I was among the euphoric Lethem crowd that flocked to Bon Fim for the opening of the Takutu Bridge and was also part of the crowd that celebrated with our President at the St Ignatius Benab afterwards.
The many promises made by our President and his large contingent of ministers at the Benab still ring in my ears. They sounded like the start of a new era for Lethem and the Rupununi by extension.
What especially pleased us was when the President promised that all goods coming from Bon Fim and stopping in the Rupununi would be duty-free. This was so because many were worried that the many goods, such as perishables, drinks, rations etc that are purchased from Brazil would be taxed hence making the costs very high.
I can still clearly remember the Rupununi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (RCCI) putting the President on the spot by asking him about beverages from Brazil being subject to raids and seizure by the GRA, even though the President had promised these items to be duty-free, and the President’s response was that the items were not to be taxed and that they were not going to be taxed. (He even made a wisecrack about him being the President and not the GRA boss when further pressed by the RCCI representative). A few ministers made uncomfortable murmurs to the President but he reiterated that all items were going to be duty-free.
Another resident brought up the situation of cooking gas being prevented from coming into Lethem by the ultra vigilant GRA and that it was having a detrimental effect on the Rupununi because it was the only form of cooking gas used. The President’s response was once again that as long as the item remained within the boundaries of the Rupununi it was going to be tax free. He further went on to stress that items such as greens, chicken etc would continue to enter Lethem duty-free provided that the items were processed at the port of entry.
The Taxi Drivers Association brought up issues pertaining to unfavourable working competition with the Brazilian taxis and the President reassured them that both communities (Lethem & Bon Fim) would have to work with the same rules, meaning that if a Brazilian taxi was allowed a certain distance inside Guyana then the Guyanese taxis would be allowed a similar distance within Brazil.
Our President seemed so genuine during these discussions that all left the Benab in a celebratory mood certain that not much was going to change in the way business was done with our neighbouring town, Bon Fim.
It’s not even a full year since the opening of the bridge and all of the promises and commitments made by our President seem to have gone up in smoke and the worst fears for residents of Lethem are being realised.
The beverages saga which was pressed by the RCCI and promised by our President to remain untaxed has long fallen by the wayside. Taxes were introduced on all beverage items almost immediately after the President’s departure. Right now no Brazilian beverage can be seen in Lethem because the tax has made the price skyrocket.
Uncomfortable Lethem residents started casting worried glances at the GRA wondering which of the President’s ‘promises’ were next going to fall by the wayside.
Alas, a major one fell a short while ago. It seems that chicken imported from Brazil is now subject to tax making the cost escalate. Right now Brazilian chicken cannot even be found on the local market. And there is no other alternative. Very few people in Lethem rear chickens and as such there is no other viable alternative. One wonders whether, as with the cooking gas, our government thought out the alternatives before undertaking such a major decision.
Then there was the situation with the local taxi drivers who were denied entry to Bon Fim even though the Brazilian taxis were often seen streaking across the Lethem roads.
One wonders what is next Mr President? Are you going to permit all of the remaining items to be taxed? What happened to all of your promises? Were they just a political gimmick?
For so long Lethem and Bon Fim lived in coexistence. When we needed items from them we simply went over the border and purchased the items. When they wanted something from us they came over to our side. Now it seems that all purchases will have to be done in Bon Fim since the cost for items there will now be much lower than in Lethem (tourists already go over to Bon Fim in the evenings to enjoy the beverage since it is much cheaper there). Is this what our president intends for Lethem?
(Name and address supplied)