U.S. Department of State, December 1999 |
Bureau of African Affairs
Area: 1,865 sq. km. (720 sq. mi.), about the size of Rhode
Island; 500 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Mauritian(s).
GDP (1997): $4.1 billion.
While Arab and Malay sailors knew of Mauritius as early as the 10th century AD and Portuguese sailors first visited in the 16th century, the island was not colonized until 1638 by the Dutch. Mauritius was populated over the next few centuries by waves of traders, planters and their slaves, indentured laborers, merchants, and artisans. The island was named in honor of Prince Maurice of Nassau by the Dutch, who abandoned the colony in 1710.
The French claimed Mauritius in 1715 and renamed it Ile de France. It became a prosperous colony under the French East India Company. The French Government took control in 1767, and the island served as a naval and privateer base during the Napoleonic wars. In 1810, Mauritius was captured by the British, whose possession of the island was confirmed 4 years later by the Treaty of Paris. French institutions, including the Napoleonic code of law, were maintained. The French language is still used more widely than English.
Mauritian Creoles trace their origins to the plantation owners and slaves who were brought to work the sugar fields. Indo-Mauritians are descended from Indian immigrants who arrived in the 19th century to work as indentured laborers after slavery was abolished in 1835. Included in the Indo-Mauritian community are Muslims (about 15% of the population) from the Indian subcontinent. The Franco-Mauritian elite controls nearly all of the large sugar estates and is active in business and banking. As the Indian population became numerically dominant and the voting franchise was extended, political power shifted from the Franco-Mauritians and their Creole allies to the Hindus.
Elections in 1947 for the newly created Legislative Assembly marked
Mauritius' first steps toward self-rule. An independence campaign
gained momentum after 1961, when the British agreed to permit
additional self-government and eventual independence. A coalition
composed of the Mauritian Labor Party (MLP), the Muslim Committee
of Action (CAM), and the Independent Forward Bloc (IFB)--a traditionalist
Hindu party--won a majority in the 1967 Legislative Assembly election,
despite opposition from Franco-Mauritian and Creole supporters
of Gaetan Duval's Mauritian Social Democratic Party (PMSD). The
contest was interpreted locally as a referendum on independence.
Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, MLP leader and chief minister in the
colonial government, became the first prime minister at independence,
on March 12, 1968. This event was preceded by a period of communal
strife, brought under control with assistance from British troops.
Mauritian politics are vibrant and characterized by coalition and alliance building. All parties are centrist and reflect a national consensus that supports democratic politics and a relatively open economy with a strong private sector.
Alone or in coalition, the Mauritian Labor Party (MLP) ruled from 1947 through 1982 and returned to power in 1995. The Mauritian Militant Movement/Mauritian Socialist Party (MMM/PSM) alliance won the 1982 election. In 1983, defectors from the MMM joined with the PSM to form the Militant Socialist Movement (MSM) and won a working majority. In July 1990, the MSM realigned with the MMM and in September 1991 national elections won 59 of the 62 directly elected seats in parliament. In December 1995, the MLP returned to power, this time in coalition with the MMM. Labor's Navinchandra Ramgoolam, son of the country's first prime minister, became prime minister himself. Ramgoolam dismissed his MMM coalition partners in mid-1997, leaving Labor in power save for several small parties allied with it.
Mauritius became a republic on March 12, 1992. The most immediate result was that a Mauritian-born president became head of state, replacing Queen Elizabeth II. Under the amended constitution, political power remained with parliament. The Council of Ministers (cabinet), responsible for the direction and control of the government, consists of the prime minister (head of government), the leader of the majority party in the legislature, and about 20 ministries.
The unicameral National Assembly has up to 70 deputies. Sixty-two are elected by universal suffrage, and as many as eight "best losers" are chosen from the runners-up by the Electoral Supervisory Commission using a formula designed to give at least minimal representation to all ethnic communities and under-represented parties. Elections are scheduled at least every 5 years.
