Guyana’s “New Decade” Begins in March

By Wazim Mowla*

President David Granger speaking at a UN Women's Meeting

Guyana President David Granger Speaking at a Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in 2015 / Flickr / Creative Commons License

Guyana’s national and regional elections on March 2 will be its most consequential in 30 years as a huge increase in oil revenues and international interest puts the country in a brighter spotlight, but the country’s new leadership – while having greater resources and opportunities – will still face vexing challenges that oil dollars won’t solve. Guyana continues to discover more oil and has produced its first commercial crude shipment in December 2019. ExxonMobil anticipates that the country will reach a capacity of 120,000 barrels per day this year, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates an 86 percent increase in GDP. This growth has energized the election campaigns.

  • Eleven political parties are campaigning, with the A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) coalition and the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) at the clear head of the pack. Reliable poll data is scarce, but incumbent President David A. Granger (APNU+AFC) appears confident in his reelection. He is proposing a new “contract with the people” under which he will use oil revenues to increase conditional cash transfers for food, housing, and transportation to residents in the populous coastal areas as well as invest in projects benefiting the 10 percent of Guyanese who live inland .
  • Representing the PPP/C is presidential candidate Dr. Irfan Ali, whose party narrative is that it helped build Guyana without oil and gas and will continue this progress by expanding social programs with the additional revenue. Specifically, Ali wants to reopen sugar estates that Granger closed, sparking protests by the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU). To demonstrate its intention to tackle crime, the party has selected Brigadier (retired) Mark Phillips as its Prime Ministerial candidate.

Within the context of Guyana’s highly publicized racial divisions, both political parties are calling for national unity. APNU+AFC has traditionally drawn most of its support from the Afro-Guyanese population (about 30 percent of the population), while the PPP/C leans on the support of Indo-Guyanese citizens (about 40 percent) – while the mixed races (20 percent) and indigenous (10 percent) usually the swing voters who determine the election. The historic racial divisions within the domestic political elite have remained unnaturally suppressed during this election season – perhaps because, for the time being at least, oil is dominating the national dialogue. All political parties understand that Guyanese citizens care more about benefits than the party in power.

While projecting an optimistic vision of Guyana’s future, both major political parties certainly know that oil revenues will not resolve all of country’s problems when it enter what Granger has called its “Decade of Development.” Ethnopolitical divisions are certain to reemerge after the election, and managing suspicions about the use of oil revenues will pose a significant challenge to the victors, especially because the country’s current institutions do not afford the transparency and checks and balances necessary for calming anxieties. The new government is going to have to devise difficult policies on dealing with climate change, the damage to Guyana’s human capital, and the security risks threatening the country’s development.

  • Guyana’s sea level is rising faster than the global average. Large parts of the population live in areas 20 to 40 inches below sea level where groundwater extraction and wetland drainage worsen flooding. Inconsistent weather patterns are disrupting agricultural production, and the country’s sea walls do little to prevent the devastation of crops.
  • Guyana has one of the highest suicide rates in the world – an average of 44 per 100,000 people each year – and gender-based violence is also an increasingly serious problem. A recent survey by the Guyana Bureau of Statistics found that about half of all Guyanese women has experienced or will experience intimate-partner violence.
  • The country also needs to find solutions to threats from outside. The crises in Venezuela and Haiti have already triggered a costly refugee flow, and officials fear the country will become a hotspot for drug and human trafficking and organized crime. Experts expect the oil industry to attract illegal immigration from other Caribbean countries, Venezuela, and South America in search of job opportunities. Once the elections are over, political leaders will have to turn their attention to these troubling realities.

February 21, 2020

* Wazim Mowla is a graduate student at American University, specializing in Caribbean Studies.

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