Essequibo and Other Border Issues: Venezuela’s Territorial Losses to Imperialist Powers Through the Centuries (Part 2) By: Saheli ChowdhuryRead Now
Orinoco Tribune editor, Jesus Rodriguez-Espinoza, and his wife Yullma Hernandez next to a banner for the Essequibo Referendum campaign showing the map of Venezuela (including the Essequibo territory) and the following caption: "Venezuela is all of us, all Venezuela vote 5 times yes. On December 3, we have an appointment with the homeland, Venezuela is calling us!" Photo: Orinoco Tribune.
Editorial note: Part 1 of this important series can be read here.
Venezuela’s defense of the Essequibo
Mainstream media is trying to establish the narrative that Venezuela is demanding the Essequibo only now, because oil and gas resources have been discovered in the region. This narrative intends to place the Essequibo dispute in a vacuum, as if it was a sudden whim on the part of the current government of Venezuela, which has already been demonized as a “dictatorship” for years. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Venezuela began its fight for the Essequibo immediately after Britain illegally occupied the region in 1841. It has been a continuous battle on the part of Venezuela to reclaim its rights to its occupied territory for almost two centuries.
The early years
Venezuela’s fight for its rights over the Essequibo began in 1841 at the hands of Alejo Fortique, renowned lawyer, politician, diplomat, and Venezuela’s ambassador to Great Britain starting from 1839. In addition to his arduous tasks of resolving Venezuela’s debts and agreements with Britain (debts incurred during the independence war) and the Spanish government’s recognition of Venezuelan independence, Ambassador Fortique took up the Essequibo issue with Britain. Through sustained efforts, he was able to get then British Foreign Minister Lord Aberdeen to formally state that the piles and markers installed by Schomburgk’s team at the mouths of the Orinoco did not constitute the definitive frontier of British Guyana and that the matter would be discussed in future when Venezuela and Britain would sit down for border negotiations. This was a lie, but Lord Aberdeen did instruct the British government of Guyana to remove the markers.
Fortique’s efforts came to a sudden end when he, overwhelmed and exhausted with work, having nobody to assist him, passed away in 1845. Thereafter, the border discussions stopped for the time being, and, in 1850, the Venezuelan government signed a treaty with Britain in Caracas, accepting the latter’s proposal of postponing the border delimitation.
During the next decade and a half, Venezuela was in no position to even think about borders, as it was consumed by political strife and civil war. Only after the end of the Five-Year War (1859-1863), the new government of Juan Crisóstomo Falcón sent Antonio Guzmán Blanco as the plenipotentiary representative of Venezuela to Great Britain in 1866 to resume the border issue, but that attempt failed. Thereafter, during the Guzmán era of 1870s-80s, Guzmán Blanco, as three times president and as plenipotentiary representative of Venezuela in Europe in between his presidencies, abandoned Venezuela’s conciliatory approach on the Essequibo issue and demanded a definitive resolution. Similarly, his foreign ministers and diplomatic representatives to Britain and the United States carried out his instructions on the defense of Venezuela’s territorial rights. However, nothing resulted from these enormous efforts, because all attempts to discuss the border and all agreements proposed by Venezuela were rejected by Britain.
At the same time, Britain continued to expand the territory of British Guyana at the expense of Venezuela, crossing further west of the Schomburgk Line and appropriating lands close to Upata in the Venezuelan Guayana (currently in Bolívar state) as well as the gold mines of El Callao. In further violation of Venezuela’s territorial integrity, the colonial authorities of British Guyana installed a sentry post with the British flag near Punta Barima, and English ships began sailing openly through the main channel of the Orinoco as well as the Caroní River. English merchants set up companies in the Venezuelan Guayana and started to deal amicably with the indigenous peoples there, trying to win over their support so that Britain could later devour that territory with the least possible resistance.
In this situation of flagrant colonization of Venezuela by Britain, President Guzmán Blanco severed all ties with Britain towards the beginning of 1887, and urged the United States to activate the Monroe Doctrine.
Arbitration Award 1899: Monroe Doctrine and US betrayal
The United States proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, based on its project of Manifest Destiny, and with the theme “America for the Americans.” Although with hindsight we now know that “Americans” meant the US elites and their interests, in the late 19th century the authorities of Venezuela, just like the other recently independent republics in the southern part of the continent, had imagined themselves to be included among “Americans” of the Monroe Doctrine. In the case of Venezuela, there were reasons to consider it, given that the US had briefly assisted Simón Bolívar’s independence project against Spanish colonialism. Therefore, from the mid-1870s, Guzmán Blanco started requesting the US to intervene in the matter to help Venezuela against British colonialism, citing the Monroe Doctrine. The US authorities of that time too had recognized the dangers that a British colony could pose to US interests in the continent, especially in a region as strategic as the Caribbean, with a waterway as gigantic and strategic as the Orinoco. However, the US did not respond to the Venezuelan request at once, probably due to itself recovering from the aftermath of the civil war that pitted the north of the US against the south. Moreover, it is possible that white supremacy was also at play, with the US considering Venezuela racially inferior to Britain (there is evidence of this, which will be discussed a little later). Whatever the reason, the US invented an excuse: it agreed to be an arbiter in the territorial dispute only if both Venezuela and Britain so requested.
