By A. T. Freeman. Originally published on Caribbean Empowerment Blog.
On 14 December, the presidents of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, and Guyana, Irfaan Ali, met in St Vincent and the Grenadines against a backdrop of rising tensions between the two governments over the fate of the disputed territory of Essequibo. The gap between their positions was exemplified by the statements they issued in the lead up to the meeting. Maduro welcomed the talks as an opportunity to take “the path of dialogue with Guyana, in order to achieve a practical solution to the controversy”, while Ali stated that “the land boundary is not a matter for bilateral discussions”. Notwithstanding these divergent opening statements, at the end of the meeting both governments signed the Argyle Joint Declaration in which they committed to, among other things, avoiding the threat or use of force between them, avoiding escalating their dispute, continuing their dialogue and meeting again in Brazil.
In a 2004 visit to Guyana, the then president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, described the border controversy as “a legacy of colonialism and …. the subject of imperialist intrigue to create enmity between Guyana and Venezuela”. His words remain as true today as 19 years ago. Currently, a dishonest narrative is being spun that, “Venezuela wants to attack Guyana and take 70% of its territory and as Caribbean people we should stand with our brothers and sisters in Guyana against the unjustified Venezuelan land grab”. This dishonest narrative is intended to mobilise the people of the Caribbean to defend the plunder of the region’s resources by ExxonMobil and other foreign monopolies and to support the US militarisation in support of this plunder.
Roots of the dispute
The roots of the dispute lie in the conflicting claims of Spanish and British colonialists to the territory they stole on the South American mainland with the aim of exploiting the region’s land and mineral resources. From the early 1500s, the Spanish empire encouraged migration from Europe into the area which now constitutes Venezuela. This European settler colonialism brought with it abuse and enslavement of the indigenous people and of Africans imported into that territory. In a process similar to the one which led to the establishment of the USA in North America, the descendants of the European settlers launched armed struggle to proclaim independence from the Spanish empire. Venezuela emerged in 1811 as the first of these territories to declare independence, before being integrated into Gran Colombia by Simon Bolivar in 1822. It is important to note that although Bolivar is widely described as the Liberator, the enslavement of Africans in what is now Venezuela continued until 1854, despite Bolivar’s promise in 1815 to the Haitian revolutionary government that he would abolish African enslavement in the territories he liberated from Spain. Therefore, unlike Haiti, which abolished slavery in 1804, the independence of Spain’s colonies was not a fully emancipatory process and, like the USA, these new states carried with them into their independence much of the racist and oppressive baggage inherited from the Spanish empire.
In the middle of the 19th century, Britain, using its position as the main superpower at the time and taking advantage of political instability in Venezuela, launched a land grab. It laid claim to the region of the Essequibo, which had previously been claimed by the Spanish empire, and added this territory to its colony of British Guiana. In effect, the British Empire seized land that Venezuela felt it had a right to inherit on the basis that the Spanish empire had previously seized it from the indigenous people. This is the imperial essence of the dispute. The protests of the Venezuelans eventually led in 1899 to the Paris Arbitral Award whose ruling legitimised the British land grab and fixed the current boundary between Venezuela and Guyana. In 1949 Severo Mallet-Prevost, who had been appointed by the USA to represent Venezuela at the Paris Arbitral proceedings, since the Venezuelans were not present there, posthumously published a memorandum in which he described the corrupt practices that Britain had undertaken to achieve the results of the 1899 Award. Consequently, Venezuela raised this matter at the UN in 1962, and in the lead up to Guyana’s independence in 1966, a new agreement, the Geneva Agreement, was signed between Britain, Venezuela and the yet to be independent Guyana in order to find a solution to the border issue.
