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OPINION: Oil contract: priorities were never about money, but access and security

By GHK Lall

As the flurry of articles cascade on citizen and country relative to the NGO report on the negatives and failures embedded in the ExxonMobil deal, I hear and read of much passion, more quarrelsome noises, and the usual selective acceptance and rejection of a whole host of surrounding facts. Those facts are the realities with which Guyana live, the sinister thunderheads under which we exist. Of course, few are paying attention, or attaching any weight to what is significantly heavy and extraordinarily inhibiting.

I listen to the frenzies from sensible men about money, about how much we lost, how much better we could have done, and so much more could have been gained. I would agree with all of those, if we were not Guyana, if our geography were different, if our border controversies or disputes were fully and finally settled, if our covetous and voracious neighbors were less ambitious than they are. Before proceeding, I disclose this: in the years I have been insisting about the Venezuelan menace, that gamebreaker of a presence, that existential threat, I was privy to nothing, but the mosaic of my own interpreting and understanding of the geopolitics of the region, and of the vulnerabilities of this nation. Also, I am helped by my time living in the US and working and associating closely with those that I did; I came to appreciate the art of the deal, the instinct for the jugular, and the seizing of any and every advantage, including those not of the highest principles. But I knew nothing, at the time, other than that which is public, regarding the contract or its runup and its results. But there it is.

On the other hand, Exxon knew that it had Guyana by the cojones, and it squeezed ruthlessly. It is the way. I don’t care who and what was on our side of the table, it would have still been the way that resulted. It knew of comparative standing military strengths in manpower of more than a hundred to one; that is overwhelming, clearly unmanageable. That was the first ace, an unbeatable one. The company knew what we did not: that there was a major discovery and information on that was being held disadvantageously for Guyana, but powerfully advantageous to its corporate profits. That was ace number two (commercial crookedness, through monopoly on information). Ace number three was this: if it pressured our people and got nowhere, then the nuclear option was ready to be unsheathed: we will pull out.

The towering significance of that was this reality, which Guyana knew, and Exxon knew: the Chinese would come, and the Indians and British and French, and all those other competitors, glad to get close to the promised, almost guaranteed, bonanza. The catch or Achilles heel was this: should the Venezuelans rattle their sabers through rhetorical bellicosity or actually intensify belligerence, through palpable action, then they would not stay. None of them would stay. We would be on our own with our infantry and Air Force and Navy, such as they are. We do have our pride and our will, but let’s be honest and face truth, please. We could not have stood.

Moreover, in the likely instance that the Russian and Chinese oil companies come to work our bounty, and they likely worked out an understanding with political partners in Venezuela, that does not leave Guyana in a welcomed place. Sure, there would be some oil flow and some oil money (and some border quiet). But just as surely, there would be the highly likely anxieties, anger, and acrimonies of the mighty United States, Fortress America sensing it is being besieged in its own backyard by not just competitors, but mortal enemies. I appeal to all Guyanese to pause and think for a moment on this: the neighbors are silent and sullen, why is that? It is because of Exxon and its one-sided contract, which is, in its core essences, a defense contract and defense treaty.

The other side of this is that, if Exxon did move away, and the Americans were sidelined, then they would not have taken that lightly. That, too, is guaranteed; and they have huge amounts of allies and arsenals: some of them are alphabetical (B and C and E); some others are institutional with their own alphabet soup of identifications, supranational they are termed, and they are fearsome. The PPP and its late founder can tell the tale having crossed path a while back. Today’s Guyana should be careful not to make the same mistake twice and thwart the determined American Eagle.

The opposition knows all of this, but in the manner of oppositions, it must make hay. The word is that it is responsible for the hay storm that now rages over contract exposés. The party and the knowing contributors in this country should know about all the empty wells drilled and the upfront costs of billions in US funds, with no Guyanese contribution. Not a single cent. I remind, there is no free lunch, and this is capitalism writ large.

I remind, too, and point to a recent article from OilNOW about the Norway-based firm Rystad Energy. It is from part of this company’s work, that Global Witness extracted some of its figures placed before the Guyanese public. Rystad has indicated that they are inaccurate. Rystad stated that the numbers it came up with spoke well of where Guyana is positioned at 60% , just under Brazil, relative to the monies to come our way. But that is an aside, and back to this thorniest of contracts.

Should we have gotten more? I answer, yes. Could we have had, all unambiguous circumstances considered? My response is an unequivocal, no! Throughout the squabbles over contract largesse to Exxon and contract weaknesses for Guyana, I detect that we have focused almost exclusively on the upside of money alone, and ignored the other side, the burdensome downsides, for which a price had to be paid in treasure and blood. We did. And, be reminded, for whatever it is worth, that it is an extension of what was negotiated under the PPP, which is, today, up in arms. That, too, is forgotten and dismissed in the overwhelming political parochialisms that dominate conversations, contentions, and confrontations. We are on the big stage and we still think and operate like small-time and the small-minded people that we are. Our prisms are too clouded and narrow, we have to find it in ourselves grow. Somehow. Or we will continue to wither.

For the last time, Guyana is not anywhere else. For the last time, I would like to see more through negotiating, but that is not in our hands, and everyone knows that, too. The great and enduring tragedy of all of this, is that at the time when we should bring minds together, we bring emotions and elections to the center, we bring poisoned chalices and pointed daggers to the breasts. We destroy each other, while adversaries mock and dismiss us.

Mr. GHK Lall is a Guyanese author, columnist and former financial analyst on Wall Street.