However, by 1895, the US had established itself as an industrial and military power strong enough to confront Britain in its “backyard” and changed its course of action. Richard Olney, US secretary of state for President Grover Cleveland, communicated directly with Britain and asked it to accept the US as a mediator for the dispute. Britain initially rejected the arbitration offer, but the US threatened Britain with war, after which Britain was obliged to accept. This turn of events was celebrated in Venezuela: the government applauded the Monroe Doctrine and showered the US ambassador in Caracas with praise and honors. However, what the naïve Venezuelan authorities did not know was that the US–UK spat was more of a show; behind Venezuela’s back, the two imperialist powers would go on to negotiate with each other for mutual benefit, neglecting Venezuela’s interests.
Although Britain accepted the US demand of submitting to an arbitration process, it refused to have any direct discussion with Venezuela. To break the deadlock, the US convened a representative meeting of the two countries in Washington in February 1897, where Britain accepted the arbitration mechanism only on the condition that Venezuela, which it despised and considered “uncivilized,” had no representation in the process. The United States accepted the British condition, and pressured Venezuela to do the same. If the Venezuelan authorities detected in this racist and colonialist arbitrariness on the part of Britain a foreshadowing of an injustice about to be committed, they could do nothing to change it, and Venezuela was forced to sign the Arbitration Treaty of 1897 and delegate its representation to the United States.
According to a report published by the Venezuelan government in 2015 that sheds light on the original US-UK plan to rob Venezuela of the Essequibo, the Arbitration Treaty was elaborated between the US and the UK during 1895-96, without taking into consideration Venezuela’s claims and positions. The report also exposed the racist attitude of the two imperialist powers towards Venezuela that united the two and with which they justified dispossessing Venezuelans of their rights to a territory that historically belonged to them.
“Venezuela was placed on the sidelines in this matter, as if it were a ‘semi-barbaric’ or ‘semi-savage’ State,” the report recounted. “In a letter addressed to President Cleveland on December 5, 1896, the US Ambassador in London, Thomas Bayard, who was supposed to defend the interests of Venezuela, issued abject opinions about our country: ‘Our difficulty lies in the completely untrustworthy character of the Venezuelan government and people, which results in an indefinable and, therefore, dangerous responsibility for the management of their own affairs by themselves.’”
The Washington Treaty called for the arbitration tribunal to be composed of five jurists: two appointed by Great Britain, two appointed by Venezuela, and one chosen by the Supreme Court of the United States. However, since Britain had refused to allow Venezuelan participation in the process, it was established that the two jurists representing Venezuela would be US nationals, and they could not be chosen by the president of Venezuela but would be appointed by the president of the United States. Even European progressive journalists and intellectuals were outraged at the treatment that Venezuela received. Among them was a British journalist, Paul Reuter, who noted that “the conditions under which Venezuela consented to be represented, in the absence of a protectorate or any other analogous institution, by a third State, are very rarely found in an arbitral proceeding and evince a quasi-colonial sovereignty.”
The fifth jurist, appointed by the United States Supreme Court, was Frederick Fyodor Martens, who was selected as the president of the arbitration tribunal. Martens was a Russian diplomat, a permanent member of the Russian Imperial Council on Foreign Relations, had served as professor of law at a number of British universities, and was a friend of Queen Victoria. He advocated for cooperation between the Russian Empire and the British Empire in Central Asia, arguing that the two empires were destined by Divine Providence to “civilize” the region. He too had a negative stance towards countries considered “semi-savage” or “semi-civilized,” such as Venezuela, and hence was very acceptable to Britain.
According to the Venezuelan government’s 2015 report, it was Britain that had pushed for Martens’ appointment and selection as president of the tribunal. “It was probably Sir Julian Pauncefote, signatory for Britain of the 1897 Treaty of Washington, who pushed for the appointment of Martens,” the report noted. “With this, Britain achieved and secured a priori the highest representative of the tribunal, favorable to any settlement between Great Britain and Russia.” Thus, the territorial dispute between Venezuela and Britain turned into a playing field of global geopolitics towards the close of the 19th century.
