'Shithole' Nations Aren't Born, They're Made

Guyana is a reminder of how imperialists, scoundrels and profiteers have wrecked entire countries.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's ties to Exxon Mobil, where he was CEO, could come into play as Guyana looks toward an oil-rich future.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's ties to Exxon Mobil, where he was CEO, could come into play as Guyana looks toward an oil-rich future.
Khaled Elfiqi/POOL/Reuters

Of the many blood-pressure raising moments in life under the Trump regime, the “shithole” debacle, in which the president reportedly denigrated immigrants from black and brown countries, has done the most to expose, in all its crass audacity, the shameless con job that is Western imperialism. Shitholes do not dig themselves. They do not appear out of thin air, and no nation is destined to be a “shithole.” Shitholes are dug by a global web of imperialists, scoundrels and profiteers — and made possible by people on all sides looking the other way.

There are few places where America’s imperialist tracks are better covered than Guyana, an unspoiled country covered in rainforests, bordering Venezuela and Suriname. Guyana is where my parents were born and is the setting for my latest book, about art and resistance, A Mouth Is Always Muzzled. It is also the place where an American company, Exxon Mobil, recently struck oil worth hundreds of billions of dollars, which makes Guyana poised to join the ranks of the world’s top-oil producing countries. But as environmental watchdogs have pointed out, Guyana’s prospects are dire given the conflicts of interest in former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s State Department, which is supposed to be overseeing the deal.

Guyana used to be a British colony, and the U.S.’s interest in it began in earnest during World War II, with a man named Cheddi Jagan. Jagan was third-generation Guyanese, descended from indentured Indian sugar workers whom planters shipped in to replace African laborers after the abolition of slavery. During the war, the U.S. had a military base in then-British Guiana, and Jagan came to the U.S. to study dentistry at Howard University and Northwestern University. He fell in love with a white woman from Chicago, Janet Rosenberg; together they joined socialist study groups, and then wed in 1942.

Cheddi Jagan, the former prime minister of Guyana, with his wife, Janet, in 1953.
Cheddi Jagan, the former prime minister of Guyana, with his wife, Janet, in 1953.
Keystone via Getty Images

Jagan wanted to stay in the U.S., but, as he explains in his memoir, The West on Trial, he was denied under the policy later known as the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 (the act was the racist immigration policy President Donald Trump now wants to bring back). That should have been the end of the U.S.’s interest in Jagan and the place he called home. But when the Jagans moved back to then-British Guiana they continued studying Marxism and got into politics.

Jagan was elected premier during the country’s first local election under universal suffrage. In 1953, under pressure from the U.S. and from British sugar firms, such as Booker, the British sent in troops to suspend the constitution. The Jagans, and many artists and writers, were jailed.

In the late 1950s, with an eye on Fidel Castro in Cuba, the U.S. pressured the British to stall Guyana’s independence. Meanwhile, the CIA caused mayhem in the capital, Georgetown: U.S. agents instigated fiery race riots between the Guyanese descendants of African and Indian sugar workers.

As the duly elected premier, Jagan was summoned to a 1961 White House meeting with John F. Kennedy in which Jagan made no secret of his socialist beliefs. That’s when JFK and consultant Henry Kissinger decided he had to go.

Britain finally agreed to grant Guyana its independence in 1966. But during the handover of power and in the decades after, the global community looked the other way while Jagan-ally-turned-rival Forbes Burnham, who was Afro-Guyanese, rigged the nation’s elections. It wasn’t until 1992, when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter oversaw Guyana’s first free and fair elections, that Jagan was finally elected president.

Guyana President Cheddi Jagan at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 1992.
Guyana President Cheddi Jagan at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 1992.

My book covers the period of the 2015 election when the late Jagan’s Indian-dominated party was seriously challenged for the first time, by a multiracial alliance of parties. It was a murderous election in which voters were once again racially divided. Indians and Africans are Guyana’s two largest ethnic groups, and plantation owners and U.S. and British imperialists pitted them against each other for more than a century.

Guyana is one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, and striking oil could be a game changer. Think of all the infrastructure, the schools, the capital investments you could buy with all that oil money. But many Guyanese are skeptical, rightfully, that they will ever see a penny of that money.

Michaela Wrong’s book It’s Our Turn to Eat vividly illustrates the ethical rot and internecine warfare that cripples resource-rich developing countries, as in the case of Kenya. When natural resources are harvested, it’s Western corporations that get paid. Local political leaders are easily bribed and compromised in a desperate, winner-takes-all quest to survive.

Jesse Coleman, an investigative journalist who authored the Guyana Greenpeace report, still has many concerns about Tillerson’s close ties to his old company, where he worked for over four decades. Under a Clinton-era program, the State Department helps to create a regulatory framework with developing countries and multinational corporations. It is highly unlikely that Tillerson would do anything to give advantage to this small country and its environment.

Drafts of the agreement, which Coleman shared with me, raised several red flags. He described it as “being on par with other really bad extractive deals in Africa.” Coleman notes that before Guyana profits from its own oil, Exxon Mobil must first recoup its investment, a process that could take as long as a decade. Then there are concerns about a lack of environmental and wildlife protections: The draft lacks a comprehensive plan for cleaning up after an oil spill or what to do with the wreckage when it’s done, a cleanup that could leave Guyana on the hook for millions.

We’ve seen this film too many times already, and greedy people need to stop playing the same tired parts. After the West extracts their natural resources and rearranges their lives, the people of Guyana will try to find refuge in places like Europe and the U.S. to reunite with their wealth. They will then be greeted with exclusive immigration policies and cultural disdain, told to stay home in the “shitholes” that corporations have left behind. But just as this historical web is global, the consequences to the environment, to public health and to immigration patterns are global as well.

It is only ever a matter of time before the shit you thought you covered rises with a vengeance and spreads its stench over us all.

Natalie Hopkinson is the author of A Mouth Is Always Muzzled: Six Dissidents, Five Continents, and the Art of Resistance, out this month on The New Press.

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