Background Note: Mauritius

PA Source: Office of Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs Description: Historical, Political and Economic Overviews of the Countries of the World Date: Nov, 15 199211/15/92 Category: Country Data Region: Subsaharan Africa Country: Mauritius Subject: Travel, History, International Organizations, Trade/Economics, Military Affairs, Cultural Exchange, State Department [TEXT]




1,865 sq. km. (720 sq. mi.), about the size of Rhode Island; east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
Rodrigues Island and the Agalega Islands and Cargados Carajos Shoals; Mauritius also claims sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, where the US naval base of Diego Garcia is located.
Cities (1990):
..Capital--Port Louis (pop. 132,460). Other cities--Beau Bassin and Rose Hill (91,518), Curepipe (65,414), Vacoas-Phoenix (56,452), Quatre Bornes (65,207).
Volcanic island surrounded by coral reefs. A central plateau is rimmed by mountains.
Tropical; cyclone season mid-December-April.
Noun and adjective--Mauritian(s).
Population (1991 est):
1 million.
Population density:
1,313/sq. mi.
Avg. annual growth rate (1991):
Ethnic groups:
Indo-Mauritians 68%, Creoles 27%, Sino- Mauritians 3%, Franco-Mauritians 2%.
Hindu, Roman Catholic, Muslim. Languages: Creole (common), French, English (official), Hindi, Urdu, Hakka, Bhojpuri.
Years compulsory--6 (primary school). Attendance (primary school)--virtually universal. Literacy--adult population 80%; school population 90%.
Health (1991):
Infant mortality rate--20/1,000. Life expectancy--male 66 yrs; female 74 yrs.
Work force (March 1991):
407,618. Manufacturing--32%. Agriculture and fishing--17%. Government services--14%. Other-- 37%.
March 12, 1968 (became a republic in 1992).
March 12, 1968.
Executive--president (chief of state), prime minister (head of government), Council of Ministers. Legislative-- unicameral National Assembly. Judicial--Supreme Court.
Administrative subdivisions:
Major political parties:
Militant Socialist Movement (MSM), Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM), Mauritian Labor Party (MLP), and Mauritian Social Democratic Party (PMSD).
Universal over 18.
Defense (1991):
1.5% of GDP.
Four horizontal stripes--red, blue, yellow, green.
GDP (1991):
$2.4 billion.
Real growth rate (1991):
Per capita income (1991):
Avg. inflation rate (1991):
Natural resources:
Manufacturing (including export processing zone):
24% of GDP. Types--labor-intensive goods for export, including textiles and clothing, pearls, cut and polished diamonds, semi-precious stones, optical goods, cut flowers, leather products, electronic goods, watches, toys, and other consumer goods.
11% of GDP. Products--sugar, sugar derivatives, tea, tobacco, vegetables, fruits, and flowers.
Tourism sector:
11% of GDP. Main countries of origin-- France (including the nearby French island Reunion), South Africa, and West European countries.
Trade (1991):
Exports--$1.3 billion: sugar, textiles and clothing, tea, molasses, jewelry, leather products, canned tuna, and anthuriums. Major markets--EC and US. Imports--$1.6 billion: foodstuffs, refined petroleum products, machinery and transport equipment, construction materials, manufactured goods, and textile raw materials. Major suppliers--EC, South Africa, Kuwait, Japan, China, Bahrain, Hong Kong, Australia, India, Taiwan, New Zealand, Southeast Asian countries, and US.
Fiscal year:
July 1-June 30.
Avg. exchange rate (1991):
15 rupees=US$1.


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 their 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; French still is used more widely than English. Mauritius' 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 what is now Pakistan. 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 turbulent and characterized by coalition and alliance building. Alone or in coalitions, the MLP ruled from 1947 until June 1982. 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. As promised in its electoral program, the MSM/MMM alliance amend- ed the constitution, making Mauritius a republic within the Commonwealth. Since March 12, 1992, the chief of state has been a Mauritian-born president, replacing Queen Elizabeth II. Under the amended constitution, political power still derives from the 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 24 other ministers. 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 by 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.
Principal Government Officials
President--Cassam Uteem Vice President--Sir Rabindrah Ghurburrun Prime Minister--Sir Anerood Jugnauth Ambassador to the United States--Chitmansing Jesseramsing Ambassador to the United Nations--Satteanand Peerthum Mauritius maintains an embassy at 4301 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-244-1491).