The arbitration tribunal met in Paris in June 1899, held 54 formal meetings, and announced its final and unappealable decision, unanimously approved, on October 3, 1899. Known as the Paris Arbitration Award, the decision established that the mouths of the Orinoco River and the part of the Venezuelan Guayana that Britain was occupying belonged to Venezuela, but handed over the entire territory of the Venezuelan Essequibo to British Guyana, branding it an “integral part” of the British colony. Thus, Venezuela was dispossessed of 159,542 sq km of its historical territory.
The ruling further established that during times of peace, the Amacuro and Barima rivers would be open to commercial vessels of all countries, provided they complied with the regulations and paid the tariffs demanded by Venezuela and British Guyana for passage on the parts of the rivers that belonged to them. The same tariff was established for Venezuelan and British vessels. In addition, it was decided that no customs duties would be applied to the goods transported in the ships transiting the rivers, but they would only be taxed for the goods that were unloaded in the territories of Venezuela and British Guyana, by the respective governments.
It may be noted that in addition to Britain, the US was also a winner. It managed to save its image of a “neutral arbiter” by giving both sides something, although Venezuela got back only 10% of its occupied territory. Moreover, the US had managed to save its own interests, which included access to the Caribbean and the Atlantic through the Orinoco River, while at the same time it had been able to contain, to a large extent, Britain’s colonial ambitions in a region the US considered, and still considers, its “backyard.”
As soon as the Arbitration Award was announced, Venezuela openly expressed its rejection of the unjust legalization of colonization and territorial dispossession, but had no legal recourse available to overturn the result, as the ruling was unappealable.
Geneva Agreement 1966
Over the next half century, the injustice of the Arbitration Award disappeared from political discourse in Venezuela, as the country was again engulfed in internal strife with military coups and dictatorships interspersed with ephemeral elected governments, as well as dealing with the impact of World War II and the flow of refugees from Europe. The Pérez Jiménez dictatorship brought the matter back to public memory by referring to it at two international instances – at the UN General Assembly in 1951 and at the summit of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Caracas in 1954. Thereafter in 1962, towards the beginning of the Fourth Republic, President Rómulo Betancourt raised the issue in a speech, and Venezuela’s Permanent Representative to the UN Sosa Rodríguez and Foreign Minister Falcón Briceño spoke on the matter at the UN General Assembly, thus resurrecting Venezuela’s legitimate grievances about the unjust Arbitration Award.
Something important had happened during this time that gave Venezuela legal grounds to challenge the decision of the arbitration tribunal of 1899: it was the publication of the Mallet-Prevost Memorandum in 1949. Severo Mallet-Prevost was a US lawyer who had represented Venezuela at the Paris tribunal, together with three other US legal experts: former US President Benjamin Harrison; former US Secretary of War General Benjamin S. Tracy; and advocate James Russell Soley. The British side was similarly represented by four lawyers. During the formal meetings of the tribunal, the legal counsel for each side presented their arguments, followed by question-and-answer sessions by the tribunal jurists. At every meeting, it was recorded that Mallet-Prevost made detailed defense for Venezuela’s rights. After the sessions closed, the tribunal adjourned for a short period for reflection, and then, on October 3, 1899, it declared its biased decision in a brief session, without providing any argument for the decision, except highlighting that it had been unanimous.
Venezuela had lost the case, but recognized Mallet-Prevost’s labor and awarded him the Order of the Liberator for his services to the nation. He went on to become a successful and acclaimed legal expert and a partner in the New York law firm Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle. Later in life, Mallet-Prevost confided to a close associate, Judge Otto Schoenrich, that the US jurors had been forced to accept the Paris Award under duress, and that they considered it to be unjust towards Venezuela. He left with Schoenrich a detailed account of the happenings at the fateful tribunal, to be published at Schoenrich’s “discretion” after Mallet-Prevost’s death. He passed away on December 10, 1948, and Schoenrich published the document in January 1949.
The publication of the Memorandum caused a scandal in the United States, as it evidenced that the US side had yielded to British pressure. It also demonstrated that the process had been vitiated since before it began, as the then British Chief Justice Lord Bussel had insisted at a preliminary meeting of the tribunal in London in January 1899 that the Venezuela-Britain dispute would be resolved not on strictly legal grounds but taking into consideration “questions of international policy,” which, according to Mallet-Prevost, meant none other than British imperial interests.
The lawyer recounted that during the presentations of the legal counsels of the two sides before the tribunal in Paris in June 1899, while one of the British jurors openly supported his country’s arguments, the other one “was sincerely interested in getting at the full facts of the case and in ascertaining the law applicable to those facts,” such that Mallet-Prevost believed that “he was leaning toward the side of Venezuela.” After the end of the presentations, which lasted 26 days, the tribunal adjourned for a two-week holiday, when the two British jurors returned to London, and tribunal president Martens accompanied them. However, when the sessions resumed, there had been an abrupt and complete change in said British judge’s attitude. In Mallet-Prevost’s words, “It looked to us (by which I mean to the counsel for Venezuela) as though something must have happened in London to bring about the change.”
