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Politics, Culture in the Shadow of Colonialism

The obstacles to culture in Guyana and Suriname

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GUYANA and Suriname are enigmas not just to outsiders, but to their own citizens. These countries are engaged in a process of cultural redefinition during a time of political change and economic hardship. Threats to cultural development range from the most sophisticated economic and political factors to the basics of whether electrical power is available. Guyana and Suriname, neighbors on the northern tip of South America, share a colonial history. Guyana, formerly British Guyana, has an estimated 750,000 citizens of East Indian, African, Chinese, European, and Amerindian origin, whose official language is English. Suriname is the country the English traded to the Dutch in exchange for New York. Its population is a richly complex mix of Dutch, Indonesian, Hindustani, and African. The official language is Dutch, but over 40 languages are spoken.

The crisis of cultural identity is made complex by a flight of culture capital over many decades. Exile is both voluntary and political. Nearly half the Guyanese population lives abroad.

Statistics are similar for Suriname, where the problem became more acute after a 1982 massacre of 13 of the country's prominent citizens by the military dictatorship. Suriname still identifies strongly with Holland, even though the Dutch withdrew all economic aid in response to the regime's political repression.

My husband and I recently traveled to Guyana and Suriname. We had access to government and opposition leaders in both countries. As lecturers we were able to exchange views and information with university colleagues. We were impressed by the vitality and creativity of those who made the difficult choice to stay behind in the face of formidable obstacles.


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