Mauritian law is an amalgam of French and British legal traditions. The Supreme Court--a chief justice and five other judges--is the highest judicial authority. There is an additional right of appeal to the Queen's Privy Council. Local government has nine administrative divisions, with municipal and town councils in urban areas and district and village councils in rural areas. The island of Rodrigues forms the country's 10th administrative division.
Principal Government Officials
Ambassador to the United States--Chitmansing Jesseramsing
Mauritius maintains an embassy at 4301 Connecticut Avenue NW,
Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-244-1491)
Mauritius has one of the strongest economies in Africa, with a GDP of $4.1 billion in 1997 and per capita income of $3,600. It is heavily reliant on exports of sugar and textiles, but tourism, offshore business, and financial services are growing. Independent surveys typically characterize the Mauritian business environment as among the best in Africa.
Economic performance has been impressive for the past 15 years, with real growth averaging 7% between 1985-90 and 5.4% between 1990-97. GDP grew 5% in 1997, with strong performances in all major sectors. Annual economic growth is likely to hover between 5% and 6% over the medium term; neither a recession nor a boom is forecast. Inflation was 6.6% in 1997 and is likely to remain in single digits over the medium term. Unemployment is growing but manageable. The jobless rate was about 6% in 1997, nearly double previous estimates. The upward trend is causing concern in a society grown accustomed to full employment. Chronic trade deficits are normally offset by surpluses in tourism and other services. The Mauritian rupee is freely convertible.
The economy faces daunting challenges. The country's two principal exports--textiles and sugar--rely on preferential access to markets in Europe and the United States. As World Trade Organization regulations come into force and textile quotas disappear, Mauritius will face increased competition from low-cost producers in Asia and South America. The price it receives for its sugar in Europe and the United States--two or three times the world market price--will almost certainly fall. Both industries are responding by placing more emphasis on productivity. Also, many of the country's most successful companies and banks are expanding outside the country and establishing operations in India and Africa. For its part, the government is encouraging investment in services with the goal of establishing Mauritius as a regional trade and financial center for commerce between Africa and the Far East.
There are about 275 textile factories in Mauritius exporting to Europe and the United States. Products range from simple garments to fashionable sweaters and other apparel sold in the finest shops. Raw material--yarn and fabric--comes primarily from India and China.
The sugar industry comprises 20 estates, 17 mills, and 35,000 small planters. Production ranges between 600,000 and 650,000 tons per year. More than 90% is sold to Europe, the remainder to the United States. An increasing number of mills are investing in power plants fueled by coal and bagasse, the residue left from crushed sugarcane.
More than 90 hotels serve the tourism industry. They range from modest bed-and-breakfasts to five-star resorts. Tourist arrivals exceeded 500,000 in 1997 and are expected to reach 600,000 before the turn of the century.
Banking and other financial services form the most rapidly growing
economic sector. Some 6,000 offshore companies were registered
as of 1997. Freeport facilities, including warehouses, commercial
exhibition space, and modern cargo handling systems, opened in
1997, primarily to serve trade between Asia and Africa.
Mauritius has strong and friendly relations with the West, as well as with India and the countries of southern and eastern Africa. It is a member of the World Trade Organization, the Commonwealth, La Francophonie, the Southern Africa Development Community, the Indian Ocean Commission, COMESA, and the recently formed Indian Ocean Rim Association.
Trade, commitment to democracy, and the country's small size are driving forces behind Mauritian foreign policy. The country's political heritage and dependence on Western markets have led to close ties with the European Union and its member states, particularly the United Kingdom and France, which exercises sovereignty over neighboring Reunion.
Considered part of Africa geographically, Mauritius has friendly relations with other African states in the region, particularly South Africa, by far its largest continental trading partner. Mauritian investors are gradually entering African markets, notably Madagascar and Mozambique. Mauritius coordinates much of its foreign policy with the Southern Africa Development Community and the Organization of African Unity.
