By: Attorney Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth (Fort Lauderdale)
The Caribbean has attracted foreign interest for centuries but recent oil developments highlight the necessity for Caribbean businesses to protect their brands (with written contracts, registered trademarks, etc.).
Foreign attention initially spiked with the quest to find the city of gold, “El Dorado.” There are several versions but one statement placed the city in Guyana. The British explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, led four excursions to the treacherous Guyana jungles in hopes of finding this city of gold, after he found that written account of a prisoner in Trinidad. The Spaniard claimed that he was captured by an Amerindian tribe and taken into the jungle. Raleigh never found El Dorado and he lost many years, and even his son, in his quest to find it.
The gold rush eluded the European nations but they did colonize the region to harvest sugar. The British, mainly, imported Africans for slave labor and, after abolition, Indians/Chinese for indentured servant labor. The determining factor for foreign involvement in the Caribbean was economic profitability. And so when cane sugar in the Caribbean was replaced by European beet sugar, colonial powers were less interested in the region and allowed many nations to govern their own affairs. Recent oil discoveries imply that the tide may be turning once again to dominant outside influence in the Caribbean.
The Middle East
The Middle East is a contemporary example of how oil can induce foreign influence. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran are key case studies.
Afghanistan was part of an original cradle of civilization (the Indus Valley), and also sits on at least 3 billion barrels of oil formed millions of years ago. During its ancient and medieval times, the region saw many dynasties, several conquests, flourishing trade, and cultural and religious changes. The modern era is marked by war and outside influence from Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. In 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan seized power, oppressed dissidents, allied with the Soviets, and fought against guerilla mujahideen. The mujahideen were covertly trained by the United States and Pakistan. In 1979, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan to stabilize the unrest. The United States and Pakistan continued to support the mujahideen rebels with cash and weapons. The Soviets withdrew but, in 1994, the Taliban emerged as a rebel militia of students aided by the Pakistani government. In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan after the Taliban refused to surrender Osama Bin Laden. The United States joined the Northern Alliance and eventually overthrew the Taliban.
Iraq, too, has a deep history. The Sumerian era is credited as producing the first writing system, among many other firsts. Iraq was part of the Babylon, Assyrian, and Ottoman empires. Baghdad became the largest multicultural city in the Middle Ages until the Mongols burned down the city and destroyed the library. Iraq gained independence from the British and overthrew its own monarchy in 1958 to create a republic. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The United States intervened (the First Gulf War) because of the war’s effect on oil prices, and the Iraqi armed force was severely destroyed. In March 2003, the United States and its allies invaded Iraq based on false intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The Coalition Provisional Authority was then established but the nation remained in post-invasion disorder. In the summer of 2003, an insurgency against U.S. troops began and jihadist terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) formed. Though all U.S. troops were withdrawn in 2011, a civil war erupted in 2014 due to ISIL’s rise.
Lastly, Iran’s history begins in the ancient Lower Paleolithic times. Ancient Greek writings referred to the Iranian province of Persia but the name “Persia" persisted and is often used culturally in reference to the whole country. Iran is actually one of the largest countries in the world with 83 million residents, and like Iraq, it was part of the Assyrian Empire. During WW2, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt issued a declaration for postwar Iranian independence and boundaries, but Soviet troops remained until Iran granted it oil concessions. Iran then nationalized its petroleum and oil industry. However, the United States quickly participated in a covert operation to overthrow the government. On January 3, 2020, Iran’s revolutionary guard Qasem Solemani was assassinated by the United States in Iraq. Some thought the assassination would lead to a world war. Of importance, Iran’s gas supply is the largest in the world and its oil reserves are the third largest.
There are oil reservoirs all over the world but several of the largest known reservoirs are in the Middle East and the United States. Guyana now too has promising oil projections. ExxonMobile, America’s largest oil company, initially discovered crude oil off of Guyana’s coast in 2015. Since then, there have been 16 extraordinary oil finds. Five of the six largest oil discoveries in 2019 were in Guyana.
Exxon and Guyana’s oil deal raises concerns as to whether the contract is disproportionately in favor of Exxon to the extreme disadvantage of Guyana and its people. Of note, the parties entered into the oil contract and three days later Exxon announced a major discovery. Some claim that Exxon purposely withheld evidence of the find to minimize Guyana’s negotiating power. The deal was also made hastily during heightened tensions with Venezuela over the Venezuela-Guyana border, with hopes that Exxon’s presence would deter Venezuela’s attempts to expand their borders. As a result, Guyana would receive a below-average share in oil production in the amount of $55 billion dollars. Renegotiation, accordingly, would attract an unprecedented amount of investors.
Trinidad’s economy was primarily based on sugarcane and cocoa in colonial times. In the 1900s, the agricultural market was surpassed by the modern oil and gas industry. The oil and gas industry still reigns today. Walter Darwent, a former soldier in the American Civil War, drilled the first successful oil well at Aripero in 1865. John Lee Lum then partnered with Randolph Rust and began large-scale oil production in 1913. Petroleum became Trinidad’s main export in the 1950s. In 1974, and after Trinidad gained independence, the global increase in oil prices directly benefited Trinidad. Trinidad had an estimated TT$694 million surplus.
In the 1990s, the oil sector shifted to mostly natural gas. An energy expert opined that the future of the nation is natural gas: “In the long run, gas has more potential for value-added. Trinidad is sitting on many wells that are gas prone rather than oil rich.” Moreover, the Minister of Energy announced in September that the Broadside well in TTDAA3 will be the deepest drill depth in Trinidad. The announcement is important because it highlights progress in Trinidad’s hydrocarbon exploration.
Trinidad’s oil industry initially started with American dominance and British rule. Once free, Trinidad’s economy boomed when it controlled its own industry. On the other hand, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran are still reeling from American and European interference as a means to control the oil in the Middle East. This should serve as a lesson for Trinidad’s hydrocarbon exploration, and also Guyana as Guyana emerges as a rising oil producing nation.
Other Caribbeans nations are likely to benefit from the emerging energy industries in Guyana and Trinidad. Investors, including large hotel chains, have been prospecting for lucrative opportunities. Increased tourism in Guyana can in turn increase interest in tourism for neighboring countries. In addition, Caribbean businesses throughout the West Indies and United States could see an increase in value by virtue of their proximity and insight of Caribbean culture and economy including roti shops, promoters, DJs, tour guides, and social media businesses.
Therefore, both businesses in the Caribbean and businesses owned by Caribbeans/Caribbean descendants are now encouraged to solidify their legal rights in order to protect the value of their business in the future with written contracts and registered trademarks.
Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. is a business attorney. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Miami with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, a minor degree in History that focused on the slavery and indentured servitude eras, a minor degree in Criminology, and a Juris Doctor degree.
MDGR Law, P.A.
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Fort Lauderdale, FL 33310-1794
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