Hospitals and rural clinics under-resourced; many trained health workers emigrated in the 1980s.
Culture: A dynamic mix of Afro-Guyanese (36%), East Indian (49%) and Amerindian (7%), with small numbers of Chinese and Portuguese. Around 90% of the population live along the coast, while Amerindians predominate in the sparsely populated rainforests and savannahs of the interior.
Religion: Christians make up about half the population, more Protestant than Catholic, but Hindus (37%) and Muslims (8%) are well established. Religious freedoms are widely respected.
Languages: English is the official language but Hindi and other languages from the Indian sub-continent are also widely spoken. At least nine Amerindian languages are also spoken but there is no state provision for bilingual education.
Sources Marcus Colchester, Guyana: Fragile Frontier, Latin America Bureau, London 1997; World Development Report 1998; Economic Intelligence Unit; The State of the Worlds Children 1999, The Americas Review 1998. Previously profiled March 1986.
Guyanas poor are still desperately poor, especially those in the interior.
Guyana remains wholly dependent on trade and aid for its existence.
NI star rating
POSITION OF WOMEN
Legally beginning to improve. The current President is a woman. The country hosts off-shore pornographic chat lines as a source of foreign exchange.
98%. Primary-school enrolment is also high, at 94%.
Since democracy was restored in 1988, human-rights abuses have lessened and the press is now free. Public democratic participation is still minimal, however.
64 years around ten years lower than most Caribbean countries
(eg Trinidad & Tobago 74, Jamaica 75).
The current ruling party, secured by the East Indian vote, was once doctrinaire Marxist but has now uneasily embraced World Bank-style, free-market capitalism. However, public pressure for greater democracy is gradually wearing down the patrician and partisan instincts of the old-fashioned politicians still in power.
This article is from
the March 1999 issue
of New Internationalist.
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