The Mauritian economy is based on export-oriented manufacturing, sugar, and tourism. Structurally, it has a strong private sector and state-owned enterprises. The economy grew at an average rate of 6% over the last decade, reaching full employment in the late 1980s. Growth started to decline in 1988, as the economy started to experience some of the problems associated with success. Skilled labor shortages now are evident in industry, and a small amount of labor is imported. Degradation of the environment, drug trafficking and abuse, and poor housing are the country's most pressing socioeconomic problems. Unemployment--less than 2% in 1991--is not a problem, due to the rapid expansion of the export processing zone (EPZ) during the last 10 years as well as to the government's success in curbing post-World War II population growth.
During the second half of the 1980s, manufacturing emerged as the most important sector in the Mauritian economy, surpassing the traditional sugar sector in terms of gross foreign exchange earnings, job creation, and contribution to GDP. Non-sugar manufacturing accounted for about 21% of total value added in 1991, compared to 17% in 1985. In addition, the share of non-sugar manufactured exports in the total export earnings rose from under one-half in 1985 to two-thirds in 1991. The performance of the manufacturing sector is largely influenced by the evolution of the EPZ, which is heavily concentrated in textile products. In 1991, about 63% of EPZ firms engaged in textile production (mainly garments and knitwear) and accounted for almost 90% of EPZ employment and over 75% of total EPZ exports. Other EPZ products include leather products, watches, optical goods, cut and polished gems, toys, canned tuna, and cut flowers.
Despite the rapid growth of the EPZ sector in the past several years, sugar still plays a key role in the Mauritian economy. Sugarcane occupies about 45% of Mauritius' total land area and 90% of its cultivated land. The industry accounts for about 10% of GDP (including milling), 15% of employment in larger establishments, and 30% of gross foreign exchange earnings. Sugar is the most important commodity in net foreign exchange earnings, as it has a lower import content (about 20%) than that of manufactured exports (about 70%) in the EPZ sector. Under the Lome Convention, Mauritian exports have guaranteed access to the European Economic Community market at a remunerative price for up to 507,000 metric tons, equivalent to about 75% of local production.
Tourism is the third most important source of foreign exchange earnings after the EPZ and sugar. In recent years, the industry has witnessed remarkable growth, both in terms of gross earnings and tourist arrivals. From 1983 to 1990, the number of tourists increased from 124,000 to 292,000, and gross earnings increased from $34 million to $233 million.
Vulnerabilities and Diversification.
Despite the impressive economic performance of Mauritius, there remain several underlying structural weaknesses in the economy due to the country's overdependence on exports of textile products and sugar and to vulnerability to climatic conditions and unforeseen fluctuations in export prices. As Mauritius enters the second phase of its industrial development, the government plans to reduce these vulnerabilities through aggressive industrial and export market diversification. Accordingly, the government is now promoting investment in electronics, light engineering, computer software, pharmaceuticals, plastics, leather, jewelry, and printing and publishing operations, while at the same time consolidating the textile sector. The government also has taken measures to develop Mauritius as a regional financial center. In 1989, the government set up both the offshore banking center and the Port Louis Stock Exchange. Seven offshore banks operate in Mauritius. The stock exchange started with only 5 companies but, over the last 2 years, has expanded its activities and now has 19 public companies on the "official list." The government also launched an Offshore Business Center in 1991 to promote the establishment of offshore companies in business activities including fund management, consultancy, and services. The success of the next phase of Mauritius' economic development will depend on the availability of skilled labor at all levels and on the country's ability to attract investment in more sophisticated and capital-intensive technologies and higher value-added activities.


Strong ties between Mauritius and the West are due to Mauritius' political heritage and dependence on Western markets. Mauritius has sought to establish close links with the European Community and its member states, particularly the United Kingdom and France, which exercises sovereignty over neighboring Reunion. Considered part of Africa geographically, Mauritius has a solid relationship with other African states and, in 1976, chaired the meeting of the Organization of African Unity. It was chosen as the site for the Secretariat of the Indian Ocean Commission in February 1988. The government has espoused positions often promoted by third world countries. India and Mauritius share close relations based on cultural and ethnic ties. Foreign embassies in Mauritius include Australia, the United Kingdom, China, Egypt, France, India, Madagascar, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, and the United States.


Mauritius does not have a standing army. All military, police, and security functions are carried out by the 6,000-member National Police force. The 1,200-member Special Mobile Force (SMF) and the 500-member National Coast Guard are the only two para-military 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 three coastal patrol craft and an airplane for search and rescue missions and surveillance of territorial waters. The Special Supporting Unit is a 300-member riot-control force. 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. In January 1991, the Mauritian Government approved Mauritian participation in the US International Military Education and Training Program (IMET), opening the way for Mauritian officers to receive military training in the United States.


Official US representation in Mauritius dates from the end of the 18th century. An American consulate was established on the island 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 US ambassador. Relations between the United States and Mauritius, recently highlighted by the June 1991 official visit of Prime Minister Jugnauth to Washington, are good. US trade with and investment in Mauritius are relatively small but growing. Most categories of Mauritian textiles, a major export, are under US import restraints; Mauritius has a modest US sugar quota as well. In 1991, Mauritius imported US goods valued at $15.3 million. The same year, the United States imported $130.9 million in Mauritian products, mostly knitwear and other textiles and sugar. In FY 1991, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) provided $3 million under the Mauritius Industrial Diversification Project, mainly in the form of technical assistance. In addition, USAID provided $165,000 under the FY 1991 US Self-Help Fund Program and $300,000 for population/family planning programs, including supply and training in the use of contraceptives.
Principal US Officials:
Ambassador--vacant Deputy Chief of Mission--David B. Dunn The US embassy in Mauritius is located in the Rogers House, 4th floor, J. Kennedy Street, Port Louis (tel. 230-208-2347; FAX 230- 208-9534).


Visas are not required for US citizens, but travelers should have onward or return tickets. Immunization certificates are not required unless the traveler arrives in Mauritius from an infected area.
Currency, exchange, and banking:
Travelers may bring in any amount of foreign notes or travelers checks.
Mauritius has no major health hazards. Local clinics and pharmacies are adequate. Precautions should be taken before consuming raw fruits and vegetables or tap water.
Reliable international mail, telephone, FAX, and telegraph services are available. Mauritius is nine time zones ahead of eastern standard time.
Regular flights serve Europe, East and Southern Africa, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Australia. Rental cars and taxis are readily available. Traffic moves on the left. Bus service is regular and inexpensive throughout Mauritius. Most roads, though paved, are narrow, twisting, and poorly lit at night.


Published by the United States Department of State -- Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public Communication -- Washington, DC November 1992 -- Editor: Marilyn J. Bremner Department of State Publication 8023--Background Notes Series -- This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission; citation of this source is appreciated. For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402.(###)