After all the sessions had been concluded, Mallet-Prevost was informed by the two US jurors on the tribunal that the entire procedure had been a “farce,” that Martens had explained to them that he and the two British judges would vote in favor of the British claim, and thus, even if the US dissented, with 3-2 votes British Guyana would become owner of all the Venezuelan land that it had been occupying at that time. Thus, Martens had left before the US judges two possibilities: either to express a dissenting opinion, in which case Venezuela would lose all its occupied territory; or to accept a negotiated settlement in which Venezuela would be returned the Orinoco mouth and the part of Venezuelan Guayana under occupation, while granting to Britain the entirety of the Venezuelan Essequibo. According to Mallet-Prevost, although US ex-President Harrison was initially in favor of filing a “strong dissenting opinion,” the US side finally preferred to accept the negotiated settlement “so that Venezuela did not lose everything.”
“The decision which was accordingly rendered was unanimous,” concluded Mallet-Prevost, “but while it gave to Venezuela the most important strategic point at issue, it was unjust to Venezuela and deprived her of very extensive and important territory to which, in my opinion, Great Britain had not the shadow of a right.”
When the scandal became known in Venezuela, dictator Pérez Jiménez at once revived the Venezuelan cause, and afterwards the Fourth Republic, citing the Memorandum, started demanding before the UN that the Paris Arbitration Award be declared illegitimate. The Venezuelan authorities knew that they had little time on hand, as the global geopolitical situation was changing rapidly after World War II. During the 50s and 60s, taking advantage of the post-war weakness of the European empires, their colonies all over the world strengthened their struggles for independence. In this situation, leading colonial powers such as Britain, France, and Holland found themselves forced to enter into negotiations with their colonies to grant them independence.
In Latin America, where the US was already the leading imperial power, Britain tried to avoid wars at all cost. In 1962, Britain granted independence to Trinidad and Tobago without any bloodshed, and promised to grant independence to Guyana in 1966. This complicated everything for Venezuela which, despite having passed through dictatorships and democracies and bloody civil wars in equal measures, had never wavered from its anti-colonialist position and had never attacked or invaded another country. Therefore, for Venezuela it was not going to be the same to reclaim the Essequibo territory from colonial Britain which had forcibly stolen the land and then legalized the theft through fraud, as to claim it from Guyana which after 1966 would not be a part of the British Empire, it would not be a country that had stolen anything from Venezuela, and it would surely need the region which constituted three-fourths of its territory in order to develop itself after centuries of colonial exploitation.
Facing this dilemma, Venezuela had no other option but to support the independence of British Guyana, while at the same time, at all regional and multilateral forums, Venezuelan authorities went on ratifying Venezuela’s right to recover its stolen territory. Venezuela’s perseverance on the issue led to the Geneva Agreement of 1966. During February 16-17, 1966, UK, Venezuela, and a representation of the authorities of Guyana which was on the verge of attaining independence, met in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations to define the future relations between Venezuela and Guyana. Although the representatives of Venezuela and Guyana treated each other with absolute respect, no definitive solution was reached regarding the Essequibo, and the two parties only agreed on tracing a path to resolve the dispute peacefully and in a mutually satisfactory manner within a span of four years for the date of signing the document.
Nevertheless, the reality was that the UK, which had sponsored the meeting, thus skillfully freed itself from the difficult border issue, leaving the two neighbors, both victims of British colonialism, to fight over the territory in future. In fact, the Essequibo dispute is not the only border issue that Britain left unresolved. All of its former colonies around the world have border disputes with their neighbors, which Britain had created as an act of revenge as well as to maintain control over the regions it had been forced to leave, by sometimes acting as arbiter in those very same border problems.
Signing the Geneva Agreement on February 17, 1966, Venezuela agreed to leave the Essequibo region under de facto control of the future independent State of Guyana until an amicable and mutually satisfactory solution could be reached. Thus, British will was once again imposed, and Venezuela’s anti-colonialism prevented it from opposing Guyanese independence before Britain solved the border issue. As recognized by legal experts, international law as it stands today is generally biased towards whoever de facto controls a region and not who has the deeds. Therefore, it may be said that Venezuela lost in a way in 1966, but this time the loss was based on an honorable ideological position.
However, the independence of Guyana and the unresolved Essequibo dispute changed the way in which Venezuela could be perceived from outside. From being a poor and weak country confronting a colonial power dispossessing it of its territory, Venezuela suddenly turned into a comparably richer and stronger country demanding from a poorer and weaker neighbor the majority of its territory. This remains the fundamental contradiction of the issue to this day.
