Those of us who might have thought that the indisputable signs of a qualitative improvement in bilateral relations between Guyana and Suriname had materialized in the exchange of official visits to the respective capitals of Presidents Ali and Santokhi, the work widely publicized collaboration of technical teams from both sides The parties preparing to consider deeper bilateral cooperation in the oil and gas sector and the business-to-business exchange visits that have been taking place between the two countries for several months may be beginning to unfold ask if it was all just a mirage.
Guyanese, however, must surely be aware by now that differences between countries that have their origins in territorial integrity hardly (if ever) disappear even amidst the thickest mists of distraction. Countries, as a rule, pass differences on these matters from one generation to another and, if, as in the case of Guyana and Suriname, these differences do not permanently close the avenues by which they can coexist, nationalist sentiments related to issues that have to do with territorial integrity are generally not easily brushed aside.
This has been the case between Guyana and Suriname, historically. If, on the one hand, there is compelling evidence of excellent people-to-people relations between the two countries in some aspect of trade and commerce and if the authorities on both sides seem to have encouraged rather than discouraged it, there is Other issues related to territorial jurisdiction/controversy on which they are not inclined to compromise.
It is quite unnecessary to recall the details of the Corentyne River dispute here, except to state that Suriname’s claim continues to impact the livelihoods of large numbers of Guyanese fishermen for whom fishing in the river has been an (economic) way of life for several generations. . Here it should be noted that it was Suriname’s current president, Chandrikapersad Santokhi, who of late has figured prominently in the current period of chilling relations between the two countries, who claimed in 2008 that the Corentyne River, for its full breadth, was entirely Surinamese territory.
There is no reason to believe that President Santokhi has changed his substantive position; so the first thing we must do is entirely separate his adherence to a cordial relationship with his Guyanese counterpart with his position on the Corentyne River. The Surinamese President presumably understands that given the current situation of the two countries which has to do with their respective large oil resources, the strengthening of bilateral relations can be very beneficial for both countries and that the situation of the Corentyne River cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the wider development of the two countries.
Guyana, on the other hand, can do little at present to alter the dynamics of the economic link between the Corentyne River and the livelihoods of many Guyanese families who live from fishing in and out. from the river. On both sides, there is a compelling “common sense” reason to settle the issue of river fishing.
The August 2021 agreement that Guyanese fishermen would be granted licenses by Suriname to trade off the Corentyne River was ’embedded’ in an atmosphere of considerable optimism, coming as it did in the context of the enlightened bilateral environment that had been created by the publicized strengthening of relations between Presidents Ali and Santokhi. After signing the agreement allowing Guyanese fishermen to ply their trade in Surinamese waters and sitting alongside President Santokhi, President Ali said the two sides had “found a way forward when it comes to the granting of licenses by Suriname to our fishermen” and that the licenses “would be effective from January next year”.
This, we must remember, was in August of last year. Nearly eight months after the promised deadline, it’s unclear when (if?) the promised deal will materialize. Indeed, it was last June that Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo reportedly expressed concern about how long Suriname was taking to honor the deal.
Aside from the fact that the delay in granting the required licenses is compounding the economic uncertainty facing Corentyne fishermen and their families, what we hope will be just a modest roadblock in the road may well be seen as a development that could erode much of the diplomatic work done by Presidents Ali and Santokhi for many months, including what appeared to be respective successful official visits to each other’s capitals; and since differences between countries on the same issue can sometimes morph into broader bilateral rifts, Georgetown and Paramaribo have every interest in leaving fisherman’s licenses behind.
After all, as we used to say in Guyana, these days Georgetown and Paramaribo have bigger fish to fry.