By Ambassador Cedric L. Joseph
(Excerpted from the book Anglo-American Diplomacy and the re-opening of the Guyana Venezuela Border Controversy, 1961-1966)
IT was this highly charged milieu which defined British policy to commence negotiations on the arrangements for a tripartite study of the documents, or in the State Department’s projection, “a thorough airing of the Venezuelan claim.”
The British Government had completely reversed the admonition which the Foreign Office had transmitted to Ambassador Busk in March 1962 — that it was not attracted to receiving the Venezuela Ambassador and others in London to discuss the border issue on the most informal basis, and that starting negotiations could be easily represented in Caracas as evidence that Britain admitted to the existence of a dispute, and that such danger should be avoided.
Thus, on 12 November 1962, the Chairman of the Special Political Committee announced in his closing speech that the United Kingdom and Venezuela had agreed to a tripartite study of the relevant documentation, and that the United Nations would not proceed further in its debate on the subject.
The British Government would be happy that at least it had curtailed a United Nations debate on British Guiana, though at the expense of promoting boundary issues.
By March 1963, discussions commenced on the procedures to be adopted for pacific settlement of the issue. Britain desired an academic approach, with relevant experts evaluating documents. Venezuela, on the other hand, insisted that the negotiations should also be held at the ministerial level, a very substantive adjustment. In the end, a two-phase diplomatic agreement was reached. First, the experts of both countries would study the document; and second, talk at ministerial level would follow.
Regarding the agreement for the tripartite approach, it should be noted that, on 16th August, 1963, Governor Gray had conveyed to Duncan Sandys some doubts about the British position on the debate at the United Nations, leading the agreement.
Replay on 4th October, 1963, Sandys advised that the Government Ministries should be informed that there was no erosion by the Venezuelans of the position which HM Government took during the debate when the formula for the tripartite examination was devised with the concurrence of your government. This reminder points to the continuing consultation taking place with Dr Jagan’s Government at a critical stage, and recalls Dr Jagan’s meeting of 20th September, 1962 with Sandys in London.
And the position of HM Government, according to Sandys, was explained repeatedly to Venezuela: that Britain was not prepared to engage in substantive talks about a revision of the frontier.
The first ministerial conference convened in London during 5th–7th November, 1963. Participating were British Foreign Secretary R.A Butler; Venezuelan Foreign Minister Dr Marcos Falcon Birceno; and the Governor of British Guiana, Sir Ralph Gray. On the basis of the examination of the documents, Venezuela submitted that there was enough evidence for a review of the arbitral award. Britain retorted that examination of the documents showed that there was no case, and that the award was a full, perfect and final settlement on the issue. The Joint Communiqué issued at the end of the conference called for further study by the experts of the documents in the Venezuelan archives prior to future discussions.
These discussions among the experts took place in London during February to May 1964. On 3rd August, the two Governments exchanged reports, and another round of discussions followed in preparation for the next ministerial meeting. The second ministerial meeting was held in London on 9th–10th December, 1965, while another Independence conference was in session and the date for Independence was set. The PPP did not attend. In attendance were British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart; the Venezuelan Foreign Minister Dr Igancio Iribarren Borges; and there being a change in Government in British Guiana in December 1964, the new Premier, Forbes Burnham. The agenda reflects the continuing and progressive change in British policy, and the further drifting to more substantial negotiations on the boundary. Yet, Britain maintained that there was no dispute over the borders, as it acknowledged the existence of a controversy over the award.
These matters include:
1. Exchange point of views about the report of the experts on the study of the documents
2. Seek satisfactory solution for the practical settlement of the controversy which had arisen as a result of the Venezuelan contention that the award of 1899 is null and void
3. Formulate concrete plans or collaboration in the development of British Guiana
4. Determine time period for the fulfillment of the agreement with respect to points 1, 2 and 3 above.
This meeting ended without any agreement. A proposal that talks should continue on a limited basis in Caracas in January 1966 was rejected by Venezuela. Thus the stage was set for the Geneva meeting of 16th and 17th February, 1966, which took up the inconclusive debate of the ministerial meeting of December 1965. The discussion examined a number of fora for a resolution of the issue. In the course of this, Venezuela restated its proposal for joint administration of the Essequibo region for a period to be determined. This was rejected by Britain, with Forbes Burnham stating that no fruitful joint development was possible once the territorial claim was maintained, a position he was obliged to repeat on several occasions.
