A visit to Guyana by Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro Moros and a Joint Declaration issued by the two governments on August 31 represent a great leap forward in relations between the countries, but not without antagonism from within Venezuela.
Shortly after Guyana’s President Donald Ramotar joined President Maduro in expressing “optimism for the potential that exists for an enhanced relationship between CARICOM and Venezuela that would redound to the benefit of their peoples”, El Universal – a major Venezuelan newspaper – carried a story on the Internet claiming that the Venezuelan Navy had “raised the alarm” about an oil concession granted by the Guyana government “in front of the Venezuelan Atlantic front of Orinoco Delta”.
The newspaper quoted only “a spokesman who asked not to be named”, thereby raising misgivings about the motives behind the story. But it said the unnamed source “revealed that the Navy was concerned about the way this issue is being tackled, namely, Venezuela’s claim over the Essequibo and its silence over multiple actions carried out by Guyana in the area”.
According to the newspaper, its unidentified source “also remarked that some officials at the Venezuelan Foreign Office were worried about this issue, particularly in the Border Division. Notwithstanding, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua has ignored their recommendations”.
Whether or not the content of the El Universal story is reliable, the fact that it has been carried indicates that groups in Venezuela are ready to maintain and heighten a Venezuelan claim to much of Guyana’s territory. Were it one newspaper story alone, the fomenting of discontent could be ignored, but an Internet trawl produced other statements and writings indicating that there may be a concerted effort by elements in Venezuela to maintain hostility over the Venezuela-Guyana controversy even as the governments of the two countries “recommitted that the search for a peaceful and practical settlement of the controversy in accordance with the Geneva Agreement of 1966, was one that should be pursued under the (UN) Good Offices Process.”
In this regard, Presidents Maduro and Ramotar have wisely agreed to the re-appointment of Jamaican-born Professor Norman Girvan as the Good Offices representative of the UN Secretary-General. Girvan is a former Secretary-General of the Association of Caribbean States (2000-2004) and was first given the Good Offices role in 2010.
The border controversy has existed in its second incarnation since just before the independence of Guyana (formerly British Guiana) from Britain in 1966. At that time, the then Venezuelan government re-opened the “full, perfect and final” settlement of the border dispute by an Arbitral Panel of distinguished judges in 1899.
Subsequently, an agreement between Britain, Guyana and Venezuela signed in Geneva in 1966, agreed to an amicable resolution to the controversy and established a mixed commission which would seek ‘satisfactory solutions for the practical settlement of the controversy between Venezuela and the United Kingdom which arose as consequence of the Venezuela contention that the Arbitral decision of 1899 was null and void’ because of an alleged fraud.
For its part, the Guyana government did not accept that the 1899 decision was invalid and held that Guyana’s participation in the discussion was only to resolve Venezuela’s assertions.
In the event, the controversy has persisted despite several attempts to resolve it. When the mixed commission’s four-year term expired, the governments of Venezuela, Britain and Guyana signed the Protocol of Port of Spain in 1970 to allow the parties to explore the possibility of improving their relations while effectively putting the border claim into abeyance for 12 years. Then the matter passed to the Good Offices process of the UN Secretary-General.
Over the ensuing years, there have been several border incidents and, in its attempts to develop the Essequibo region, Guyana has had to endure the uncertainty of Venezuelan reactions. Consequently, the country’s economic development was retarded.
Even the first government of then President Hugo Chavez maintained the Venezuelan claim to territory within Guyana. It was after he launched his Bolivarian Socialist Revolution that Chavez altered his stance on the border controversy and became open to development activity by Guyana in the area that Venezuela claims.
It has long been known that the Cuban government did not support border wars between non-aligned states, and actively promoted the notion of a strong alliance of Latin American and Caribbean states to secure the region against external influences particularly from the United States.
Chavez would undoubtedly have taken account of Cuba’s position in modifying his stance on the Guyana border issue, according Venezuela’s acceptability and security in the region greater magnitude than an unconvincing territorial claim.
If Chavez’s new position brought a thaw to what had hitherto been lukewarm if not cold relations between the two countries, Maduro’s joint declaration with Ramotar and his subsequent public statements have brought new warmth to the relationship.
Maduro is reported as saying “we are ready to work through the United Nations as the sole process” in settling the border issue. His remarks were strengthened by a statement in Venezuela by his Foreign Minister Elias Jaua reported by the Venezuelan News Agency on September 3.
Jaua said: “If there is something that affects our sovereignty we will go to the Good Officer. We’re not going to invade Guyana because that does not make a Bolivarian government. Venezuela is a country of peace who knows how to defend its sovereignty and the right of the Venezuelan people through the mechanism of good offices”.
To all this must be added the new impetus set out in the joint declaration of Presidents Maduro and Ramotar for increased trade, a bilateral drugs agreement, Spanish language training for Guyanese and English language training for Venezuelans, and a direct air link between the two countries.
Of wider significance, the easing of tension and the implementation of co-operation measures between Guyana and Venezuela present an opportunity for collaboration between the 15-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and Venezuela including in areas such as drugs trafficking, air and sea transportation, and energy.
Undoubtedly, despite the positive and constructive declaration of the Presidents of Guyana and Venezuela, the border controversy remains a problem in relations between the two countries.
The elements in Venezuela who appeal to jingoism and nationalist sentiment on the issue however uninformed and lacking in legal foundation it may be, will not go away nor will they end agitation of the issue. Therefore, while a great leap forward has been made and President Maduro should be congratulated not only for the practical and positive position he has adopted but for going to Guyana to express it and for sticking to it once he got back to Venezuela, the need for vigilance remains.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Research Fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat)