Stories From The East: Guyana, Venezuela’s Unknown Neighbor

The commander of the National Guard is pointing at my socks. Yes, I should take them off as well, who knows what I am hiding in there. And these Dollars, where do they come from? It`s a long way, to get from Venezuela into its neighboring country to the east, Guyana.

Lethem/Georgetown – The commander of the National Guard is pointing at my socks. Yes, I should take them off as well, who knows what I am hiding in there. And these Dollars, where do they come from?

It`s a long way, to get from Venezuela into its neighboring country to the east, Guyana. Direct flights between the two countries do not exist and neither will you find an official border crossing between the two countries, despite their more than 500 kilometers of common frontier. Whoever wants to get to Guyana, takes the Caribe bus on Monday- Wednesday- or Friday morning at 10.30am, from Caracas’ Terminal del Este in the direction of Manaus in Brazil. After thirty hours, you get off the bus in Boa Vista in northern Brazil. That is, thirty hours, if the Venezuelan National Guard(GN) doesn’t open each bottle of sun tan in your luggage, as they usually want to do at one of their road checks in Southeast Venezuela. In that case, the ride will take a few more hours. Drug trading is big business in this corner of the world, and the GN of course knows this. Solo-traveling young men are suspect by definition.

It’s two hours through empty farming land from Boa Vista to Bonfim, the Brazilian border town to Guyana. After being stamped out of the country, I walk towards the Tacutu border river. It is dark now, and I don’t feel well here. Despite the constant rain, it’s still very hot. I don’t see anything, until the faint shimmering of flames appears, under a sort of concrete roof on the riverbank. “Wanna go to Lethem?” English. I’m about to leave Latin America and enter the former British Commonwealth. 

A small motor boat takes me across the river in the pouring rain. Giant concrete columns appear in front of me. In the near future, a bridge should be constructed on top of them. I don’t see anything else in the dark. I feel as if I am on the Cambodian border river in Apocalypse Now. We’re sitting under a huge umbrella, but the rain is still being blown into my face. The boatman lets me off between a few trees on the other side of the river. Where is Lethem? “There,” he waives unclearly. Then he’s gone. Rain. Heat. Mud. Darkness. Guyana.

People drive left

The next morning the rain is gone. Lethem appears more friendly now. Entering Guyana through Lethem is like entering the country through the backdoor. With its 4000 inhabitants, Lethem is by far the biggest place in Guyana outside the coastal strip in the north. Guyana has about 700.000 inhabitants, of whom about 95% are living along the Atlantic coast. The country is almost as big as its former motherland, Great Britain. That country, however, has about 59 Million inhabitants.

Life is different in Guyana. Cars drive on the left and people listen to reggae and Jamaican dub music. The people are blacker, many of them are descendants of slaves or come from the Indian subcontinent. This is not Latin America, this is the Caribbean. One can even notice this in sports: although part of the South American continent, the national soccer team plays in the CONCACAF group with mainly Caribbean competitors, not against South American teams. Cricket is the most popular sport here, not baseball or soccer.

Rupununi uprising in 1969

Life in Lethem centers around the airstrip (that’s what it is called, airstrip, not airport) in Lethem. Everyday, around noon, a plane arrives from the capital Georgetown on the distant coast, with newspapers, post and rumors. Or it doesn’t. But that’s alright in Guyana. Then you simply wait for another day, until the next plane arrives.

Rumors arrived by plane in 1969 as well, when cattle farmers, who were descendants of Scottish settlers from the 19th century in Guyanas southern Rupununi savannah, caught the rumors that the central government was planning to impose a set of rules on them in order to control them better. The cattle farmers got mad from this. They had been living on their own on huge farms in the south for over a century, and they didn’t want any interference from the blacks and the East Indians from the coast. Their blood boiled, and on January 2nd 1969, after drinking liters of rum and beer, they started a spontaneous uprising. First they locked in the policemen at the slaughterhouse, and then they let loose their cattle on the airstrip. According to rumors, the farmers were supported by Venezuela in those days, since Venezuela had a claim on all the land west of the Esquibo river and they had an interest in destabilizing the country. Furthermore, in those days Guyana was governed by Forbes Burnham, a communist from Guyana’s PNC party and in those days of cold war, fear for communism in the backyard of the USA was enormous.