The Agreement finally reached at Geneva established a mixed commission with “the task of seeking satisfactory solutions for the practical settlement of the controversy between Venezuela and the United Kingdom, which has arisen as the result of the Venezuelan contention that the arbitral award of 1899 about the frontier between British Guiana and Venezuela is null and void.”
The phrase “practical settlement” resisted common interpretation and ultimately crippled the work of the mixed commission.
Worse, the Geneva agreement and the circumstances which inspired its formulation entered the domain of contentious domestic politics in British Guiana, and later independent Guyana. The two leading political parties, the PPP and PNC, took diametrically opposite positions at the time and in later years.
Forbes Burnham, who concluded the Geneva Agreement, has maintained that its language did not admit to ambiguity. That the issue before the mixed commission, he said in a debate in the National Assembly on 12 July 1968, was whether, as Venezuela contended, the arbitral award was a nullity. Like Britain, Burnham took the position that the award was a full, perfect and final settlement, and was valid.
Accordingly, it was Venezuela to prove invalidity, and Guyana would afford every opportunity to examine the matter thoroughly with a view to securing a practical settlement of the controversy.
And imminent legal position was that the award already had the sanction of an international treaty and its validity the endorsement of international law.
Dr. Jagan, Ashton Chase and HJM Hubbard of the PPP rejected the new Geneva Agreement, which they felt should not have been concluded at all, and should be scrapped. On the legal side, the PPP argued persuasively that the examination of the documents did not establish a case for any revision of the frontier, and consequently there was no substance to the Venezuela claim.
This was a position adopted by the PPP administration in office from August 1961 to December 1964.
British Policy on the territorial claim would not have been formulated in a vacuum; it would have been responsive to the cluster of prevailing influences: the political contentions in British Guiana, the increasing divergence between the main political parties on matters relating to independence; and the unceasing and bold assertions of the United States’ national interest at the highest levels.
Indeed, the timing of the reopening of the border issue by Venezuela constitutes good reason for a related examination into factors of hemispheric bearing.
At the core was the thesis premised upon the security aspects perceived in the probability of the establishment of a communist state under Dr. Jagan at the height of the Cold War. The probability may have been modified when the PNC Administration took office in December 1964. Yet, the momentum of negotiations with Venezuela had been afforded enough impetus as to be irreversible.
The British Government, as noted earlier, took a more measured view of Dr. Jagan than the Americans. After all, in the evening of British colonialism, the campaign for political independence had produced many assertive nationalists in the colonies. Hence the British were less inclined to regard Dr. Jagan as a communist, and viewed the American interest in the colony as “morbid”, “hypersensitive”, and out of proportion with the realities.
To the British, it was not clear to what extent Dr. Jagan “liked to describe himself as a Bevanite”, although his contacts tended to be further to the left. The British Government has therefore concluded that Dr. Jagan was “at least suspect in his political leaning towards the Soviet bloc”, and that this posed “an international security problem” and diminished his chances for effective aid from the West.”
British concerns were with the continuing intense political rivalry in British Guiana, with its offshoots of racial antagonisms with advancing the colony of independence. Britain did not wish to return to the situation of 1953, when the constitution was suspended, the administration dismissed, and direct rule re-imposed. Britain realized that international indignation, which was sensitive to colonialism, would be aroused; and the new Afro-Asian Bloc, already displaying sympathy in the United Nations with Dr. Jagan’s pleas, would strongly condemn such action. Moreover, the Government would also have to contend with opposition at home from the Labour Party, and comparison with its relative inactivity in Southern Rhodesia. Further, to delay or refuse independence would bring both PPP and PNC into “excited” clamour against the British Government, though not unite the two parties.
