For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.
Republic of Mauritius
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 Support Facility at Diego Garcia is located.
Cities: Capital--Port Louis (pop. 146,319). Other cities--Beau Bassin and Rose Hill (105,377), Vacoas-Phoenix (101,789), Curepipe (82,756), Quatre Bornes (77,145).
Terrain: Volcanic island surrounded by coral reefs. A central plateau is rimmed by mountains.
Climate: Tropical; cyclone season mid-December-April.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Mauritian(s).
Population (2003): 1,228,965, including Rodrigues, Agalega, and St. Brandon.
Avg. annual population growth (2001): 1%. Density--602/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 85%; school population 90%.
Health (2001): Infant mortality rate--13.2/1000. Life expectancy--male 68.6 yrs., female 75.5 yrs.
Work force (2003, 549,500): Manufacturing--27%; trade and tourism--19.6%; government services--11%; agriculture and fishing--9.4%; other--33%.
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: MSM-MMM Alliance (Militant Socialist Movement and Mauritian Militant Movement) and the Social Alliance (made up of several parties, including the Mauritian Labor Party).
Suffrage: Universal over 18.
Defense (2000): 1.7% of GDP.
GDP (2004) $6 billion.
Real growth rate (2004): 4.6%.
Per capita income (2004): $4,900.
Avg. inflation rate (2004): 4.8%.
Natural resources: None.
Agriculture (6.2% of GDP): Products--sugar, sugar derivatives, tea, tobacco, vegetables, fruits, flowers and fishing.
Manufacturing, including export processing zone (21.5% of GDP): Types--labor-intensive goods for export, including textiles and clothing, watches and clocks, jewelry, optical goods, toys and games, and cut flowers.
Tourism sector (5.8% of GDP): Main countries of origin--France, including nearby French island Reunion, South Africa, and west European countries.
Financial services: 10% of GDP.
Trade (2003): Exports--$1.9 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--$2.3 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, China, India, U.K., Japan, Australia, and Germany.
Fiscal year: July 1-June 30.
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 first colonized in 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 17% of the population) from the Indian subcontinent.
Franco-Mauritians control 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. Parliamentary elections were held July 3, 2005.
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 Navin Chandra 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 except for several small parties allied with it. Elections in September 2000 saw the re-emergence of the MSM-MMM as a winning alliance, as the coalition garnered 51.7% of the vote, and Sir Anerood Jugnauth once again became the prime minister with the caveat that mid-term, the leader of the MMM party would take over as prime minister. In September 2003, in keeping with the campaign promise which forged the coalition, Jugnauth stepped down from office and deputy prime minister Paul Raymond Berenger became prime minister. One month later, Sir Anerood Jugnauth was sworn in as President of the Republic. Berenger became the first Catholic, Franco-Mauritian to head the government. The move created an historic precedent of having a non-Hindu, non-majority member head the national government. The 2005 parliamentary elections returned Navin Chandra Ramgoolam to office as prime minister.
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--Sir Anerood Jugnauth
Vice President--Raouf Bundhun
Prime Minister--Navin Chandra Ramgoolam
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)
Mauritius has one of the strongest economies in Africa; although final figures are not yet available, 2004 GDP at market prices is estimated at $6 billion and per capita income at $4,900. Over the past two decades, real output growth averaged just below 6% per year, leading to a more than doubling of per capita income and a marked improvement in social indicators. Economic growth was first driven by sugar, then textiles and tourism, and more recently by financial services (particularly offshore companies). The information and communications technology (ICT) sector is now emerging as the fifth pillar of the economy, following massive investment by government in the last three years in related infrastructure (the newly built Ebene Cyber City is one example) and training.
However, the economy is now facing some serious challenges, including the decline in the rate of economic growth, increasing unemployment, an increasing public sector deficit, and an increasing domestic debt. In 2003, GDP grew by 4.3%, up from 1.8% in 2002 when sugar production was diminished by a hurricane. Although final figures are not yet available, the growth rate for 2004 is estimated at 4.6%. However, this is still below the average growth rate of the past two decades.
Mauritius stands today at the crossroads of its future development. The main engines of growth in the Mauritian economy, namely the sugar and textile industries, are faced with the erosion of preferential trade arrangements stemming from the proposed reforms of the European Union sugar regime, the phasing out of the Multi Fiber Agreement, and the increasing trend towards the globalization of world trade. The prospects of intensified global competition from low-wage countries (particularly China and India) and limited future opportunities for preferential trade arrangements represent serious constraints on future growth.
Realizing the need to diversify the economy, Mauritius has embarked on an ambitious development strategy to find new drivers for economic growth. The government is putting emphasis on the development of the ICT sector and the promotion of Mauritius as a seafood hub in the region, using existing facilities at the Freeport (free trade zones at the port and airport). Measures are also being taken to modernize and restructure the sugar and textile sectors through better technology and greater capitalization.
The business climate is friendly yet extremely competitive. Mauritius has a long tradition of private entrepreneurship, which has led to a strong and dynamic private sector. Firms entering the market will find a well-developed legal and commercial infrastructure. With regard to telecommunications, Mauritius has a well-developed digital infrastructure and offers state-of-the-art telecommunications facilities including international leased lines and high speed Internet access. Telecommunications services were liberalized in January 2003. The government policy is to act as a facilitator to business, leaving production to the private sector. However, it still controls key utility services directly or through parastatals, including electricity, water, waste water, postal services, and broadcasting. The State Trading Corporation controls imports of rice, flour, petroleum products, and cement.
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 African Union (AU), 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. In 2004, then-Prime Minister Berenger became chairman of SADC for a one-year term.
Trade, commitment to democracy, colonial and cultural ties, 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 African Union.
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, South Africa, 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 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 security officers in such fields as counter-terrorism methods, seamanship, and maritime law enforcement.
Official U.S. representation in Mauritius dates from the end of the 18th century. An American consulate established in 1794 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. The United States is Mauritius' third-largest market but ranks 12th in terms of exports to Mauritius. Principal imports from the U.S. include aircraft parts (for Air Mauritius), automatic data processing machines, diamonds, jewelry, radio/TV transmission apparatus, telecommunications equipment, agricultural/construction/industrial machinery and equipment, casino slot machines, outboard motors, books and encyclopedias, and industrial chemicals.
Mauritian exports to the U.S. include apparel, sugar, non-industrial diamonds, jewelry articles, live animals, sunglasses, and cut flowers. The United States is the number one market for Mauritian garments. It emerged as the single largest market for shirts and trousers in 2002 and 2003. In November 2004 the U.S. Congress exempted Mauritius for one year from the third country fabric provision under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). This exemption is expected to give a further boost to Mauritian export of apparel to the United States.
More than 200 U.S. companies are represented in Mauritius. About 35 have offices in Mauritius, serving the domestic and/or the regional market, mainly in the information technology (IT), textile, fast food, express courier, and financial services sectors. The largest U.S. subsidiaries are Caltex Oil Mauritius and Esso Mauritius. U.S. brands are sold widely. Several U.S. franchises, notably Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, and Toys R Us have opened in recent years.
The United States funds a small military assistance program. The embassy also manages special self-help funds for community groups and nongovernmental organizations and a democracy and human rights fund.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Charge d'Affaires--Stephen Schwartz
Management Officer--Judith Semilota
Public Affairs Officer--Marjorie Harrison
Political Officer--James Liddle
Economic-Commercial and Consular Officer--Dewitt Conklin
Regional Security Officer -- David Walsh