Caribbean Matters: Let’s talk about Guyana. It’s a tiny David challenging the Goliath Venezuela

Imagine if an American president-turned-dictator suddenly declared that two-thirds of Canada (or Mexico, which potential dictator Donald Trump has already threatened to invade) is now part of the United States, and published his own new maps to “prove” it. Then imagine this despot ordered a referendum, in which voters were told to cosign his imperial arrogance.

That’s what is happening right now in Venezuela, under President Nicolás Maduro. The reaction of people who live in Guyana, especially those in the Essequibo region Maduro seeks to annex, is unhappiness and anger. This seems to be a ploy by Maduro to distract his countrymen from his failures, and to enrich Venezuela’s coffers by snatching up the oil- and mineral-rich territory. 

In last week’s “Caribbean Matters,” we addressed the current situation in Guyana and Venezuela. The next day, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas delivered a deep dive into the history of claims to the Essequibo territory of Guyana in “Venezuela is threatening war with Guyana, and the tankies approve.”

Thursday brings a scheduled meeting between Venezuela and Guyana hosted by Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in St. Vincent. I’ll be updating this post with news about the meeting all day. But in the meantime, I’d like to spend some time today exploring the people of Guyana and its Essequibo region.

Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean. 

Most legacy media coverage of this situation features photos of Venezuela’s Maduro, or highlights the role being played by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Even when Guyanese people are portrayed, very little sense emerges of who lives in the disputed region, and whose lives and livelihoods are being threatened.

As noted last week, Guyanese President Mohamed Irfaan Ali, a member of Guyana’s Democratic Socialist People’s Progressive Party/Civic, is no household name here in the States. He also differs from other heads of state in both the Caribbean and South America in that he is not only Indo Caribbean, he is also Muslim.

The people of Guyana are a rich mix of diverse cultures, ethnicities, “races,” and religions. One of my favorite tweets referencing Guyana was posted several years ago.

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Guyanese American Cloyette Harris-Stoute expanded on that reality for the blog Guyanese Girls Rock back in 2013.

It’s Guyana, Not Ghana Too often people mistake Guyana for Ghana. During  a recent trip to Florida, I was having a conversation with a colleague about the Mashramani celebrations in Guyana and she said to me “that’s in Africa right?” I’ve also been asked quite a few times “what other language do you speak in Guyana?  That’s why I decided to put together this synopsis  to enlighten some folks on the difference between “Guyana” in South America and the African nation of “Ghana”.

Guyana officially the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, is a sovereign state on the northern coast of South America.  It’s the only South American nation whose official language is English, and one of the four non-Spanish-speaking countries on the continent. The other three countries, and neighbors of Guyana, are Brazil (Official language is Portuguese), Suriname (Official language is Dutch), and French Guiana (Official language is French).

The name ‘Guyana’ comes from an Amerindian word meaning “land of many waters” and it is known as the country of Six People- Africans, Amerindians, Chinese, East Indians, Europeans and Portuguese. Guyana is notably famous for Kaieteur Falls, which is situated on the Potaro River, where that river falls off the Pakaraima Plateau.

Personally, I never learned anything about Guyana in high school or as a college undergraduate, but I did at least know it wasn’t in Africa.

My introduction to Guyana was due to my extracurricular leftist political education when I was introduced to the work of Guyanese political activist, historian, and educator Walter Rodney, who wrote the book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” in 1972. 

A short biography, from Theory and Culture’s 2022 look back at Rodney’s tome:

Walter Anthony Rodney was born to Edward and Pauline Rodney in Georgetown, Guyana on March 23, 1942. He was the second child of five siblings, including four brothers, and one sister.

Rodney grew up during the country’s anti-colonial movement; his father was a member of the Marxist-oriented People’s Progressive Party, which led the struggle for freedom from British rule. With this immersion into politics, Walter’s interest in the struggles of the working class began at a young age and continued with his involvement in debate and study groups throughout his student years. He developed into an intellectual and scholar and is recognized as one of the Caribbean’s most brilliant minds.

Rodney’s academic record is filled with awards, open scholarships, and honors. He attended Queen’s College, the premiere boy’s high school in Guyana, and in 1960 graduated first in his class, winning an open scholarship to the University of the West Indies (UWI). He pursued his undergraduate studies at UWI Mona Campus in Jamaica, where he graduated with First Class honors BA in History in 1963. Rodney then attended the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University. He graduated with his PhD with Honors in African History at 24 years old on the same day he welcomed his firstborn son, Shaka. Rodney’s thesis, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, was published by Oxford University Press in 1970.

Thanks to reading Rodney’s works—most notably “A History of the Guyanese Working People”—I learned something about Guyanese history and its people.

Tragically, Rodney was assassinated on June 13, 1980, killed by a bomb blast in Georgetown, Guyana. I would hazard a guess that Rodney, his scholarly work, and politics are still unfamiliar or unknown to most Americans. 

Guyana’s jungle region briefly gained some notoriety in the states because it was the site of the Jonestown Massacre on Nov. 18, 1978. Jonestown is also located in the region near the border with Venezuela, which the latter is currently claiming.  

It’s important to take a look at that region and its people as they are today. And so my cultural anthropologist/ethnographer self searched for coverage that would feature people.

