The government has fallen. The Russians are coming. The Chinese are coming. There’s chaos at the border and corruption in the capital. And a vast treasure tempts all takers. That’s the situation in small, suddenly strategic Guyana. Is anybody in Washington paying attention?
The current crisis began in December when a single member of the Guyanese ruling coalition switched to the opposition in no-confidence vote that brought down the government. MP Charrandass Persaud earlier had been spotted around the capital looking to buy $1 million in gold, selling his SUV, and handing over the keys to his law office. Immediately after the vote, he hopped a plane for Canada.
Allegations flew on social media that Persaud had been bribed to switch his vote. Persaud denied the charge. That $1 million in gold he was looking to buy? Well, yes, true, Persaud said, but that was on behalf of a client.
The motive for bringing down the government?
The powerful opposition People’s Progressive Party desperately wants a seat at the table carving up Guyana’s sudden new wealth. ExxonMobil has discovered vast oil reserves off the Guyana coast, a discovery set to transform one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Millions of dollars have started to flow into Guyana. Soon it will be billions.
The government has struggled to create the institutions and laws to manage the money. (Judicial Watch reported on the situation in August.) Opposition politicians complain that the current government was taken to the cleaners by ExxonMobil. “They sold our patrimony,” said PPP leader Bharrat Jagdeo. Despite attempts at reform and reconciliation, Guyana politics is largely dominated—and at times bitterly divided—between the Indo-Guyanese PPP and the Afro-Guyanese People’s National Congress. The PNC dominated the most recent government—until December.
Neighboring Venezuela was quick to declare its interest in the Guyanese political developments. A day after the no-confidence vote, the Venezuelan Navy intercepted an ExxonMobil research ship in Guyanese waters.
Consider it a warning. Venezuela and Guyana have been disputing territory for decades, but this is different. Venezuela is falling apart, Guyana is oil rich, and the Maduro regime in Caracas may be looking to divert attention from its domestic troubles. “Is Venezuela willing to start a Caribbean war?” asked geopolitical risk analyst Scott MacDonald.
“Making the situation more complicated is the involvement of the major powers in the region,” MacDonald noted.
Russia is a longtime ally of Venezuela. In December, two Russian heavy bombers, sophisticated Tu-160 Blackjacks, landed outside Caracas in a show of support for the Maduro government. Russian media reported that the Kremlin is eyeing the Venezuelan island of La Orchila in the Caribbean as a forward operating base. Guyana’s foreign minister expressed alarm, saying he was “very concerned” about the development.
China has a major stake in Venezuela. Increasingly, that’s looking like a bad bet. China pumped more than $62 billion into Venezuela in the past decade and “suffered huge losses,” reports the South China Morning Post. “Many of its 790 projects in Venezuela have failed, the victim of corruption or debt defaults. Caracas has also struggled to repay Beijing in oil shipments, despite debt-for-oil deals.”
China has invested in Guyana too, though not on the scale of its Venezuelan adventure. It has poured money into traditional Guyanese extractive industries like logging and mining. It has invested in roads, bridges and an airport. It is eyeing Guyanese banking, has invested in offshore oil, and signed loan and infrastructure development agreements.
In an ambitious move, China is seeking to open a new road from Brazil through parts of Guyana’s largely undeveloped interior—a major undertaking that would transform parts of the Brazilian Amazon and Guyanese interior. “The Brazil transport link would dwarf previous [Chinese] projects and open up development of [Guyana’s] interior, thought to hold important deposits of gold, bauxite and rare earths,” noted the website Dialogo Chino. Environmentalists are alarmed.
Friends of Guyana warn about the confluence of forces coming to bear on the country. Caracas and Beijing are powerful players in Guyana, and China may find the country “a malleable ally,” Dialogo Chino warns. ExxonMobil is wielding increasing economic power. And Russia has a long history of fishing in troubled Caribbean waters.
But the real danger comes from within. As Latin America analyst Evan Ellis wrote recently, the Charrandas Persaud political defection is “potentially the first shot in a destabilizing fight between Guyana’s ethnically Indian and African communities to control the spoils from a tidal wave of money” as offshore oil production gets underway.
New elections are slated for March. Guyana is “one of Latin America’s most strategically overlooked countries,” Ellis writes, and U.S. policymakers should be stepping in to help. That’s an argument that makes sense on both strategic and humanitarian grounds.
The first task, Ellis notes, should be to help Guyana avoid “a descent into ethnic violence and chaos.” U.S. government agencies, non-government organizations and the media should be on the ground and on the lookout for corrupt actors seeking to manipulate the election through modern social-media and cyber techniques, or old-fashioned bribery and intimidation.
Washington’s history in Guyana is not covered in glory and even-handedness toward all political parties is essential for a successful U.S. role. Beyond the election, Ellis notes, “the U.S. should work with the Guyanese government to identify how it can best help it to strengthen its institutions and processes, including support for planning, management, and oversight of Guyana’s oil revenues.” That means transparency, accountability, fair elections, and strengthening the rule of law.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: firstname.lastname@example.org
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