It is, to say the least, unfortunate that Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, has allowed domestic pressures to cause him to take the extreme measure of issuing a decree on May 27, creating the “Atlantic coast of Venezuela” that includes sovereignty over Guyana’s territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean off the Essequibo region and stretches eastward across the rest of the country into part of Suriname’s maritime space.
Effectively the decree claims all the territorial waters within a 200 miles range and blocks Guyana’s access to the Atlantic Ocean. Allowed to stand, Guyana would be trapped by Venezuela as the map below shows.
President Maduro’s decree is, of course, illegal and would not stand-up in international law. The Venezuelan government would know this. It would also know that the only way it could enforce the decree is by military action that would be condemned by the international community with appropriate sanctions taken against an aggressor.
So, why take this course of action, particularly as it is one that his predecessor and former leader, Hugo Chavez, had spurned?
The answer lies, to some extent, in the hostile domestic politics of Venezuela, which have intensified in the wake of deteriorating economic conditions, creating widespread hardship.
Part of the opposition’s campaign against the Maduro government is that it is “giving away” the country’s patrimony to Guyana. The latter assertion is based on the mythology, perpetrated for decades in schools in Venezuela, that the country was “robbed” by Britain of the Essequibo region of Guyana.
Two further factors are: the Venezuelan government’s resentment of Exxon Mobil that has recently declared an oil find in the Guyana waters that Venezuela now claims by the May 27 decree; and the attitude of a section of the navy that is keen to flex its muscles.
On the latter point, after Guyana’s then President Donald Ramotar joined President Maduro on 31 August 2013 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. Two months later, the Venezuelan Navy evicted the RV Teknik Perdana from Guyanese waters. The survey boat was being used by Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp to carry out seismic surveys. At that time Guyana sought negotiations with Venezuela on maritime delimitations, but the authorities in Caracas took it no further.
Against this background it is not surprising that, under the decree, the Navy has been given authority to monitor the area and force international vessels, including those from Guyana, to identify themselves and request permission to navigate them.
The oil find by Exxon Mobil would also have irritated the Venezuelan government. The two have a long-standing dispute arising from the oil company’s properties in Venezuela nationalized by the government in 2007. Last year, an arbitration court awarded Exxon Mobil US$1.6 billion in compensation.
President Maduro is a man who, in his present circumstances, feels under siege. Apart from the economic difficulties his government faces, on June 9, he expressed anger that the former Prime Minister of Spain, Felipe González, had left Venezuela in a Colombian armed forces jet sent to collect him by the presidency of Colombia. He denounced “a Madrid-Bogotá-Miami anti-Venezuela axis”.
González was in Venezuela to meet and offer his support for imprisoned leaders of the local political opposition. All of this may account for what seems to be an irrational act in issuing the May 27 decree.
A number of Caribbean countries are beneficiaries of the Petro Caribe arrangement with Venezuela under which they pay for oil on a part cash-part loan basis. Guyana is one of the beneficiary countries. Regional governments have been grateful to the Venezuelan government for its assistance and they have all stated this in giving political support to both the Chavez and Maduro governments.
Nonetheless, there will be regional, Commonwealth and international concerns over the implications of the May 27 decree which flies in the face of the 1897 treaty that obliged Venezuela and Britain (now Guyana) to accept the result of an Arbitration as a “full, perfect and final” settlement of the Guyana-Venezuela boundaries.
The award, given in 1899, set the boundaries that now exist between the two countries. They were boundaries fully accepted by Venezuela for 63 years until 1962, as British Guiana moved towards independence, when the then Venezuelan President, Romulo Betancourt, sought to re-open the issue on the spurious claim that Venezuela was “robbed”.
Both the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the 53-member Commonwealth of Nations have repeatedly affirmed “their unequivocal support for the maintenance and preservation of Guyana’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. The Guyana government has already alerted these two bodies and the UN Secretary-General of its alarm over the decree which its Foreign Minister, Carl Greenidge, described in parliament on June 10 as a “baseless and shameless attempt at usurping Guyana’s territory”.
The first opportunity that Guyana and its regional partners will have to explore the issue at the international level comes up at the CARICOM Heads of Government Conference to be held in Barbados in early July at which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will be a special guest.
For more than 25 years, successive Secretaries-General have appointed a “Good Offices” person to promote a settlement to the problem, but these efforts have been to no avail and are now fully exhausted.
Secretary-General Ban now has the option to choose another of the means of peaceful settlement in accordance with Article 33 of the United Nations Charter. The most effective would be to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to determine once and for all the Venezuelan claim that it was robbed and the binding arbitral award of 1899 is null.
Guyana will obviously be encouraging the UN Secretary-General to take this course of action even as, in the words of Foreign Minister Greenidge, it “stands ready to continue discussions with Venezuela with respect to our bilateral relations”. In the interest of peace, prosperity and development in the Hemisphere, all countries should be encouraging the Venezuelan government to withdraw the May 27 decree and to seek a final settlement in the ICJ where the world’s most experienced and talented jurists would make a determination binding on all.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and a Senior Fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto)