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Oil History: Guyanese must avoid “traps and pitfalls”

Eye on the Issues by GHK Lall

All Guyana waits with a tingling.  There is a stirring, if not a surge of anticipation; of what can be, of a possible way up and out, of a better and brighter way ahead.  This is what the discovery of oil brings from beyond the horizon and below the sea to right in the middle of the local landscape and at the forefront of local projections.

Oil: it can be a blessing and a curse, from which Guyana must learn and inoculate itself.  It flows with cycles bringing incomparable bonanzas, and then it slows and slumps to the crawl of shortfall, disruption, and the turbulence of unrest.  The history of oil, this precious depleting asset is a checkered one.  Wars have been fought over it; societies dismantled over it; nations have been reconfigured anew over it; and peoples divided because of it.  The litany of woes does not stop here, but continues.

In the early days of drilling and exploration, of hustling wildcatters, and of crude processes and know-how, a lot of this resource was lost through recklessness and waste.  The technology was not there; and there was neither interest nor any call to conserve and to protect.  It was one grand free-for-all, with profits being the driving motive.  This is true whether at the beginning at the Drake Well in Pennsylvania; or the sky high gusher called Spindletop in Beaumont, Texas.  Even today with all the technological developments, there is still seepage and loss that is not recoverable.

Guyana and Guyanese should beware.  In the Middle East, kings and princes, presidents and prime ministers were wooed and bought and subverted, sometimes for a mere pittance of what was carted away, and which sowed the seeds of malevolent internal conflicts.  Some of the same wended its way closer to home in Latin America.  It was a different time way back then, but Guyanese must be dedicated students of the caprices and failures that have characterized and haunted oil riches.  They must learn and apply, if only to avoid the traps and pitfalls that have laced the rich, divisive, violent saga of what can be a blessing, but sometimes come with radioactive breath that devastates and leaves in a worse position than before.

In its long ugly history and turbulent wake, oil has been about an unending succession of political intrigue, betrayals, upheavals, and coups.  It has been about the financing and exportation of untold violence.  In some societies the carnage is daily, stark, and harrowing, and just keeps multiplying.  Just look at parts of Africa, the always volatile Middle East, and right here and right now in neighboring Venezuela.

The ugliness has occurred in mono-cultural societies, and monotheistic nations.  Guyana is a plural society with its own continuing history of baggage and unresolved, if not insoluble, differences.  It must learn; it has to learn.  And if this nation and its leaders and its peoples prove to be good students, then none of the above must be made to happen here.