By Mark Wilson
Trinidad Guardian Sunday October 20th, 2013
A weekend cruise to Venezuela’s tourist paradise, the island of Margarita? Sounds good?
Not if you’re the crew of the Teknik Perdana doing a sea-floor survey for a US oil company; Anadarko, inside Guyana’s zoo-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
On October 10, a Venezuelan naval vessel blocked the ship’s progress, then forced it to set course for Margarita, more than 400 miles to the west.
Anardarko won a Guyanese licence to explore the Roraima block in June last year. It lies in deep waters, far to the east of Trinidad and north of Guyana. It is a long way from Malaysian.
Teknik Perdana is Malaysian owned but flies a Panama flag. Its captain is Ukrainian. Five crew members are American, two British, two Russian, two Brazilian, one from France, and 14 Indonesian. Scope, then, for a worldwide squabble.
The crew were questioned but were to be released. The ship would be free to go, although the captain was formally charged with ignoring Venezuela’s purported rules for a “security zone” in Guyanese waters.
The aggrieved parties behaved nicely. The US, in mid-shutdown last week, made no audible protest. Teknik Perdana’s Malaysian owners thanked Venezuela for being nice to the crew. The Guyanese response was modest in the extreme.
Foreign ministers from Venezuela and Guyana met in Trinidad recently. They will meet again in February. Nobody went nuclear.
But there’s a clear signal that Venezuela will not tolerate off-shore surveys – still less exploratory drilling-in the big slice of Guyana’s EEZ which it claims for its own.
East of Trinidad, the waters offshore from Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana are thought to be oil and gas rich. The Zaedyusl well offshore from French Guiana in 2011 found around 840 million barrels.
Maritime border disputes have delayed exploration, Suriname in 2000 chased off a rig operating under a Guyanese licence in waters claimed by both countries.
That tiff was resolved by the UN Law of the Sea tribunal in 2007, largely in Guyana’s favour. Suriname last month agreed a maritime boundary with French Guiana.
Trinidad and Tobago’s dispute with Barbados was settled in 2006, also by a UN tribunal. The EEZ boundary with Grenada was agreed in 2010 and with Venezuela in 1990-though by chance, a Tobago fishing boat was briefly held by Venezuela last week.
But Venezuela’s claim to most of Guyana’s waters remains intractable. It is based on a very iffy claim to the two-thirds of Guyana lying west of the Essequibo river.
Arbitration in 1899 produced a “full, perfect, and final settlement” for the land frontier. That was greeted as a Venezuela victory, rejecting British claims to the Orinoco delta.
If anyone had a good historic claim in 1899, it was the indigenous Amerindians. But they didn’t get much of a look-in.
Venezuela accepted the 1899 award until 1962, then changed its mind. Guyana was then in pre-independence turmoil, with Cheddi Jagan’s elected government labeled by British and the US as dangerously Marxist.
Nice timing, Venezuela dredged up a 1944 document which claimed that Britain had unfairly tinkered with the 1899 tribunal.
Fifty-one years on, Venezuela’s claim has achieved nothing- but has been a continuing pain in the neck for Guyana.
After Guyana’s independence in 1966, Venezuela seized the Guyanese half of Ankoko island in the Cuyuni river, a few square kilometers of forest.
Venezuela blocked Guyanese membership of the Organisation of American States (OAS) until 1990. In 1981, they opposed World Bank finance for Guyana’s planned Upper Mazaruni hydro-electric project-which, to be fair, always looked a doubtful proposition.
Hugo Chavez re-slated the Venezuelan claim in his 1999 constitution. Senior Venezuelan politicians made a point of visiting Ankoko in 2001. But latterly, Chavez softened his stance.
On august 31, his successor Nicolas Maduro, flew to Georgetown. “any issues,” he said, “either serious or not, will be solved peacefully through diplomatic channels.” So, not by his navy.
On the same day, a right-wing Venezuelan pressure group with soldiers in tow stirred up trouble in the remote Guyanese border village of Eteringbang, people like that clearly want to call the shots.
Unfortunately, the UN Law of the Sea Convention will not be much use to Guyana. Venezuela is one of only seven coastal states worldwide which have refused to sign. Another is Anadarko’s own government, the United States. Meanwhile, the maritime boundary based on the existing land frontier still needs to be fine-tuned.
Most of Guyana’s oil imports now come from Venezuela on easy PetroCaribe terms, paid for in part with Guyanese rice. Shipments of low-cost Venezuelan fertilizer, also under PetroCaribe, kicked in this month. Guyana will not want to sour this relationship.
But offshore oil could bring big money, Guyana needs friends. Caricom has said precisely nothing to defend Guyana’s sovereignty. St. Vincent, Dominica and Antigua are members of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, or Alba. The OAS and the Unasur have kept quiet.
Guyana has enthusiastically flag-waved in support of Argentina’s claim to the Falklands. Will Cristina Fernandez return the favour in an hour of need? Don’t hold your breath.