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Mauritius (11/01)


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For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.

PROFILE

OFFICIAL NAME:
Republic of Mauritius

Geography
Area: 1,865 sq. km. (720 sq. mi.), about the size of Rhode Island; 500 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
Dependencies: Rodrigues Island, the Agalega Islands and Cargados Carajos Shoals; Mauritius also claims sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, where U.S. Naval Base Diego Garcia is located.
Cities (July 1, 2000): Capital--Port Louis (pop.148,761000). Other cities--Beau Bassin and Rose Hill (102,770), Vacoas-Phoenix (101,000), Curepipe (81,223), Quatre Bornes (78,384).
Terrain: Volcanic island surrounded by coral reefs. A central plateau is rimmed by mountains.
Climate: Tropical; cyclone season mid-December-April.

People
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Mauritian(s).
Population (2000): 1,186,059 including Rodrigues, Agalela, and St. Brandon.
Avg. annual population growth (1997): 1.2%. Population density--581/sq. km.
Ethnic groups: Indo-Mauritians 68%, Creoles 27%, Sino-Mauritians 3%, Franco-Mauritians 2%.
Religions: Hindu, Roman Catholic, Muslim.
Languages: Creole (common), French, English (official), Hindi, Urdu, Hakka, Bhojpuri. Education: Years compulsory--6 (primary school). Attendance (primary school)--virtually universal. Literacy--adult population 80%; school population 90%.
Health (2000): Infant mortality rate--15.6/1,000. Life expectancy--male 66.9 yrs., female 74.5 yrs.
Work force (2000): 542,000. Manufacturing--27%. Trade and tourism--16%. Government services--11%. Agriculture and fishing--10%. Other--36%.

Government
Type: Republic.
Independence: March 12, 1968 (became a republic in 1992).
Constitution: March 12, 1968.
Branches: Executive--President (head of state), prime minister (head of government), Council of Ministers. Legislative--Unicameral National Assembly. Judicial--Supreme Court. Administrative subdivisions: 10.
Major political parties: Mauritian Labor Party (MLP), Militant Socialist Movement (MSM), Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM), and the Mauritian Social Democratic Party (PMSD). Suffrage: Universal over 18.
Defense (2000): 1.7 % of GDP. (303.6 m Rupees)

Flag: Mauritius flag

Economy
GDP (2000): $4.6 billion.
Real growth rate (2000): 8.9%.
Per capita income (2000): $3,900.
Avg. inflation rate (2000): 4.2%.
Natural resources: None.
Agriculture (7% of GDP): Products--sugar, sugar derivatives, tea, tobacco, vegetables, fruits, flowers and fishing.
Manufacturing, including export processing zone (25% of GDP): Types--labor-intensive goods for export, including textiles and clothing, watches and clocks, jewelry, optical goods, toys & games, and cut flowers. Tourism sector--5% of GDP. Main countries of origin--France, including nearby French island Reunion, South Africa, and West European countries.
Trade (2000): Exports--$1.5 billion: textiles and clothing, sugar, canned tuna, watches and clocks, jewelry, optical goods, toys and games, and flowers. Major markets--Europe and the U.S. Imports--$2.1 billion: meat, dairy products, fish, wheat, rice, wheat flour, vegetable oil, petroleum products, iron and steel, cement, fertilizers, machinery and transport equipment, and textile industry raw materials. Major suppliers--South Africa, France, India, China, UK, Japan, Australia, and Bahrain.
Fiscal year: July 1-June 30.

HISTORY
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.

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS  
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
President--Cassam Uteem
Vice President--Angidi Veeriah Chettiar
Prime Minister--Sir Anerood Jugnauth

Ambassador to the United States--Usha Jeetah
Ambassador to the United Nations--Jugdish Koonjul

Mauritius maintains an embassy at 4301 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-244-1491)

ECONOMY
Mauritius has one of the strongest economies in Africa, with a GDP of $4.6 billion in 2000 and per capita income close to $3,900. The economy has sustained high 6% annual growth for the last two decades--first driven by sugar, then textiles/apparel and tourism, and most recently by financial services. Independent assessments unformly rank Mauritius as one of the most competitive economies in Africa.

Economic growth slowed down in 1999, falling to 2.1% from 5.8% in 1998, as a result of a severe drought which cut sugar production nearly by half. However, the economy rebounded with an 8.9% growth in 2000, after the recovery of the sugar sector due to more favorable climatic conditions while the nonagricultural sectors maintained their growth momentum. For example, the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) grew by 6%, tourism by 11%, and financial services sector by 8.3%. In 2001, the economy is expected to expand by 6.3%.

