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Guyanese leader calls unity top goal
The Washington Times / February 12, 2002

By Larry Luxner

Bharrat Jagdeo, 37, is a Soviet-trained economist and former finance minister who became president of Guyana two years ago upon the resignation of Janet Jagan. Both he and Jagan are leaders in the left-leaning People's Progressive Party, which has governed Guyana since 1992. Here are excerpts of our recent interview with Jagdeo in Georgetown:

Q: What are your biggest challenges as president of Guyana?

A: "We still have this colonial legacy of a divided people, and I see that as one of our many challenges -- forging the people together into a Guyanese identity. The second challenge has to do with changing the structure of our economy, by diversifying. Apart from the traditional sectors such as rice, sugar, bauxite, forest products, we now have a rapidly deeveloping information technology sector. Ecotourism is also growing rapidly. I'm very excited about this. We have also been actively exploring for oil, and all indications are that Guyana has tremendous potential."

Q: How is Guyana's economy doing?

A: We had forecast 3% growth for 2001, but we ended the year at around 2%. In spite of the reduction of income, we have managed a strong fiscal monetary program to maintain the macroeconomic fundamentals. We have not seen a deterioriation of our currency, interest rates have not moved up, our balance of payments position did not deteriorate, and our fiscal deficit has been shrinking. We have been able to give more incentives to the private sector, but we still have numerous challenges."

Q: How has your education under the Soviet system affected your decision-making as finance minister and now as president?

A: "The training we had [in the USSR] was heavily mathematics. But we had an advantage in that, since we had we had come out of a Western system and a lot of our textbooks were published in the West, we had the possiblity of comparing that to what was taught in the university. A lot of the lessons we learned in the USSR can be replicated here.

"Our party has always supported the private sector as an important part of our national economy. The policies regarding Guyana's private sector were mostly developed when the PPP was in power."

Q: Yet the opposition People's National Congress calls the PPP a Marxist party. Does ideology in fact play any role in your economic policies?

A: "Development in Guyana today has nothing to do with ideology. I am agressively pursuing foreign capital. We have the freest economy in the Caribbean, and possibly in the hemisphere. We've repealed the Capital Issues Act, which prevented foreign companies from raising capital in our market. We have removed the Exchange Control Act, so there's no restriction on movement of money in and out of the country. People can come to Guyana and live here freely.

We have also liberalized the financial sector. The government had controlling interest in seven banks; we're down to two now, and by the end of next year, we'll be totally out of that sector. We had over 40 state enterprises. We're down to maybe six, and we intend to privatize three. Just three will remain in the state sector -- the sugar company, the oil company and the shipping company. It is because we feel this is the right thing to do."

Q: What are you doing to attract foreign investment?

A: "We in Guyana are committed to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), unlike Cuba, which has a different position. As we all get closer, borders become irrelevant. We're promoting larger South American regional integration, and borders should not be there to divide people."

Q: Yet Guyana has an ongoing border dispute with Venezuela. Where does that stand?

A: "This is a very old problem, and both sides have committed themselves to a peaceful resolution of the issue. We have an ongoing process with the UN Secretary General, and I've had discussions with President Chávez. There's also the possibility of linking Guyana and Venezuela via a coastal road, though we have not decided on the route as yet."

Q: What is Guyana's role within the framework of hemispheric integration?

A: "We are in a critical position. Guyana is the headquarters of Caricom, and we're part of the Caribbean, but we're also part of the South American mainland. I feel that Guyana's future lies to the south, as well as the north. We have the unique opportunity of opening a door for the Caribbean into South America, and of being a gateway for Brazil's northern states to the Atlantic. That's the role we're aggressively pursuing."

Q: How are Guyana's trade relations with Brazil?

A: "We now have two flights a week to Boa Vista, and we're spending a lot of money, about US$200 million, to upgrade the 300-mile road link between the border to the coast. The Brazilian government is now funding a bridge being constructed over the Tacatu River, to be completed by September 2002, so you can drive all the way to Boa Vista. We have just signed a free-trade agreement with Brazil, and many of our people are already taking advantage of this. There are about 60 items we can sell to Brazil free of tariffs, and we have given them access to our market."

Q: Guyana's next elections are in 2006. Will you run for president again?

A: "We have a long time to decide. I want to do other things with my life, like teach."

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