Back in high school, Geography was one of my favourite subjects. I would pore over maps for hours, visualising intrepid journeys through terrains made familiar from textbooks. I was puzzled that with no significant physical barriers between us and our giant southern neighbour Brazil, there were yet no infrastructural linkages. But then again, I reminded myself, the best we could do to cross the Demerara River (at that time) to our capital city was a solitary, invariably late, ferry.
We don’t have to belong to the school of development that proposes “Geography is destiny”, to appreciate that it does have an influence. But our experience suggests that history might be a better predictor. Our eyes remained steadfastly fixed in a northern direction and our feet just as firmly planted in the Caribbean – more specifically, the former British Caribbean, because of our shared colonial heritage. The linkages with Brazil and our other South American neighbours still haven’t materialised.
But distance does force one to acquire new perspectives. Living in the US for decades after high school, I was hard pressed to explain to my American friends and colleagues why I would never acknowledge that I was “South American”. So I began to wonder anew, “what if?” and to explore the possibilities.
When ROAR was launched as a political party in 2000, a key component of our “Blueprint” was a section on “The Southern Connection”. We defined Brazil (and by extension the rest of South America) as the “hinterland” we would service, and we becoming their gateway to the northern Atlantic. We proposed the Rupununi be the hub of our development drive. Not too incidentally, we suggested that that might just lessen the now reflexive ethnic polarised politics of the coastland.
We recognised that to service that hinterland, however, the key hurdle to be overcome was transportation barriers. And lucky for us, we learnt by then that the Brazilians were even more anxious than us for that outlet to the Atlantic. After massive spending to develop their backward northern states, routing goods East via rivers, just wiped out a good chunk of their profits and left the north still lagging.
But we weren’t the only ones who saw merit in developing our Southern Connection. One reason I support the Committee system in our Parliament is that it offers a more collegial atmosphere for members of opposing parties to exchange views away from the structured posturing in the “debating chambers”. Then PPP parliamentarian Donald Ramotar was my most vociferous critic in public, but I remember after one Economic Services Committee meeting he spoke eloquently and feelingly to me about “what could be” if our interior was opened up.
The 2006 ROAR coalition with the Guyana Action Party (GAP) offered me the opportunity to visit the Rupununi and Brazil with a consummate insider of both sides on the border: Paul Hardy, leader of GAP. Paul had lived in Brazil for some forty years and become and established businessman there. I discovered that the lines I had seen as dividing the two countries did not exist for Guyanese in the Rupununi: for them, the map was not the territory. They crossed the Takutu as easily as I crossed the Boeraserie into Essequibo – that is, with nary a thought. They spoke Portuguese as well as English – the latter, incidentally, better than most coastlanders.
Visiting Roraima State and meeting with the Governor and other officials, courtesy of Paul Hardy, brought home their goodwill towards Guyana and their strong desire for fostering linkages with Guyana. They assured us that the same sentiments were shared at the Federal level. I was blown away by their world class city in the Amazon – Manaus. I saw what were formerly “possibilities” had become reality.
Just a few months after we had launched ROAR’s blueprint in 2000, UNASUR, the 12-member “Union of the South” had launched the “Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA)”. This was “a development plan to link South America’s economies through new transportation, energy, and telecommunications projects… expected to integrate highway networks, river ways, hydroelectric dams and telecommunications links throughout the continent—particularly in remote, isolated regions—to allow greater trade and create a South American community of nations.”
The Takutu Bridge, which was under construction in 2006 when I visited, was opened in 2008, and was part of the IIRSA along with the deep-water harbour on our coast along with a hydro-electric plant. But an unexplained lull fell over the latter projects even though then President Lula recommitted his country to their completion. Last week, the technical teams evaluating these projects submitted their reports to their respective Presidents.
We hope now that MP Donald Ramotar has become “President Donald Ramotar”, he will move expeditiously to make his dream for a developed Guyana become reality.
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