Of all the other Caricom countries, Guyana has enjoyed the closest relations with Trinidad and Tobago. Language, common colonial history, ethnic make-up, common cultural patterns, similar systems of government and laws and long established people to people contact have all come together to keep us close.
During the period of the 1970s to 1980s when Guyana’s economy was flatlining, Trinidad and Tobago continued to supply Guyana with petroleum products on credit. During the 1990s, at the conclusion of the debt forgiveness process under the Paris Club arrangements for Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago forgave Guyana the single largest amount of debt of hundreds of millions of US dollars. This largesse should not be forgotten. Even though it has been almost impossible for Guyanese business people to get permission to invest or for professionals to get jobs or to reside in Trinidad and Tobago, relations between the governments of Guyana and of Trinidad and Tobago have always been cordial.
After Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence, a new nationalism took hold. This resulted from measures to protect Trinidad and Tobago economically, applying what has now become known as local content policies. It became impossible for Guyanese professionals to get jobs in Trinidad and Tobago and for Guyanese business people to invest. This was not directed to Guyana alone. Guyanese sensed, rightly or wrongly, that Trinidadians were developing a sense of superiority, generated by Trinidad and Tobago’s oil wealth. Many Guyanese began to resent the air of superiority that Trinidadians began to display.
Starting from the mid to late 1970s, Guyanese flooded into Trinidad to live and work, mainly illegally, because Guyana’s economy began to contract dramatically. At this time also, numerous Guyanese entered the business of ‘suitcase trading’ and for nearly two decades inundated Piarco Airport on a daily basis seeking airline tickets to Guyana and acceptance of excess baggage by then BWIA. All Guyanese travelling through Trinidad, whether or not they were traders, were caught up in the extra security measures and the suspicion and hostility of the Trinidad authorities. The hostility of Trinidadians at that time remains an open wound today.
High oil prices in the 1970s and later, and its subsidized price of oil to manufacturers, enabled Trinidad and Tobago to develop its industry and export capacity. It took advantage of its Caricom membership and vastly expanded its exports to and investments in Caricom. It continued its generous supply of petroleum products to its poorer Caricom partners. But when Prime Minister Persaud-Bissessar announced that Trinidad and Tobago can no longer be the ATM machine for Caricom shortly after the Peoples’ Partnership government entered office in 2010, it was regarded as a particularly insulting and humiliating remark, well within the traditional superiority complex of Trinidad and Tobago.
In recent years, the economy of Trinidad and Tobago has been undergoing severe stress because of the fall in price for natural gas. In 2005 the price for natural gas was US$10 per MMBtu. Today it is just about US$3. There is a valiant effort by the government to reduce spending. A Trinidad and Tobago economy that cannot generate enough foreign exchange to feed investment has sent many Trinidadian business people with capital to Guyana, seeking investment opportunities. Trinidadians have been flooding Guyana for about two years and have been investing and Guyanese business people have become wary and sometimes resentful. The visit of Prime Minister Rowley has seen that resentment articulated in criticisms of the alleged one-sidedness of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).
The Government of Guyana did not appear to have taken the opportunity to raise with the Government of Trinidad and Tobago its administrative obstructions that have been placed on the entry of Guyana’s exports. If that assessment is correct, Guyana lost a golden opportunity to open up Trinidad and Tobago’s economy to Guyana’s goods. The obstructions are well known and were detailed in a recent letter in the Stabroek News by Mr. Clement Rohee, who was Minister of Foreign Trade for several years in a PPP/C Government.
This appears to be the basis of the criticisms of the MOU. But the Guyana Government appears to have raised the issue of Trinidad’s recent reluctance to maintain its full support for Guyana’s in its controversy with Venezuela over the border issue, which was a significant departure from Trinidad and Tobago’s hitherto full support for Guyana’s case. Prime Minister Rowley’s change of posture and full endorsement of Guyana’s position is now welcome. Demarcation of maritime boundaries to eliminate overlaps appears to have to await further discussion.
The MOU is an opportunity between the two governments to enhance co-operation. Trinidad and Tobago has the capacity and expertise to assist Guyana, which is in dire need of such assistance. Trinidad and Tobago business people should be encouraged to invest in Guyana, subject to any local content laws which may be implemented, much as Trinidad and Tobago did, enabling its business people to flourish during the oil years and much of its wealth to remain in Trinidad and Tobago. With opportunities now opening up due to Guyana’s advantageous position, it should begin pressing Trinidad and Tobago’s to remove its artificial barriers to trade.