Green with jungle, crisscrossed with rivers and dotted with significant deposits of bauxite and gold, Guyana has often seemed an Anglophone eccentricity on South America’s northern shore. Bordered by Brazil to the south, Venezuela to the west, Suriname to the east and the Atlantic to the north, Guyana’s often tumultuous politics took an abrupt turn earlier in 2015 with the election of opposition politician David Granger as president.
Mr Granger, elected head of a coalition between two parties: a Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance for Change (AFC), took over from Donald Ramotar of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the party that had governed Guyana since 1992. In the context of the country’s sometimes fractious ethnic composition – which consists of about 44% Indo-Guyanese, 30% Afro-Guyanese with the remaining population divided between indigenous and other groups – the PPP has widely been seen to represent the Indo-Guyanese, while the AFC is more associated with the Afro-Guyanese. The head of the APNU and current prime minister, Moses Nagamootoo, however, is himself of Tamil descent.
With the vast majority of the country’s 800,000 people living on a thin strip of land along the coast, Guyana’s economy is still highly dependent on its natural resources, with mining accounting for 11% of the country's GDP, and agriculture, predominantly sugar, accounting for 20%. Among the largest trading partners with the country are the US, Venezuela and China, the latter of which was particularly courted by the PPP and which in 2013 invested $180m into Guyana, according to the government at the time. Despite the ethno-political divide, many observers do not see a radical change coming from an investment perspective with the new government.
No radical changes
“Ideologically, there is not a lot of space between the economic policies of the government in power for 23 years and the recently elected government,” says Christopher Ram, a local commentator on Guyanese politics. “The pillars of the economy have been the same for decades: rice, sugar, gold, timber, bauxite and rum, all but the last being in one form or another, a raw material.
“But [the new government] recognises that big-ticket, prestige projects do not necessarily contribute to the objectives of sustained growth and employment, with Chinese-financed projects employing in some cases all Chinese labour... The indications are that the government will prefer to see more investments from Western companies.”
Guyana’s recent history has been a turbulent one. The architect of the country's independence, Forbes Burnham, ran the country first as prime minister and then as president from 1964 until his death in 1985, and presided over a kind of soft authoritarianism that flirted opportunistically with the US and the UK, and then Cuba and the Soviet Union. In foreign minds, Guyana is often lamentably associated with the events at the so-called People’s Temple at Jonestown, a religious community organised by US preacher Jim Jones in the wilderness near the western town of Port Kaituma where more than 900 people died in mass suicide in 1978.
Though the rivalry between Guyana’s internal political factions is intense and often bitter, menaces from beyond its borders still remain. Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has recently been sabre-rattling over Venezuela’s claim to the 215,000-square-kilometre Essequibo region, a coastal area of Guyana that includes a recent oil find. Speaking in Washington, DC, in July, Mr Granger said Guyana saw Venezuela’s claims as “a challenge to its survival by a larger state”.