The Washington Diplomat / March 2002
By Larry Luxner
One recent morning, while waiting to interview Guyanese Ambassador Mohammed Ali Odeen Ishmael, the embassy's receptionist was heard trying to assist a long-distance caller with information on tourist visas. Finally, after several minutes of polite conversation, the receptionist -- her patience wearing thin -- told the caller: "We're very sorry, sir. You want to call the Embassy of Ghana, which is in Africa. This is Guyana, in South America."
An everyday occurrence at the embassy, this anecdote illustrates how little the majority of Americans know about Guyana, an Idaho-sized nation located north of Brazil and east of Venezuela. Even most inhabitants of South America are completely ignorant of the only English-speaking country in their midst.
Ishmael wants to change that. The gregarious envoy says he'd like to boost Guyana's trade with Latin America and lift his sparsely populated country out of poverty and isolation.
"We have to think in terms of our markets," he says. "Culturally, we are a Caribbean nation, with similarities in food, language, music and customs. But we have a continental destiny. We are physically located in South America, and we cannot deny the fact that we have neighbors who speak Spanish and Portuguese.
"For example," he says, "we produce rice, and we need markets for our rice. We also need goods from these countries because products coming from neighboring Brazil or Venezuela are much cheaper than similar goods imported from Europe or the United States.
"To that end," says Ishmael, "we have been promoting Spanish education in our schools, so that hopefully, within the next 10 years, most of our young people will be bilingual. That's if the Ministry of Education sticks to its plans."
Ishmael, 54, has been Guyana's man in Washington since 1993 -- making him the undisputed dean of the Latin American and Caribbean diplomatic corps. In fact, only seven ambassadors, including Prince Bandar Bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia and the envoys of several obscure African states, have been here longer.
In early January, Ishmael spoke with The Washington Diplomat about his country, his career and his mission.
"Small countries like Guyana do not have a large diplomatic corps, so their ambassadors are normally here for long periods," he notes. "Secondly, any ambassador who comes here has to establish contacts and cultivate them. When you change, the new person has to build that up all over again."
In Ishmael's case, he says, "I'm not only Guyana's ambassador to the United States, but also to the Organization of American States, and that in itself is more than a 24-hour-a-day job. So many different meetings are taking place, and things are happening every day in the region. Right now, Haiti is a big boiling pot, so we're trying to see what assistance can be rendered there."
Ishmael is also the coordinator of a 16-nation project on distance education, which is being supported by the OAS, the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. As if that's not enough, he's currently writing a comprehensive history of his country; the diplomat has already completed "Amerindian Legends of Guyana" -- a collection of 20 short stories based on the oral traditions of Guyana's indigenous Amerindians.
In fact, Europeans first knew Guyana in the 16th century, when it was believed that the legendary golden city of El Dorado existed there. Sir Walter Raleigh even made two trips to the region, though he never found El Dorado.
In 1831, the territory became a British colony known as British Guiana, and in 1838 -- the same year slavery was abolished -- indentured servants began arriving from India by the thousands to work the colony's vast coastal sugar fields. Today, nearly half of all Guyanese are Hindus and Muslims of Indian origin. This includes Ishmael, who traces his roots to the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
In 1950, an eloquent dentist also of Indian origin, Cheddi Jagan, founded the left-leaning People's Progressive Party (PPP) with his Jewish-American wife, Janet Rosenberg Jagan. Together, they led Guyana's struggle for independence, which finally came in 1966.
After many years in the opposition, Jagan eventually became president, serving from 1992 until his death five years later at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center at the age of 79. He was replaced by his wife, who resigned three years ago for health reasons.
Guyana's current president is 37-year-old Bharrat Jagdeo, a longtime PPP activist and economist trained in the former Soviet Union.
"Bharrat Jagdeo used to be my student," says Ishmael. "I taught him in high school. I've known him since he was a little boy."
Yet it's not Jagdeo's portrait hanging above Ishmael's desk, but that of Cheddi Jagan, the man who appointed him to his current post.
The friendship between Ishmael and Jagan goes back to the early 1960s, when the Kennedy administration -- convinced that the Jagans were communists following in the footsteps of Cuba's Fidel Castro -- helped force the PPP from office. According to several recently declassified documents, Kennedy may have even tried to have Jagan assassinated.
Asked if the PPP is still Marxist in nature -- as the opposition People's National Congress regularly charges -- Ishmael is somewhat ambivalent.
"I don't think so," says the ambassador, who himself joined the PPP at the age of 16 and later moved into the party leadership as a member of its Central Committee. "Boris Yeltsin was a communist, but he made Russia capitalist. You can apply the same thing to Jagdeo. We believe in the free-market system."
Marxist or not, Guyana today ranks as one of South America's poorest countries, with a per-capita income believed to be less than $1,000 a year. Yet its 97 percent literacy rate is among the continent's highest, thanks to the country's British past. Aside from being South America's only English-speaking nation, it's also the only one whose population has not increased at all in the past two decades.
According to the latest numbers, Guyana has only 750,000 inhabitants -- virtually the same as in the 1980s, when political and economic difficulties sparked massive migration of Guyanese residents to such places as the United States, England and Canada. Today, nearly 300,000 Guyanese live in the United States, including at least 8,000 in Silver Spring, Md., and elsewhere in the Washington metropolitan area. The largest communities can be found in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.
These days, says Ishmael, bilateral relations are generally very good, but he adds that late last year, "we had a little problem with the United States over the deportee issue."
