The Unpaved Road: Barriers to Guyana’s Integration with South America

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Guyana, a small nation on the shoulder of South America, is more than meets the eye.  Recently named the next chair of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations), Guyana has an increased opportunity to influence South American politics and convince itself that it belongs in the South American league.  With increased power, however, Guyana would also face new issues regarding South American integration.The Guyanese president has recently filed a libel suit for being accused of racism and the U.S has offered Guyana a defense advisor, like the kind the Pentagon has arranged for a number of its neighbors.  Guyana must address both issues in a diplomatic and efficient fashion.  Moreover, a decision is now pending regarding the paving of the byway from Georgetown, Guyana’s gritty capital, to Lethem—a much smaller community on the Takutu River, which borders Brazil.

In a way, this situation can be used as a simile for whether the English-speaking country will decide to integrate with its South American neighbors by removing trade barriers, free movement of labor and goods with the rest of the region, as well as increased economic and political links with its neighbors. According to The New York Times, the Guyanese believe that “the status of this muddy, sometimes impassable, road represents nothing less than the future of Guyana itself.” Guyana has a long history of continental isolation, environmental devastation, racial and identity tensions, and unremitting corruption, all of which generate formidable obstacles to economic development and regional integration. The delicate balancing of self-improvement policies, along with slowly increasing regional ties, may be the only tangible way out of what could be the country’s dangerously high degree of isolation.

Continental Isolation

Guyana, located on the northeast coast of the continent, traditionally has been considered part of the Caribbean instead of a South American player. While most of the populations of South America favor Spanish or Portuguese, Guyana’s official language is English. If nothing else, the language barrier sets Guyana apart and, at times, has served to alienate it from the rest of South America. Guyana may feel that its long-term future belongs more with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) rather than UNASUR, which the country joined in 2010.

Racial and Ethnic Tensions

Guyana’s diverse ethnic make-up has been a chronic impediment to tranquility and stability throughout almost all of the country’s history. Ethnic tensions have also been reflected in the political system that makes the modernization of Guyana’s poorly-functioning institutions more problematic.

The dark racial history of the country continues to impact modern-day Guyana. The British, who occupied the country during the Napoleonic Wars, developed an extensive network of slavery to work the lucrative sugar plantations and mines in the area. While slavery was abolished in 1834, indentured laborers were imported from India to replace the African and indigenous forced labor. Currently, the Guyanese population consists of 43% East Indian origin, 30% African origin, 17% mixed, and 9% Amerindian. However, the country has not been able to harness this heterogeneity for the better; rather, racial tensions perpetuate Guyana’s struggle to create a unified identity.

In 1999, Guyana erupted in spasms of violent racial conflict throughout the country between the East Indian and African communities. The situation has since improved due to pacification processes as well as more effective security measures. Moreover, resentment between the races today is also not as prevalent as in the past due to more uniform levels of education and government-sponsored initiatives that promote diversity between the Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese communities. According to the perceptions of Guyanese national Gabrielle Hookumchand, “my country Guyana’s motto is ‘One People, One Nation, One Destiny’…it is indeed ironic that this is far from true.” While racial harmony is a main goal of the government, achieving it still seems like a distant dream. Ethnic tensions detract from the stability of governance and the ability to observe the civil rights of all citizens of the country, making unity with South America highly unlikely.

Ethnic tensions include dire accusations against the Indo-Guyanese president Bharratt Jagdeo and stereotypes that many Guyanese hold about each race.  According to the Associated Press, on July 16th, “Guyana’s president has filed a libel lawsuit against a leading newspaper for a column that accused him of racism and of hiring people to disrupt an academic conference, serious charges in the racially divided South American country.”  This lawsuit means that Guyana still struggles with defining its identity and uniting the various races within the country.  The same AP story also reported that “a June 28 column accused Jagdeo and his party, which is dominated by people of East Indian descent, of hiring “goons” to noisily disrupt a conference two days earlier,” a serious charge considering that “[Freddie] Kissoon presented a paper at the conference on racism against people of African descent in the country.”

Prem Misar, a Guyanese academic, argues that race in Guyana is socially constructed and that different races in Guyana hold several damaging stereotypes.  For example, Prem Misar writes in “The Social Construction of Race” that typical inflammatory remarks by different races include:

social inequality drives Indian culture; the Indian leadership pursues racial dominance against Africans; Indians do not accept Africans as racially equal; Africans are marginalized; Africans do not trust the Indian political leadership; Indians own and control the wealth of this country; Hinduism is a racist ideology; there is a Hindu plot to marginalize and oppress Africans in Guyana; the current Government is an Indian Government; Africans will be better off with the PNCR; only African youngsters are unemployed, etc.

If the Guyanese continue to hold these damaging stereotypes about different races, then it will be impossible for the country to effectively integrate with South America.  With each new outburst of discord, Guyana is distracted from its pressing economic and foreign policy challenges as it is forced to handle its tumultuous domestic environment.

