Venezuela has no legal basis for claiming Guyana’s land

| April 24, 2016

Last Monday (April 18th) The Ramphal Institute once again delivered an impacting and immensely insightful lecture on the brewing Guyana – Venezuela border controversy. The keynote speaker at this high profile event that attracted the interest of several Caribbean High Commissioners and their consular staff; members of the academic community and of course, several concerned Guyanese was none other than the Honourable Carl Greenidge, Vice President of Guyana.

Other supporting speakers or discussants were Professor Nick Clifford, Head of Department of Geography and Director of King’s College School of Global Affairs and Guyanese born Professor Richard Drayton, Rhodes Professor of Imperial History, Department of History, King’s College London. The event was coordinated by Ramphal Institute Director and former Head of Trade and Regional Cooperation at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Edwin Laurent.

Guyana High Commissioner Hamley Case at podium with Ramphal Institute director Edwin Laurent sitting. . Photo courtesy CaribDirect

Guyana High Commissioner Hamley Case at podium with Ramphal Institute director Edwin Laurent sitting. . Photo courtesy CaribDirect

The Context

Venezuela claimed more than half of the territory of the British colony of Guyana at the time of the Latin American wars of independence, a dispute that was settled by arbitration in 1899 after the Venezuela Crisis of 1895. In 1962 Venezuela declared that it would no longer abide by the arbitration decision, which ceded mineral-rich territory in the Orinoco basin to Guyana. The disputed area is called Guayana Esequiba by Venezuela. A border commission was set up in 1966 with representatives from Guyana, Venezuela and Great Britain, but failed to reach agreement. Venezuela vetoed Guyana’s bid to become a member of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1967. In 1969 Venezuela backed an abortive uprising in the disputed area.

Under intense diplomatic pressure, Venezuela agreed in 1970 to a 12-year moratorium on the dispute with the Protocol of Port-of-Spain. In 1981, Venezuela refused to renew the protocol. However, with changes to the governments of both countries relations improved, to the extent that Venezuela sponsored Guyana’s 1990 bid for OAS membership. However, in 2013 the Venezuelan navy seized an oil exploration vessel operating in disputed waters claimed as Exclusive Economic Zones by both Venezuela and Guyana. Source: Wikipedia

Guyana Vice President Hon Carl Greenidge. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

Guyana Vice President Hon Carl Greenidge. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

The Lecture

Introduced by newly appointed High Commissioner for the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, H.E Hamley Case, VP Greenidge wasted no time in setting out a summary of the context surrounding the ensuing dispute between Guyana and Venezuela. A professional economist by training and former Secretary General ad interim of the ACP Group of States (Lome Convention/Cotonou Agreement) in Brussels, Belgium, Carl Greenidge said from the outset that the claim made by Venezuela has no basis in law. He provided a chronological account of events from 1830 when Venezuela raised the issue of its border with Great Britain whose colony of British Guiana (as Guyana was known) bounded Venezuela on the east. VP Greenidge touched on the United States’ role in negotiating arbitration under President Grover Cleveland in 1894 (who threatened Great Britain with war if they didn’t consider arbitration) which eventually lead to the Treaty of Washington in 1897 which essentially put the issue to bed stating it was ‘ a final settlement to the border dispute’ and observed both parties pledging themselves to regard the award as a “Full, Perfect and Final Settlement”.

Hon Carl Greenidge making point about the boundary between Guyana and Venezuela. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

Hon Carl Greenidge making point about the boundary between Guyana and Venezuela. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

VP Greenidge recounts, that even though ‘the dispute was duly settled’ in 1899 evidenced by the Arbitral Tribunal handing down the Award on 3rd October of that year with a full and detailed description of the boundary between Guyana and Venezuela, Venezuela still found cause to breach the treaty in 1962. The basis for the breach was provided by a young US jurist who represented the Venezuelan cause  who wrote a letter to the Venezuelan government purporting to have evidence that the arbitral award was obtained by fraud. The issue was so absurd that the jurist having been awarded the highest honour in the land (Venezuela) insisted that the letter not be made public until after his death. The main implication of this was to suggest some complicity on the part of the Russian chair of the arbitration panel in a fraudulent scheme to deny Venezuela of its land. The actual allegation centered on corruption and collusion between London and the chair of the tribunal.

Photo courtesy http://www.independent.co.uk

Photo courtesy http://www.independent.co.uk

VP Greenidge suggests this recent occurrence in 1962 by Venezuela to claim Guyana’s territory smacks of a nationalistic imperative to wage a new war of the Spanish Succession, as beyond this there is no reasonable explanation. As a direct consequence Venezuelan and British representatives along with a representative from British Guiana met in London in November 1965 to explore a possible solution and jointly issued a communique saying that both sides should work to “find satisfactory solutions for a practical settlement of the controversy which has arisen as a result of the Venezuelan contention that the arbitral award of 1899 about the frontier between British Guiana and Venezuela is null and void”.

Cross section of audience. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

Cross section of audience. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

In February 1966 it was mutually agreed that Great Britain would intervene in a last ditch effort to resolve this contention by the meeting of a bilateral commission in Geneva Switzerland where an agreement was signed enabling it to seek “satisfactory solutions for a practical settlement of the controversy which has arisen as a result of the Venezuelan contention that the arbitral award of 1899 about the frontier between British Guiana and Venezuela is null and void”. NB: This is a legally binding international treaty. The joint commission was given four years within which to complete the task.