However, the imperialist intrigues which had given birth to the controversy continued under the conditions of the Geneva Agreement. It is clear that the hands of the US and its trans-national corporations are never far from the aggravation and flaring up of this issue from time to time. For example, in the 1980s when Forbes Burnham was president of Guyana, the CIA accused him of trying to set up a Cuban military bridgehead in that country and actively used Venezuela, which at that time was one of its client states, to destabilise Guyana through aggravating the border dispute. Speaking on this issue at the 20th Summit of the Rio Group in 2008, Hugo Chavez stated that, “back in the day, when Guyana was governed by this left-wing guy, Forbes Burnham, there was almost a war between Venezuela and Guyana, for an old territorial dispute, that almost no one remembers, because it had been sitting there since time immemorial (…) American officials came, I remember, to warmonger against Guyana (..) they wanted us to invade Guyana, using the territorial dispute as an excuse, to oust the left-wing government of Forbes Burnham”. In fact, in 1981, in the context of the threats being levelled against Guyana by the then Venezuela government, Cuban foreign minister Ricardo Alarcon, on a visit to Guyana, denounced Venezuela as expansionist and declared Cuba’s solidarity with Guyana. It is one of the ironies of history that while in the 1980s, the US was instigating Venezuela to destabilise Guyana by using the border dispute as a pretext, today the tables have turned and the US is instigating Guyana to destabilise Venezuela, using the same border dispute as a pretext.
Following the signing of the Geneva Agreement, the border dispute, like many others around the world, rumbled on without Guyana and Venezuela being able to resolve it. As per this agreement, the two countries referred it to the good offices of the UN Secretary General in 1990 to see if this could lead to a solution. As late as October 2013, some 23 years after the referral, the Secretary General’s personal representative, Mr. Norman Girvan, reported that he had held very productive separate meetings with the foreign ministers of Guyana and Venezuela, both of whom emphasized the excellent bilateral relations that then existed between the two countries. Both countries acknowledged the progress that had been made using the Good Offices process, expressed confidence in it and welcomed further initiatives from Mr Girvan to move towards a solution.
On May 20, 2015 ExxonMobil announced that it had made a significant oil discovery in the seas off Guyana. After that, everything changed.
Violating the Geneva Agreement
In December 2016, the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote to both Venezuela and Guyana, stating that he would terminate the Good Offices process at the end of 2017 and that if by then the controversy had not been resolved, he would “choose the International Court of Justice as the next means of settlement, unless the Governments of Guyana and Venezuela jointly requested that he refrain from doing so”. Ban Ki-moon’s action was an open violation of both the principles and text of the Geneva Agreement which represented the legal basis on which he was involved in the border dispute in the first place. The agreement makes it clear in its preamble that the dispute should be “amicably resolved in a manner acceptable to both parties” and its Article IV (2), on which the Secretary General claimed authority to unilaterally impose a solution on one of the parties, provides him with no such authority. It states, that
“……If the means so chosen do not lead to a solution of the controversy, ………… the Secretary-General of the United Nations shall choose another of the means stipulated in Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations, and so on until the controversy has been resolved or until all the means of peaceful settlement there contemplated have been exhausted”.
Article 33 (1) of the UN Charter reads,
“The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice”.
It is clear from reading both the text of the agreement and Article 33 of the UN Charter that the Secretary General’s action was born of the very imperialist intrigue that Hugo Chavez highlighted. First he breached the principle outlined in the preamble that a solution acceptable to both parties needed to be found. Secondly, he failed to exhaust all the possibilities listed in Article 33 for seeking a peaceful resolution and, finally, he contradicted the requirement in Article IV (2) that the measures listed in Article 33 should be gone through “until the controversy has been resolved”. Obviously, if a means of dispute settlement is imposed on one party, that party is going to feel that an injustice has been done to it and so the controversy will not be resolved. It is crystal clear that the agreement did not give the Secretary General any authority to impose a solution on one of the parties as Ban Ki-moon advocated. However, in January 2018, his successor, Antonio Guterres, carried through with the anti-Venezuela intrigues and selected the International Court of Justice [ICJ] as the means to be used to settle the border dispute. Following this decision, Guyana instituted proceedings against Venezuela at the ICJ in March 2018.