On May 26, 1966, the day when Guyana gained independence from Britain, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ignacio Iribarren Borges sent a message to Georgetown recognizing the new State, but with a caveat: the recognition was limited to the territory of the new State located to the east of the Essequibo River, adding that the recognition “that Venezuela makes of the new State of Guyana, does not imply on the part of our country any renunciation or diminution of the territorial rights claimed, nor in any way affects the sovereignty rights arising from the claim arising from Venezuelan contention that the so-called Paris Arbitral Award of 1899 on the border between Venezuela and British Guiana, is null and void.”
While the UK and Guyana have continued to consider the Paris Arbitral Award as valid, Venezuela considers it null and void because of the abuse of legal procedure exposed by the Mallet-Prevost Memorandum. This contention is reflected in Article 1 of the Geneva Agreement: “A Mixed Commission is hereby established with the task of seeking satisfactory solutions for the practical settlement of the dispute between Venezuela and the United Kingdom, arising as a consequence of Venezuelan contention that the Arbitral Award of 1899 on the boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana is null and void.”
The deadline of four years meant that the dispute should have been resolved by 1970. The Mixed Commission created within the framework of the Agreement was composed of two representatives each from Venezuela and Guyana, and they were to hold “no less than 18 meetings during the established period.” In addition, Article 4 of the Agreement entailed that if a fair and satisfactory solution could not be reached within the period, both countries could appeal to one of the instances provided for settlement of international disputes in Article 33 of the United Nations Charter, namely, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and the UN Secretary General. However, the Agreement expressly called for both parties to agree about appealing to one of the aforementioned instances.
Port of Spain Protocol
After the signing of the Geneva Agreement, for the first time Venezuelans were broadly optimistic about recovering the stolen territory. The Essequibo issue became popular across the political spectrum, parties and movements created support groups on it, and in 1966 the government of Venezuela modified the map of the country to include Essequibo as a zone under reclamation. Unfortunately, there were even border clashes with Guyana, of which the gravest ones were the fight over the Anacoco Island in 1966, and the Rupununi uprising in 1969 which Guyana accused Venezuela of fomenting. However, the most serious incident occurred in 1967 when Guyana granted a concession to a US-Canada consortium to explore oil in the Essequibo territory, which drew harsh protest from the Venezuelan government, with President Leoni unilaterally declaring the extension and limits of the Venezuelan territorial sea in the Essequibo in July 1968, a move that was condemned by Guyana. In the meantime, the Mixed Commission went on holding meetings one after another without reaching any tangible solution, and the four years stipulated in the Geneva Agreement passed without producing any result.
In this situation of limbo, the two parties agreed to suspend the provisions of Article 4 of the Geneva Agreement and to continue the discussions for a longer period. The governments of the two countries agreed that their representative delegations would meet in Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad and Tobago, to discuss how to resolve the deadlock. The meeting took place on June 18, 1970, with the mediation of Trinidad and Tobago, and the symbolic presence of a representative of the United Kingdom. Trinidadian Prime Minister Eric Williams, a veteran independence warrior and Marxist revolutionary, played a central role in the difficult situation. He made a conciliatory proposal to Venezuela and Guyana, asking them to freeze the definitive resolution of the problem for at least 12 years, that is until 1982, while maintaining contact and improving the bilateral ties, but prohibiting Venezuela from making any territorial claims. The UK readily accepted the Port of Spain Protocol as it gave the original responsible party the definitive way to exit the sticky situation. Guyana accepted it too, given that the Protocol provided it the advantage to de facto control and administer the region according to its own interests. Venezuela, which at that time was embroiled in a maritime border delimitation problem with Colombia, also accepted it. But this was fatal for its interests, because while the Venezuelan claim was frozen for 12 years, Guyana was at complete liberty to continue administering the disputed territory, populating it, creating infrastructure, and granting mining and oil concessions to multinational companies, predominantly based in the US and Canada. This gave the United States direct access to the vast natural resources of the region, while Venezuela could only watch and protest, but could not adopt any legal or military measure as its hands were tied by the Port of Spain Protocol.
