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OPINION: From the big stick of gunboat diplomacy to the political correctness of oil diplomacy

by GHK Lall

The Americans have spoken.  I would hope that the established pantheon of Guyanese oil patriots is listening, and that they appreciate the full import of the finely calibrated language of our formidable northern Uncle on the thorny, long unsettled, heavily menacing border dispute.  Except that the sophisticated syntax of the Americans has just diluted significantly that menace.

It is more of a subtle shift than a sea change.  But the American position in late 2018, as opposed to that which had officially prevailed since 1899 is instructive.  It is instructive of a slow, careful, and incremental approach to Guyana’s longstanding Achilles heel. It is instructive that, to align with the times, it is not the big stick of gunboat diplomacy, but the political correctness of oil diplomacy.  I call it crude comradeship. It is enlightening and confirming of the weight and muscle that Uncle Sam brings to the table and which has tilted the scales heavily in favor of the Magnificent Province. With friends like these, who dares to identify as enemy….?  Neither the Chinese nor the French nor the British nor the Dutch (multinationals all) possessed the clout or the will to invest and be involved in what could be a losing proposition. Or at least a perilous one. I do not think that, for one moment, the political and military caudillos in the vicinity would have paused or paid any attention to those distant foreigners.  On the other hand, they do digest and make way for the Norteamericanos.

I trust that this development makes increasingly clearer to those who have ears to hear and minds to understand and appreciate the nuances embedded in the official announcement.  Whereas all and sundry focused upon and hammered away relentlessly on the quantitative (percentage, lopsided nature, apparent giveaway, Angola, and the rest), this is the invisible qualitative now surfacing in small, but significant, morsels.  It was never incomprehensible locally; merely deniable. It is the qualitative gradualism that first made its way into the public consciousness (it should have) through that Guyana Independence Day greeting from the US State Department. It came from no less a luminous figure than the secretary of state himself.  Throughout the half-century since May 1966, it has been the usual pro forma wishes that adhered to the schooled vocabulary and taut protocols of diplomatic communications. In 2018, there is the head of Foggy Bottom stepping forward to share content through his own prestigious presence. Further, the astute in this country should go over the scope and sweep of that particular message earlier this year.  For all Guyanese it was warming; for all others, there was a firm unambiguous signal.

This is the risk premium and country premium (and guarantee premium) paid by Guyana then, now justified and given life by Mr. Pompeo.  I would be so bold as to venture that, prior to Stabroek and Liza and the other still undiscovered sisters within Guyana’s geography and geology, Mr. Pompeo may have had discomfort differentiating between French Guiana and the former British one.  But today the same former British Guiana has transformed into an apple in the eye of its American beholder and suitor. The latest evidence of this seductive creep is the recent attitudinal and postural change in the very significant matter (to Guyana) of the border.  Wherever and whenever there was Exxon, there was thinking and expecting that there would be this public realignment, this new and official international stance after over a century at a less favorable point at the table. It is an incalculable return delivered pieces at a time that eludes the hard metrics of sharing agreements, and dollars and cents.

I would encourage, if not challenge, the cacophonous critical native crowd, patriots all, to put their remarkable talents to work to evaluate how much the American position is worth in all of its implications.  How much is 53,000 square worth? And how much is the ability (and this protective shield) worth to access and explore and extract 53,000 million barrels (it could very well be there) of the sweet enchanting stuff?  I offer this simple reality: there is usually a steep higher insurance charge for coverage in dangerous neighborhoods. Guyana qualifies as a dangerous one; it had to pay. This is part of the coverage obtained-ironclad, I believe-that is now emerging and spelled out.

I believe that there will be more of the same to come in the days ahead that encircles Guyana (and its oil wealth) more tightly in this strange, but welcomed orbit.  It is the coherence and confluence of what has segued into vital national interests (over there) and urgent national needs (over here).