As Patrick Fort wrote for Barrons on Monday:

‘This Is Guyana’: Essequibo Residents Anxious Over Venezuela Claim

A freshly planted Guyanese flag flaps on the summit of a table-top mountain rising from thick forests in a remote region near the Venezuelan border. The 2,300-metre (7,550-foot) mountain — known as a tepui — looms over the tiny village of Arau, whose residents reject a claim from Caracas that their land belongs to Venezuela, which has sparked fears of a potential conflict.

“On that mountain, there is our flag. Every morning we look at it and we feel happy and proud,” said Jacklyn Peters, a 39-year-old health worker and one of the 280 residents of the village.

With tensions rising over the disputed territory of Essequibo — which makes up more than two-thirds of Guyana — President Irfaan Ali in November took a helicopter to the top of the tepui where he raised Guyana’s red, gold, and green flag known as the Golden Arrowhead.

With his hand on his chest, Ali recited the national pledge of allegiance.

In the final days of November, Essequibo residents gathered to protest the Venezuelan threats and make it clear that Essequibo is Guyanese. Give this seven-minute video a watch to see the very real people being overlooked in Maduro’s hunt for oil.

As Luke Taylor wrote for The Guardian on Saturday:

‘People are fearful’: Guyana alert for land grab by Venezuela

Despite their proximity to Venezuela, inhabitants of the Guyanese border town of Mabaruma have little to do with their Spanish-speaking neighbors, says Brentnol Ashley, governor for the Barima-Waini region. Like other communities dotted across the dense jungles of the Essequibo region, Mabaruma is a patchwork of Indigenous peoples bound together by the English language and Guyana’s national culture.

“We are a diverse nation, but at the end of the day we are all one people: the Guyanese,” said Ashley.

The only Spanish speakers in the riverside settlement are Venezuelans who have sought refuge there in recent years after fleeing their home country’s economic collapse, Ashley said.

So when the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, announced this week that he would issue his country’s ID cards to the local population, and step up efforts to convert Essequibo into a Venezuelan state, local people showed little interest in taking up the offer.

“We are not in need of Mr Maduro’s ID cards! We already have one. We are Guyanese!” said Ashley. “Even the Venezuelans who have sought refuge here stand with us on this. They do not want to suffer more of the hardship that sent them here in the first place.”

Lest we forget, the forest region is also home to an amazing variety of wildlife and plant life.

I took some time—over 2 hours and 30 minutes—to watch the three-part documentary “Essequibo: Hidden Rivers.” It was fascinating. Here’s a preview:

All three episodes are combined here:

From the YouTube video notes:

This three-part series charts filmmakers Rainer Bergomaz and Marion Pöllmann’s daring journey to locate the Essequibo River’s elusive source in South America. Their expedition traverses 1000 kilometers through Guyana, from the Acarai Mountains to the Atlantic, presenting breathtaking landscapes and rare wildlife. The series depicts the arduous nature of their journey, with grueling weather, treacherous rapids, and illness testing their resolve. Their adventure, full of natural wonders and intriguing encounters with native communities, also requires a detour through Guyana’s untamed south. The climactic final leg is marked by unforeseen challenges, leaving viewers wondering if the team will complete their ambitious quest.

Environmentalists are pointing to the destructive nature of oil/fossil fuel exploitation in the region.

From Chitown Kev’s Tuesday “APR”:

Suzanne Götze and Claus Hecking of Der Spiegel take an exhaustive look at Guyana’s surging oil industry.

Guyana is the current El Dorado of the oil industry. Enormous oil reserves were discovered off the coast here in 2015, shortly before 200 countries agreed to the Paris Climate Agreement, which was to herald the end of the fossil fuel era. Huge quantities of first-class “light sweet crude” are buried below the ocean floor, highly valued for its low sulfur content and the relative ease with which it can be refined. It’s the best kind of crude oil around. The discovery has even led Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to move to annex part of Guyana’s territory to enable it to undertake its own drilling operations.

According to the plans forged by ExxonMobil and Guyana’s government, the country will produce more crude oil per capita than any other country on the planet within five years. Despite the fact that the climate crisis poses a greater threat to Guyana than almost any other country in the world.

Still, hardly anyone here is in favor of simply leaving the oil in the ground, certainly not the country’s political leaders or [businessman Nicholas] Deygoo. But even environmental activists support the exploitation of the oil fields now that fossil fuel multis have begun funding local projects. Such funding, though, is a pittance compared to the billions of dollars that the oil will produce. It is a triumph for ExxonMobil and the other companies involved.

[…]

And Guyana’s government is eager to get its hands on the petro-billions. The money would allow them to further develop the country. It would be enough to replace the country’s pothole-ridden roads with wide, newly paved highways in addition to building bridges, hospitals and schools.

Having looked at the economic conditions in rural parts of Essequibo, I can understand why turning its back on oil money is currently impossible for the Guyanese government. This video from the It’s Our Life-ARD YouTube channel documents food distribution to communities on the border.

As mentioned up top, I’ll be posting updates on Thursday’s meeting in St Vincent as news emerges. As always, check out the comments for more on this topic, along with the weekly Caribbean News Roundup.


UPDATE:  Thursday, Dec 14, 2023 · 1:40:16 PM EST · Denise Oliver Velez

Arrivals:

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The meeting has begun.


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