“I lived here when I was a little girl,” Gaiutra Bahadur pleaded nostalgically to the security guard, unsuccessfully seeking entry to the derelict Wales Estate compound. Ms. Bahadur was in Guyana to prepare for an article, “Is Guyana’s Oil a Blessing or a Curse,” which was published on March 30 in the New York Times. Migrating with her parents to the US as a 6-year-old, Ms. Bahadur has returned often and written extensively about Guyana. Her ‘Coolie Woman,’ published in 2013, a ‘master chronicle’ focusing on the journey of her great grandmother, Sujaria, who left Calcutta in 1903, is a widely praised, landmark study, of indentureship and indentured women. In her NYT article Ms. Bahadur grapples with the issues arising from Guyana’s discovery of oil in 2015 with balance, integrity and sympathy. 

Hardly a week passes without the publication of a significant article on Guyana, its potential after oil. Immediately prior to Ms. Bahadur’s article, BBC’s Hardtalk featured Guyana. Its host, Stephen Sackur, travelled to Guyana, asked an environmental activist to justify Guyana, a poor country, discarding billions to protect the climate which rich countries wrecked. He then confronted President Ali to justify Guyana’s contribution to global warming by pumping the oil. The President gave a firm rebuff. On Friday last, SN published an article, “How Guyana became Latin America’s leading development lab,” by the former President of Columbia, Ivan Duque Marquez, describing Guyana as “being on the cusp of a profound socio-economic transformation unlike any seen in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Yesterday, in a scathing editorial, SN described the Government’s approval of the Whiptail project by Exxon as “another rip-off of the Guyanese people facilitated by the PPP/C government.” There is no shortage of hope or of hopelessness. Ms. Bahadur expresses them all, reflecting our insecurities born of dashed hopes since Independence.

Gaiutra Bahadur explores Guyana’s “past and its legacies” in the era of oil. She records the hopes and dreams of a once dimly remembered land and people, which have been brought to life for her in her quest to understand how she became part of them and, in that searing discovery recorded in ‘Coolie Woman,’ ending up with an enduring and sympathetic attachment to their hopes and dreams. Describing the security guard as a descendant of indentured labourers, Ms. Bahadur, an American, claims ownership of the Guyana identity by asserting: “as am I.” But her nostalgia does not overwhelm her objectivity. She notes the fears of some – journalists, academics, lawyers, workers at non-governmental organisations and others – to speak out “against” petroleum. But she identifies the prominent individuals who have taken on the oil industry and the government, with some success. Is she overstating it? The tens of thousands who have had jobs or acquired skills because of oil, don’t seem to be against petroleum.

Ms. Bahadur offers us the background of colonial poverty and exploitation to judge the progress which has been made so far. Our colonial history, which punctuates the article, has bequeathed this legacy and it will take time to eliminate it. Against the background of a devastating economic and political history, the negative aspects of the new wealth are hinted at, namely, Hardrock Café, Starbucks, sipping El Dorado, consuming US$300 steaks and high-priced rentals. In the “Land of new possibilities” Ms. Bahadur identifies the new houses, hotels, malls, gyms and offices that “crop up constantly.” Ms. Upsana Mudlier’s high hopes for her garment business, subject to cheaper electricity, is identified. The housing drive, which gave rise to the “new houses” is perhaps one of the most successful in any part of the developing world. Oil money enables the government to speed up the preparation of the infrastructure for the lands being distributed.           

“The ghosts of the past,” Guyana’s colonial history of exploitation and poverty and its post-Independence descent into authoritarianism, eventually gave way to free and fair elections “and then Exxon struck oil.” While the country’s political parties are sharply divided, the “stand in rare accord” in relation to the drilling of oil. But il has brought new issues to the Guyana landscape, one being the environment. It has become so prominent that any journalistic venture about Guyana, such as Hardtalk, or that of Former Columbian President Ivan Duque, that avoids the issue of the impact of oil production on the environment will be incomplete. Ms. Bahadur gives voice to the persons involved in the various campaigns in relation to environmental impact and guarantees against oil spills. She notes the “setbacks and victories” resulting from court decisions and the assurance by Minister Bharrat that Guyana’s development does not conflict with environmental protection. The voices against drilling, Ms. Bahadur notes, are isolated. 

Ms. Bahadur concludes that from her “recent trips back to the country, it’s hard to tell what Guyana is becoming, and who will thrive there as it evolves.” It is the task of Guyanese who reside here to resolve Ms. Bahadur’s doubt and ensure that it is Guyana’s long-suffering working people who will thrive. (Ms. Bahadur is a Professor at Rutgers University and a graduate of Yale and Columbia Universities in English Literature and Journalism).

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