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Challenges for Guyana’s South American Leadership Role
by Dr. Odeen Ishmael
Guyana Journal, August 2006

With the Middle East situation worsening day by day, the Rio Group, currently being chaired by Guyana, has called for an immediate ceasefire in the raging hostilities between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, and an end to the killing and destruction. A statement issued by Guyana on behalf of the Group (comprising countries of Latin America and the Caribbean) condemned the attacks being carried out by Hezbollah on Israeli population centres and the disproportionate retaliatory use of force by Israel. The Group also expressed its deep concern over the escalating hostilities and deplored the loss of life, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the physical and economic damage inflicted upon civilians in both Lebanon and Israel.

Earlier (on 20 July), the Guyana Government in a separate statement had also expressed the view that the response by Israel to the attack by Hezbollah was disproportionate and unhelpful to the search for peace and stability.

As the Middle East cauldron bubbles over, South American countries, many of which have large groupings of citizens of Middle East origin, are understandably in no mood to see the violence escalate in the current Israeli-Lebanese conflict. In this situation, Guyana, as chairman of the Rio Group, may be propelled into the forefront in the Latin America and Caribbean region to demonstrate active leadership on the international stage. No doubt, the Rio Group countries, through their representatives at the UN, and especially in the Security Council, will inject ideas surrounding the discussions on bringing about solutions in the Lebanese situation. Most likely, Guyana may have to be involved in some important diplomatic footwork in the inter-regional consultations now going on within the world body.

While this bitter Lebanese-Israeli conflict continues to grab the headlines, the international bread-and-butter issue surrounding the recent suspension of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has also seized the attention of governments of Latin America and the Caribbean.

This happened after the trade representatives of the so-called G6 – Australia, Brazil, India, Japan, the European Union and the United States – failed to reach agreement on issues relating to agricultural subsidies and market access for agriculture and non-agricultural goods. Blame was directed by others at the United States (US) for refusing to give ground on the question of agricultural subsidies but the US, in response, accused the European Union (EU) and Japan of not doing enough on the same matter.

These crucial WTO issues are of great concern to the small and vulnerable economies in the WTO talks. Caricom, through its Regional Negotiating Machinery, held regular consultations with other regional groups on moving the negotiations forward. In April last, Guyana’s Minister of Foreign Trade, Clement Rohee who is also Caricom’s ministerial spokesman on WTO issues, also held a consultative meeting with Rio Group trade ministers in Georgetown to reach common ground on the international trade discussions.

Caricom has always stated that the large and developed countries, not the poor and less developed, must make concessions in the WTO. The regional group feels that the US and the EU should adjust their negotiating positions so that meaningful improvement can be achieved in market access for developing countries’ exports.

The involvement of Guyana as the chair of the Rio Group and its Foreign Trade Minister’s role as Caricom’s WTO spokesman obviously highlight Guyana’s prominent role in current international political and economic issues. Certainly, there are critical challenges that the Guyana Government faces as it leads the Group.

Undeniably, the country is also actively involved in the South American integration process. President Bharrat Jagdeo participated in the continental summit to launch the South American Community of Nations which has since been actively developing projects beneficial to Guyana. One of the Community’s organs, the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA), is currently undertaking a number of transportation and telecommunications projects which will directly link all the member countries.

Also as a member of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty, Guyana stands to gain invaluable assistance on environmental matters. More recently, Guyana has been involved in Amazon environmental projects and has participated in the Amazon parliament to discuss issues of mutual concerns to the countries of the Amazon basin.

In actively participating in these and other aspects of South American integration, what remains now is for Guyana, as well as Caricom countries, to attract private sector investments from countries such as Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Brazil. Despite the vastly improved relations between Guyana and Venezuela, these have not yet translated into increased commercial trade between the two neighbours. On the other hand, trade with Brazil has expanded and Brazilians are actively involved mainly in operating small to medium-sized businesses in Guyana. But greater emphasis will have to be placed in attracting capital from the other countries in the areas of trade, manufacturing and service industries.

Just two months ago, the Jamaican Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, asked Chile’s President Michelle Bachilet to encourage her country’s private sector to take advantage of trade and investment opportunities available in Caricom under the newly established Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME). No doubt, Guyana is plugging a similar line within the continental political and economic groupings.

But sitting and waiting for South American investors to come may result in a long delay and non-action unless active systems, including trade missions, expositions and improved security, are put in place to encourage them to venture forward. At the same time, Guyana and the rest of Caricom will have to work assiduously to bridge the existing cultural divide that causes hesitation on the part of Latin American businesses to test the investment waters in the Anglophone Caribbean. Obviously, this problem creates a strong challenge, and Guyana, entrusted with the South American leadership role for the rest of the year, can certainly present positive suggestions to overcome it.

The writer is Guyana’s Ambassador to Venezuela. The views expressed are solely those of the writer.)
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