GUYANA: Time for Venezuela to stop bullying little Guyana over 180-year-old border dispute– By Mohamed Hamaludin

 — By MOHAMED HAMALUDIN

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro and opposition forces got together in August to work out an accord which would hopefully ease international sanctions in a country with the largest oil reserves and one of the worst economic slumps.

The meeting took place in Norway – the second in two years–and participants managed to unite on one issue which had nothing to do with sanctions: a 180-year-old claim to “the historic and inalienable rights of Venezuela over the territory of Essequibo.”

That territory is two-thirds of Guyana, whose government said it “firmly rejects the agreement [as] an overt threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Guyana,” adding, “Guyana cannot be used as an altar of sacrifice for settlement of Venezuela’s internal political differences.” The opposition APNU+AFC Coalition affirmed the country’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”  The government and the opposition noted the issue is before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the latest stage of a dispute which began in 1841 involving two wholly unequal neighbors.     

Map of Guyana – Disputed Area being claimed by Venezuela

Venezuela, with 28.5 million people, has 340,560 square miles; Guyana, 782,766 people and 83,000 square miles. The Venezuelan Army is 63,000-strong; the Guyana Defence Force, 4,150.Venezuela has crude oil reserves of about 304 billion barrels, which it started exploiting in 1914; Guyana, which only recently started pumping oil, has about nine billion barrels. And Venezuela has incorporated the 61,000-square-mile “Guayana Essequiba” into its official maps and classroom lessons.

The claim started when Venezuela accused Britain of encroaching on its territory after acquiring what is now Guyana from the Netherlands by treaty 27 years earlier. That treaty did not specify the western boundary and, according to U.S. Department of State archives, Britain commissioned German surveyor Robert Schomburgk to settle it. His 1835 survey produced the Schomburgk Line which, in fact, added 30,000 square miles to the British colony. Venezuela objected, saying it was being deprived of territory granted on independence from Spain on July 5, 1911, and the boundary marker should be the Essequibo River.

Gold was discovered in the disputed region and Britain claimed an additional 33,000 square miles west of the Schomburgk Line. Venezuela protested in 1876, broke off diplomatic relations with Britain and appealed to the United States for help, citing the Monroe Doctrine, named for President James Monroe, who issued a declaration in 1823 barring colonization in the Americas and European interference in their affairs.

In 1895, Secretary of State Richard Olney invoked the Monroe Doctrine to demand that Britain submit the dispute to arbitration. British Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury responded that the Doctrine had no standing in international law. President Grover Cleveland persuaded Congress to authorize the appointment of a boundary commission whose findings would be enforced “by every means.” Such language sparked talk of war between the two superpowers. Salisbury blinked.

The commission, in its Arbitral Award of 1899, rejected Britain’s land grab but affirmed the Schomburgk Line as the boundary marker. Venezuela ratified the decision but later claimed an “Anglo-Russian conspiracy” was cheating it out of territory and rejected the award. Another border commission, created in 1966 with representatives from Venezuela, Guyana and Britain, failed to reach a compromise. Venezuela supported an uprising in the disputed territory in 1969 but agreed in 1970 to a 12-year moratorium on the dispute under the Protocol of Port of Spain, which it refused to extend.

Relations deteriorated when Guyana authorized oil exploration vessels to move into the waters off the disputed territory. The Venezuelan navy seized one of the vessels and Guyana complained to the ICJ. Tensions flared up again in 1999 when Venezuelan troops invaded the disputed region. Guyana also accused Venezuela of an incursion in 2007 and damaging gold-mining dredges. The ICJ took up the dispute in 2018 but Venezuela rejected the court’s jurisdiction and boycotted a hearing on June 30, 2020.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres referred the dispute back to the ICJ in 2018 at a time of additional provocations by Venezuela, including its navy’s seizing of an oil research vessel, confronting another and detaining 12 fishermen.

With no hope of winning a war with Venezuela, Guyana turned to diplomacy, including successfully courting Brazil and encouraging construction of a road linking the two countries that would provide an outlet to the sea for its large southern neighbor.

Guyana’s late President Forbes Burnham ardently supported the Non-Aligned Movement, cultivating friends in the Third World on whom he could call for at least diplomatic support in the United Nations should Venezuela invade. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), of which Guyana is a member, also pledged support.

The government also allowed cult leader Jim Jones to settle in the disputed region more than 900 members of his Jonestown commune, almost all Americans. Jonestown was apparently intended as a buffer to any invasion by Venezuela because, if the Americans were put in peril, the United States would respond. That plan collapsed when most of the settlers died in an unrelated mass murder-suicide tragedy on Nov.18, 1978.

Similarly, it is doubtful that Venezuela would actually invade now because of the presence of major oil companies, notably the American giant corporation ExxonMobil, pumping oil under the auspices of Guyana. But the threat remains.

The ICJ is still to rule on the case but the fact that Venezuela signed off on the Schomburgk Line should weigh heavily in Guyana’s favor. And, of course, as Tim Padgett, Latin America correspondent with Miami public radio station WLRN recently noted, once Venezuela could claim it was the little guy at the mercy of the big boys; now, Venezuela is the big boy bullying little Guyana.

And Guyanese will again sing, as native son native son calypsonian Dave Martins did in the 1970s, “Not a blade of grass.”

Mohamed Hamaludin is a Guyana-born journalist who worked for several years at The Guyana Chronicle in the 1970s and on publications in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands before emigrating in 1984 to the United States, where he worked at The Miami Times, the Miami Herald and the South Florida Times.  Though now retired, he writes a column for The South Florida Times (sfltimes.com) in which the above column first appeared. He may be reached at hamal1942@gmail.com.

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On 09/23/2021 at 5:53 am

    Reginald Chee-A-Tow wrote:

    I thought that this matter was settled years ago.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 09/23/2021 at 8:35 am

    Robert Gonsalves wrote:

    It doesn’t look good for Guyana. I see no end to the dispute unless Venezuela invades and there is war with reprisals against Venezuela supported by the US.

    The Venezuelan people fully support their governments in this dispute. For most of them this disputed area is theirs. They grew up being taught that at school.

  • wally n  On 09/23/2021 at 11:08 am

    Guyana is in a card game…with no cards. This is nothing but, who you know, who has the most to gain. I think Guyana should pump every drop of oil, every sniff of gas, from the present agreed areas, and if possible from the disputed areas. There is so much dishonesty in these commissions, it is possible they might force Guyana to suspend all activities. SO PUMP BABY PUMP!!!

  • Clyde Duncan  On 09/23/2021 at 1:24 pm

    Eddie in the UK wrote:

    As Forbes Burnham rightly prophesied, “not a blade of grass” shall be yielded. They can afford to be presumptuous because of a weak nincompoop government in Guyana. Venezuela can preach or threaten for as long as it wishes, Guyana is protected by higher and greater powers beyond their comprehension.

    We as inhabitants of the Promised land have nothing to fear. If they are visionary, the Venezuelans should direct their attention to the destruction facing them and start repenting for their greed and arrogance against God’s people.

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