Image: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Guyanese President Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali. Source: U.S. Department of State.
The United States is Guyana’s most important bilateral partner. The United States remains a major power in the Western Hemisphere and holds significant influence worldwide. It is this influence, the potential investment stemming from U.S. companies, and the institutional knowledge and expertise that it houses that can help Guyana achieve its own national and regional ambitions. Courting and strengthening this relationship will therefore be vital for Guyana’s future, affording the country a powerful ally while providing a window that will allow it to exercise influence in U.S. policy to the wider Caribbean when needed.
More so than in prior decades, Guyana is in a unique position in its relationship with the United States, commanding increased attention from the latter due to its emergence as an oil and gas producer. Guyana’s growing economic clout and its role as an emerging regional leader in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is augmenting its relationship with the United States. While the asymmetry between the two remains vast, Guyana is closing this gap. U.S. policy toward the Caribbean, or toward CARICOM specifically, must now account for Guyana, especially as the U.S. lens for the region has shifted since President Joe Biden assumed office in 2021.
Recently, the United States has deemphasized traditional security concerns in the Caribbean, focusing instead on addressing climate change and energy security. And since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has seen the prices of foodstuffs soar, food security has been added to this list. In each area, Guyana commands attention, and the United States simply cannot achieve its objectives in the region without sufficient participation from Guyana.
This is one reason that Guyana is the co-chair of the U.S.-Caribbean joint committee on food security—an outcome from last month’s Summit of the Americas—recognizing the leading role that the country is playing in decreasing CARICOM’s high food import bill through its 25 by 25 plan. And regarding energy and climate change, Guyana’s longstanding protection of its forests and the future role the country will play to help anchor energy security for CARICOM members will make Guyana a key figure in U.S. policy toward the region for the foreseeable future.
However, a few challenges stand in Guyana’s path. Despite its unprecedented economic growth, Guyana remains a small factor in U.S. foreign policy relative to other countries in the hemisphere and abroad. At the moment, political and economic crises pervade the Americas, where democratic backsliding is gaining steam and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated structural economic challenges. In many ways, Guyana’s political stability since 2020—relative to its neighbors—and its burgeoning economy have allowed U.S. policymakers to pay less attention to the country. Further, current U.S. foreign policy is ambivalent toward Guyana’s oil and gas position. President Biden and his administration have declared addressing climate change as a significant foreign policy position, effectively keeping Guyana at arm’s length.
Going local to strengthen Guyana’s relationship with the United States?
Despite some challenges, there are opportunities for Guyana to strengthen its relationship with the United States. The U.S.-Guyana bilateral relationship is multidimensional, characterized by economic, political, security, and cultural ties, alongside a vibrant diaspora located in key cities in New York, Florida, California, and Texas. So, to capitalize and strengthen U.S.-Guyana ties, the country should go local, working more often with the United States at the subnational level.
Doing so means putting less emphasis on relations with the U.S. federal government and working closer with cities, specific states, companies, and educational institutions in the United States. At the federal level, bureaucracy can stifle policy implementation and imagination, while periodic changes every four or eight years in the U.S. executive branch, such as in the White House and Department of State, can drastically change policy initiatives, intentions, and objectives toward Guyana and CARICOM. At local levels, U.S.-Guyana ties could see more flexibility and create greater depth to the relationship.
First, Guyana can expand economic ties with cities and states in the United States, especially ones with high concentrations of diaspora members. As the economy grows, these cities can become new and stronger destinations for Guyanese products and services. These places, especially among diaspora members, can become source markets to jumpstart eco-tourism and—in line with President Ali’s diaspora initiative—continue to draw more investment and technical expertise to Guyana.
Second, institutions, such as the University of Guyana and new oil and gas institutes expected to come online soon, will find a greater diversity of potential partners to choose from, especially in non-traditional areas. Guyana can look across the United States to continue establishing partnerships in the oil and gas field, yes, but also in areas related to climate change, security cooperation, cultural exchanges, and financial services, among others.
Finally, going local can help Guyana ensure greater continuity and longevity to policy initiatives from the United States by establishing stronger ties with the U.S. Congress. Some members remain in office for decades, building more influence among their colleagues with each passing year, which also means that the frequent policy changes that might occur in the federal government do not always apply in the legislature. Working with these members of Congress and different committees related to foreign policy, financial services, and energy is also a good opportunity for Guyana to raise issues of national interest that rarely reach senior officials.
Strengthening relations with the United States will be critical to Guyana’s development and its interests in the short and long-term. One way to do so is by going local to deepen U.S.-Guyanese ties in areas of the economy, education, and politics, creating greater resilience in a relationship that is likely to be Guyana’s most important in the decades to come.
Wazim Mowla, is a Guyanese American, the assistant director of the Caribbean Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, and a non-resident scholar at Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy.