The New York Times
March 30, 2000

Guyana, New to Free Markets, Fears Loss of Identity to Brazil

          By SIMON ROMERO

          LETHEM, Guyana -- Shirley Melville, owner of the main watering
          hole in this dusty border outpost, seemed perplexed. Just why do
          her patrons prefer Antarctica beer, imported from Brazil, over
          domestically brewed Banks Beer, at half the price?

          "It's all about status," said Ms. Melville, 40, standing in the doorway of
          Don & Shirley's Airport Cafe overlooking Lethem's small airstrip. "In
          Guyana, anything coming from Brazil is seen as superior, even if it isn't."
          Brazil, the giant of South America
          with perhaps 170 million people,
          is busy flexing its economic muscle
          these days, pressing forward with
          policies aimed at strengthening ties
          with its neighbors. 

          And Guyana, nestled on Brazil's
          northern flank, with a population
          of 700,000 and port access to the
          Caribbean, is squarely on its radar
          screen. So it should be no surprise
          that the allure of Brazilian goods
          has penetrated even to this village
          of 2,000, a stone's throw from the
          Guyanese-Brazilian border. 

          There is no more vivid symbol of
          Brazil's increased presence in the
          region -- and the concern it

          arouses -- than the heavy equipment that is paving the 60-mile road
          between Boa Vista, a state capital in northern Brazil, and Lethem.

          "There's this fear Guyana will be slurped up when that road is
          completed," said Nick Sellitto, an American who owns a business that
          exports organic produce from Guyana. "But I don't see that happening
          any time soon, given the prehistoric, isolationist thinking of the Guyanese

          After nearly three decades of inward-looking, socialist-inspired
          development policies, Guyana is starting to open its economy to
          investment in areas like timber cutting and mining.

          Many other people, however, are convinced that Guyana is about to be
          drawn into Brazil's orbit. Vehicles making the two-and-a-half-hour trip
          today tend to be sturdy trucks transporting Brazilian miners over the
          border into Lethem, where they board small propeller planes headed for
          gold mines in the interior of Guyana or Suriname, to the east.

          "It is the draw of riches," said Valdemir Costa Machado, 36, a miner
          from the Brazilian state of Maranhão, as he waited for his flight here.
          "The only problem is that there are too many of us Brazilians coming in."

          There are about 10,000 Brazilians living in Guyana who chose to stay
          after their stint in the mines has ended, the government says. In
          Dutch-speaking Suriname, the number of Brazilians is estimated at
          40,000, nearly 10 percent of the population.

          "We run the risk of becoming a kind of adjunct to Brazil," The Stabroek
          News, Guyana's leading paper, said in a recent editorial. "If we are not to
          be swallowed up and lose our distinctive identity, among other things,
          then we will have to devise policies and strategies which will allow us to
          maintain an authentic independent voice in the company of giants."

          The road from Boa Vista is not likely to remain the domain of
          adventurous gold miners for long. In a year or two it should be
          completely paved, making way for all manner of vehicles including
          air-conditioned passenger buses and small cars.

          A similar road project linking northern Brazil with Venezuela led traffic to
          increase almost tenfold between those countries in the last two years. In
          southern Brazil, improved transportation links helped make possible the
          creation of Mercosur, the trading bloc comprising Brazil, Argentina,
          Paraguay and Uruguay.

          In Guyana, though, roads remain precarious, effectively limiting stronger
          commercial ties with Brazil. For example, the road between Lethem and
          Georgetown, Guyana's capital and largest city, is unpaved.

          For Mr. Sellitto and others who depend on that route for their livelihood,
          this means they must travel in vehicles like Land Rovers or old
          army-issue British-built Bedford trucks. The trip can take two or three
          days, depending on the weather.

          Many of these vehicles date to the days before Guyana gained
          independence from Britain in 1966 -- an illustration of the effect more
          than two decades of isolationist policies can have on an economy.

          "It's the 'Mad Max' effect," said Peter McLachlan, a resident of Lethem
          who drives a 38-year-old Land Rover, referring to the 1980 film in which
          rival factions in a post-apocalyptic world drive vehicles held together with
          any material available. "Guyana is a surreal country, and probably no part
          of it is as surreal as here."

