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Guianas seek to end isolation
The Miami Herald / March 22, 1999

By Larry Luxner

Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana -- three remote countries on the northern edge of South America that are collectively known as "the Guianas" -- are relying on tourism, trade and telecom links to reduce their isolation from the rest of the world.

Last week [Mar. 4-5], Suriname for the first time hosted a summit of leaders from the 15-member Caribbean Community (Caricom), which it joined in 1997 as the organization's first non-English-speaking member. And on Apr. 9, the former Dutch colony will kick off a three-day sustainable tourism development conference,sponsored by the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Despite their obvious language differences (Guyanese speak English, Surinamese speak Dutch and French Guianese speak French), the three have much in common: all are relatively underpopulated, all consider themselves culturally far more Caribbean than South American, and all are rich in gold, timber, bauxite, shrimp and other natural resources.

In addition, all three are anxious to attract tourists to their unusual attractions -- ranging from Guyana's Kaieteur Falls, which at a height of 741 feet is the world's highest single-drop waterfall, to Devil's Island and the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana.

Jean Holder, secretary-general of the Barbados-based CTO, says he'd like to see the trio cash in on the growing ecotourism trend by adopting a "three Guianas" approach.

"We're bringing the three Guianas together for meetings with tour operators and suppliers," he said in a recent phone interview. "All three have a very similar product. We just haven't packaged and promoted them in the past as effectively as we should."

The most populous of the three is Guyana, which has about 800,000 inhabitants and is South America's only English-speaking country. Its colonial-style capital, Georgetown, is also the headquarters of Caricom, though -- like the Surinamese capital, Paramaribo -- it has seen better days.

Despite annual GDP growth that in recent years has exceeded 7%, the Guyanese economy is today paralyzed by political infighting and a drop in world commodity prices for the country's most important exports: rice, sugar, bauxite, gold and timber. In the last 12 months, the Guyanese dollar has weakened dramatically, falling from 140 to the U.S. dollar a year ago to 180:1 today. According to the IDB, per-capita income stands at $743.

President Janet Jagan, whose left-leaning People's Progressive Party won a December 1997 election that's still bitterly contested by the opposition People's National Congress, denied in a recent interview that the Guyanese economy is paralyzed.

"It would be unfair to say the country is going to the dogs economically," she said. "We're expecting approximately 1% GDP growth this year, which is bad. But a little country like Guyana is bound to feel the repercussions of the world situation."

Neighboring Suriname isn't doing too much better.

Andre Telting, ex-president of Suriname's Central Bank, accuses President Jules Wijdenbosch of concealing the full amount of the country's foreign debt. He claims the share owed by each of Suriname's 450,000 inhabitants is $1,200 -- almost twice Suriname's per-capita income of $712. At the time of Suriname's independence from Holland in 1975, before the country was drawn into a protracted civil war, per-capita income was closer to $5,000. But a steady weakening of the Surinamese guilder, from 1.80 per dollar to today's official rate of 406 to the dollar, has resulted in hyperinflation.

Foreign interest in Suriname's Asian-controlled logging industry, meanwhile, appears to be drying up. Inter Press Service reported recently that aside from lower world timber prices and the world financial crisis, the virtual lack of investment "has also been affected by bickering in the multi-party national assembly, along with rumors of instability. This appears to have scared away investors, with some moving to neighboring Guyana, and others withdrawing their applications for interior concessions or opting for other countries outside of South America."

Yet tourism could be one way of boosting the country's foreign-exchange earnings. In addition to its vast Amazon forests, Suriname also boasts the ruins of Jodensavanne, the oldest synagogue and Jewish cemetery in the Americas. Efforts are also underway to place Paramaribo, the capital city famous for its wooden colonial architecture, on the UNESCO World Heritage List in order to help preserve its rich and diverse heritage.

French Guiana -- home of Europe's sprawling space center in Kourou, from which many of the world's telecom satellites are launched -- is the most economically advanced of the three Guianas. That's because it's not an independent nation but rather an overseas department of France, with all the benefits of French citizenship and full legislative representation in Paris.

The department receives $500 million a year in assistance from Paris, yet it faces a 25% unemployment rate and other serious economic woes -- giving rise to a small but vocal independence movement supported by about 5% of the population.

"Here we are in South America, but we're a part of France," says David Donzenac, who directs regional cooperation efforts at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Cayenne. He claims that France has discouraged the department from developing trade ties with Suriname, Guyana and Brazil. "We don't want a bad relationship [with Paris]," he says, "but we don't want them to tell us what's good for us."

Michel Mignot, director of the Guiana Space Center (CSG), estimates the rocket-launching complex accounts for 50% of the department's GDP, 30% of its direct and indirect jobs and 50% of its tax revenue. But that's not enough.

Mignot says his top priority is "helping to create new local production networks in which our trained staff could invest themselves, thus creating jobs for young Guianese" and "helping French Guiana extend its influence in the region and South America, and become the European showcase for a developing continent."

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