Inflation is on a downward trend, declining from 6.9% in 1999 to 4.2 % in 2000, the lowest rate since 1988. It is expected to remain below 5% in 2001. However, the rising trend in unemployment and the deterioration in public finances are matters of concern. The unemployment rate rose steadily from 2.7% in 1991 to 8% in 2000, representing 42,000 unemployed people. It is expected to reach more than 9% in 2001. The budget deficit increased from 3.8% of GDP in fiscal year 1999-2000(July-June) to 6.5% in FY 2001-02.

The economy of Mauritius has during the past three decades relied on export of sugar, textile/garments, and tourism. During the past 10 years, the financial and business services sector has emerged as the fourth pillar of the economy, with a sustained annual growth of over 8%. The offshore sector is playing an increasingly important role in the financial services sector and is emerging as a growth vehicle for the economy. At the end of December 2000, the number of companies registered in the offshore sector reached 14,524, up from 10,959 a year ago. The Mauritius Freeport, the customs duty-free zone in the port and airport, aims at transforming Mauritius into a major regional distribution, transshipment, and marketing center. The freeport zone provides facilities for warehousing, transshipment operations as well as minor processing, simple assembly, and repackaging. At the end of 2000, the total number of freeport licenses issued reached 790, of which 224 companies were operational, mostly in trading activities.

The traditional industries of sugar, textile, and tourism have been improving from low-end to high-value added production as wage levels have increased. However, there are indications that these older industries are no longer capable of sustaining further wealth and job creation. The government considers the information and communication technology (ICT) sector to be a more viable possibility for long-term growth. Accordingly, in 2001 the government embarked on an ambitious project to develop Mauritius into a cyber island. The Business Parks of Mauritius Ltd. (BPML) was set up by the government to spearhead the development, construction, and management of major business and IT parks in Mauritius. BPML has already prepared the plans for a first cyber city at Ebene, in the center of the island, and a business park in Rose Belle in the South. Construction work on these two projects is scheduled to start by the end of 2001. Already a number of renowned international firms engaged in software development, ICT training, and call centers have expressed interest in locating their activities in these facilities.

Although the near-term outlook for growth is encouraging, the challenges facing Mauritius in the long-term are daunting. On the domestic front, the decline in fertility and the aging of the population will decrease the available pool of labor for the economy, thus reducing the long-term growth potential. Also, before the end of this decade, the trade preferences and the market protection on which Mauritius has built its success will be eroded by the forces of globalizaton, liberalization, and economic integration. The elimination in December 2004 of the global quotas on clothing under the Multi-Fiber Arrangement will expose the local textile sector to competition from other exporting countries, including those in Asia. In the case of sugar, ongoing negotiations between the European Union and sugar-exporting countries and future multilateral liberalization will likely reduce the profitability of the Mauritian sugar industry.

The new government has recently taken a number of measures to prepare Mauritius to face these challenges. With regard to sugar, the government has come up with a 5-year Sugar Sector Strategic Plan (2001-05), which provides for the restructuring and rationalization of the sugar industry, decreasing the number of sugar mills from 14 to 7 and reducing the current labor force of 30,000 by up to 7,000 through a voluntary retirement scheme. As far as the textile sector is concerned, the U.S. Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which provides preferential access for apparel exports to the U.S. market, is expected to mitigate the negative effect of the elimination of the Multi-Fiber Agreement at the end of 2004. The government also is supporting regional integration of the local textile industry with other Sub-Saharan countries eligible for AGOA benefits.

FOREIGN RELATIONS
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 Organization of African Unity (OAU), World Trade Organization (WTO), the Commonwealth, La Francophonie, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), the Indian Ocean Commission, Community of Eastern and South African States (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.

DEFENSE
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 688-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.

U.S.-MAURITIAN RELATIONS
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 2000, Mauritius imported U.S goods valued at $57.32 million; the same year, the United States imported $287.4 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 nongovernmental organizations and a democracy and human rights fund.

Principal U.S. Officials
Charge d'Affaires--Bisa Williams
Deputy Chief of Mission--Bisa Williams

The U.S. Embassy in Mauritius is located in the Rogers House, 4th floor, John Kennedy Street, Port Louis (tel. 230 202-4400; Fax 230-208-9534; E-mail: usembass@bow.intnet.mu.)



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