Guyana is in the midst of a major political crisis. More than a month after the country’s March 2 general election, a winner has yet to be declared in the heavily questioned vote. Election observers from the Commonwealth of Nations, European Union (EU), Organization of American States (OAS), and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), declared Guyana’s Elections Commission’s (GECOM) vote tabulation process as “lacking credibility.” Several governments, especially the Trump administration in the United States, have warned that if Guyanese President David Granger is sworn in as president based on the election’s questionable results, and without a transparent and verifiable recount, he and others involved in the vote tabulation process would face personal sanctions, with a widening of such sanctions if remedial action is not taken.
Before its political crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic—which is sure to worsen the country’s economic situation—Guyana was positioned to assume key hemispheric and international leadership roles due to oil discoveries off its coast and its subsequent oil wealth. The country is expected to produce 750,000 barrels of oil per day by 2025, and although the price of oil has significantly dropped, the Exxon-led consortium of oil and gas companies remains invested.
The oil discoveries set the stage for Guyana to use its newfound wealth and influence to play an increased role in the region and globally. Currently, Guyana is the Chair of the Group of 77, a forum within the United Nations it could use to enhance its standing as a spokesperson for the developing world.
Instead, Guyana’s international possibilities have been hampered by its domestic politics. At a time when the Guyanese government should capitalize on the international attention it’s receiving to bolster the country’s image, the current political instability is taking the focus off of its newfound influence. The focus will continue to shift with an illegitimate government in place, and it will strip Guyana of its chance to promote its own narrative. If this is the case, western countries are likely to categorize Guyana as a pariah state, like Venezuela, and will therefore impede its ability to acquire foreign direct investment, forge beneficial partnerships with other countries, and obtain future leadership roles in regional and international organizations.
International questioning of Guyana’s government is especially important as the country heads to the International Court of Justice. In a case submitted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Guyana will have to present its arguments against Venezuela’s claim to two-thirds of the country’s territory. As Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and Permanent Representative to the OAS, Sir Ronald Sanders, writes: “if the Guyana elections are condemned by the international community, Guyana’s high moral standing in its case against Venezuela at the International Court of Justice, on the border contention, will be weakened.” Guyana cannot afford to risk its international approval as it will be vital if the current Venezuelan regime does not agree with the ICJ’s final ruling, should it favor Guyana.
The Guyanese government’s actions do not just hinder its own opportunities, but hampers its ability to advocate for Caribbean priorities. The region is facing herculean challenges, such as climate change, crime, asymmetries with the United States and China, and now the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of these problems, Guyana’s new oil and gas wealth—and the strength that wealth provides—gives it the capacity to lead regional cohesion in promoting the Caribbean’s interests, thus bringing international attention to a consistently overlooked region. With a region representing 14 votes at the OAS, and in other international institutions, a unified Caribbean could become more effective in advocating for, and receiving, better attention to its pressing issues.
However, this is going to prove difficult if an illegitimate government takes power in Guyana. Caribbean governments that recognize such a government might find themselves vulnerable to international scrutiny, affecting CARICOM states’ ability to secure aid and promote their own interests. Guyana is not just sacrificing leadership opportunities, but it might deteriorate relations with its Caribbean partners. The recent withdrawal of a high-level CARICOM delegation, which was supposed to oversee a national recount, and statements by Trinidad & Tobago’s Prime Minister, Keith Rowley, about the state of the region’s relations are worrisome. Guyana cannot afford to end up isolated, especially with falling oil prices and potential suspensions from the OAS and the Commonwealth.
There are local and regional leaders that are committed to a transparent electoral process in Guyana. Even so, the decision is ultimately that of President Granger. If Guyana can assure the March elections are credible, it will have the revenue, the will, and the support of the Caribbean to become a leading voice in the hemisphere.
Wazim Mowla is a Guyanese American graduate student at American University, a researcher for the African & African Diaspora Studies program at Florida International University, and an intern for the Permanent Mission of Antigua & Barbuda to the United States and the OAS.