What happened was simple: The U.S. government wanted to deport 113 people with criminal records back to Guyana. But the Jagdeo government insisted first on verifying that all the deportees were in fact Guyanese and not Jamaicans or nationals of some other Caribbean country -- and that required extensive background checks.
"In many cases, these people have been living in the United States since they were children, so when they go back, they don't have any family to look after them," said Ishamel, adding that many are recruited by gangs and are generally not welcomed back in Guyana.
"The U.S. claims we were dragging our feet on issuing travel documents," he said. "So the next thing they did was impose visa sanctions on Guyana, meaning that government officials and their families could not get visas to the U.S. Fortunately, we were able to process these 113 persons, and they lifted the sanctions just before Christmas. Except for that little blotch, relations are very good."
From a business point of view, U.S. companies are among the largest foreign investors in Guyana. These include Reynolds Aluminum, which has been active in the country's mining sector for years, and Atlantic Tele-Network, a U.S. Virgin Islands-based company that owns 80 percent of Guyana's telephone monopoly.
Yet critics say foreign investors are nervous about coming to Guyana because of political tensions. Early last year, violent demonstrations erupted following Jagdeo's election as president. Opposition forces within the People's National Congress say the elections were rigged -- a charge the PPP vehemently denies.
As a result, foreign investment is at a virtual standstill, and a much-talked about "dialogue" between Jagdeo and PNC leader Desmond Hoyte has produced few, if any, positive results.
"The opposition's tactics after March 2001 and the 1997 elections are factors which can certainly scare off foreign investors," says Ishmael. "But personally, I think we've passed that period, and I really do not believe that at the present time, the memories of what happened then are having an effect."
Another factor that keeps investors away is Guyana's perennial border disputes with neighboring Venezuela and Suriname.
"The Venezuelan border problem has existed for a long time," says Ishmael, who is regarded as somewhat of an expert on the subject. "A solution was arrived at in 1899, and Venezuela and Guyana agreed to arbitration. But in 1962, Venezuela reopened the claim, saying they were not recognizing the agreement. That subsequently led to what we have now. This matter is now in the hands of the UN secretary-general, who is responsible for finding a way to solve the issue. Based on the Geneva agreement of 1966, Venezuela has to show why the agreement of 1899 is null and void."
The border dispute may have already cost Guyana its single most lucrative foreign investment -- a controversial venture by Texas-based Beal Aerospace to build a satellite-launching facility near the Venezuelan border to compete with the European-funded space center in Kourou, French Guiana.
"This would have easily been an investment of over $1 billion," says Ishmael, who was at the center of the failed negotiations. "That area is not very populated, so it was an ideal place for doing this sort of business. At first, Beal was very gung-ho about this. It was easily accessible to the U.S., closer than French Guiana, and the fact that everybody speaks English in that area made life easy."
But Venezuela protested loudly over the deal, and in the end, Beal pulled out, though it never publicly cited the border conflict as the reason for its withdrawal.
Guyana also has a problem with Suriname, its Dutch-speaking neighbor to the east.
"A Canadian company, CGX, was supposed to begin drilling at the mouth of the Corentyne River, and the Surinamese sent gunboats to move them out," says Ishmael, adding that the disputed area "has been described by the U.S. Geological Survey as having one of the world's best potential for offshore oil."
Meanwhile, the massive Omai gold mine south of Georgetown -- one of the largest in the world -- is expanding, thanks to slowly recovering prices for gold. But that's one of the few bright spots in an otherwise stagnant economy.
"Gold prices are coming back, but bauxite is taking a beating," says Ishmael. "We only produce the raw material. There is no manufacturing of any sort in Guyana. There was a time when we were producing alumina, but that plant closed down. So we just depend on bauxite prices we can get on the world market."
Guyana's other important export commodities -- rice, sugar, timber and diamonds -- are also depressed due to low market prices, though certain export products such as shrimp and premium rum are doing well.
One of the country's biggest problems, says the ambassador, is Guyana's external debt, which he says the PPP has been able to reduce substantially in the 10 years it's been in office.
"Guyana was very highly indebted. In 1992, we were $2.2 billion in the red, and our [gross domestic product] was around $600 million. We've been able to reduce that to about $1.1 billion. I was involved in that, and I still am," he said, adding that he's new busy helping negotiate debt relief for other poor countries around the world.
In that regard, Ishmael finds inspiration from the works of Shakespeare, from which he enjoys making analogies. "The merchant of Venice wanted a pound of flesh," he says. "The international debtors are getting their pound of flesh, but theyíre also getting the blood, in the form of little children in Africa, because these countries don't have the money to pay for social services."
Ishmael is also involved in negotiations toward a Free Trade Area of the Americas and is the only remaining Caribbean ambassador in Washington who was at the original Summit of the Americas in 1994, when the idea of an FTAA was first proposed by President Clinton.
And as the only Muslim among Guyana's overseas envoys, it is Ishmael's responsibility to represent his country at meetings of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which Guyana joined several years ago.
Finally, Ishamel is quite active in cultural affairs and on Jan. 21 was awarded the King Legacy Award for International Service for 2002 by the Committee for the International Salute to the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In between all these activities, Ishmael manages to spend time with his wife Evangeline and their two children: 25-year-old son Safraz, who studies law at Georgetown University and maintains the Guyanese Embassy's website at www.guyana.org, and 21-year-old daughter Nadeeza, who works at a genetics company in Maryland.
Asked how long Ishmael will remain at his post -- a few more years in Washington and he may very well become the dean of the entire diplomatic corps -- the Guyanese ambassador smiled and said: "It's up to the president. When the president says it's time to come home, that's it."