Financial Advisor, Political Analyst and Jolly Globetrotter Alex Rosen is bullish on Guyana and Suriname.
In a tiny corner of the South America’s northern coast sit the continent’s forgotten lands: The Guyanas. Once five territories, Portuguese Guyana falls in present day Brazil, Spanish Guyana in Venezuela, and French Guiana remains an overseas department of France—an anachronistic vestige of the colonial era.
Two chunks of land, Guyana and Suriname, have remained independent states: mice in a continent of elephants.
Thankfully, they have each other, because otherwise the two could seem rather out of place. Due east of Venezuela and north of Brazil, the territories are not exactly part of Latin America as they speak English and Dutch. They are not entirely Caribbean, not least of which because they are not islands.
In a region where the hustle to form trade blocs can seem reminiscent to high schoolers scrambling for sexy seats in the cafeteria, Guyana and Suriname fall into a no man’s land, and often they end up eating lunch by themselves.
The word Guyana derives from an Amerindian word meaning land of many waters. It is not a misnomer. Anyone who has trekked through these lands can attest to the flowing rivers and majestic waterfalls. Of little strategic importance, the Guyanas were originally established as a northern European footholds on the continent and as a place to stash unsavory characters.
Though Simon Bolíver rallied his revolution from the Venezuelan Guyana, many South Americans struggle to name the capitals or to distinguish one from the other on a map.
Most North Americans probably think the countries are somewhere in Africa.
Getting to Know the Neighbors: Guyana & Suriname
Guyana, or British Guiana as it was known until its independence in 1966, is an enigmatic country. With a population of some 750,000 and a total area of 214,000 km, it has one of the lowest population densities in the world. However, land abundance is offset by the reality that over 80 percent of the country is covered by jungle. Thus, 90 percent of the population lives in 10 percent of the land near the capital city of Georgetown.
Guyana’s ethnic roots can be as difficult to pinpoint as its location. 43.5 percent of the population is from South Asia. Another 30 percent is African. After the British abolished the slave trade in the early 1800s, Guyana’s elite turned to importing labor from India. The racial complexity divides Guyanan politics, but the combination of Indian and African influences has had a wonderful effect on the local cuisine.
Making It Rain
Economically, Guyana is a land rich in natural resources. Beyond the wood from the jungles, the mining industry thrives, while a burgeoning agricultural sector produces sugar and rice, among other foodstuffs. Gold, diamonds and bauxite reserves are abundant throughout the country, and constant oil exploration will likely pay dividends once and if lingering border disputes are resolved.
Commodity traps aside, this resource abundance has helped Guyana weather the global economic downturn. (In fact, some of the latest economic scholarship has questioned the very premise that raw resource abundance is inherently detrimental).
The ecotourism industry is growing. Underdevelopment has actually helped to protect the environment and preserve the biodiversity. Eco-tourists can see everything from giant sea otters to thirty foot long anacondas along the country’s virgin beaches and dank rivers. The (perhaps unintended) naturalism has paid-off. Recently the government of Norway awarded Guyana $40 million for avoiding deforestation as part of a continuing program to save the rainforest.
A country long plagued by political strife (in no small part due to foreign meddling), the political landscape has stabilized, as evidenced by the lack of violence in recent elections. With political stability within reach, perhaps the government can turn its eye towards infrastructure. Though the land of many waters, Guyana is not the land of consistent running water or electricity. Constant power outages across the country, along with limited potable water, hinder industrial capacity and prevent sustainable growth.
Latin America is the world largest consumer of hydro power, yet Guyana has the lowest hydroelectricity consumption and production by percentage of any country on the continent (though this may change soon). Foreign direct investment (FDI) has increased dramatically in the last 30 years from US$1.1 million in 1981 to US$270 million in 2010, but unless that money is put to use on infrastructure projects, the country will remain one of the poorest in the Americas.
Suriname: The Brother from Another Mother
Suriname, or Dutch Guiana as it was known until independence in 1954, shares many of the same traits as neighboring Guyana: Weak infrastructure, concentrated (small) population on the coast, and lots of inhabitable land: 90 percent of the country is covered by rainforest. With a population of around 500,000 you could fit the entire country into one Beijing subdivision (a fact not lost on Chinese officials, as thousands of Chinese migrant laborers have been sent to Suriname in recent years).
With 35 to 40 percent British Indian descent, 30 to 35 percent Creole or Afro-Surinamese descent, 15 percent of Javanese, 10 percent Maroon (descendants from runaway slaves), and several thousand Amerindians, the country’colorful demographic spectrum translates into a diverse culture. The broad mix of cultures, religions and cuisine has made for an incredibly diverse society. Surinamese music is a blend of all these different influences with its own unique twist. Kaseko is a fusion of African, European and American styles while Chutney is a melding of Indian and Caribbean beats. Surinamese cuisine is a savory blend of all the cultures with a little Caribbean spice to top it off.
Suriname also boasts many of the same resources as Guyana with mining representing 30 percent of the economy. Gold, Diamond and Bauxite reserves are abundant throughout the country, with the production of alumina accounting for some 70 percent of the nation’s exports. Much like in Guyana, suspected oil reserves present potential for a rosy economic future. In preparation for a potential windfall, the government has worked to stabilize the country’s finances by reducing fiscal debt, increasing monetary reserves and taming inflation.
Together these two tiny countries are but a blip on the map—a forgotten region within an all too often forgotten continent. Yet they exist and they are beautiful. Moreover, resource discoveries offer the region potential for a bright future. As more and more migrant workers seep into the country, a new energy—dare I say optimism—is growing.
Neighboring Brazil has its heart set on becoming a global power—a goal perhaps a bit ambitious for the Guyanas. But who knows? Maybe in a few years folks will at least know where to find them on a map. Or at the very least, they will not begin their search in Africa.
Alex Rosen has acted as Wealth Advisor with Veritas Wealth Advisors, LLC and as a Political Analyst with Fundacion Pensar in Argentina.