Whew! Guyana and Suriname have new presidents. They’re awash with offshore oil, or soon will be. There are gigawatts of pent-up business energy to unleash.
But for both countries, the political soap opera continues.
Guyana’s Irfaan Ali was sworn in on Sunday, five months after winning a March 2 election with just 50.7 per cent of the vote. That took a month-long recount and a string of court cases. Suriname’s Chan Santokhi started work on July 16, replacing Desi Bouterse, who was a military dictator in the 1980s and elected president since 2010.
But in both countries, the vice-presidents are the ones to watch.
Guyana’s is Bharrat Jagdeo. He had the big-boss job as president from 1999 to 2011. The Caribbean Court ruled in 2018 that he could not run again. So as opposition leader and general secretary of the People’s Progressive Party, (PPP) he hand-picked former housing minister Irfaan Ali to stand in his place.
As president, he had a reputation for micro-managing. He overshadowed Irfaan in this year’s election campaign, and the push for power which followed. Will he be tempted to micro-manage again?
Irfaan Ali named most of his cabinet on Wednesday, but left some big blanks. He didn’t pick a finance minister. Jagdeo held that post in the 1990s. There’s speculation he might want it again, but I doubt it. One name being canvassed is Ashni Singh, who was finance minister before the PPP’s 2015 election defeat. But he has problems. He has been charged with misbehaviour in public office, which he denies, and has spent most of the past five years overseas, in Dubai and elsewhere.
“We are looking at the variables and we are still in search mode,” said the new president on Wednesday. Which is odd, because he has had five months to look around.
Whoever gets the finance ministry will have to move fast. Eight months into the year, Guyana still has no 2020 budget.
It’s not clear who will handle Guyana’s brimming energy resources. It won’t be Charles Ramson, who has a master’s degree in oil and gas enterprise management. He has the youth and sport ministry, and tactfully says he is not disappointed.
And it probably won’t be Vickram Bharrat, the low-profile appointee to the natural resources ministry. He could be left with just gold and bauxite.
Suriname’s new vice-president, meanwhile, is the ebullient Ronnie Brunswijk, who started his career as Desi Bouterse’s bodyguard, then fought a bloody guerilla war against him. He now owns a football club and a string of gold mines. He has also been convicted in his absence of cocaine trafficking by a court in the Netherlands. His party holds nine National Assembly seats, and has shifted alliances several times. Without him, Santokhi would have no majority.
So that’s the vice-presidents. Next, the corruption cases.
Irfaan Ali faces 19 charges relating to land sales at the glitzy Pradoville development during his spell as housing minister. He denies wrongdoing. There has already been legal to-and-fro about whether the cases could proceed. That’s unlikely to get any simpler.
In Suriname, the former central bank governor is in prison, facing charges. The National Assembly debated yesterday whether to bring a case against the former finance minister Gilmore Hoefdraad. He has not been seen for some time; there are reports that he’s in Guyana. That’s another one to watch.
And the economy? Guyana’s oil cash is starting to flow, but Suriname’s is five years off.
There are short-term pressures. Guyana’s state-owned sugar company, GuySuCo, struggles to meet monthly wage bills. Jagdeo and Ali have promised to reopen four loss-making estates which were closed in 2017. There are better ways to spend oil cash.
Desi Bouterse awarded Suriname’s public servants a 50 per cent pay rise before leaving office. He left his country on the brink of debt default, with inflation at 35 per cent. Santokhi has had to increase income tax by ten per cent.
Next, there’s Covid. Until May, Suriname was pretty much virus-free. Now, new cases are more than 50 a day. In Guyana, there’s a flood of infections across the Brazilian border. Amerindian villages in the interior have been hardest hit. Neither country is equipped for a medical emergency.
So what’s next? For 40 years, Suriname’s political fault-line has been for or against Desi Bouterse, with Indo- and Afro-Surinamese factions on each side. Now 74, the ex-dictator will be off the scene at the next election. His party is tearing itself up with a faction fight. President Santokhi may have to wait for his oil cash—but politically, he is in with a chance.
In Guyana, the dice roll is different. The racial split between Jagdeo’s mainly Indo-Guyanese PPP and former president David Granger’s mainly Afro-Guyanese People’s National Congress has run bitter since the 1950s.
The PPP in particular functions with rock-hard party discipline. Their 50.7 per cent of the vote and single-seat majority is enough to rule. But if they want to pull the country together, they’ll need to relax their grip, and reach out. That could really unleash the country’s energy.
• mark wilson is an
based in Port of Spain