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Guyana's economy lags in shadow of electoral standoff
The Miami Herald / November 23, 1998

By Larry Luxner

GEORGETOWN, Guyana -- Nov. 18 marked the 20th anniversary of a bizarre event that first put Guyana on the map for most Americans: the suicide-murder of 909 religious cultists at Jonestown.

But the anniversary most of Guyana's 775,000 inhabitants really care about has nothing to do with Jonestown. Nearly one year has passed since Dec. 15, 1997, when voters in this remote South American country went to the polls in a presidential election that pitted Janet Rosenberg Jagan of the leftist People's Progressive Party (PPP) against former president Desmond Hoyte of the People's National Congress (PNC).

Jagan, 78, won and was sworn in, but the PNC -- alleging corruption -- refused to accept the results of the election, and unleased violent street protests throughout the capital city of Georgetown. Although the unrest has since abated, the standoff between Jagan, who's supported largely by Guyana's East Indian minority, and Hoyte, 69, who's backed mainly by the country's African minority, drags on with no end in sight.

"As far as I'm concerned, I don't believe there's a genuine belief the elections were rigged," said Jagan, the Chicago-born widow of the late President Cheddi Jagan, who died in 1996. "I think it's part of a new phenomenon developing where opposition parties refuse to accept the results of an election because it doesn't suit their agenda."

Hoyte, meanwhile, accuses Jagan of pushing racist policies against blacks. He says Afro-Guyanese charged with squatting on state land have their homes destroyed, while East Indians who do the same are left alone. Asked if his own party is immune from such accusations, Hoyte says: "I'd be the last to say race doesn't play an important part in our politics. But the issue is one of bad governance, discrimination and executive lawlessness."

Meanwhile, the Guyanese economy is shriveling up, and investors take a wait-and-see attitude before pouring more any money into the country. "ddican-born UYANESE PRESIDENT

"Guyana's major problem is the need for new investment," says Shridat Ramphal, a former Guyanese foreign minister and now chief negotiator for the 15-member Caribbean Community (Caricom). "That seems to have been put on hold as investors gauge the political environment."

From 1991 until just a few months ago, Guyana's economy was expanding at the astounding rate of 7% a year -- earning praise from the World Bank, the IMF, the Inter-American Development Bank and regional experts. But suddenly, with fallout from Asia's financial crisis reaching Caribbean shores, the nation's prosperity is in doubt.

The timber industry alone will likely suffer a 35% drop this year, following economic difficulties in Indonesia, Malaysia and other Asian countries that have invested heavily in this sector.

"Asia was our main market for timber. At the same time, cheaper forest products from Asia have been displacing our exports to the industrialized world," said Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo, a 32-year-old economist who studied in the Soviet Union.

In addition, Guyana's gold, bauxite and sugar industries also are in crisis due to the scarcity of foreign exchange; only rice exports are expected to improve this year. Jagdeo concedes that the GDP of this Idaho-sized country shrank 2.4% in the first half of 1998, and will probably end the year with overall growth of only 1.1% -- far less than the 3% growth he was predicting in January.

"The real problem is not so much the political infighting, but the decline in commodity prices," says Ronald Webster, president of the Guyana Manufacturers Association. "Guyana is 90% dependent on sugar, rice, bauxite, gold and timber. In every single instance, prices have dropped dramatically. Coupled with that, we had El Niņo toward the last half of 1997.

"I think political problems are probably overblown," says Webster, though he adds that, prior to the election, "none of the political parties were particularly concerned about the impact of commodity prices on the economy."

Guyana's efforts to privatize money-losing state industries haven't scored a success since 1991, when the government sold an 80% chunk of Guyana Telephone & Telegraph Co. to Virgin Islands-based Atlantic Tele-Network for $16.5 million. Since then, ATN has improved service dramatically while boosting the number of phone lines from 13,000 to over 58,000. Yet it's been battling the government for nine months to let it raise the cost of basic phone service from $1.75 to around $5 a month. Before that, it had been only 24 cents a month.

"In my opinion, the PPP is a socialist party, and they really have no interest in private investment," says Cornelius B. Prior Jr., CEO of Atlantic Tele-Network. "Under Hoyte, the tax rate was 35%. Jagan raised that to 45%. What signal does that send to the American investor?"

Adds Hoyte: "Since 1992, there has not been a single major new investor in Guyana -- no new ATN, no new Omai. There is no way the economy is going to pick up, because the investments are not coming in, commodity prices are low, and the forestry sector is in depression. If I were president, there would have been more investment in the economy. They still believe in a regulated economy."

Jagan, who's scheduled to address a regional business conference in Miami early next month, denies invesetment has been scared away by political unrest.

"We had a joint venture to sell Guyana Electric Corp. and were nearing completion of a deal with [Canadian utility] SaskPower when they were frightened off by the riots, so they say. Whether it was true or not, we're not sure -- but no one else went away," she said. "Since then, we've concluded an agreement with another company. It would be unfair to say the country going to the dogs economically. We're expecting approximately 1% growth this year, which is bad. But a little country like Guyana is bound to feel the repercussions of the world situation."

Meanwhile, Caricom, which happens to be headquartered in Guyana, recently appointed a special mediator to iron out lingering differences between the warring parties. For two months, the former attorney general of Barbados, Maurice King, has been meeting with both politicians in a bid to prevent a repeat of the violence that broke out in December, following the election, in which Jagan won 53% of the vote, compared to 45% for Hoyte.

But the PNC is unhappy with the slow pace at which the talks are proceeding.

"We have made virtually no progress with the dialogue," Hoyte said. "Nothing concrete has come out of it, and our own view is that the PPP has not entered the process in good faith."

Jagan says she has no personal animosity towards Hoyte, but adds that "he may not think the best of me." Nevertheless, she says the fact she's a white, Jewish woman of American origin hasn't been much of a dent in her popularity.

"The only personal hostility I get is from diehard PNC members," she said. "Most people don't look at me as a white woman. They look at me as a woman who's been on the political scene for many years, and who is the widow of Cheddi Jagan. I don't think my whiteness comes into it unless they want it to."

Asked if her age has ever been an issue, Jagan responds: "They had a hard time making it an issue, since Hoyte is no young chicken either."

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