Corruption, Corruption Everywhere

Guyana, in its quest for progress, must also stage a battle against corruption. The government is universally perceived, with a high degree of accuracy, to be suffering from rampant corruption, which has proven to be a major hindrance to the functioning of Guyana’s rule of law in its politics and criminal-justice systems.

On May 11, 2010, Guyana presented its Rights Report before the UN Human Rights Commission in order to defend its record of observance of civic guarantees.  Guyana’s human rights record is markedly deficient in the sphere of sound public policy, according to Dr. Ramcharan in a Stabroek article issued on the same day. He stated that “the report does not discuss the contentions of civil society in Guyana that problems exist in the areas of the rule of law, respect for human dignity, equality of opportunity, and excesses by law enforcement and security personnel.”

In 2006, Transparency International ranked Guyana among those countries where corruption was perceived as being “rampant,” giving the country a Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) score of 2.5 out of 10 (where a higher number indicates less corruption), making it the second lowest in the Caribbean region. In addition, Stabroek published an article on May 12, 2010, observing that corruption is extensive at every level of law enforcement and Guyanese bureaucracy. The article asserted that “widespread corruption undermines poverty-reduction efforts by international aid donors and discourages foreign investors.” The Wall Street Journal Heritage Foundation 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, taking a conservative perspective in assessing Guyana’s record, stated that the country’s financial system is “plagued by inefficiency and a poor institutional framework that continues to compromise the growth of the business community.” Although there are tens of millions of dollars being directed to improve Guyanese infrastructure, the results of the funding are not visible.

Due to this pervasive corruption, politicians have not been able to make headway in improving the country’s economy. According to Stabroek News, “former PPP/C Minister, Dr. Henry Jeffery says that tackling political corruption here requires at the minimum a re-conceptualizing of the Integrity Commission with a view to making it more effective and independent of the Executive.”  The Integrity Commission is an organization designed to promote government transparency.  Jagdeo has denied that such a change is necessary, but squabbling detracts from more important matters such as actually forming this new revamped Integrity Commission.  In addition, the Guyana Elections Commission has been accused of corruption on multiple occasions, despite the relative transparency of Guyanese elections today.  In a letter to Stabroek News on July 19th,  the Commission denied these allegations, but one must be suspicious of why such corruption allegations arose in the first place.  Due to corruption, politicians are preoccupied with domestic intrigues rather than exploring tactics to increase trade and diversify the economy.

Political Divisiveness

The aforementioned racial tensions and corruption are manifested in Guyana’s highly fractured political party system. Guyana’s two main political parties are the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), a left-wing nationalist party with a mainly Indo-Guyanese membership, and the People’s National Congress (PNC), which features social-democratic tendencies and mainly consists of an Afro-Guyanese membership. The PNC split from the PPP along ethnic lines in 1957 and both parties retain a largely homogeneous racial membership. The PPP has been Guyana’s ruling party since 1992, and during those years it has demonstrated little change in its political orientation.

In 2004, George Bacchus, a farmer, brought forth evidence that the PPP Minister for Home Affairs, Ronald Gajraj, had operated “phantom death squads” that reportedly had taken the lives of approximately 400 Afro-Guyanese, including Bacchus’ brother. The Indo-Guyanese President, Bharrat Jagdeo, dismissed the allegations, but the assassination of George Bacchus in June 2004 prompted further accusations that the government was attempting to hide the truth.

The PNC has also been entrenched in corruption scandals, especially election manipulations from 1964 to 1992. The PNC changed its name in 2006 to the People’s National Congress Reform-One Guyana (PNCR-1G) and is generally believed to have staged fair internal elections since 1992. However, the threat of election-related violence remains a hard fact of life in Guyana and an indicator that more permanent, tangible reforms should be enacted, such as new education programs and new organizations to increase transparency, among other measures which could be swiftly taken. Trying to deal with a government that is riddled with corruption and racial tensions, Guyana would be wise to cautiously consider undertaking a large-scale project of regional integration.

Environmental Devastation

Another significant barrier to integration is the chronic environmental destruction that plagues Guyana. The Guyanese infrastructure has suffered devastating setbacks following droughts and floods that have crippled the country’s hard-won economic progress. Such droughts have prevented the country’s farmers from being able to plant and cultivate their crops, and floods have forced the government to expend valuable resources and labor on sorely-needed reconstruction projects.

Moreover, Guyana faces floods on a regular basis, and water damage has accounted for losses as high as $500 million USD. In the Great Flood of January 2005, thirty people were killed and eighty percent of the population lost their income. 2009 also brought another siege of floods, and Guyana already has suffered from significant flooding in 2010. While attempting to handle these recent natural disasters, the government continues to recuperate from the Great Flood.

Fortunately, on March 24, 2010, the government enacted a number of measures to anticipate and effectively deal with flood threats. These measures include monetary assistance to farmers affected by floods and plans to allocate reconstruction supplies. However, because monetary assistance is only granted to full-time farmers, many part-time and unregistered farmers will not be able to qualify for the assistance they so desperately need. Moreover, government officials are reluctant to advertise that floods have occurred, out of fear that in doing so, this would tarnish the country’s reputation, further harm its modest tourism industry, and decrease its potential for foreign investment.