Relations with India are strong for both historical and commercial
reasons. Foreign embassies in Mauritius include Australia, the
United Kingdom, China, Egypt, France, India, Madagascar, Pakistan,
Russia, and the United States.
Mauritius does not have a standing army. All military, police, and security functions are carried out by 10,000 active-duty personnel under the command of the Commissioner of Police. The 8,000-member National Police is responsible for domestic law enforcement. The 1,400-member Special Mobile Force (SMF) and the 500-member National Coast Guard are the only two paramilitary units in Mauritius. Both units are composed of police officers on lengthy rotations to those services.
The SMF is organized as a ground infantry unit and engages extensively in civic works projects. The Coast Guard has four patrol craft for search-and-rescue missions and surveillance of territorial waters. A 100-member police helicopter squadron assists in search-and-rescue operations. There also is a special supporting unit of 270 members trained in riot control.
Military advisers from the United Kingdom and India work with the SMF, the Coast Guard, and the Police Helicopter Unit, and Mauritian police officers are trained in the United Kingdom, India, and France. The United States provides training to Mauritian Coast Guard officers in such fields as seamanship and maritime law enforcement.
Official U.S. representation in Mauritius dates from the end of the 18th century. An American consulate was established in 1794 but closed in 1911. It was reopened in 1967 and elevated to embassy status upon the country's independence in 1968. Since 1970, the mission has been directed by a resident U.S. ambassador.
Relations between the United States and Mauritius are cordial and largely revolve around trade. U.S. exports to Mauritius are modest but growing, particularly in telecommunications and other high-technology fields. In 1996, Mauritius imported U.S goods valued at $25 million; the same year, the United States imported $238 million in Mauritian products--mostly knitwear, other textiles, and sugar.
The U.S. funds a small military assistance program focused on
Coast Guard training. The embassy also manages special self-help
funds for community groups and non-governmental organizations
and a democracy and human rights fund.
Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Harold W. Geisel
The U.S. embassy in Mauritius is located in the Rogers House, 4th floor, John Kennedy Street, Port Louis (tel. 230 208-2347; Fax 230-208-9534; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides Consular Information Sheets, Travel Warnings, and Public Announcements. Consular Information Sheets exist for all countries and include information on entry requirements, currency regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in the country. Travel Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to a certain country. Public Announcements are issued as a means to disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions overseas which pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. Free copies of this information are available by calling the Bureau of Consular Affairs at 202-647-5225 or via the fax-on-demand system: 202-647-3000. Consular Information Sheets and Travel Warnings also are available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page: http://travel.state.gov. Consular Affairs Tips for Travelers publication series, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad are on the internet and hard copies can be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, telephone: 202-512-1800; fax 202-512-2250.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-5225. For after-hours emergencies, Sundays and holidays, call 202-647-4000.
Passport information can be obtained by calling the National Passport Information Center's automated system ($.35 per minute) or live operators 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (EST) Monday-Friday ($1.05 per minute). The number is 1-900-225-5674 (TDD: 1-900-225-7778). Major credit card users (for a flat rate of $4.95) may call 1-888-362-8668 (TDD: 1-888-498-3648). It also is available on the internet.
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health Information for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see "Principal Government Officials" listing in this publication).
U.S. citizens who are long-term visitors or traveling in dangerous areas are encouraged to register at the U.S. embassy upon arrival in a country (see "Principal U.S. Embassy Officials" listing in this publication). This may help family members contact you in case of an emergency.
Further Electronic Information
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the Internet, DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes Background Notes; daily press briefings; Country Commercial Guides; directories of key officers of foreign service posts; etc. DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at http://1997-2001.state.gov.
U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on an annual basis by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on the Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an array of official foreign policy information from 1990 to the present. Contact the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800 or fax (202) 512-2250.
National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information. It is available on the Internet (www.stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202) 482-1986 for more information.
Mauritius Background Notes
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