By Odeen Ishmael
Venezuela’s decree of May 26, 2015, projects yet another extension of that country’s claim to Guyana’s territory. Previously, the Spanish-speaking republic had generally restricted its spurious territorial assertion to the actual land area—except in the declaration of a previous decree in 1968—but now that is extended into Guyana’s maritime waters as far as the 200-mile limit in a north-easterly direction to abut the maritime Guyana-Suriname boundary.
This enlargement of the Venezuelan claim is obviously a blatant contravention of international law and will not be condoned in any way by the international community.
Nineteenth century claims
In the course of history, Venezuela has presented varying declarations of rights to Guyanese territory. As far back as 1840, Venezuela made its first claim to all territory west of the Essequibo River, thus asserting “ownership” of a sizeable chunk of the then colony of British Guiana. This contention was naturally rebuffed by the British government, but it led to a steady interchange of diplomatic correspondence between Caracas and London in which claims and counter-claims were expressed.
Eventually, on February 21, 1881, in a note to the British Foreign Minister Lord Grenville, the Venezuelan government proposed a frontier line starting from a point one mile to the north of the Moruka River and drawn from there westward to the 60th meridian and then running south along that meridian. This would have granted the Barima district and an extensive part of the upper Cuyuni basin to Venezuela; as a result, the proposal was quickly rejected by the British government.
As diplomatic actions continued, Venezuela contended during the early 1890s that the British Guiana-Venezuela boundary must be drawn along the west bank of the mouth of the Essequibo River to the junction of the Cuyuni with the Mazaruni, then along the east bank of the Essequibo to its confluence with the Rupununi; and then following the watershed between the Essequibo and the Berbice and Corentyne Rivers to the frontier of Brazil.
This position was adjusted in 1898 when Venezuela, in its case presented to the arbitral tribunal, made modifications regarding the district immediately west of the Essequibo River; it posited that the boundary should run from the mouth of the Moruka River southwards to the Cuyuni, near its junction with Mazaruni, and then along the east bank of the Essequibo to the Brazilian frontier. In other words, Venezuela was no longer claiming a strip of land in Essequibo east of a line stretching from the mouth of the Moruka River to the Mazaruni-Cuyuni junction, as well as an area east of the Essequibo-Rupununi junction stretching to the south along the watershed between the Essequibo and the Berbice and Corentyne Rivers.
Of course, the arbitration tribunal in 1899 rejected most of what Venezuela’s demanded. However, it did grant to Venezuela part of the Barima district on the right bank of the Orinoco River and about 5,000 square miles of territory in the upper Cuyuni—areas the British government insisted were parts of British Guiana.
Renewed claims post-1962
When in 1962, Venezuela unilaterally rejected the arbitral award of 1899, it again resuscitated its assertion to the territory it had demanded before the arbitration tribunal—i.e., all lands west of the Essequibo River with the exception of the strip east of a line stretching from the mouth of the Moruka River to the Mazaruni-Cuyuni junction.
However, by 1966, this claim was further extended to include the previously unwanted strip and the islands in the northern part of the Essequibo River. In its note of recognition of the independence of Guyana on May 26, 1966, Venezuela stated that it recognized as territory of Guyana “the one which is located on the east of the right bank of the Essequibo River, and . . . expressly reserves its rights of territorial sovereignty over all the zone located on the west bank of the above-mentioned river.
Therefore, the Guyana-Essequibo territory over which Venezuela expressly reserves its sovereign rights, limits on the east by the new state of Guyana, through the middle line of the Essequibo River, beginning from its source and on to its mouth in the Atlantic Ocean.” By this note, Venezuela was no longer insisting that its “boundary” ran along the east bank of the middle and upper parts of the Essequibo.
It was around this same period Venezuela occupied the Guyana half of the six-square-miles Ankoko Island on the border Wenamu River. Two years later, on July 10, 1968, the escalation continued when President Raul Leoni issued a decree which purported to extend Venezuelan sovereignty over a twelve-mile strip of Guyana’s maritime space on the continental shelf adjacent to the Essequibo Coast.
Venezuelan maps, produced from 1970, began to show yet another adjustment by including the entire area from the eastern bank of the Essequibo, including the islands in the river, as Venezuelan territory. The “middle line” of the Essequibo, as stated in 1966, no longer mattered. On these maps, the western Essequibo region is labelled the “Zone in Reclamation.”
Venezuela’s idea for “practical solution”
Despite all these claims to Guyana’s territory, it became apparent that the Venezuelan government knew that it had no solid grounds to stand on. This was exemplified for the first time of June 23, 1982, when Dr. Sadio Garavini, the Venezuelan Ambassador to Guyana, stated at a press conference at his embassy that the only solution to the issue would involve ceding of some land by Guyana. He insisted that his government no longer intended to demand all the land it was originally claiming. This idea of not pursuing the territorial demand to its entirety, thus, added a new dimension to the situation.
Actually, a similar Venezuelan view was expressed eighteen years later. On August 7, 2000, Oliver Jackman, the UN Secretary General’s personal representative, at a meeting with Guyana’s foreign minister in Georgetown, stated that during a visit to Caracas a few days before he asked President Chavez what Venezuela meant by a “practical settlement of the controversy”—whether Guyana would have to cede territory to Venezuela. According to Jackman, the Venezuelan president said that Guyana did not have to cede “the whole thing” and that a solution of the contention would involve Guyana’s cession of “part of the Essequibo region.”
Significantly, from 2004 until his death in March 2013, President Chavez studiously downplayed the border issue and emphasized economic and political cooperation activities with Guyana.
Initially, President Nicolas Maduro continued Chavez’s policy on the controversy but this began to change by mid-2014 as his popularity plummeted as a result of the serious economic downturn in the country. As his political fortunes began to totter precariously, he apparently became influenced by politically strong sections of the military whose philosophy embraces Venezuelan expansionism. This influence, no doubt, may be responsible for his current action on the territorial issue with Guyana.
Violation of the Geneva Agreement
Maduro’s recent decree of May 2015 is thus another Venezuela’s pretense of purported “sovereignty” over Guyana’s territory. In this instance, the smell of oil under Guyana’s continental shelf may have caused Venezuela to breach the principle expressed in the tenth Mosaic commandment, but in terms of international law it is an outright violation of the Article V(2) of the tri-partite 1966 Geneva Agreement which states explicitly: “No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim, to territorial sovereignty . . . shall be asserted while this Agreement is in force, nor shall any claim whatsoever be asserted otherwise than in the Mixed Commission.”
The Geneva Agreement remains in force, but the Mixed Commission, established by the same treaty, expired in 1970. But as has been seen in various occasions since 1966, the Venezuelan authorities have demonstrated no qualms in defying the Agreement and may continue with more violations as new situations arise in the future.
June 12, 2015
[Dr. Odeen Ishmael, served as Guyana’s ambassador to the USA, Venezuela and Kuwait. He is the author of The Trail of Diplomacy – the Guyana-Venezuela Border Issue (in three volumes.)]