Hon Carl Greenidge making point about the absurdity of Venezuela's claim. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

Hon Carl Greenidge making point about the absurdity of Venezuela’s claim. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

Mr Greenidge outlined that there was a mutually agreed 12 year moratorium which Venezuela broke in 1982 which resulted in Guyana and Venezuela requesting the United Nations Secretary General to intercede by suggesting a method to resolve the controversy. The Vice President alluded to but did not elaborate on the many acts of aggression exhibited by Venezuela in the intervening years up until 2016.

Some of the infringements include:

1982 – Venezuela approached the European Economic Community (EEC) in an effort to dissuade it from participating in Guyana’s development

1999 – Use of military threat – F-16 military aircraft of the Venezuelan Air Force have been intruding Guyana’s airspace as a show of force.

1999 – New constitution purports to annex Essequibo

2000 – Attempt to obstruct $300,000,000.00 investment

2000 – Publicly stated opposition to concessions granted to Jilin Industries (Guyana)

2006 – Use of military force – Venezuelan armed forces bombed a pontoon in the Cuyuni River killing one Guyanese victim.

2012 – Venezuela objected to Guyana’s submission of a claim to an Extended Continental Shelf to the United Nations

2013 – Venezuela’s incursion into Guyana’s territory – Venezuelan soldiers landed at Eteringbang with weapons in spite of objections by the Guyana Defence Force on August 31, 2013

2013 – Use of military force – In October a vessel conducting seismic studies in Guyana’s Exclusive Zone was intercepted by the Venezuelan navy and taken to a port in Venezuela…

2014 – Venezuela objected to efforts to develop Guyana – Joint partnership between Guyana and Brazil to develop hydroelectric facilities in Guyana.

2014 – Venezuela’s intervention in Guyana’s internal affairs – protested the auctions and lotteries of land for medium scale exploration and exploitation in the Essequibo by Geology and Mines Commission

2015 – Venezuela’s objection to Guyana allowing the drilling for oil in its legitimate maritime space

In 2015 in his capacity as Guyana’s Foreign Minister Carl Greenidge said that Guyana would ask Google to remove from its maps service the Spanish-language labelling of street names in the disputed region of Essequibo. (Source: http://www.independent.co.uk)

H.E. Tedwin Herbert, High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

H.E. Tedwin Herbert, High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

Contributing to the discussion was Professor Nick Clifford, Head of Department of Geography and Director of King’s College School of Global Affairs explained that geography graduated from originally being about earth writing (writing about the earth) to an “essential ‘hybridity’ between environment, politics and the earth”.  He further assured the audience that there is a longstanding geo-political component to the controversy between Venezuela and Guyana. He asserts that, “there is a deeper aspect of the controversy that is based on culture, the environment and identity; and that there’s possibly an intellectual argument about capitalism, globalisation and post structural agendas and the epistemic crisis of the state where the state tries to find its way through globalisation to redefine itself and to make itself important”; that could account for Venezuela’s current behaviour. Professor Clifford suggested the audience read the work of former Director of London School of Economics, Sir Halford Mackinder the founder of modern geo-politics, as one of three authorities on the subject.

Professor Nick Clifford, Head of Department of Geography and Director of King's College School of Global Affairs. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

Professor Nick Clifford, Head of Department of Geography and Director of King’s College School of Global Affairs. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

Guyanese born Professor Richard Drayton, Rhodes Professor of Imperial History, Department of History, King’s College London followed on swiftly to shed light on the logic employed by European cartographers who were more interested in taking or ‘claiming’ land that was not inhabited by Europeans. He spoke briefly of one famous explorer Sir Robert Hermann Schomburgk who was a German-born explorer for Great Britain who carried out geographical, ethnological and botanical studies in South America and the West Indies. An unsuccessful businessman, Schomburgk convinces Britain to send an expedition to take Guiana from the Dutch in the Napoleonic wars. Schomburgk in league with an ambitious former British Foreign Secretary Henry John Temple Viscount Palmerston at the time successfully conquered the three colonies, Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo from the Dutch renaming the union, British Guiana which is ostensibly part of a partitioning of South America by Palmerston.

Professor Richard Drayton, Rhodes Professor of Imperial History, Department of History, King's College London. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

Professor Richard Drayton, Rhodes Professor of Imperial History, Department of History, King’s College London. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

Professor Drayton tells the audience that land claims in this region were not of much importance in the latter half of the 19th century because the land was generally underpopulated and unexploited but all of that changed in the final decade of the 19th century, in the 1870’s when over 1 million ounces of gold deposits were discovered. This prompted the Americans to get involved in the Manor iron ore excavations as huge deposits were found in 1886 mined by Caribbean and South American migrants. All of this served as the intellectual backdrop to the border controversy between Venezuela and Guyana while elucidating the interests and role of the United States and the United Kingdom throughout.

Question from the floor. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

Question from the floor. Photo courtesy CaribDirect

In conclusion the panelists all agreed that given the current pressures experienced by the Nicolas Maduro administration in Venezuela to fix the country’s serious economic problems, the quest to retrieve a significant chunk of Guyana’s land by any means, will continue with earnest.

The panel took several questions from the floor and responded with alacrity given the restricted time frame. The event was formally brought to a close by the vote of thanks delivered by Chair of the Ramphal Institute and former Director of Information at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Official Spokesperson for the Commonwealth (1983-1994), Patsy Robertson. Networking and photographs followed immediately thereafter. Article and photography by David F. Roberts.

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