          Indeed, much of Lethem seems as if time had frozen for 20 or 30 years.
          Most of the village's residents -- mainly Indians from the Macushi and
          Wapishana tribes -- get around on foot or by bicycle. With the exception
          of limited commerce taking place over the border, the economy is largely
          based on hammock-weaving and the cultivation of cassava.

          Charred, decaying buildings near the airstrip still show signs of the
          government's reaction to an uprising by local ranchers in 1969, when
          Lethem was little more than the administrative center for a large
          cattle-ranching operation. After exiling the ranchers to Brazil and
          Venezuela, the army burned every structure to the ground.

          Looks can be deceiving, though, for while Lethem, and much of
          Guyana's economy, might show the effects of socialist experiments from
          the 1960's through the mid-80's, the country has introduced several
          market-driven initiatives since 1992, when a government was elected that
          favored opening Guyana to foreign investment.

          The privatization of companies like Guyana Airways and Guyana
          Telephone and Telegraph, in addition to awarding concessions to
          foreign concerns to mine for gold or cut timber, have resulted in inflows
          of investment from abroad.

          Another important foreign project, a satellite-launching facility to be
          operated by Beal Aerospace of Frisco, Tex., near Dallas, which would
          take advantage of Guyana's location near the Equator, is nearing
          government approval.

          From 1993 through 1997, the economy grew for five consecutive years
          -- more than 40 percent over all -- before contracting slightly in 1998,
          largely because of falling gold prices. In 1999, the economy grew nearly
          3 percent, and this year 5 percent growth is forecast.

          "We're making up for lost time," Moses Nagamootoo, Guyana's
          information minister, said in an interview in Georgetown.

          Indeed, the trappings of a modern economy are more evident in the
          capital, where cellular phones and sport utility vehicles imported from rich
          industrial countries are common.

          In Lethem, by contrast, basic telephone service by satellite hookup was
          initiated just two years ago. People in the interior use short-wave radios
          as their main communication tool.

          "I can't wait until mobile phone service arrives in Bom Fim," Mr.
          McLachlan said, referring to the Brazilian community across the river
          from Lethem. "If towers are installed allowing us to have cells here, I'll be
          among the first to sign up."

          While Guyana has slowly opened itself to foreign investment, trade with
          Brazil remains minuscule.

          Neither Brazil nor Venezuela, Guyana's other big neighbor, is among its
          leading trading partners -- outranked by such countries as the
          Netherlands Antilles, Canada, the United States and Japan, according to
          United States government figures. Not everyone sees sense in this.

          "It is retrograde that we don't have more contact with Brazil," said Gerald
          Gouveia, owner of Roraima Airways, whose regular flight between Boa
          Vista and Georgetown, begun only recently, had to be discontinued for
          lack of demand.

          For its part, Brazil, in addition to paving the road to the border, is making
          overtures toward forming a stronger commercial relationship with

          In Boa Vista, the state government of Roraima offered to help cover
          some of the costs for a Guyanese consulate. And business interests have
          approached Guyana's government with plans to improve the road to
          Georgetown, in addition to port installations there.

          "We're listening to the offers because we're not satisfied with our current
          levels of foreign investment," said Mr. Nagamootoo, the information
          minister. "But we're cautious, because we still have that British ethos from
          being an English-speaking colony and having cultural and historical links
          to the Caribbean."

          In Lethem, local authorities are also wary of stronger ties with Brazil. "I'm
          concerned of the effect a better road will have on our unique indigenous
          culture," said Muacir Baretto, a Macushi Indian who is the district
          chairman of the administrative region surrounding Lethem -- a position
          comparable in some ways to a governor in the United States.

          For many of the village's people, though, this sort of thinking is beside the
          point, given the allure that migrating to Brazil already holds.

          "In Brazil, I can work as a maid and make a little money to send to my
          children," said Joyce Clement, a 37-year-old member of the Wapishana
          tribe. "I love my country, but it can't offer me that opportunity."