After discovering massive oil reserves in the past five years, Guyana, one of the poorest countries in South America, was poised to become one of the richest nations in the world. Also noteworthy is the fact that, since Guyana’s independence from Great Britain in 1966, Venezuela claims nearly 70% of its territory. Reminiscent of the People’s Republic of China, the government of Nicolas Maduro started claiming a large maritime area with significant oil resources and has routinely hindered international freedom of navigation in the area.
On February 16, at almost the same time as Guyana’s first oil shipments were taking place, Venezuela’s navy conducted its first live-fire missile test since 2013, firing at a retired oil tanker. The message was clearly aimed at its neighbor and the oil companies operating in Guyana’s offshore area claimed by Venezuela.
With this going on in the background, on March 2 Guyana saw perhaps its most historically significant election. The polls were to decide what party will be able to reap the benefits of the coming oil boom, change the country for the better and, therefore, potentially stay in power for a long time. Traditionally, the Guyanese have been voting largely in accordance with their racial backgrounds. The two largest groups are the descendants of former African slaves and those whose ancestors were brought to the country as indentured laborers by the British during colonial times.
The last election had been lost narrowly by the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C), carried mainly by Indo-Guyanese against the now ruling party coalition, A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) that is supported mainly by Afro-Guyanese.
The recent general election started out as a promising manifestation of democracy, peacefully conducted and overlooked by international observers. However, the result was anything but reassuring for Guyana’s democratic and successful economic future. After accusations of election fraud and without the entirety of ballots counted, the ruling coalition was declared the winner by the voting commission. Guyana’s highest court intervened, ordering a count of the remaining ballots.
After tensions with the police that left one anti-government demonstrator dead, an agreement between President David Granger and the opposition was negotiated to accept a recount overseen by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). But a member of the president’s party then objected that this was unconstitutional, and the count was stopped. Consequently, the CARICOM commission left the country without being able to conduct an election recount. Citing concerns about the democratic process in Guyana, international observers of the Organization of American States, the Carter Center, the Commonwealth Observer Group and the European Union left the country as well. Diplomats from the United States, Britain, Canada and the EU stated in unison that the results of the election were not credible, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned about severe repercussions for persons benefiting from electoral fraud and illegitimate government.
It is possible that Guyana will soon be in a similar situation to Venezuela — a target of economic sanctions, with a government not recognized as legitimate by the international community.
With US and international sanctions looming, Georgetown could be likely turning more to China, which already has a substantial presence both in Guyana and the wider region. In the past, President Granger has tried a balancing act between China and the West with the goal of benefiting economically from both. Militarily, Guyana has had training cooperation with the US military and is a state partner of the Florida National Guard. US military personnel conducted several medical events and constructed community centers and shelters.
At the same time, Guyanese officers receive scholarships to attend training courses in China, with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army donating military equipment to Guyana. China has further cemented its presence in Guyana with various infrastructure projects, like the renovation of the main airport and the construction of a conference center.
Politically closer Guyana-China relations will potentially squeeze US influence even further from the northern corridor of South America, where Beijing remains one of Maduro’s staunch supporters. In addition, Guyana’s neighbor to the east, Suriname, is an ally of both Maduro and China. Last year, Beijing and Paramaribo established a strategic partnership when President Desi Bouterse, wanted by Interpol on charges of murder and drug trafficking, was hosted by President Xi Jinping. During the visit, Bouterse was convicted for executing political opponents in the 1980s and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The Surinamese president is believed to have been able to return to power with financial help from Maduro and has ties to Guyanese, Colombian and Venezuelan drug kingpins. He is also suspected of being involved in smuggling arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. His son, Dino Bouterse, is currently in a US jail for his involvement in conspiring with narcotics organizations, arms smuggling and supplying a fraudulent Surinamese passport to a US Drug Enforcement Administration undercover operative, who he thought was a member of Hezbollah. Dino Bouterse planned to arrange for Hezbollah training camps in Suriname in the return of financial bribes.
With the ongoing developments, it is the realm of possibility that a corridor of states, from Venezuela over Guyana to Suriname, becomes isolated from its neighbors in South America, the Caribbean and the United States. However, these states would likely receive full recognition from China, which is not concerned with the internal politics of its partner nations. The influence in such a corridor would also not only be limited to CHina’s economic interests.
The entire corridor in all probability would open up to the same players as in Venezuela: Russia, Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. Suriname signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia, a first for a CARICOM nation since the 1979-83 pro-Soviet government of Grenada. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the small South American nation last year to declare, together with the Surinamese foreign minister, his solidarity with Venezuela.
Iran has tried to make inroads into Guyana in the past and donated funds to build an institution to train doctors, as well as sending a team of scientists to help map possible uranium deposits when the current opposition party, PPP/C, was in power. To the current Guyanese government Iran has offered collaboration in the area of infrastructure. Notable is also the case of Abdul Kadir, a chemical engineer by profession and former Guyanese politician who had at one point been a member of parliament and the mayor of Guyana’s second-largest city, Linden, with the current government party. He was originally born as Michael Seaforth and changed his name to Abdul Kadir after converting to Islam.
In 2007, Abdul Kadir was arrested in Trinidad in connection with a bomb plot at New York’s JFK airport and extradited to the United States. He was en route to Caracas from where he planned to travel to Iran. Kadir was sentenced to life in prison and died in a US jail in 2018. According to US court documents, he had also been in contact with an Iranian diplomat who is believed to be one of the planners of the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires.
Reminiscent of the so-called Shia crescent in the Middle East, we may find a similar South American crescent in the future. If this happens, the tensions between Venezuela and Guyana may likely decrease as they both will find themselves in the same political camp. Indicative hereof are the remarks made a few days ago by Guyana’s foreign minister that Guyana never recognized Juan Guaido as interim president of Venezuela.
Nonetheless, if an amicable, peaceful and fair solution for the current political situation in Guyana is not found soon, it could have dire consequences for the entire region and, most of all, a bright future for the Guyanese will be placed on hold.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.