Oil is the big topic of conversation in Guyana these days – more precisely, how efforts to extract the country's impressive deposits of the stuff will affect its moribund economy (it's currently the third poorest country in the western hemisphere) as well as its status as one of the last real wildernesses left on earth.
In 2017, ExxonMobil announced that it had discovered offshore reserves of around 3.2 billion barrels of oil at a site 193km from the coast. Production is expected to begin in 2020, and Guyana is bracing itself for massive social change as an unprecedented source of income begins flooding the country.
The government, wary of the fate of other nations where oil has been discovered, is attempting to make sure that the oil boom will profit the country as a whole, leading to the creation of a sovereign wealth fund as well as desperately needed investment in infrastructure, rather than just the enrichment of foreign investors and a few local oligarchs. The challenge remains enormous, however, when you consider that over 60% of Guyana's population lives outside the country, and that this figure includes the vast majority of people with a higher education and skills that could prove so vital in managing the transformation of the country into a wealthy oil nation. Efforts have been made to call patriotic Guyanese back home, but have yet to bear much fruit.
The election of David A Granger to the presidency in 2015, with his anti-money laundering, constitutional reform and crime fighting agenda, left many people hopeful of a better future for the country. While his presidency hasn't delivered everything it promised, there is evidence that the levels of rampant corruption a decade ago have decreased, though observers, international and domestic, agree that there is still a huge distance to go.
Guyana has been the seat of Caricom (The Caribbean Community, an economic union with 15 members who share a single market) since 1973 and has strong relations with other Caribbean nations, particularly Trinidad, Tobago and Barbados. A long-running dispute with neighboring Venezuela over the border between the two countries is ongoing, however, so current relations are strained and there's no official border crossing. Venezuela and Guyana share a disputed border in the Guayana Esequiba region, which has been contested since the end of the 19th century. Despite efforts at mediation, an agreement between the two countries has never been made and Guyana continues to control the territory. In 2018 the dispute was referred to the International Court of Justice by the UN Secretary General, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Venezuelan side has become even more determined to regain control of the area since the discovery of oil was made.
Gold and bauxite mining, and logging have greatly benefited the top tier of Guyanese residents in recent years, although the wealth hasn't trickled down to the masses. Roads are still waiting to be paved and areas of extreme poverty are put in greater perspective by massive housing developments for the nouveau riche. Guyana stands on the cusp of great change today, though it remains to be seen whether it will be managed well or not.