UN Secretary General’s Good Offices process
By 1982, realizing that the situation had turned extremely unfavorable for Venezuela, its government refused to renew the Port of Spain Protocol for another 12 years, and announced its return to the Geneva Agreement of 1966. The Venezuelan position received the support of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which declared at its Foreign Ministers’ Summit in Belize in April 1982 that the two parties should “scrupulously comply with the provisions of the Geneva Agreement and seek settlements of the territorial dispute by peaceful means.” Following this line, on July 1, 1982, the Venezuelan government proposed to its Guyanese counterpart to engage in direct negotiation to solve the dispute, based on the Geneva Agreement. Guyana rejected the Venezuelan proposal despite being a party to the Agreement, and instead proposed any one of three possible ways: to take the matter to the UN General Assembly, to take it to the UN Security Council, or to submit it to the International Court of Justice. Venezuela rejected all three, arguing with a legal basis that none of the three was a qualified body for resolving territorial disputes that did not fall within the ambit of “situations of colonialism.” As a counter-proposal, Venezuela wanted to submit the conflict before the Office of the UN Secretary General, as mandated in Article 4 of the Geneva Agreement as one of the instances for the conflict resolution. However, the same article required that both parties to the conflict had to agree on the issue, and Guyana remained firm in its preference for the ICJ.
Finding all avenues blocked due to lack of consensus, the then foreign affairs minister of Venezuela, José Alberto Zambrano Velasco, tried to appeal to Guyana’s historical memory as an ex-colony similar to Venezuela. At the UN General Assembly session of September 1982, Zambrano Velasco made an impassioned speech:
The history of this humiliating mutilation cannot be forgotten by Venezuelans. All our tradition, all our instincts lead us to the desire to maintain and develop with the Guyanese people, who in truth were, like us, victims of British imperialism and who, like us, belong to the peoples who seek to achieve development, the closest relations of friendship, cooperation, and solidarity… The truth is clear, neither territorial ambition nor greed for the wealth of others fuels the Venezuelan Claim.
Finally, in March 1983, the Guyanese government announced its decision to accept the intervention of the secretary general of the United Nations to select the means of solution to the controversy. In a swift succession of events, the two parties submitted their appeals before then UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, who accepted the request and appointed a special envoy, diplomat Diego Cordovez, to carry out an exploratory mission to Caracas and Georgetown and ascertain the position of the parties regarding the choice of means for a peaceful solution. After several meetings over the next three years, Cordovez came up with the plan of establishing a five-member conciliation commission or a contact group with a very complicated structure. Venezuela and Guyana both rejected the proposal for its “excessive formalism and rigidity which limited the possibility of direct contact between the governments of Venezuela and Guyana.”
In the meantime, the governments of Guyana and Venezuela continued bilateral discussions, and in late 1988 both agreed to use the UN secretary general’s good offices process. The good officer would be selected by the UN secretary general. In November 1989, Scottish philosopher Meredith Alister McIntyre was appointed as the first good officer by the Secretary General Pérez de Cuéllar. Starting from that time until 2014, three good officers passed through the process, and during this time the Venezuela-Guyana bilateral relations improved and several agreements on mutual development projects were signed, but the Essequibo situation remained the same. That is because the good offices procedure only functions if both sides are disposed to making mutual concessions in order to reach the desired agreement. As for the Essequibo dispute, this was not the case, especially on the part of Guyana which, given its de facto control over the disputed territory, went on signing concessionary contracts with multinational corporations for exploration of oil, gas, and minerals in the disputed landmass and even in the undelimited contiguous waters that are not part of the dispute. Consequently, the good offices process was abandoned for the time being after the third good officer, Norman Girvan of Jamaica, passed away in April 2014.
Almost three years later, in December 2016, then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon proposed incorporating an element of UN mediation in the good offices process, and warned that if the new method failed, the dispute would be passed over to the ICJ. In February 2017, new Secretary General Antonio Guterres appointed Norwegian diplomat Dag Nylander as the new good officer within the framework of Ban Ki-Moon’s proposal. Nylander’s term ended on November 30, 2017, and he, like his predecessors, was not able to advance the matter at all. Thus, the good offices procedure came to an end, having achieved nothing.
Defense of Essequibo in the Chavismo era
While in the binational sphere the good offices process was going on, internally Venezuela was experiencing radical changes with the arrival of Hugo Chávez to the presidency in 1999. Under his leadership, the Venezuelan government adopted several decisions that shook up the stagnated problem. In 2001, President Chávez forced the US government to abandon its project of installing a rocket launching platform in the disputed Essequibo territory. He also condemned and tried to put a stop to the activities of the US multinationals that had been unilaterally authorized by Guyana to carry out exploration in the disputed zone and its contiguous waters. Thus, at the beginning of the 21st century, it seemed as if the two neighbors were set on a collision course; but Chávez was a skilled statesman. In 2004 he visited Guyana and met with Guyanese PM Bharrat Jagdeo, to whom he commented that it was time to move away from the Arbitral Award and look for new ways to resolve the dispute. Chávez declared that Venezuela would not oppose Guyana’s investment plans and development projects in the Essequibo territory that are essential to improve the life of the Guyanese people, and added that Venezuela was willing to collaborate in those projects. This was de facto equivalent to proposing that the disputed territory be directly and amicably administered by the two countries.
