WE revisit the Guyana-Venezuela Border Controversy because it is an issue of the greatest importance to the very existence of Guyana but which is something that has been almost omitted from the media because of its inundation with writings on electoral politics.
The Controversy is coming before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the last week of March and is an issue which touches the lives of all Guyanese. In this offering, we will briefly recount the narrative of Controversy to the present:
In the last quarter of the 19th century, Venezuela encouraged by the Munroe Doctrine which declared that the United States will oppose the founding of any new European colonies in the Americas or the expansion of the already established colonies, claimed most of the colony of British Guiana. The United States championed Venezuela’s claim against Britain and relations between these two English-speaking countries became very tense until there was even talk of war. Eventually, it was decided to refer the matter to International Arbitration.
At the Arbitration, Venezuela was represented by the United States. Both sides were represented by the best lawyers of the time and the judges or Arbitrators were equally respected for their legal acumen and integrity.
The work of the Arbitration was thorough. The National Archives of Spain, Holland and Britain were meticulously searched and the documentation recovered was voluminous. Britain’s claim was territory to the mouth of the Orinoco River and most of the present Venezuelan province of Guayana while Venezuela claimed all of British Guiana except Berbice.
The Arbitrators made their award in 1899. Britain (British Guiana) lost its claim to the territory to the mouth of the Orinoco River and its claims in what is now the Venezuelan province of Guayana while the Essequibo two-thirds of British Guiana was confirmed as belonging to Britain.
The Venezuelans were jubilant at the Award and celebrated it as a victory. They even issued postage stamps commemorating their victory.
After the Award, a joint team of Venezuelan and British surveyors painstakingly demarcated the boundary of British Guiana which was recognised by Venezuela and internationally.
Then after 63 years, just as Britain was about to grant Independence to Guyana Venezuela rejected the Arbitral Award and claimed two-thirds of Guyana’s territory. Several motivations have been suggested for Venezuela’s action but it is clear that they did not wish Guyana to be granted Independence at that time and threatened not to recognise the new state. Britain was however determined to grant Independence and to meet Venezuela’s objections, a Mixed Commission of Britain, Venezuela and Guyana was established in 1966 to work towards the settlement of the Controversy. Guyana was then granted its Independence.
The Mixed Commission deliberated for four years (1966 – 1970) without result. And for the next half-a-century, Guyana tried to bring closure to the issue: There was the 12-year Moratorium (1970-1982); the seven-year Process of Consultation (1983-1990);
then the 27-year Good Offices Process under the aegis of the Secretary General of the United Nations (1990-2017).
If the Good Offices Process failed to bring about a solution to the Controversy, then the Secretary General was charged to identify any other methodology. The Secretary General ruled that it should be referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Guyana accepted the Secretary General’s ruling but Venezuela claimed that the Secretary General had no authority to make such a ruling and that the ICJ could not hear the case. The ICJ invited Venezuela to prove its contention, giving it half-a-year to do so until November 2019. Venezuela made no appearance or submissions.
During this period of seeking a solution, Venezuela took a number of hostile and harassing actions against Guyana: There was always a continuous threat to attack Guyana with its very superior military and such hostile activity included seizure of Ankoko island from Guyana (1966); instigating the Rupununi Rebellion to dismember the state of Guyana (1969); the Leoni Decree when Venezuela attempted to seize Guyana’s territorial sea (1968); assault on Eteringbang outpost (1970). After many other threats such as overflying Guyana’s territory and sabre rattling on the borders, they finally decided to hamper Guyana’s Oil and Gas exploration by the seizure of seismic vessels Technics Perdana in early 2018 and Ranaform Tethys in December 2018.
The Controversy will come before the ICJ in the last week of March when the Court will decide whether it has the authority to hear the case. Guyana’s filing seeks to obtain from the Court a final and binding judgement that the 1899 Arbitral Award which established the boundaries between Guyana and Venezuela remains valid. Both Government and Opposition have pledged themselves to support Guyana’s position in unity.
The settlement of the Controversy will be in both Venezuela and Guyana’s interest and would allow the two countries to cooperate and grow stronger in friendship to their mutual interest.