The area’s relative obscurity is not just name-related. With a combined population of less than 1.5 million, the Guyana Three are hardly a hotspot for news. If you know three things about French Guiana, it’s probably these: there’s a pepper (and a Porsche) named after its capital, Cayenne; the notorious French penal colony of Devil’s Island was located off its shore; and it’s the site of the European Space Agency’s spaceport, at Kourou. Suriname? Two things: the Netherlands traded it with the English for New Amsterdam, and it’s the only Dutch-speaking country outside of Europe. Guyana? The Jonestown Massacre of 1978.
But as a set, the three entities are a significant anomaly, and a case study in the way that geology and the environment can combine with geopolitics to shape a region’s history.
Since Belize won independence in 1981, French Guiana is the last territory on the American mainland controlled by a non-American power. But in fact, all three Guyanas are Fremdkörper in Latin America: they are the only territories in the region without either Spanish or Portuguese as a national language. These are coastal countries, culturally closer to the Caribbean.
Moreover, these shores are cut off from the rest of the subcontinent by dense rainforest. And that jungle remains virgin by virtue of the Guyana Shield, a collection of mountain ranges and highlands seemingly designed to conserve the interior’s impenetrability . The shield is best known for its tepuis: enormous mesas that rise dramatically from the jungle canopy and are often home to unique flora and fauna (tepuis feature prominently in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” and, more recently, the animated film “Up.”)
But the ultimate scapegoat for the loneliness of the Guyanas is Pope Alexander VI. It was he who decreed the Papal Line of Demarcation in 1493, dividing the new world between the Spanish and the Portuguese. The line ran halfway between the Portuguese-held Cape Verde Islands and the new Spanish possessions of Cuba and Hispaniola. This border was meant to put an end to the bickering between the two Iberian powers, giving Spain rights to all lands west of the line and Portugal to anything east of it. Divide and conquer, indeed.
It gives you an idea of why Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname, and Venezuela are so isolated from the rest of the world.