Image Source: Vivekanandia International Foundation. Image modified by the author.
Guyana is a kaleidoscope of unresolved mysteries in a continent it barely resembles. The country lies geographically in South America. However, no one with a good knowledge of the region would ascribe it to Latin America. Guyanese speak English as lingua franca, yet they are the only ones on the whole continent to do so. It is enough asking a Colombian who Cheddi Jaggan or Shivnarine Chanderpaul were or to ask a Brazilian what pepperpot is to quickly realize the cosmogonical schism that has historically isolated the three nations of the Guianese Shield from its contiguous neighborhood. An American public would more easily recall Guyana by the tragic events of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre or the majestic Kaieteur Falls that adorn the disputed Essequibo. Yet, more recently, Guyana made the headlines due to a very different reason. In 2015, Exxon-Mobil discovered the equivalent of 11 billion barrels of high quality oil off its shores.
Once a dormant and unnoticed player in the region, Guyana is attracting the attention of distant, yet culturally kindred great powers, namely China and India, which are noiselessly lobbying for a share of the valuable hydrocarbon. The competition sees a nostalgic motherland exerting influence through soft power tools and an economic giant that has proven over and over again elsewhere that there is no substitute for cold, hard cash.
THE ELEPHANT AND THE JAGUAR
40% of Guyana’s 800,000 citizens descend from indentured laborers who were brought by the British from the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in 1838, four years after slavery was abolished in the British empire. The country nowadays is currently governed by Mohammed Irfan Ali, a Guyanese of Indian descent to be the first Muslim president in the South American continent, and second in the whole Western hemisphere. Guyana’s strong connection and desire to appeal to its Indianness most recently became visible in January this year, when President Ali received the Pravasi Bharatiza Samman Award, the highest civilian honor the Indian government grants to people of Indian origin in the diaspora, at the 17th Person of Indian Origin Parliamentarian Conference (PIO-PC) in Indore, India. President Ali received the award because “he has great respect and affinity towards India and has been very vocal in extolling India for its achievements in various sectors.” During the PIO-PC, he addressed Indian President Shri Narendra Modi and a public of hundreds with an emotional speech, where he praised Modi for his efforts to help Guyana during the COVID-19 pandemic and how Guyana fully embraced its Indianness :“as our country expands, we embrace fully the rainbow-of-India concept, which builds the country along the themes of sanskriti (culture), (…), mahila shakti (women’s empowerment), prakriti (natural force), sansada (parliament), yuva shakti (youth power), lok tantra (democracy) and gyan (wisdom) (…)” Partly, President Ali’s discourse vaguely hints of Shashi Tharoor’s Pax Indica, where the author describes India’s 30 million ethnic Indians living in the diaspora as “an asset, a valuable bridge between India and the world (…) a soft power tool that we can use to showcase India’s strengths and spread its message of peace, harmony, and goodwill.”
Guyanese Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo’s visit to India in February made clear Guyana is exploring the possibility for India to get direct extraction rights on some of the oil fields that will not be up for bidding. In December 2022, Guyana’s Ministry of Natural Resources opened a new auction in which it plans to allocate 14 blocks of shallow and deep water areas for oil extraction. Compared to the very controversial Production Sharing Agreement (PSA) struck with Exxon-Mobil in 2016, in which Guyana earned only 2% of royalties for the extracted oil, the new tender and PSA include a participation fee of USD 20,000, a minimum signature bonus requirement of USD 10 million for shallow water oil fields or USD 20 million for deep water ones, and new royalties and a corporate tax of 10% each. However, this is something Indian companies won’t need to worry about, as they will be able to cut in line. Even if other countries like the UK have also been offered similar special treatment, one is left to wonder what kind of pivotal changes are to occur in bilateral relations between India and the three oil-producing, majority-Indian countries of the region, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Guyana. After all, the American Apache Corporation and French Total also recently discovered between 150 and 300 million barrels equivalent of high-quality oil in neighboring Suriname. Suriname is also currently led by Chandrikapersad Santokhi, a Netherlands-educated, Indian-descent Surinamese, who took his presidential oath in Sanskrit (and Dutch) while holding the Vedas (sacred Hindu texts) in July 2020. During the PIO-PC this year, which he also made part of, he proposed the idea of expanding India’s presence in the Caribbean through the establishment of Indian diaspora institutions that could “train in Hindi language and culture.” To what extent oil will increase Indian presence in the Caribbean is yet to be seen, but it is safe to say that New Delhi will leverage the presence of Indian-descent elites in power in Suriname and Guyana to do so.
