Waiting on the politicians in Boa Vista

Stabroek News
September 30, 2001

Everyone was waiting for the governor's helicopter to return from giving the Minister of Development a grand tour of the city. It was way past any normal hours for lunch and the hungry delegates were fiddling impatiently with their cutlery in the dining room of the Governor's residence, a building which resembled a neo-classical American shopping mall with its black mirrored facade and white Roman portico.

The delegates were there for the 35th Econmex Brazilian trade conference which was being held this year in the provincial city of Boa Vista in the provincial state of Roraima . The state borders both Venezuela and Guyana and charter planes had been sent early that morning to both countries to pick up delegations . Guyana's thirty strong contingent was top heavy, with Ministers Anthony Xavier, Manzoor Nadir, Adviser on Investment to the President Manniram Prashad and Go?Invest Director Geoff Da Silva. The plane had left Timerhi at the quite uncivilised hour of 5:30am. There to greet everyone was the Brazilian Ambassador Dieguez who had managed to assemble in short notice a collection of top businessmen including Chris Fernandes, David King, Hemraj Kissoon the Pandays and Stanley Ming. There were representatives from DDL, Gafsons, Mazaruni Granite and the Guyana Rice Development Board, amongst others.

The purpose of the trip for the private sector was to look at opportunities for trade now made possible by the Partial Scope Agreement signed between the two countries in late June. This allows for imports and exports of certain goods and commodities at duty free rates.

Minister Xavier was on the trip because the success of any substantial trade between the two countries will hinge on the construction of a passable, all-weather road linking Georgetown to Boa Vista. At present the road is not suitable for hauling large containers and for many months in the rainy season it is impassable. It was hoped some progress could be made in deciding on how to find funds for what is expected to be a US$90M project, excluding the deep water harbour. All expenses for the trip including accommodation were paid by the State of Roraima.

The lateness of the lunch was caused by a chain reaction precipitated by a late start to the opening ceremony held in the city's convention center which housed the public library and a exhibition of paintings mostly depicting stiff-looking parrots and deformed, screaming heads. The guest of honour was the Minister of Development , Trade and Industry Sergio Amaral, a very serene looking gentleman who had flown all the way from Brasilia for the event. Governor of Roraima Nuedo Campos was in his pomp with all the attention from a gaggle of paparazzi. This most certainly would make the national newspapers. People from Roraima feel rather neglected by the central government of this huge country and any visiting dignitary causes much excitement - and a noisy protest outside the building by an opposition party calling for higher wages. The delegates started by singing the Brazilian national anthem, a fast marching tune which is notoriously long. But to a citizen those gathered knew every word and lustily belted out all three verses .

Brazilians seem to love formality and every speech was prefaced with lavish praise for those assembled, down to the doormen. Governor Campos' speech was no exception as he gave a glowing tribute to Minister Amaral and the rest of the very long head table. Generous welcomes were doled out to "our Venezuelan and Guyanese brothers." He then talked of "our great challenge" to link Georgetown to Lethem. " President Federico Henrique definitely wants the construction of an asphalt road to Georgetown ....and if we can't asphalt immediately at least a road we can run on." Campos went on: " United economies will bring benefits to all... and Guyanese are welcome to come do business here."

Minister Amaral for his part heaped praise on "my dear friend Ambassador Dieguez who looks on the relationship with great enthusiasm....We cannot miss this chance...we need to export much more to survive regionally. I am sure, Governor, that the fact we will have a road, means this state is going to be one of the biggest exporting hubs for Brazil." And on the large monitor there appeared a map of the region and the distances from Boa Vista to the Caribbean coast. Georgetown was by far the lowest at 550km followed by Cuidad Bolivar with 836km. "We must teach a culture of exportation," Minister Amaral concluded, keeping with the theme of the day which had included the launching of a special postage stamp on Export Culture with a picture of a huge orange arrow passing through Guyana on its way to Europe and America. Probably not a collector's item and not quite as romantic as Guyana's current series of bird stamps but a good indication of the country's intent.

