Nestled on the northeast shoulder of South America on the Atlantic Ocean lies the country of Guyana. Known as the “Land of Many Waters,” Guyana occupies a unique niche in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere as an English-speaking West Indian enclave and a former outpost of the British Empire on the South American continent.
Bounded on the west by Venezuela, the south by Brazil and the east by Suriname, Guyana is a virtual island despite its location on the South American mainland. Blessed with a warm and pleasant tropical climate, Guyana has many palm trees that sway in the gentle grip of the trade winds blowing inland from the Atlantic.
Guyana’s cultural life is similarly wafted with Caribbean influences. The population shares the West Indian passion for the quintessentially British sport of cricket–a love that transcends all distinctions of race and class. Caribbean music also imbues the cultural life of Guyana. High- energy “soca” and East Indian “chutney” music from Trinidad blend with strains of Jamaican reggae and calypso.
Guyana’s distinctive “Demerara” rums are widely considered among the region’s best and, in fact, exceed most counterparts.
Georgetown, Guyana’s capital at the mouth of the Demerara River, is about six feet below sea level. A long sea wall and an extensive network of canals keep the ocean at bay. Without its protective sea defenses, Guyana’s rich expanses of rice and sugarcane fields would be under water.
The Dutch were Guyana’s first European settlers. They arrived in the early 17th century and reclaimed and converted Guyana’s coastal marshlands into rich agricultural land. After changing hands several times as the European powers’ fortunes rose and fell back home, Guyana fell under permanent British control from 1831 until its independence in 1966.
Called the “Garden City,” George-town is a graciously laid out Victorian city with broad, tree-lined avenues and canals, some filled with giant white-blossomed water lilies. Sadly, this beautiful city has slid into considerable decay during three decades of economic hard times. The city’s architecture is dominated by beautifully styled white-painted wooden homes and buildings in a distinctive colonial motif with intricate carved gingerbread patterns.
Guyana has a rich cultural heritage, reflecting its colonial roots and the various waves of immigrant laborers brought in to work the sugar plantations of colonial British Guiana. Two major ethnic groups predominate today: Afro-Guyanese descendants of slaves brought from West Africa; and Indo-Guyanese, whose forebears arrived as indentured laborers from India. Adding spice to the ethnic mix are small populations of ethnic Chinese and Portuguese, whose ancestors came to Guyana via the island of Madeira. Indigenous people, commonly called “Amerindians” in local parlance, round out Guyana’s cultural diversity, and are virtually the only inhabitants of Guyana’s wild interior. Although English is the official language, many Guyanese speak a local Creole dialect that blends English words with some vestigial Hindi influences. Guyana’s religious diversity can be easily seen in the variety of Christian churches, Hindu temples and Muslim mosques that dot the landscape.
Most of Guyana’s modern history as an independent state has been one of hard lessons, painfully learned. After achieving independence in 1966, the country quickly fell under the sway of Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, who ruled Guyana as a Marxist-Leninist autocrat until his death in 1985.
Guyana’s embrace of the socialist world view had devastating effects on its economy and social fabric, leading to terrible poverty, import prohibitions, rationing and the flight of both human and financial capital. During this period, Guyana slipped from its place as perhaps the most highly developed Caribbean country into its current position–by some measures the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
President Burnham’s former deputy and successor, Desmond Hoyte, began rebuilding Guyana’s shattered economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s by discarding Guyana’s socialist ideology and embracing the free market. In 1992, Mr. Hoyte presided over–and lost–Guyana’s first genuinely free and fair elections in decades. He accepted the electoral defeat his People’s National Congress suffered at the hands of Cheddi Jagan’s People’s Progressive Party/Civic coalition and stepped aside.
Six years later, Guyana continues its struggle to consolidate economic restructuring and democratic reforms. Supporting both endeavors are two of the U.S. Embassy’s key goals in Guyana. The PPP/C government, now led by Cheddi Jagan’s American-born widow, President Janet Jagan, won reelection in December 1997 amid controversy and civil disorder.
The embassy leads a broad-based diplomatic effort, with other diplomatic missions and multilateral institutions in Guyana, to promote constructive constitutional change. Although Georgetown has no U.S. Information Service office, the U.S. Information Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., has designed a highly effective program on constitutional reform for several key Guyanese leaders. USAID manages two programs, focusing on democratic institution-building and economic growth. Since the Peace Corps’ return to Guyana in 1996, volunteers have been working across Guyana in youth development and health education.
Hit hard in 1998 by the effects of El Niño, plunging world prices for its primary export commodities and bouts of political instability, Guyana has struggled to achieve macroeconomic stability. The embassy continues to push for a variety of measures to improve Guyana’s long-term economic health, including an investment code, a rationalized tax and tariff regime, privatization of state enterprises and other systemic improvements.
Another area of growing concern for the mission is the apparent increase in drug trafficking through Guyana. The embassy, with no formal counternarcotics presence, successfully coordinated the efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs Service in 1998, as they came to the aid of Guyana’s tiny Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit in seizing six tons of cocaine–cleverly concealed in the hull of a merchant ship in the port of Georgetown.
With an estimated 400,000 Guyanese living in the New York City area, visa issues also loom large in Guyanese society and in the Mission Program Plan. The embassy is also the de facto mission to the Caribbean Community, which has its secretariat in Georgetown.
The U.S. Embassy in Georgetown comprises a small but dynamic community in Guyana. Mission staff, both American and foreign national, and their families join together in weekly “limes” (a West Indian term for just hanging out) after work on Friday afternoons for volleyball, basketball, card playing, drinks and music. In their off hours, mission personnel are involved in a variety of outdoor recreational activities. Guyana’s magical wilderness interior calls to many of the mission staff, who embark on adventurous expeditions in the unspoiled rain forests and savannahs of Guyana’s hinterland. In Guyana, eco-tourism isn’t just a trendy concept; it’s a concrete reality for those who are truly prepared to eschew the comforts of home and experience what remote wilderness is really all about.
The author is the former economic officer in Georgetown, now enrolled in the Foreign Service Institute preparing for an assignment in Sofia.