The Miami Herald / September 1, 1997
By Larry Luxner
CAYENNE, French Guiana -- The scene is all too familiar: a Caribbean territory whose people enjoy palm-fringed beaches, a relatively prosperous standard of living and unrestricted travel to and from the mainland. Yet it's also a place where political restlessness has begun to spawn increasingly violent demands for independence.
The territory in question isn't Puerto Rico but French Guiana -- an overseas department of France wedged along the remote, northeastern shoulder of South America between Suriname and Brazil.
In the last seven years, the department's population has mushroomed from 118,000 to nearly 150,000. Its inhabitants represent perhaps the most ethnically diverse group of people anywhere in South America, from Creole-speaking Haitians to Portuguese-speaking Brazilians to Buddhist Hmong refugees from Laos.
Over a third of French Guiana's population comes from somewhere else, and nearly all have stumbled onto this lonely jungle land for one reason: jobs generated by the European Space Agency's sprawling space complex at Kourou. Michel Mignot, director of the Guianese Space Center, says the satellite-launching business now accounts for 50% of French Guiana's production, 30% of its direct and indirect jobs and 50% of its tax revenue.
In fact, compared to Dutch-speaking Suriname and English-speaking Guyana -- both impoverished after centuries of European colonial rule and a few decades of independence -- French Guiana isn't suffering. It has good roads, decent health care and a generous social-security system, thanks to $500 million a year in assistance from Paris.
Yet the department also has serious economic and social problems. Officially, French Guiana's unemployment exceeds 25%; some observers say the true number approaches 35%. A growing number of people, once happy with their European Union passports and working phone system, are beginning to wonder whether French Guiana might be better off on its own.
"France doesn't want to develop this country. The only thing that's important for them is the space center," grumbles Maurice Pindard, secretary-general of the Mouvement de Decolonisation et d'Emancipation Social (MDES), French Guiana's independence party. "The government wants social peace, but you can't have social peace without jobs."
Pindard, a 41-year-old math and physics teacher, adds that "thousands of children can't go to school because there aren't enough schools," and that "most of the small companies here are closing their doors because they don't have enough work to do."
Earlier this month, violence erupted between police and demonstrators after an MDES leader was placed in pre-trial detention. Local reports say the protesters had attempted to set fire to Cayenne's central police station, prompting paramilitary riot police to use tear gas to disperse hundreds of people who were camped out in front of the central courthouse.
In April, a similar disturbance left nine policemen injured, eight of them by gunfire. And last November, 10 independence supporters were accused of attacking the residence of French Guiana's state prosecutor in November 1996 after protests over deteriorating secondary-school conditions. At the time, the riots were condemned in Paris; Jean-Jacques de Peretti, France's minister for overseas territories, blamed the unrest on "vandals who have nothing to do with the problems of educating the young."
Indeed, many Guianese see the MDES as nothing but a group of troublemakers.
"Only three or four percent of the people here want independence," says Jean-Claude Fayon, manager of Kourou's Hotel Mercure Ariatel, which caters to space-center executives and visiting dignitaries. "The rest want to remain part of France. But those three or four percent are always protesting."
French Guiana, which covers 35,000 square miles, is 10 times the size of Puerto Rico but has only 1/25th the population. The territory, which contains potentially large gold, diamond, shrimp and timber resources, was settled by French explorers in 1642 and became an overseas department in 1946, ending its status as a colony. As such, French Guiana elects two deputies and one senator to the National Assembly in Paris; it's also represented at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Its currency is the French franc, and its people enjoy the same rights as any French citizen.
Yet that's not enough for some people -- even business executives.
"Here we are in South America, but we're a part of France," says David Donzenac, owner of a construction firm in Cayenne. "It's ridiculous. More than 70% of our trade is with France, and the French decide everything. We don't want a bad relationship [with Paris], but we don't want them to tell us what's good for us."
Donzenac, who directs regional cooperation efforts at the French Guiana Chamber of Commerce, says the department's representation in Paris is symbolic and somewhat meaningless to most locals; during elections for president of France, voter turnout rarely exceeds 30%.
"In general, we support the movement for a change in political status -- not for independence, but for a status like Puerto Rico," says Donzenac, adding that "the space program is totally outside the Cayenne economy. In reality, the rocket base doesn't participate fully in the development of French Guiana."
Nevertheless, France -- which has invested billions of dollars in the Kourou space center -- is unlikely to give up its slice of South America anytime soon. Guarded by 800 troops of the French Foreign Legion, the center generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the French government agency CNES, which leases its facilities to Arianespace.
In fact, Kourou is more important than ever to the Arianespace consortium, which now launches over half the world's commercial satellites. Says Arianespace's CEO, Jean-Marie Luton: "Our activity is like an engine for the economy of French Guiana. Without the last 30 years of activity, Guiana would not be what it is today."
If French Guiana were truly independent, it would be the smallest country in South America, with only a third the population of the next-smallest country, Suriname. Asked if it could really survive on its own -- without the benefits of French citizenship or financial aid -- MDES leader Pindard hesitated for a minute.
"We do not want independence tomorrow. We want an intermediate status in the French Republic," he explained, pointing to overseas Pacific territories like New Caledonia or French Polynesia. But that's only a temporary solution, he said. "We want to prepare the people of this country to rule themselves. We must fight for self-determination."