There are a number of obstacles to doing business in Brazil. Number one, but not insurmountable, is the language barrier. Very few Portuguese, notwithstanding Paul Hardy's language schools, speak even rudimentary English. This makes the simplest transaction very difficult. Although the delegation at one point swapped business cards with their counterparts they had little clue what each was offering until explained by an interpreter. This will likely limit business to simple trading as opposed to any joint ventures.

Secondly the road is holding up any real progress in establishing trade links. Most of the discussions between businessmen were hypothetical and premised by the phrase "when the road is fixed." But once it is in place they believe trade will occur naturally and without any encouragement from either government as enterpreneurs see new opportunities. All of the private sector on the trip were impatient for the road to be made and did not consider it a threat to their own markets.

The rush for the ice cream bowl

For its part, Brazil does not see Guyana per se to be a significant factor in its drive to boost exports. Guyana is simply a corridor with access to the Atlantic and along with Suriname and French Guiana would form the Arco Norte to the eastern states. In that light the trade agreement might be seen as a carrot which would encourage Guyana to hurry up and finish the road. What seems apparent is that the Brazilian government is prepared if not to actually build the road itself then at least to find financing for it. However the governor did mention that due to the recent currency devaluations and subsequent economic problems the project was not on the list of top priorities. Due to a massive infrastructure programme the government has now racked up debts equal to 53% of the country's GDP and just the interest on this now exceeds spending on health and education.

The ceremony was finally over and the delegates shuffled out into the lobby before descending into the basement for a workshop on trade possibilities. Everything so far had gone smoothly with the impression of Brazil as a country where a nimble government is at the beck and call of business. But this was to be somewhat tarnished when the President of the Brazil Guyana Trade Chamber, Laerte Oeistreicher, a gaunt elderly man whose beige suit seemed to hang on him like a coat on a hanger, criticised the government for failing to provide export financing for the state's entrepreneurs. It was a bucket of cold water poured on a balmy morning of pleasantries. "It is as if central government does not see us as Brazilians ... we are living in a Sahara desert." He did not know whether to laugh or cry when he read in a newspaper that 30 business people in Rio de Janeiro had obtained export credit from the Bank of Brazil.

The minister took this outburst with great equanimity smiling gently and replying that the government welcomed criticism. "It is one thing to make a decision in Brasilia and another thing to see it come out the end of the line ..." he said, and called on the representative of the Bank of Brazil to stand up immediately and explain the situation because, "I want to know what is happening here." The slightly flustered man said there were arrangements with a number of agencies and everything was in place. " Not true" retorted Oeistreicher, "There is not one line of credit operating in Roraima." And with that the minister let the subject drop.

Chris Fernandes then stood up and explained how he was looking to discuss arrangements for shipping agencies in Boa Vista and the trucking of goods up and down the road. It would not be economical to send a truck back from Georgetown empty, he said. Later Fernandes outlined a concept of a secure bond at the border where containers would wait for transfer in either direction. He also added that a deep water harbour at Linden was probably unfeasible as to take a ship up the river would take around three days. The Georgetown wharves were operating at only 50% of capacity and could handle the immediate export needs of the Brazilians until a modern harbour could be built.

The minister thanked him for his comments and added again that the asphalting of the road to Georgetown was fundamental to the success of the project and said "it was now time to work a little harder in pinning down the specifics of the road and harbour so we can look for financing."

Guyana's own Minister of Trade Manzoor Nadir made some brief remarks and announced that work on the industrial estate at Lethem would commence in five weeks. Governor Campos in saying how profoundly satisfied he had been with this meeting, also wondered why the customs building at Bon Fim had yet to be open so many years after its construction.

It was now well into the lunch hour and the Guyanese delegation climbed onto the luxury bus for the sixty second ride to the governor's residence passing a striking statue dedicated to the much maligned garimpeiro.

