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Can the Border dispute between Guyana and Venezuela be ever resolved?

July 21, 2015


Dr. Lawrence A. Joseph

      On Tuesday 14th July 2015, the Venezuelan National Assembly (the Parliament) voted unanimously to reiterate Venezuela’s claim to two-thirds of Guyana. The resolution was ably led by President Nicolas Maduro. The claim by Venezuela represents all of the lands which are west of the EssequiboRiver presently under Guyana’s control. The government of Guyana vehemently denies that claim which claim was made by Venezuela for over two hundred years. Whether this border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana could ever be resolved is a multi-million dollar question as a major bone of contention between the parties is connected with the right to maritime oil reserves outside of the Essequibo hinterland.

     What is now known as Guyana was originally controlled by Spain following the exploits of the maritime explorer, Christopher Columbus in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The lands were subsequently transferred to the Dutch in 1648 by the Treaty of Munster. The Dutch then established three colonies called Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo. In 1814, these were transferred under an Anglo-Dutch Treaty to Great Britain which combined them in 1831 and called the entity British Guyana. At the time, the EssequiboRiver was recognized as the westerly boundary of British Guyana and Venezuela occupied lands which were west of that river. Despite this recognition, many Dutch settlers had occupied the western side of the Essequibo for many years. It has been reported that formal complaints had been made by Venezuela to Great Britain in 1822, 1824 and in subsequent years but to no avail.

In 1894 Venezuela appealed to the government of the United States to intervene in the dispute with Great Britain citing the Monroe Doctrine as justification. This doctrine was established by US President James Monroe in 1823 which doctrine sought to prevent European nations from further colonizing or interfering in the affairs of both North and South America. On 2nd February 1897 all parties agreed to have a five-member Arbitration Tribunal sit on the matter in order to make a final determination on the dispute. There were two members from the United States representing the interests of Venezuela; two from Great Britain and a Chairman from Russia.

In 1899 the Tribunal ruled largely in favour of Great Britain by generally accepting a boundary line known as “the Schomburgk line” with some variations. This boundary line was laid down by a German explorer called Robert Schomburgk who had sketched out what he considered to be the boundary line between Guyana and Venezuela in 1840. This line in a general way depicts the present boundaries. Not long after the ruling, however, the Venezuelan authorities contended that the Tribunal Award was foul. However it has been reported that in 1905, both sides accepted the boundary award and all remained calm for sometime.

The dispute raised its ugly head again just before Guyana became an independent nation on 26th May 1966. In February of that year the disputing parties signed what is referred to as the Geneva Agreement which aimed at affording Venezuela an opportunity to have its contention pertaining to the nullity of the 1899 Award examined. A mixed Commission was set up for that purpose, however when the Commission met subsequently, Venezuela used the opportunity to reopen discussions on the original matters surrounding the border dispute rather than on presenting its case concerning its opposition to the Tribunal Award. The dispute therefore kept festering.

In 1970 President Raphael Caldera of Venezuela and President Forbes Burnham of Guyana signed what was referred to as the Port of Spain Protocol which declared a 12 year moratorium in order to promote “cooperation and understanding”. After that period expired, it was never renewed and the dispute has become more and more tense over the years.  This situation is especially so since an American oil drilling company Exxon Mobile, exploring on behalf of Guyana, discovered high potential oil reserves in the maritime waters off the Essequibo region earlier this year.

How this boundary dispute between Venezuela and Guyana would ever be resolved is anyone’s guess. As already acknowledged by Venezuela, military action would not be the answer. This is especially so with the involvement of an American company in the mix. The British too, is not expected to stand idly by to witness a military invasion on Guyana by Venezuela. CARICOM countries have already pledged their support to Guyana which houses the headquarters of the CARICOM Community. “Blood is thicker than water”. However, with some CARICOM states being members of The Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) which was founded by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004 and where oil benefits flow to those states from Venezuela one may ask: “Is blood thicker than oil?”

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