THE DRAGON AND THE JAGUAR
As India embarks in its quest to gain hearts and minds in Guyana, China also takes advantage of its historical presence in the country to advance its own agenda. Guyana hosts an ethnic Chinese population of around 3,000, originating from indentured workers trafficked by the British in the middle of the 19th century from Guangdong, Fujian, Hong Kong, and Macau, and a more recent wave of PRC nationals, mainly businessmen, that now call the South American country home. Unlike other Chinese diaspora communities worldwide, the majority of Chinese indentured laborers that arrived in then-British Guiana were already Christian. This made their integration into Guyanese society easier, as they quickly abandoned strong Chinese traditions, adopted English as their first language, and contributed to developing the colony’s gold, diamond, and bauxite resources.
Guyana was the first English-speaking Caribbean country to recognize the PRC in 1972, shortly after its own independence from Great Britain. In an interview given to CGTN, President Ali described relations between Guyana and the PRC as “imperishable” and “based on shared ties of blood and history.” After all, he is not only alluding to the Guyanese anthem, where the Chinese nation figures as one of Guyana’s “six peoples,” but also to the fact that Guyana was the first country in South America to officially sign a joining intent to the Belt and Road Initiative that made the country see an unprecedented 213% (over USD 710 million) growth in bilateral trade in the five years up to 2021.
President Ali firmly believes China has an integral role in the development of the country and does not believe the PRC uses loan trap diplomacy to flex its muscle in developing countries. However, the truth is that Guyana has been actively taking loans from the China Export Import (EXIM) Bank over the last couple of years. Right now, almost 40% of Guyana’s external debt is owed to the China EXIM Bank, with a total stock of public debt (external and domestic debt included) of USD 3.2 billion. In its bid for Guyanese oil, the government-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the third largest oil company in China, became the only owner of 25% of drilling and extraction rights over the Stabroek Block, a space of approximately 6.6 million acres in Guyanese international waters where Exxon Mobil hit nearly 11 million barrels of high-quality recoverable oil resources in 2015. Exxon leads the consortium with 45% of the shares, while American oil and gas company Hess owns 30%, and CNOOC holds the remaining 25%. Last year in October, President Ali hinted he would offer special treatment to the PRC and not make them run through the normal audit process, much like India, and instead offered Chinese companies direct access to some of the available oil wells. ExxonMobil, Chevron, Qatar Energy, and Petrobras are all participating in the auctioned oil. However, none of them are likely to be getting any special treatment from the Guyanese authorities.
The problem with special treatment in Guyana is that, as Vice most recently unraveled, doing business in Guyana always involves corrupt officials willing to hand out contracts on the basis of hefty bribes. There are a plethora of examples in which Chinese middlemen have been found guilty of receiving bribes from Chinese companies to get access to multimillion-dollar projects in the country: the first and second phases of the East Coast highway project, awarded both to the China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC); a renewal project of USD 9 million for Georgetown’s airport, Cheddi Jagan International, allocated to the China Harbour and Engineering Corporation (CHEC); and the construction of the biggest transportation infrastructure project so far in Guyana, the new Demerara River Bridge, given to the CRCC as well. After Vice published its documentary, the Chinese Ambassador in Guyana, Guo Haiyan, condemned it and declared the documentary had the “malicious intent to smear the long-standing relationship between Guyana and China.” The truth is there is enough evidence to point fingers at Vice President Jagdeo and the direct profit he’s been making from these warm relationships with Chinese businessmen in the country.
It is yet to be seen how India’s engagement in Guyana leverages a possible great power competition with China in this part of South America. President Ali is ready to cement India as the country to lead the modernization of the Guyanese Defense Forces (GDF), as both countries start negotiating the purchase of Dornier aircrafts and their training in top Indian military academies. After all, the massive oil discoveries in the Stabroek Block had revived tensions over the disputed Essequibo with Venezuela and have left elites in Georgetown worried about insufficient military capacity in the case of an attack coming from its western flank. As for China, the indisputable ties with the current administration and the huge investments as part of the Belt-and-Road Initiative have already given the PRC a head start in the game. China’s push for a stronger presence in places in the Caribbean and Latin America where the United States left a void proves to be new ground for unprecedented schemes of great power competition. Regardless of which discourse both economic giants use in trying to win over the elites in Georgetown, we can expect that the development of the oil and gas industries will motivate New Delhi and Beijing’s increasing interest in gaining influence in the country.