Chávez’s proposal could have opened a new path to finally achieve a real and mutually satisfactory and beneficial solution to the centuries-old problem, but we will never know if that would have been the case. The political conflict inside Venezuela made it impossible for the Chávez administration to develop a national consensus or a fruitful project based on this proposal. The Venezuelan right wing, itself servile to the United States and without having any shred of proposals for the country or the territorial dispute, immediately accused Chávez of having surrendered the Essequibo, and kept feeding into this narrative throughout Chávez’s lifetime. In these conditions, it was not possible for the Chavista government to take the proposal beyond the level of discourse and to the realm of reality. Therefore, even during the golden years of Chávez’s leadership and the rise of Venezuelan power and prestige in the regional and international level, the Venezuelan government had no concrete project regarding developing the Essequibo, and the status quo continued, benefiting multinational companies.
In 2015, the conflict over the Essequibo reached new and dangerous levels. Guyana, by then not recognizing the status of the Essequibo as a disputed zone claimed by Venezuela, was allowing the oil giant ExxonMobil, the second largest oil corporation in the world in terms of assets, to not only operate in Guyana’s international waters but also to intrude in the disputed maritime zone which remains undelimited, as if the entire region was the US multinational’s property.
At this point it may be useful to quickly review the maritime zones between Venezuela and Guyana. In 1968, to resolve the Anacoco Island dispute, the maritime area between the coast of the Venezuelan Guayana and the Guyanese coast was divided into three distinct zones: the Venezuelan Zone or Roraima Zone which extends from the mouth of the Orinoco and the Venezuelan Guayanese coast to the left limit of the Essequibo territory; the undelimited waters that project from the Zone under Claim (Essequibo); and the Guyanese Zone that belongs exclusively to Guyana.
With Guyana’s blessings, ExxonMobil was exploring in the undelimited waters, and had even defined various oil blocks in the maritime zone, one of which is the well-known Stabroek block that contains high-quality light oil. ExxonMobil announced that it would start extraction activities in this block in 2020, with a projection that oil production could reach 750,000 barrels per day in 2025.
Exxon’s presence and activities in the region turned the Essequibo issue into a national security issue for Venezuela, as by 2015 Venezuela was already in the midst of a US-led hybrid war. US President Obama declared Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States” and imposed several unilateral coercive measures against the country (hundreds more would come over the next few years). Chávez had passed away; the country was in the grip of a violent US-backed coup attempt; the political situation was difficult for Chavismo and the new president, Nicolás Maduro. It seemed that Exxon, which had been expelled from Venezuela and whose assets had been nationalized by Chávez, was exacting revenge on Venezuela at the opportune moment. Moreover, its presence so close to Venezuela’s international waters was an added threat to the country’s stability, as US multinationals are backed by the US military.
Regional geopolitics was turning hostile to Venezuela as well. While the retreat of the first Pink Tide and its negative impact on Venezuela has been studied a lot, the change of position of another regional bloc has remained mostly invisible at least in discussions surrounding Venezuela. CARICOM, which had been helped generously by the Chávez government through diverse development and welfare programs including the Petrocaribe, now seeing the economic and oil aid diminish due to the US blockade and the consequent decimation of the Venezuelan economy, started opportunistically aligning itself with Guyana, hoping to have its share of the ill-gotten oil wealth that would soon be available thanks to ExxonMobil. Apart from Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados also started expanding their maritime zones unilaterally, intruding into Venezuelan international waters, indicating that the governments of those countries, under US tutelage, were trying to reduce or completely block Venezuela’s access to the Atlantic.
As if all this was not enough, the multilateral instance that was supposed to be impartial and help resolve the controversy, the Office of the Secretary General of the United Nations, lent its services to safeguard US interests, in the same way that the UN has generally acted since its founding. In 2017, Guyana started requesting the UN to refer the Essequibo dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), a move that Venezuela opposed, rightly considering that ICJ is not the competent body to settle the dispute. Despite Venezuela’s opposition, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, hypocrite and opportunistic as he has always been as the head of the UN, transferred the matter to the ICJ on January 30, 2018, thus giving Guyana—and hence the US, because Guyana is only a proxy—a clear advantage. Although Guterres claimed that transferring the issue to the ICJ was in accordance with his interpretation of the Article 4 of the Geneva Agreement, Venezuela considered this unilateral action as a violation of the Agreement, as the referred article calls for agreement of both parties to the dispute but Guterres had not even consulted Venezuela.
