Of the 15 countries that make up the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Guyana stands out as having tremendous but untapped development potential. The cooperative republic on the South American mainland is blessed with a total land mass covering an area of 83,000 square miles.
To illustrate the sheer vastness of Guyana, Barbados, with an area of just 166 squares, would easily fit into Guyanese territorial space 500 times.
Most of Guyana is uninhabited virgin forest. Blessed with a fertility that yields an abundance of sugar, ice, other food crops and timber, Guyana’s land is also rich with mineral deposits of gold, diamonds and bauxite, among others. Significant deposits of crude oil were just discovered offshore, with the promise of additional economic benefits for this multiracial country of just over 725,000 people.
Despite possessing such vast natural wealth, Guyana has unfortunately lagged from a development perspective behind most of CARICOM, including Barbados with which it gained Independence from Britain in 1966.
Hurt by a major exodus of skilled nationals since the 1970s because of political and ethnic problems, Guyana, even though it has started to show encouraging signs of an economic rebound in recent years, remains one of the poorest countries in the region.
The recent May 11 general election, which produced a change of government for the first time in 23 years, presents a golden opportunity which Guyanese should embrace to make a fresh beginning. Placing emphasis on the promotion of national unity and espousing a new style of governance anchored in honesty, transparency, and accountability as the basis of a better way forward for Guyana, the new APNU/AFC government deserves a chance to put its formula to work.
However, the main obstacle is an aggrieved opposition, the party which lost the election after holding power for the last two decades. Even though international observers certified the poll as generally free and fair, the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) is contending the poll was rigged and has spurned an invitation from new president Retired Brigadier-General David Granger to join a government of national unity. The PPP/C is threatening countrywide protests.
There seems, however, to be tremendous public goodwill for the new government. Sixty-nine-year-old Mr Granger, a former chief of staff of the Guyana Defence Force, is perhaps its biggest asset. Setting the tone for his administration, he has required cabinet ministers to sign a code of conduct. He has also promised to be “a good president for all of the people”. This is a powerful assurance in the context of Guyanese politics where race, historically, has always been a deciding factor.
Political parties and the governments they formed have always been perceived as guided by considerations of race. The defeated PPP/C, for example, was seen as running a government for Indo-Guyanese in the same way that the People’s National Congress (PNC), under the country’s first president Forbes Burnham, was considered pro-Afro-Guyanese. This perception has been the cause of unnecessary division and tension that hampered national development.
Mr Granger has assumed the presidency with a lot of positives, which he can effectively use to heal old wounds and unite the country. As a former military man, his working life would have been defined by strict discipline, which will be an asset in addressing the country’s many challenges. He also has credibility, another invaluable asset, based on a reputation for demonstrating good leadership, fairness and integrity when he was army chief of staff.
In economic terms, Guyana is a sleeping giant just waiting to wake up. We wish the new government well. An economically strong, vibrant and prosperous Guyana will redound to the benefit of the entire CARICOM region. Guyana needs all hands on deck at this time in a strong show of unity. Unity would send a refreshingly positive message to the international community that Guyana is charting a better path, which will not only improve its image around the world, but also generate confidence among investors that the country is serious about development, and a wonderful and safe place to do business.