Guyanese citizens are optimistic about their country’s progress in the fight against corruption, although Guyana still faces major challenges to prepare itself to manage its newfound oil wealth.
Transparency International included Guyana in its Global Corruption Barometer for the first time this year, providing an important monitor of the country’s situation in the run-up to the 2020 elections. The study reveals that 40 percent of Guyanese believe that corruption is decreasing, and 67 percent believe that the government is handling the struggle well.
Reasons for their optimism include increased freedom of the media to criticize the government, the move to make petroleum contracts publicly available, and the dismissal of corrupt officials.
Other policies praised by the report are the introduction of anti-money laundering laws and the creation of various agencies to monitor corruption in public life.
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Guyana has put fighting corruption at the top of its political agenda since the 2015 elections, when David Granger’s APNU-Alliance for Change coalition defeated the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) that had held power for 23 years.
The PPP had become notorious for corruption cases involving members who used their political power to profit from state contracts and resources. Granger triumphed on a platform that promised investigations into corrupt officials and the creation of institutions to promote government accountability.
However, Guyana has faced political uncertainty since Granger narrowly lost a no confidence vote in December 2018. After a lengthy court case found the vote valid, Granger was compelled to call new elections by March 2020.
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Guyana’s positive perception of its corruption struggle is a welcome endorsement of Granger’s agenda, despite his party’s political woes. The approach taken by the incoming government will be crucial to this progress, particularly in the context of Guyana’s status as the world’s newest oil state.
Guyana is poised to start commercial oil production in 2020, after ExxonMobil discovered vast oil reserves off the Guyanese coast in 2015. While the country’s newfound riches offer great opportunities, its institutions are worryingly underdeveloped to manage such a windfall.
Criticism of Granger’s slow progress in setting up regulatory frameworks for oil production was a key justification for the 2018 no confidence vote. Four years after ExxonMobil’s find, outdated petroleum laws and a lack of spending plans for projected oil revenue raise risks of severe mismanagement.
But positive steps have been made. One of Granger’s initiatives was the creation of the States Assets Recovery Agency (SARA), which is investigating oil leases sold to ExxonMobil and others, allegedly at knock-down prices and without due process. The outcome of this probe will be a litmus test of the agency’s capacity to hold the industry accountable.
The stakes are high. Neighboring Venezuela exemplifies the corruption and economic ruin associated with the so-called oil curse, suffered by countries that fail to manage resource wealth effectively.
Venezuela also poses more direct challenges to the current and future Guyanese governments. The Maduro administration contests part of Guyana’s oil fields, and has even sent gunboats to obstruct ExxonMobil’s explorations. It also lays claim to the Guyanese border region, which is facing increasing security challenges from the influx of Venezuelan criminal groups.