The involvement of the ICJ in the imperialist intrigues around this dispute is another example of the use of the so-called international legal institutions for the naked pursuit of the political and geo-strategic objectives of the US and its trans-national corporations. This practice only brings these organisations into further disrepute and destroys the remnants of whatever legitimacy they may have once had. For example, the same ICJ on 16 March 2022, less than 3 weeks after Russia began its “special military operation” in Ukraine, issued provisional measures against Russia which demanded that it immediately end its military actions in Ukraine. However, over 2 months into what has been described as the first televised genocide taking place in Gaza, the ICJ has issued no provisional measures or anything else against Israel. Venezuela obviously understood that the referral to the ICJ was an attempt to repeat the 1899 Arbitral award injustice, but this time in the service of US rather than British imperialism. It recognised that agreeing to it would be tantamount to accepting ExxonMobil and the US as the final judges on this issue. It has therefore rejected the involvement of the ICJ in the matter.
The current People’s Progressive Party (PPP) government in Guyana, on the other hand, likes to make a virtue of its commitment to “abide by the ICJ ruling”. But this stand only exposes the fact that they are up to their necks in the US imperialist intrigues against Venezuela. The PPP has been screaming about defending the territorial integrity of Guyana, going so far as to involve the US Southern Command in the dispute. However, now it wants the world to believe that it would willingly surrender 70% of Guyana’s territory to Venezuela, if the ICJ made such a ruling. This is particularly striking given that in the ICJ process there is no possibility of appealing a ruling. If that is really the stance of the PPP, then this organisation definitely has no commitment to the territorial integrity of Guyana. In reality, the PPP touts its position because the US and ExxonMobil have made it clear to them that the ICJ will produce one result and one result only, namely a ruling in favour of ExxonMobil. The US strategy is clearly to engineer an ICJ judgement on Essequibo in its favour and then use its Southern Command to enforce it. Unfortunately, the PPP is complicit in this intrigue. This complicity is a sign of how far the PPP has degenerated. It is a long way from the party of 1953 led by Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham which stood for the people of Guyana, leading to the US backed October invasion that year, in which Britain violently overthrew the elected PPP government. Seventy years later, the PPP has degenerated into a willing instrument in the hands of US imperialism.
A people-centred solution
The Venezuela-Guyana border dispute is an open sore, which external, imperial forces pick at and aggravate whenever it suits their interests. In doing so, they threaten peace and security in the Caribbean. Today in contravention of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States [CELAC] declaration that the Caribbean should remain a zone of peace, there is talk of the US establishing a military base in Guyana to defend the ongoing plunder of the oil resources which sees ExxonMobil take 86% of the revenue and leave 14% for Guyana.
For over 100 years, attempts to resolve this dispute have been based on the Eurocentric, colonialist concept that a country is a land mass and the resources it contains exist only for exploitation and profit. These attempts have so far failed miserably. It is time to abandon this approach and find a people-centred solution to the dispute. As long ago as the 13th century, the people of Mali had concluded that to speak of a country is first and foremost to speak of its people. This is what needs to be put at the centre of efforts to resolve the dispute. Today the indigenous people who live in the Essequibo crisscross the so-called international border in ways that they have done for thousands of years, paying no attention to this foreign imposition. It is absurd that in 2023, claims to the Essequibo are being made on the basis of the colonial crimes of the Spanish and British empires with no-one taking account of the views of the indigenous people. It is a crime that the oil resources associated with this region have been handed over to foreign corporations to plunder to the detriment of the people of the Essequibo, Guyana and Venezuela.
Across the Caribbean, we must demand that both Venezuela and Guyana stop escalating the situation, stop involving the US corporations and military in the dispute, stop participating in imperialist intrigues and pivot instead to a search for a solution which starts with the involvement of the people of both countries, particularly the indigenous people of the Essequibo, to finally resolve this matter in a way that benefits the people and not foreign monopoly corporations.
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