A robust debate has been triggered by Guyana’s Local Content Act (the Act) between Guyanese and Trinidad and Tobago business organisations, businesspeople and involving some Guyanese public officials. The debate has had little input from ordinary Guyanese citizens. For example, there has been few, if any, letters in the press from Guyanese expressing outrage against Trinidadians for any reason. However, while the debate is limited to Trinidad’s business practices, trade policies and importance to Guyana as a Caricom member, there is a strong undercurrent in Guyana of resentment against what is believed to be Trinidad’s historically unflattering view of Guyanese due, it has always been believed, to Trinidad’s sense of its own superiority by virtue of its oil wealth as against Guyana’s relative poverty.
This situation was exacerbated during the 1970s and 1980s when Guyanese flooded Caribbean countries, Trinidad being a primary target, for illegal residence, illegal employment and creating monumental chaos at Piarco International Airport during transit with huge bundles packed with goods being brought back to Guyana for trading. No single Guyanese passing through Trinidad during this era, and even much later, has not experienced surly, enhanced, scrutiny and less than accommodating reception at Trinidad’s immigration and customs desks. Having said that, almost every Guyanese has forgotten that Trinidad forgave Guyana about US$400 million at debt reduction negotiations in the late 1980s and early 1990s for petroleum products supplied to Guyana when it could not pay.
There is a feeling in Guyana, whispered but not publicly expressed, of resentment against Trinidadians of taking advantage of investment opportunities as a result of Guyana’s growing petroleum industry. I noticed this resentment and sometime ago welcomed in these pages Trinidad’s investors and reminded Guyanese of Trinidad’s past generosity to Guyana. Trinidadians have the capital and the knowhow and, together with Surinamese, are the country and people with whom we have had the closest relations, notwithstanding the tensions of the past; and both belong to Caricom. Who better than Trinidadians to invest in Guyana?
Relations between the governments of Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago have been historically good. Trinidad supplied oil to and remained silent about the PNC dictatorship. This was quickly forgotten by PPP governments which developed close relations with the Manning and Panday governments. There was a tension in the air when the newly elected Prime Minister, Kamla Persaud Bissessar, declared that Trinidad and Tobago will no longer be the ATM machine for the region. Guyanese felt that this unfriendly remark was directed against them. However, while this did not obstruct the good relations that had developed, official relations never appeared to reach the same level of closeness as with the Manning government. Prime Minister Keith Rowley went tepid on the Guyana-Venezuela Border Controversy as Trinidad entered petroleum exploration agreements with Venezuela, but this did not prevent him from trying to resolve the issues surrounding APNU+AFC’s attempt to rig the elections. Guyana’s relations with Trinidad and Tobago, despite the normal ups and downs with different administrations, are deeply entrenched within the Caricom and the Treaty of Chaguramus.
When the Act was passed, the Caricom Private Sector Organisation (CPSO), which is an associate institution of Caricom, headed by Mr. Gervase Warner, the CEO of Massey of Trinidad, which has major investments in Guyana, proposed raising with the Government of Guyana the “violations” in the Act. The CPSO’s complaint appears to be that the Act will restrict the free flow of capital among Caricom countries which is prohibited by the Treaty of Chaguramas. Influential voices close to business and government denied the CPSO’s assertions and castigated the Trinidadians for numerous non-tariff barriers which unfairly restrict the entry of Guyana’s goods to Trinidad. It should be noted that the non-tariff barriers, about which Guyanese and others have complained for a long time are erected by the government of Trinidad and Tobago, and not by Trinidad businessmen, although the latter are the beneficiaries. Guyanese businesspeople probably figure that if Trinidad businesspeople benefit from Trinidad’s discriminatory trade policies, they should not be the ones to complain about the Act.
Mr. Carl Greenidge, a former Minister of Finance and of Foreign Affairs and now the Agent for the Guyana Government in the ICJ case on the Border Controversy, has weighed in on the issue with specific reference to the call by Mr. Timothy Tucker, president of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry, for Guyana to withdraw from Caricom. Mr. Greenidge pointed out that Caricom is Guyana’s largest trading partner apart from the US, that Trinidad’s past behaviour on local content and current non-tariff barriers are not adequate reasons for withdrawal from Caricom and the vital support of Caricom for Guyana in its border controversy with Venezuela are all important reasons which will make it unwise for Guyana to leave Caricom.
While there is little danger of Guyana ever withdrawing from Caricom, the danger of allowing negative voices on this issue to grow and fester and perhaps eventually dominate debate on this matter is dangerous and Mr. Greenidge’s perspectives has fortunately brought the debate about Guyana leaving Caricom to an end. The Guyana-Venezuela Border Controversy is Guyana’s existential foreign policy challenge. Guyana needs Caricom. In the coming years, Guyana’s oil economy will need more Trinidadians.