And so began the long wait in the dining room with the contingent strategically placed close to the buffet table and glancing over at the elaborately prepared salads and silver trays holding the promise of food. The room, about the dimensions of a basketball court was decorated at one end with a huge painting of a naked man flying through the air wrapped oh so modestly in a red cloth and surrounded by adoring angels. It may have been Jesus. At the other end were rows of photographs of previous governors, many of whose faces had been blanked out. It was not clear what this meant: whether they had disappeared or been found guilty of corruption or were from the opposition party but the speculation managed to take up some of the hour and a half while the governor flew his guest around the city. Boa Vista is laid out in the shape of half a wagon wheel with the spokes heading out from the banks of the Rio Branco. Despite having a population of 300,000 - around the same as Georgetown, there is little of the confusion and noise. Traffic flows smoothly along the wide horticultured boulevards aided by a series of tight tyre squealing roundabouts. Stanley Ming who spent time there in the seventies was astonished at the changes. He recalled that Boa Vista was less developed than Bartica at that time.

When the governor's helicopter finally landed and the politicians sat down at the head table there followed a frantic rush for the food led by the ravenous Guyanese delegation. But this could not compare to the mayhem when a huge bowl of ice cream appeared soon after. Conversations stopped in mid sentence as grown men and women dashed to the buffet table. It was as if ice cream had been invented that very morning with the Venezuelan and Guyanese businessmen elbow to elbow around the bowl's territory.

It was by now 3:30pm and back at the convention center the delegation was supposed to sit with businessmen from the region and get down to some serious talks. A prefab room had been constructed in the basement for the purpose. But because of the late ceremony and the long helicopter flight which caused the late lunch, all the local businessmen had left after waiting over an hour. Thursday was apparently payroll day and they could not wait any longer. The delegates sat forlornly at their neatly labelled tables as if at a party where no one had come to dance.

Oiestreicher arrived and after apologising profusely for the situation made some recommendations for people doing business here. These included making sure that when buying from Brazilians you deposit payment in their bank accounts. It was a technical matter that Pravin Dave CEO of Demerara Bank had come on the trip specifically to arrange. He said at present there was no relationship between commercial banks in the two countries. Such an arrangement would allow for the sending of money transfers - an essential facet of any trade relationship.

By this time an air of frustration was descending on the group coupled with fatigue from the early start to the day. It was Geoff Da Silva who decided to take the proverbial bull by the horns. " This ain't working," he exclaimed rather loudly and asked every person to write down on a piece of paper what they wanted to buy or sell or just talk about and attach their business card. They would give this to the chamber and arrangements would be made to visit businesses tomorrow morning. Everyone seemed satisfied with this arrangement.

The group then headed off to an audience with Governor Campos and climbed back into the bus for the sixty second ride to his residence . There they waited in a room which had on one wall a giant wooden relief depicting some kind of female jungle spirit reaching for a cashew while a snake danced in the water. It may have been Eve. The delegates waited for the governor who of course apologised endlessly for the various mistakes of the day. When informed that the delegation wanted six buses and six interpreters for nine o'clock tomorrow morning he said so said so done and praised the party for deciding to stay another day. Applause broke out all around and Nadir expressed his appreciation for the governor's assistance. The governor replied with even better compliments and noted that Brazil wanted not only to export to Guyana but to accept imports. There must be a balance otherwise the arrangement would not work.

At this point Minister Xavier burst into the room and more compliments were in order.

Xavier was becoming very good at this and even praised the governor for the quality of the bridge across the Takutu. The governor seemed honoured and shook his hand.

Xavier also stressed President Jagdeo's commitment to the road. He announced that in the interim if any Brazilian company wished to bid for maintenance of the existing road they were very welcome. Not to be outdone David King as representative of the PSC also lavished even more compliments on all those present and said he was extending an open invitation for Brazilian businessmen to visit Georgetown for talks. The day was almost over and the weary party headed back for dinner at the Urimutam Hotel. Everyone was relieved that the state dinner had been cancelled as they could not bear the thought of having to eat in the early hours of Friday morning.

The Partial Scope Agreement

The Partial Scope Agreement was signed on June 27, 2001 in Brasilia between representatives of the Brazilian and Guyana governments and covers a range of products

and commodities which have either had their tariffs eliminated or reduced. The agreement was signed only three days before a deadline after which all such pacts would no longer be allowed under MERCOSUR rules.

Among the 135 items granted to Guyana's exporters were duty free concessions on a large variety of fruit and vegetables including pigeon peas, bora, saeme, pepper (100 tonne quota) pineapple, plantain and mango; heart of palm (canned); frozen poultry, frozen shrimp, prawns and fish; copra; curry powder; rum; rattan, bamboo; charcoal; sawn wood, builders joinery, plywood; aluminium ore and concentrates. Duty free quotas of 10,000 MT on rice and cane sugar were also granted.