A paved road could lead to additional forest loss through logging as well as exploration and loss of natural resources which could exacerbate flood damage. Uprooting trees loosens soil, making it more susceptible to mudslides, while destroying the local habitat. Therefore, building the road must be coupled with intensive surveying and planning in order to ensure that the road is built properly and will not adversely affect the Guyanese environment.

Economic Considerations

Guyana has the lowest per capita GDP of any nation in South America, at $3,900 per capita. This alarmingly low figure poses a very formidable obstacle to effective amalgamation with the rest of South America. Its agro-based economy and low level of modernization are the main hindrances affecting the Guyanese economy. Prone to fluctuations due to profound climactic factors, such as fierce floods, Guyana has had to constantly rebuild its economy following periodic setbacks.

In addition to domestic economic issues, Guyana continues numerous trade policies and tariff strategies that discourage the free movement of goods, services, and labor. The objective of these tariffs—to protect domestic goods in response to continued importation of goods—has backfired.  Guyana’s tariffs are based on CARICOM’s duties, which do not give preference to South American exports.  One hard fact of life is that for the Guyanese, local products appear inferior to foreign imports even though this may not be the case. The prices of consumer goods, largely imports, are normally astronomically high in Guyana; thus, only the wealthier segments of the population generally have access to goods from nations like Brazil, a country upon which Guyana heavily relies for trade. If Guyana wants to expand its economy while promoting national assets, it must welcome a regulated flow of South American goods into its markets so that Guyanese goods may be competitive with South American counterparts.

Fortunately, Brazil has already taken the first step.  On June 1st, the Brazilian ambassador to Guyana gave an interview in which he stated:

The Brazilian government is open to the idea of extending the list of those tariff preferences that are granted at present to Guyana. Right now we do not have a very high volume of bilateral trade. The latest figures that I have indicate that Brazilian exports to Guyana reach a figure a little over US$20M a year. We think that the deficiencies in physical infrastructures are mainly responsible for this.

The ambassador also seems to indicate that it would be most beneficial for Guyana and Brazil to construct a deep-water port so that Brazil can increase its volume of trade.  Given the country’s weak economy and isolationist trade policies, Guyana will need to strive to allow more integration by implementing economic policies, such as preferential tariffs between South American countries, so that the region can become increasingly economically viable.

Regional Ties

The close relationship between the U.S. and Guyana could deter continental integration because American ties are counter to the thesis of South American unity. On June 13, the daily Stabroek News reported that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder offered to deploy a resident U.S. security advisor in Guyana. The article affirms that such an official would provide advanced technology and training to overcome “some of the key factors responsible for deficiencies in the criminal justice system.” These factors include “outdated models, historical circumstances and a lack of human and material capacities.” Although it would be highly beneficial for Guyana to have a resident U.S. Security Advisor, one security expert felt that a more effective initiative would be for the United States to provide “training and equipment in the area of security instead of resident advisors.”

Guyana’s internal problems also prevent the country from effectively communicating with the rest of South America, as shown by the recent debate over the proposed road from Georgetown to Lethem. The paved highway would facilitate transportation between Brazilian, North American, and Caribbean destinations by increasing the ease of access for trucks and other ground transport to all these directions. Brazil is willing to fund much of the pavement project, as well as dredge a deep-water port near Georgetown, which would allow for expanded and potentially profitable trade between the two countries.

Expanding the Guyana-Brazil relationship could be very promising for Guyana as it would certainly extend Brazil’s influence in Georgetown. There are approximately seventy thousand Brazilians currently living in Guyana, about 9% of the population. Brazilians move to Guyana seeking to mine gold and other natural resources. Some Guyanese feel that the porous nature of the Guyana-Brazil border negatively affects the domestic consumer market. In a similar vein, Brazil boasts a population of 200 million which dwarfs Guyana’s 752,940 people and provides some grounds for genuine trepidation in Georgetown’s relations with Brasilia, namely that its huge neighbor might absorb it. These fears may be holding Guyana back when it comes to taking steps to broaden its trade. Detractors argue that increased Guyanese-Brazilian ties could lead to further economic decline for Guyana. By becoming little more than dependent upon Brazil, both economically and culturally, Guyana could lose its national identity as well as become increasingly powerless in the face of Brasilia’s massive ability to impact decisions relating to Guyanese infrastructure.


In a brief interview with COHA, a Guyanese citizen, who prefers to remain anonymous, said that he believes that the country has taken admirable steps to becoming more integrated with South America, as indicated by Guyana taking over the next chairmanship of UNASUR in May. Although the current proposition of paving the road from Lethem to Georgetown is still tenuous given its potential to become a new route for drug-trafficking, it also clearly represents progress. Instead of expecting Guyana to completely adopt a policy of a closer South American union, the country may want to strike a balance, developing itself internally so that it can be economically on par with its neighbors, before pursuing bolder trade agreements and regional integration.