Guyana, New to Free Markets, Fears Loss of Identity to Brazil
By SIMON ROMERO
-- 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
There is no more
vivid symbol of
arouses -- than
the heavy equipment that is paving the 60-mile road
between Boa Vista, a state capital in northern Brazil, and Lethem.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
has slowly opened itself to foreign investment, trade with
Brazil remains minuscule.
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.
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."