After the drunken farmers failed to shoot down a military plane from the Guyanese army with a bazooka, the army finally managed to get into the region and finished the uprising. One can still see the former burnt out police station in Lethem, next to the airstrip. Five people died during the uprising. Some of the farmers were sentenced in Georgetown, but others managed to flee to Brazil and Venezuela. This country did nothing to send the Guyanese rebels back, since they regarded them as inhabitants of Venezuela. After all, they came from a region claimed by Venezuela as Venezuelan soil.  Some of the rebels have come back to Guyana by now and have returned to their life of seclusion in the South of Guyana.    

Although Lethem still holds one rodeo a year, the Wild West-days are gone and nobody really expects another anarchistic uprising again. Instead of dealing with unwilling cattle ranchers, the people of Lethem nowadays have more to deal with Brazilians. According to Shirley Melville, the owner of Lethem`s only internet café and lifeline for all who want to stay in contact with the outside world, roughly 10.000 Brazilians live in the country. “Most of them come for the mining and the logging in the Western regions, along the Venezuelan border.”

It’s also the Brazilians who are going to build the bridge over the Tacutu border river. “The governor of Boa Vista was here a few weeks ago, and he promised the Brazilian army will construct the bridge within a few months,” according to Melville. It is also mainly Brazil that it is interested in connecting the two countries. Brazil, as a regional economic powerhouse with a market of 170 million inhabitants, wants to use the road connection towards Georgetown and the Atlantic coast for exporting some of their products towards the North. On the Guyanese side, however, the 400 kilometers to Georgetown are in terrible condition. The daily night bus takes 16 hours for the ride, which usually becomes more during heavy rains. 

Border dispute with Venezuela

While Brazil is influencing Guyana from an economic point of view, it is neighboring Venezuela that used to cause fear among the Guyanese people. Since 1962, Venezuela has officially claimed all the land of Guyana west of the Essequibo river, which means about 60% of Guyanese territory. What does Venezuela need this land for? “It`s not so much that they need the land, it’s more about what is under and on top of it,” says Shirley Melville. “It’s all about gold, diamonds, ore, bauxite, oil and tropical hard wood.”

The history of the border dispute between the two countries is very long and complicated and has its roots in colonial times, when the German geographer Schomburgk who was working for the British Royal Geographical Society determined the border between the two countries after several years of research. The border line he proposed in 1839 however was changed some years later by the same Schomburgk, when he started working for the British government. By mistake, however, the Schomburgk – 1839-border was still shown on maps. This mistake was only noticed by the British Colonial Office in 1885, which then asked to change all official maps, which only happened in 1887. This of course caused a lot of confusion, and the “changing” of the border is the main argument for Venezuela to claim the region west of the Essequibo river in Guyana.

After a lot of unsuccessful diplomatic haggling between Venezuela and British Guyana, Venezuela decided to ask for help in the border dispute from the United States. With this request, Venezuela gambled well, as it rightly expected the U.S. to be sensitive to Venezuela’s argument of a threat by Britain to the US’ Monroe doctrine: no meddling in the Western Hemisphere by Europe. After long diplomatic discussions, both sides agreed on an international five-person arbitration Commission that would try to settle the dispute. In 1899 the dispute was seemingly settled in Paris, and although Venezuela only got a small part of the land that they claimed, both sides accepted the outcome of the Commission.

Until 1962. In that year, Venezuela brought the issue up again at the United Nations, after one of the five Commission members who had died published his memoirs about his work for the Commission. According to Venezuela, his memoirs indicated that the President of the Commission had coerced several members of the Commission into assenting to the final decision. Therefore Venezuela does not want to accept, to this day, the outcome of the border Commission.

