“A vast watery wilderness with only three paved highways,” was how an article in the New York Times described Guyana last week.
It asks whether the South American country is “ready to handle the riches” from its predicted oil boom.
What has upset many in Guyana is the picture its author, national energy business correspondent Clifford Krauss, painted of the country in the article’s introduction.
“There are a few dirt roads between villages that sit on stilts along rivers snaking through the rainforest. Children in remote areas go to school in dugout canoes, and play naked in the muggy heat,” it reads.
It goes on to talk about pervasive corruption in the public sector, and describes the private sector as slow to innovate. It also speaks of a “plague of ethnic tribal politics” that followed independence from Britain in 1966.
Its economy is “propelled by drug trafficking, money-laundering and gold and diamond smuggling” and experiencing mass emigration by young people – with those who remain experiencing “high rates of HIV infection, crime and suicide”, the article says.
While few in Guyana would argue that the country is without its problems, the broad brush of the comments and overall gloomy tone have prompted many to try and highlight a more positive side of Guyana on Twitter under the hashtag #LifeInTheWateryWilderness.
Some, like @jess_vandijk have poked fun at the suggestion that all children in remote areas go to school in canoes. Twitter user Sophie imagined the problems she could encounter by going to work in a canoe.Carina Westford was one of the readers to take umbrage at the suggestion that young people who chose to stay in Guyana were doomed to live with HIV, crime and suicide:
Government officials also felt compelled to respond. Finance Minister Winston Jordan said he told Krauss to “take a closer look at our country, its proud and resourceful people and our resilience in the face of the odds”.
ExxonMobil, the oil company steering oil production in Guyana, posted a note on its Facebook page distancing itself from the article and stating that the company was “happy to have the opportunity to operate and live in the communities in Guyana”.
Alita Singh, a senior journalist at the Daily Herald in Sint Maarten, tweeted that Krauss had “insulted a people and a country you perhaps spent no more than a week in”.
While the article has triggered many an angry comment, there are also those who saw it as constructive criticism.
Shamar Quintin called it a “very impressive and profound article” and said that he didn’t understand why people were upset. “We should use that article to guide us in making better decisions now,” he said, adding the hashtag #unbiasedandtrue.
Blogger Krysta Bisnauth was at first amused by the piece as she saw a positive in the Twitter storm it triggered.
“Just last week, I wondered if there was anything that could bring the country together the way football seemed to work on other countries,” she wrote. “Little did I know that all it takes is one carelessly worded New York Times article!”
But she told the BBC that she had since changed her mind because the author had “chosen to take a slice of who we are as a country… and transpose it onto the entire country to conveniently fit his Cinderella narrative”.
She said Krauss had “gravely offended people in government, in the private sector and the ordinary citizen in the street”.
Krauss told the BBC that the response to his article had been varied and that he would “let the story speak for itself”.
“[I] stand by every word, of course,” he said. “Proud it has spurred an important conversation about Guyana’s future.” (Excerpts from BBC)