Job Lack Fuels French Guiana Unrest: Space Center Employs Few Local Citizens
Luxner, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
CAYENNE, French Guiana - The scene is all too familiar: a Caribbean territory whose people enjoy palm-fringed beaches, a relatively prosperous standard of living and unrestricted travel to and from the mainland.
Yet it's a place where political restlessness has begun to spawn isolated but increasingly violent demands for independence.
In this case, the territory in question isn't Puerto Rico but French Guiana, an overseas department of France wedged along the remote, northeastern shoulder of South America between Suriname and Brazil.
In the last seven years, the department's population has mushroomed from 118,000 to nearly 150,000. Its inhabitants represent perhaps the most ethnically diverse group of people anywhere in South America, from Creole-speaking Haitians to Portuguese-speaking Brazilians to Buddhist Hmong refugees from Laos.
More than a third of French Guiana's residents come from somewhere else, and nearly all have stumbled into this lonely jungle land for one reason: jobs generated by the European Space Agency's sprawling space complex at Kourou.
Michel Mignot, director of the Guianese Space Center, said the satellite-launching business now accounts for 50 percent of French Guiana's production, 30 percent of its direct and indirect jobs and 50 percent of its tax revenue.
In fact, compared with Dutch-speaking Suriname and English-speaking Guyana - both impoverished after centuries of European colonial rule and a few decades of independence - French Guiana isn't suffering.
It has good roads, decent health care and a generous social security system, chiefly because of $500 million a year in assistance from Paris. Yet the department, home of the infamous Devil's Island penal colony, also has serious economic and social problems.
Officially, French Guiana's unemployment exceeds 25 percent; some say the true number approaches 35 percent. As a consequence, crack addicts roam the darkened streets of Cayenne at night and drug-related crime has jumped dramatically in the last few years.
Its AIDS infection rate is among the highest in the Western Hemisphere. A number of people, once happy with their European Union passports and working telephone system, are beginning to wonder whether French Guiana might be better off on its own.
"France doesn't want to develop this country. The only thing that's important for them is the space center," grumbles Maurice Pindard, secretary-general of the Movement of Decolonization and Social Freedom (MDES), French Guiana's independence party.
"The government wants social peace, but you can't have social peace without jobs," Mr. Pindard said.
The 41-year-old math and physics teacher added that "thousands of children can't go to school because there aren't enough schools" and that "most of the small companies here are closing their doors because they don't have enough work to do."
Earlier this month, violence erupted in Cayenne when police and demonstrators clashed after an MDES leader was placed in pre-trial detention. According to the Reuters news agency, the protesters had attempted to set fire to Cayenne's central police station, prompting paramilitary riot police to use tear gas to disperse hundreds of people who were camped out in front of the central courthouse.
Nine policemen were injured in a similar pro-independence disturbance in April, eight of them by gunfire. Those riots were triggered by the arrest of 10 other independence supporters accused of attacking the residence of French Guiana's state prosecutor in November 1996 after protests over deteriorating secondary-school conditions.
At the time, the riots were condemned in Paris; Jean-Jacques de Peretti, France's minister for overseas territories, blamed the unrest on "vandals who have nothing to do with the problems of educating the young. …