“I am aware of the ‘resource curse’”

Donald Ramotar

A long overdue economic transformation is just beginning to take hold in this resource-rich but underdeveloped South American country. The prospects are enticing for investors and for the Guyanese people, who not long ago were among the poorest in the region. In this exclusive interview with Global, President Donald Ramotar – elected to office in November 2011 – spells out an ambitious vision for the future. But first, he turns to the tricky political challenges that he has been facing in parliament.

Global: Since taking office last Novem­ber, your government has risked having its proposals overturned in the National Assembly, because of the opposition’s majority of seats. How do you propose to steer through key legislation, such as the national budget?

President Donald Ramotar: It is true that the combined opposition have a one-seat majority in the parliament. It is also true that in the first three sittings of the parlia­ment, the combined opposition have shown that they intend to make life difficult for the government. They have cast aside the democratic traditions of parliament and have displayed dictatorial postures. For instance, they grabbed the positions of the speaker and deputy speaker of the National Assembly when the tradition in democratic parliaments is that the governing party is assigned the position of speaker and the op­position [that of] deputy speaker. The gov­erning party today has neither.

They have also altered the composition of the Parliamentary Management Com­mittee, which the PPP/C [People’s Progres­sive Party/Civic] had established when we had an absolute majority. At that time there were five government representatives, five opposition members, with the speaker as the chairperson. Now they have taken five for themselves and given the PPP/C four, with the speaker from the opposition in the chair. This position violates the concept of proportionality as envisioned by our consti­tution.

I therefore envisage that the opposition will not want to cooperate with the govern­ment. While they continue to preach about national unity and cooperation, they are squandering the opportunities presented to demonstrate these intentions. However, they will have to make careful political judgements, since historically our budgets and laws have always been oriented to help the broad masses of the people. I think they will find it difficult to vote against most of the measures we propose without running the risk of a loss of popular support.

In the event of a political logjam that might hinder the smooth administration of the country, would you be prepared to call another election?

Yes, I would. I will not allow the opposition to retard the development of the country. I am ready to work with them in the interest of our people. However, if the opposition behaves in a manner that affects the socio-economic progress of Guyana, I will not hesitate to allow our people to be the final arbiter.

Would the PPP/C be prepared to consider going into an alliance with either or both of the opposition parties, to form a so-called ‘government of national unity’ that some commentators have called for?

I learnt long ago never to say “never” in politics. Circumstances can arise that may necessitate such actions. However, at the moment, I have not been given cause to trust the opposition. They have given me none. All they have shown me so far is their calculated unwillingness to cooperate. I can cite numerous instances in the past when we had agreements and they proceeded to violate these. Even before the last elections, we had agreed to do a new house-to-house registration at their request, on the grounds that they would not question the results. Lo and behold, they took to the streets after the recent elections, a totally unjustifiable posi­tion. This approach by the opposition will only in the present circumstances lead to gridlock and deadlock, which will be disas­trous to the further development of Guyana and the welfare of our people.

Guyana currently stands at the threshold of a new era in its economic development, with ongoing investment in gold and other mineral resources and the prospect of substantial oil and gas reserves. In view of the so-called ‘resource curse’ experienced by other developing countries similarly endowed, can you reassure the people of Guyana that the benefits of such mineral wealth will be distributed beneficially and transparently?

Yes, I can give the assurance that our re­sources would be used beneficially and transparently in the interests of all our peo­ple. I am aware of the ‘resource curse’ that you mentioned and I will work to avoid its pitfalls. I am also aware that there are other countries that have done well in exploiting their resources – the Nordic countries and Chile, for example. I will take the best from the experiences of those countries and apply them to the specific conditions in Guyana.

In view of Guyana’s past history of underdevelopment and poverty, what strategies will be pursued to ensure that it can now begin to provide higher standards of education and professional training to keep pace with the country’s rising eco­nomic potential?

I am convinced that the most important fac­tor for development is our people. Thanks to the work of previous PPP and PPP/C governments in ensuring that our people are equipped and prepared to manage our development, we have vastly improved standards at all levels of the education sys­tem. We are at the threshold of instituting universal secondary education. The popu­lation of the University of Guyana has ap­proximately doubled since we took office.

We are also working to open new specialist institutions dedicated to training person­nel for the mining and petroleum sectors. We will continue to invest in our human capital and in the physical infrastructure in Guyana and in other productive areas of the economy. Our education system has produced outstanding graduates, and I am con­fident that, with the efforts we have made and with the continued strong focus on hu­man development and particularly in the training of persons for the new knowledge industries, Guyana’s education can keep abreast with the rapid transformation that is expected to occur in the coming years.

What are your key economic and social priorities?

The first key priority is economic transfor­mation. The success of Guyana’s economy has laid the foundation for economic take-off. It is our goal to move the economy to a quantitatively and qualitatively higher platform through a number of megaprojects such as the Amaila Falls Hydroelectric Project, a road to Brazil, a bridge link to Suriname, the extension of the runway of our main airport and a deepwater harbour. By allying these megaprojects with invest­ments in other areas such as environmen­tal services, ICT, tourism, aquaculture and agro-industrial processing, we intend to fashion a new economy.

Secondly, we hope to grow export-com­petitive products and industries by embrac­ing new technologies and methods of pro­duction, reducing production and transport costs, and by modernising the traditional sectors.

Thirdly, we want to create greater eco­nomic opportunities, including increased and better remunerative jobs for our work­force. Leveraging foreign and domestic capital and expertise will play an important role in facilitating the emergence of these opportunities.

Socially, our overriding mission is to im­prove the livelihoods of our people. This we intend to continue to do through increased access to ever-improving social services, including specialist services within the health sector, greater attainment within our educational sector, [and] cheaper and more affordable electricity for homeowners and businesses. We will also continue the ex­pansion of our housing drive so as to en­sure that all deserving persons are afforded the opportunity and dignity of owning their own homes.

Will Guyana go further in its present com­mitments to preserve its unique forest heritage?

Yes. We know that it is far better for our country and the world to conserve our forests. As a country with over 80 percent forest cover, and one of the lowest defor­estation rates in the world, Guyana intends to maintain them for the national and glo­bal good. At the same time, however, we recognise that our forests are a principal natural asset, which should be sustainably utilised for economic and social improve­ment. Guyana has developed and is cur­rently implementing a Low Carbon Devel­opment Strategy (LCDS) through which we intend to deploy our forests in the global fight against climate change, and in return receive performance-based payments from avoided deforestation.

We have made history by establishing and implementing with Norway the second largest Interim REDD+ [Reducing Emis­sions from Deforestation and Forest Deg­radation] agreement in the world, through which we have earned approximately $70 million to support the implementation of projects under the LCDS. One such project is to establish a world-class centre for bio­diversity. We already have huge areas as national parks where biodiversity research is being undertaken.

Guyana is uniquely placed as both a con­tinental and a Caribbean nation. Where do you see the greater emphasis being placed in its future regional cooperation?

Guyana’s unique geographical location of­fers the possibility of becoming a bridge between Latin America and the Carib­bean. This will be a win-win situation for all of us where equal emphasis would be placed on relations with the continent and with the Caribbean. Within the southern hemisphere, a number of new regional as­sociations are being established. Guyana is happy to be part of this widening and deep­ening of the integration process, and sees its own membership and participation in these groupings as fulfilling its continental destiny – one that is linked not just with our own national interests but also with that of Caricom (the Caribbean Community).

About the author:

Donald Ramotar is the President of Guyana


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