The British Government felt that as long as British Guiana remained under it tutelage, the tendency would be for the United States and others to regard Britain as primarily responsible for aid to the colony, and that aid sought was beyond British resources.
Moreover, the imposition of direct rule was an expensive commodity for the British treasury. The sooner British Guiana was put into a position to tap other resources, the better. And with the Americans insisting that whatever happens in British Guiana was not merely a matter of colonial policy but had a general bearing on Anglo-American relations, this only reinforced British inclination about an early departure from British Guiana.
On balance, therefore, the British Government considered that to delay independence, as the Americans were urging, would have no practical advantage; and that there was no strategic or economic reasons for delaying independence. Arising from the London formula of March 1960, which had devised that after general election was held under the new constitution, that on August 1961, independence had been determined possible sometime no later than 1962.
Partly due to the domestic political situation and partly to American intervention in May 1962, Macmillan revised the scheduled interjection of another election prior to independence, and as later determined under proportional representation.
The United States, for its part, did not misread the British position on Dr Jagan and Independence for British Guiana. The correspondence of President Kennedy, Secretary of State Rusk, and Special Assistant Schlessinger, available from the United States Foreign Relations files on British Guiana, 1961-1963, gives valuable insight into US policy.
An intelligence estimate of April 1962 captures the position accurately. It states that the British assert in private that British Guiana was in US sphere of interest and that the British Government probably considered that the colony’s future was not properly their problem, but one for the US. Further, the estimate indicates that Britain was less inclined that the US to believe that communism would dominate the colony, and was not disposed to make available more financial support because it wanted to get out.
Thus the general policy in both British Foreign Office and the Colonial Office was to exert every effort to keep Dr. Jagan in the West and make him salvageable, in part to counter any attempts which Britain felt would surely be made by the Eastern bloc to woo Dr. Jagan away from the West.
The invitation to Dr. Jagan to visit the US in October 1961 was a great source of satisfaction to the British. The British engaged in a well planned and co-ordinated programme, involving the Foreign and Colonial Offices; the British Embassy in Washington DC – John Hennings, the colonial attaché being key official; the Permanent Mission to the United Nations – where the Permanent Representative Sir Hugh Foot was the critical personality; the High Commission of Ottawa and Sir Ralph Grey, the Governor. As Sir Ralph Grey stated when he congratulated John Hennings and Sir Hugh for their joint efforts: “to keep Jagan on the rails in the US so as to persuade the Americans of the need to establish the proposed economic mission, putting it to work, and acting on its report in as short a time as possible.”
Indeed, Governor Grey was so concerned about Dr. Jagan’s visit going well that he took to “counselling” certain members of Dr Jagan’s delegation. He reported that he had “barely recovered” from counselling one member, name mentioned, when the official told him that, as “a Roman Catholic, attending mass daily, he considered the development of “Jagan to be dangerously out of line with his ultimate obligations.”
It is submitted that the intensity of the pressures from all quarters on the British Government and its strong inclination to get out of British Guiana and grant Independence earlier rather than later stimulated the drift towards “talks” and “negotiations” with Venezuela.
It was important, therefore, to include representatives from the soon-to-be-independent colony in any deliberation. First, in view of the major responsibility which would fall to them after Independence; second to ensure their prior endorsement of proposals, which would carry far-reaching implications in the post- Independence period; third, to appease the influential Afro-Asian group at the United Nations, who had been quite receptive to the appeals of Dr. Jagan and of Venezuela; and fourth, to avoid international censure by seeming to abandon the new state without doing anything about the territorial claim.
Accordingly, even the available documents have established that negotiations with Venezuela, as did Independence for British Guiana, offered Britain a diplomatic escape route from an imperial responsibility, which had become unwieldy. As it turned out, the territorial and societal solidity of the state was compromised by the political exigencies of the Cold War. And the diplomacy of this turbulent era bequeathed to the young state of Guyana, and nurtured over the years, “a period of consequences”: a fractured national movement, a well-entrenched polarised society, and a substantial territorial claim.