For Brazil the list was much more substantial with some 891 items. These included duty free concessions on sewing machines, chain saws, a range of car parts including rear-view mirrors, capital equipment, pharmaceuticals, aerated waters, hardware items, footwear (50%) tomato ketchup and soyabeans. Also included is a 50% reduction on textile materials and glass sheets. One curious item is the "meat of horses, asses, mules and hinnies."

All freight surcharges (normally 25%) on imports to Brazil are waived.

The parties have agreed to set up a bilateral Administrative Commission which will oversee compliance with the agreement to encourage the private sector to take advantage of the preferences and to evaluate the agreement's progress.

The agreement will last two years and this period can be extended by mutual consent of the parties.

By 8:30am the dining room of the Urimutam Hotel was filled with the sound of Guyanese telling stories over breakfast. The buffet table was groaning with fruit, bread, omelettes and sausage all surrounded by carefully arranged flowers.

The delegation participated fully and then headed off to the lobby to wait for transportation to take them on tours of local businesses as arranged the day before.

Martin Nicholl had arrived early. He is the official interpreter to the governor and the previous evening over a few beers had sketched out his most colourful life. He had come to Guyana back in 1964 in the midst of the riots and realised that it was not a safe place to be. So with a friend he headed up the Mazaruni and spent a number of years prospecting for gold, mostly barefoot and wearing a pair of shorts. Then one day he visited the Rupununi and immediately fell in love with the place and the people. So there he lived quite peacefully until the uprising when he was forced to move to his wife's remote village in the savannahs.

He recalled that a shopkeeper jealous of his access to cheap goods from the coast had reported him to the authorities as a subversive and he was ordered to leave the country. He fled to Brazil and has been there ever since, only to return a few years ago as the governor's official interpreter. He says he savoured the moment he entered Georgetown escorted by police outriders. It was a triumphant and slightly ironic return to a country he still holds dear to his heart!

With the business delegation scattering to the four corners of Boa Vista it was thought best to accompany Minister Xavier on a visit to the much heralded bridge across the Takutu River. The Minister, along with the adviser to the President Manniram Prashad, and Go-Invest director Geoff da Silva, were ensconced at the swankier Aipana Hotel a few minutes walk from our own. They were just finishing up a considerable breakfast and Xavier was enthusing about the early morning smorgasbord and wondering why no hotel in Georgetown offered such fare. Paul Hardy suddenly appeared in the lobby. Boa Vista is one of his home towns and he has become Guyana's point man in Brazil not only helping to translate but setting up meetings and navigating the channels of power.

The contingent was to be accompanied by the grandly named Carlos Eduardo Levischi, a portly gentleman who wore his pants high and had the genteel mannerisms of some aging Italian count. He is in fact the general director for Road and Tolls for the State of Roraima and is proud of his achievements which include supervising the construction of some 7000km of road, 1145km of which is asphalted. He has also constructed 3.5 km of bridges and spent US$86M in the last two years on such projects. In his previous career he had built one million square metres of housing.

The previous day Xavier had mentioned with great amazement a trip to a housing scheme on the outskirts of Boa Vista where two-bedroom units were being built for only US$2115 or roughly the same price as a big stereo set from Courts.

So we set off to take a look with the politicians safely insulated from the journalists who rode behind in a pick-up. The route passed through a long commercial strip with many supermercados and hardware stores displaying tiles and other "materais de construcao." At the junctions there were occasional fruit stands and fish markets with rows of styrofoam boxes under blue tarpaulin tents. After a half-hour drive along the bumpy streets the convoy reached the housing scheme and watched as a swarm of workers completed a three-bedroom home which was to sell for US$3200, ready to move in. We stepped inside for a thorough inspection. The house was made from thin clay bricks common to the region covered over with concrete. The roof was of plyboard and tiles. The master bedroom had its own bathroom and there was a good size living area with a large window to look out on all the other houses built exactly the same. Across the road were the two-bedroom models with lines of laundry already hanging up in their dusty yards.