Independence Day

Nowadays, relationships between the two countries are much better. Guyana can celebrate its independence, and Venezuela does not pose an immediate threat anymore to the sovereignty of Guyana. The day that I arrived in the capital Georgetown, people were celebrating Independence Day. The party is celebrated like carnival. Hundreds of dressed-up Guyanese from all different population groups dance through the streets, accompanied by the sounds of drums from steel bands, which are transported on the back of big trucks. Although there is a festive atmosphere, there is however not much to celebrate 39 years after becoming independent from the UK, according to Mike Munian who migrated to Toronto 25 years ago and who visits his home country each year. “Nowadays, the country is politically divided. The PPP (Progressive People`s Party) is in power and will stay there for the coming time. It is the party of the East Indians. The PNC (People`s National Congress), the biggest opposition party, is usually seen as the party of the black people. Racism between the two population groups is increasing. We live in the same country, but we are separated population groups. If the British would still have been here, they would never have allowed such a thing.”

Munian isn’t really afraid of an intervention by Venezuela in Guyana. “Chávez was here in February 2004. During his visit he made clear that Venezuela will not resist investments in the Essequibo region anymore by foreign investors. This means, that there will be calm in the coming years. Chávez is pretty popular here anyway, because it is known that he is really trying to fight poverty in Venezuela, which is one of the main problems here as well.”


Hans Beher, a former development worker from Germany who has been living in Georgetown for 15 years is also more afraid of an economic breakdown than of possible threats by Venezuela. “Nothing works properly in this country. Until the beginning of the nineties, this land had a communist government. The former president called private companies ‘the blood suckers of capitalism.’ In the beginning of the nineties, when Guyana opened itself up for foreign investors, the economy grew for some years, but that has evaporated. The economy here simply cannot adapt itself to new circumstances.”

The Guyanese economy is mainly depending on the export of rice and sugar. The European Union, one of the main consumers of sugar, announced recently that it is going to drastically reduce its guaranteed sugar prices for Caribbean sugar producers in the coming years. According to Beher, this could have been anticipated. “The government should have worked on alternatives to sugar production. Instead, they are financing the construction of a new sugar mill in the east of the country, for 120 Million US Dollars. That is a pure waste of money.”

Beher is also very worried about the relationships between the different ethnic groups in the country. “The East Indians have a bunker-mentality. They only cooperate with other East Indians, because they regard all the blacks in the country as potential thieves. East Indians only employ East Indians, because they know they can treat them bad. The blacks are traditionally more open-minded, but they are in the opposition now. That will probably remain so for a while, also after the elections of 2006. But in the future it will change, because the population structure of this country is changing.”

Not enough people

According to Beher, Guyana is about the only developing country in the world where the population is not increasing, but decreasing. “There are no development perspectives here. Anybody who is clever leaves the country, to New York, Toronto or London. In a country with officially 700,000 inhabitants, one soon reaches his limits for developing himself. The real number of inhabitants is however probably even much smaller. According to a study by the World Health Organization (WHO), Guyana only has 450,000 inhabitants left, but this study was never officially recognized. In 2002/2003 a population census was conducted, but the results have never been publicized. This is probably because the census would make clear that the population has decreased. That would be a disaster for the country, because it depends heavily on foreign development aid, which is paid on a per-capita basis. So a decrease of population would mean a decrease of development aid.”

There are simply not enough people in Guyana to manage the country, according to Beher. “Guyana is really big, how do you want to govern such a country with so few people? Unfortunately things are going in the wrong direction. Nobody is investing. Interest rates of about 20 percent make it impossible. Crime is increasing, the police are very badly equipped. At night they lock themselves in and hope for the best. They do not even have walkie-talkies. Corruption is a huge problem. And the country is literally going down the drain. In February, we had huge floods here, just as in Venezuela. Half of the land along the coastline was under water. More than 200,000 people were affected by the flood, which means roughly a third of the population. In the coastal region, the water management still depends on the canals and the sluices that were constructed by the Dutch colonists in the 18th century! The sluices and canals have been neglected severely and now it is probably too late to repair them. The Guyanese should seriously think about relocating part of the population from the coast further inland, but that is a taboo theme.”

Beher expects chaos in 2007 as well, when Guyana will be one of the organizers of the Cricket World Championships. “Guyana can expect more than 50,000 visitors. The airport is however much too small. There simply are not enough hotel beds and taxis in the country to accommodate all these people. But according to the Minister there is no need to worry. He’ll manage it from his office, together with his secretary.”