The Guyanese Diaspora: Cautiously Optimistic – Part 1

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Lear Matthews is a Professor at State University of New York and former lecturer at the University of Guyana. He has written extensively on the Caribbean Diaspora. His most recent book is entitled English-Speaking Caribbean Immigrants: Transnational Identities.

It is a momentous event which we should commemorate with perpetuity. Every Guyanese will benefit. No one will be left behind … the good life for everyone beckons”. ~ President David Granger: Proclamation of National Petroleum Day.

By Lear Matthews

Recently, Guyana has been described as being “on the verge of untold riches” and branded with the affirmations such as, “on the cusp of great wealth development celebrating its historic oil discovery”. This has aroused optimism, enthusiasm, as well as curiosity, ambivalence, and concern among those Guyanese at home and in the diaspora. Such varied reactions are influenced by a number of salient factors.

Optimism is measured against anxiety about the unprecedented social and economic transformation which befalls a nation that has been labelled “economically impoverished”. Expressed concerns include (a) environmental and geopolitical risks and; (b) warnings about the dreadful mistakes of other oil-producing nations. This article addresses some of the thoughts and feelings of a segment of the diaspora at a time of great change in Guyana.

Members of the diaspora share these and other thoughts as they reflect on the support they bring to bear through long-standing help, mostly in the form of remittances, to families and communities in their desire to “give back”. Owing to the fact that recipients of remittances are in predominantly underserved communities, immigrants have expressed concern about the possibility of inequitable redistribution of wealth acquired from gas and oil profits. The full realization of the government’s pledge of “maximum benefit” for Guyanese of all socio-economic strata would certainly boost their confidence.

Known earmarked funding includes upgrading infrastructure, education, healthcare, public security, social protection and other social services for all. Some at-home have expressed the seeming lack of political will to openly endorse specific proposals such as Professor Clive Thomas suggestion that by the year 2025 “each Guyanese household gets US$5,000 every year”. This proposal was lauded by “ordinary Guyanese”.

It is important to note that there are many within the Guyanese diaspora who are committed to maintaining ties with the homeland. For some, there is simply an altruistic desire to be “giving back” to the homeland out of concern about family, friends and communities left behind. Others harbor monetary or financial self-interest and plan to invest at home. With the emerging oil and gas sector, I expect that the latter group is likely to increase, including those who had no interest in or even expressed disdain for Guyana after they left its shores.

I take pause to consider the various responses to impending changes centered around the windfall in Guyana by reviewing a few selected comments on the subject by Diasporans. This would hopefully provide some experiential insight from inside the diaspora. There is a need for cautious, informed reflection in this euphoric moment in the nation’s history, where emotions and reason clash.

Some immigrants reported that a number of recent articles and conversations on the rapidly evolving developments have been insightful, thought-provoking and address several important related issues. As they ponder their role, there may be areas that make some immigrants hopeful, while others feel less optimistic, preferring to reserve decisions about commitment with regards to returning or investing in the home country.

One member of the diaspora described herself as a first-generation immigrant who is “skilled and free” and wishes to contribute but is uncertain about the “welcome” she will receive at home. Another invoked an historical perspective stating that in the past, the two major political parties discouraged migration and treated persons from the diaspora as “outsiders and deserters” much to his and other immigrants’ dismay. He wonders whether that perception has changed much over the years in light of some of the tension that reportedly exists.

It is interesting to note that some Guyanese who espoused an aversion toward emigration, were themselves (at least temporarily) part of the diaspora. In addition, others who frown upon the idea of re-migrants tend to believe that they (immigrants) are less deserving than those who have remained in the home country. Some would say “We stay an’ bun, you cut an’ run”. Such perceptions, which have exaggerated tensions over the years, may have been fostered partially by a lack of understanding or refusal to accept the circumstances under which many Guyanese left the country of their birth.

A misrepresentation of immigrants’ experiences, challenges, sacrifices and accomplishments in their adopted home may also account for such attitudes and beliefs. Some immigrants had no choice because as dependent children or other relation they had to leave once their family made the decision to emigrate. Immigrants tend to return to their homeland because of a strong place and emotional attachment but may still face unforeseen obstacles.

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