Minister Xavier considered these "a vast improvement on the wooden shacks we have in Guyana" and there was considerable discussion about how the houses could be made so cheaply even with a sack of cement costing $1100. Xavier said he wanted to invite the head of the construction company for talks in Georgetown.

The convoy headed off to Bon Fim along the arrow- straight asphalt road shimmering in the mid-morning heat. The route is sparsely populated with only the occasional thatched house amongst the low bushes. A few herds of cows were nosing around for grass on the sparse savannahs. There was no traffic save for a bus coming from the border with perhaps a handful of passengers.

The sign for Bon Fim appeared and we were soon at the Takutu river. The construction workers dressed in bright orange jump suits were busy driving concrete piles five feet in diameter into the river bed to a depth of some forty feet. This requires sending a man down a metal pipe to dig out the soil and make way for the cement.

Minister Xavier seeing the bridge first hand was greatly encouraged. "I'm very happy," he kept on saying. Manniram Prashad called it history in the making (albeit made by the Brazilians) and he asked for some official photographs. A manager of the construction company, Queiroz Galvao, estimated the bridge should be ready by August for ribbon cutting in September. He added they were to start work on the Guyana side next week. Xavier apologised for the delay and said the government had been waiting on the EPA permit.

Xavier now faced with the prospect of a US$5M bridge leading onto a pot-holed Guyanese road asked Levischi about the constitution of the road on the Brazilian side. How thick the asphalt was, what dimensions aggregate they used, and how much it cost to build. Levischi said it cost US$150,000 per kilometre. Xavier jotted down the numbers and calculated it would cost $72M to reach Georgetown and with the small but numerous bridges along the route about $90M. " That's a lot of money," Xavier said, shaking his head. He asked how much the company charged to survey the road to Boa Vista. Levischi gave a figure and said he would come to Georgetown in two weeks time with the head of the surveying company for talks.

Xavier was pleased and added that it made no sense to use a foreign firm when the same Brazilian company knew the terrain and "could commence a survey of the existing alignment to see if it was correct." He said there was basically a fifty-mile stretch of the road which was a big problem as it flooded during the rainy season. The first stretch from Lethem to Mabura Hill was in relatively good shape.

It was time for lunch and the party retired to a little restaurant on the outskirts of Bon Fim. A man was stooped over a brick oven tending to long metal skewers loaded with beef, chicken and sausage. Brazilians love their meat and the man walked around the long table cutting off huge chunks of 'churrasco' for the visitors. There was rice and beans and salad followed by ice cream and small cups of black coffee. When everyone's appetite and thirst were fully satiated the merry band set off to Boa Vista.

Back at the hotel some of the business delegates were coming in from excursions around the city. They had opted not to go on an afternoon trip to the bridge and eventually attended a meeting at the Roraima Chamber of Commerce arranged by its President, Laerte Oestreicher. Around ten Brazilian businessmen also showed up. Unfortunately only five Guyanese delegates were there. The party to the bridge had been delayed in Bon Fim while the Minister of Trade Manzoor Nadir had decided to make a detour to Lethem. So they did not reach back in time. But David King decided it was best to go ahead with the meeting anyway.

Each person was asked to give a one-minute presentation about their company, what they sold and what they were interested in achieving. Martin Nicholl did the translating. Antonius Raghubansie talked about DDL's intention to sell the El Dorado brand and other products such as juices in Brazil. Oestreicher identified someone called Antonio Poya who is the main distributor of alcoholic products in the region and said he would make contact with him. Harry Panday was interested in buying plastic items and glassware along with garment material and footwear. Unfortunately Roraima is not a large manufacturing state and many of these types of products come from the south of Brazil . Panday wondered if this would really work out cheaper than his present arrangements of buying from China. Mohabir Singh of Guyana Furniture Manufacturing offered his line of hardwood doors and mouldings. Hemraj Kissoon took some time to go though the group's companies which included Polykiss with its modern polyurethane plant, the Abary Cattle Ranch Co Ltd with 4000 head of cattle on 1300 acres. Unisoon Construction Ltd builds low and middle income housing and he was looking for construction materials and also ideas on making house construction cheaper. Kissoon Group also has a 100,000 acres forestry concession valued at $280M. He concluded by declaring he was interested in any joint venture in the region.

It was the Brazilians' turn: one gentleman sold agricultural products, another distributed pharmaceuticals including a cheaper version of the drugs to treat HIV/Aids. He also represented a popular line of refrigerators. Another man was interested in importing shrimp from Guyana and David King promised to put someone on to him. Another produced tiles and other building materials. The owner of the bus company that ran the route from Boa Vista to Bon Fim was looking to form an alliance so that one day the service could run straight through to Georgetown. He already has an arrangement with TransGuyana Airways whereby they sell each other's tickets and can transport small packages and envelopes.

All agreed that there was a need for an honorary consul in Boa Vista who could help business to run smoothly. Oeistreicher said the bilateral commission set up after the trade agreement had suggested two names: Paulo Vale and Raimundo Keller.

He wrapped up the meeting by apologizing for the haphazard arrangements of the last two days saying the chamber had only received notification of the delegation's arrival the day before. But he was encouraged by the developments and believed that after twenty years of talking about the road things were now being accelerated.

That evening on the plane home the delegates reflected on the trip. For most it had been a chance simply to familiarize themselves with the business environment. There is no substitute for visiting a place and meeting face to face to get a feel for how business might develop. But any contacts made will likely be stored away until the road is completed. Most, from their preliminary assessment said there seemed to be real opportunities to enter new markets or find new suppliers. Nigel Dharamlall marketing manager for the GRDB said Brazil could become a reliable buyer for rice but with Roraima also a producer of comparable quality grains it may not be the huge market some might hope. And shipping commodities by road is more expensive than by sea so perhaps the markets will be better in Brazil's north eastern states.

In fact Roraima with a population not much larger than its capital Boa Vista (300,000) is relatively underdeveloped and unlikely to be the primary market for Guyana's exporters. There is a minimal manufacturing sector and the main exports are wood products including plywood which is exported to Venezuela and shipped out to China, Taiwan and America. Leather called 'wet blue' is shipped to Italy for use in the shoe industry. Diamonds bought mostly by Belgian dealers are the No 2 export. Imports vary from car parts to tomatoes but with such a small population and a low level of economic activity the amounts are not substantial.

Roraima would more likely be the gateway to much wealthier markets such as Manaus (pop 2M) and the state of Amazonas which has an established manufacturing sector. Access for Guyanese exporters and importers could either be through the road approximately 20 hours from Georgetown or down the Amazon river from Belem - sailing time three days.

The north eastern states of Amapa, Para and Maranhao are even more accessible, being situated along the seaboard and not much more distant than Trinidad.

Pravinchandra Dave, CEO of the Demerara Bank, said his talks with branches of five national banks would now initiate moves by their respective head offices to put in place corresponding relationships. He did note that the language may be an obstacle but he was impressed by the hospitality and professionalism of those he had met as were many of the other delegates. Carlos Zani, commercial officer at the Brazilian embassy in Georgetown said that since the trade agreement, correspondence from Brazilian companies wanting to do business with Guyana has increased tremendously.

That new trade agreement with Brazil could be seen as Guyana's instinctive reaction to its often troubled relationship with many CARICOM countries and their various squabbles over a minuscule portion of the world's trade. Trinidad sends eight times more products to Guyana than Guyana sends to it. They don't like the rice. It's not quite the right colour so they ship their rice all the way from Vietnam. Guyana's fruits hardly make it to the islands. Hotels in Barbados serve pineapples from Hawaii. Guyanese travellers are treated with open suspicion and harassed at regional airports.

But Brazil is different. An estimated 23,000 Guyanese live peacefully in northern Brazil. Governor Campos talks about trade being balanced for it to work properly. The state sent a plane to bring the delegates here and paid for all their accommodation.

Right now Guyana is the cul de sac of the Caribbean surrounded by a jungle and three foreign languages. Perhaps the road will transform this dead-end, half forgotten street into a crossroads flourishing with commerce and cultures.

Perhaps the road to Georgetown will be a lifeline - this country's final chance at economic salvation and a better life for its people.