On March 29, 2018, Guyana sued Venezuela before the ICJ, accusing Venezuela of attempting to violate the territorial integrity of Guyana, and requesting the ICJ to decide on the validity of the Arbitration Award of 1899. Venezuela presented its response before the ICJ in April 2019, reiterating its historical position of recovering its stolen territory, and emphasizing that it did not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICJ in settling this dispute.
In another example of how international law is twisted to serve the powerful, the ICJ, on December 18, 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, declared itself competent to hear Guyana’s claim, basing its decision on the Article 4 of the Geneva Agreement, an article and an agreement that the ICJ had itself violated when it accepted to take over the matter from the UN secretary general without the consent of one of the parties to the dispute, that is, Venezuela. This decision, however, unlike the Arbitration Award, was not unanimous. Out of the 16 judges of the ICJ, 12 voted in favor of the ICJ’s competency in the case while four voted against it.
At the same time, the ICJ recognized that declaring the nullity or validity of the Paris Award would not end the dispute. Rather, the ICJ will have to rule on an additional issue: the final definition of the binational border. If the ICJ determines that the Paris Arbitral Award is valid, the boundary situation between Venezuela and Guyana would be maintained as established in said award. On the contrary, if the ICJ declares the award as null and void, which is what Venezuela has considered it to be since the publication of the Mallet-Prevost Memorandum, then the ICJ will have to rule on other important aspects. The most important one would definitely be the new territorial delimitation, as the border established by the arbitrators in 1899 would no longer be valid. Another important aspect is the marine delimitation between the two countries, which would have a particular commercial impact due to the abundant oil deposits in the undelimited waters. However, since the ICJ circumscribed its jurisdiction to the land territory only, it would have to refer the maritime issue to some other competent body in future.
In the same judgment, the ICJ also declared—this time unanimously—that it does not have jurisdiction to hear the claims of Guyana arising from events occurring after the signing of the Geneva Agreement on February 17, 1966, thus establishing a critical date for the case. These include Guyana’s demand that Venezuela leave the eastern part of the Anacoco Island in the Cuyuní River and other islands in the undelimited zone, which Guyana claims that Venezuela is “occupying illegally.”
Likewise, the ICJ refused to hear Guyana’s claims that Venezuela cease its “threats or actions against persons or entities engaged in economic activities in Guyanese territory” and that Venezuela “compensate Guyana for the damages caused for all of the above.”
In March 2022, Guyana presented its arguments on the validity of the 1899 Arbitral Award. In June 2022—within the regulatory period for submitting a response—Venezuela presented its preliminary objections on the inadmissibility of Guyana’s claim. Venezuela also demanded that if the court is to decide on the validity or nullity of the Award, then it must incorporate the United Kingdom in the case, given that it was the main party involved in the declaration of the Award as well as being a signatory of the Geneva Agreement of 1966. Although this request was rejected, the ICJ agreed to review the conduct of the United Kingdom in granting the Arbitral Award. According to Samuel Moncada, Venezuela’s permanent representative to the UN, this was not a defeat for Venezuela, because the court had agreed that “the United Kingdom is part of the case even if it is not present.”
While the ICJ case proceeds, Guyana’s stance has been becoming more war-like. This may partly be attributed to the election of Irfaan Ali as the president of Guyana in August 2020. Ali’s right-wing party has always declared its recognition for the fraudulent 1899 Award and non-recognition of the Venezuelan claim to the Essequibo. While portraying his country as a victim of “Venezuelan imperialism,” he has opened wide Guyana’s doors to the US Southern Command, the representatives of which regularly visit Guyana or hold joint drills in the disputed territory. Irfaan Ali, without any regard for diplomacy, has been openly threatening Venezuela with his “allies,” meaning the US government and military. In fact, the US navy has recently gifted Guyana a naval patrol vessel.
At the same time, evidence has surfaced that ExxonMobil pays Guyana’s legal expenses at the ICJ, and the company knew in advance that the case was going to be referred unilaterally to the ICJ. What is more serious, there exist conflicts of interests among the ICJ judges, including a recently elected judge who had served as legal counsel to Guyana in its case against Venezuela until November 2021, and before that had been an advisor to the Guyanese government.
While the case continues, ExxonMobil has been extracting 340,000 barrels per day of high-quality oil from wells in maritime waters claimed by Venezuela. From this exploitation, Guyana receives royalties estimated at $1 billion per year, an enormous figure for its current GDP, which has been growing by leaps and bounds in the last three years. ECLAC estimates its GDP growth at 46%, while the IMF projects it at 52%. ExxonMobil, similarly, has been profiting by stealing Venezuela’s resources. This leaves no room for doubt as to why Guyana demands that the “Zone under Claim” be removed from maps, and why ExxonMobil and the US back Guyana’s claim.
This brings us to the consultative referendum on the Essequibo currently underway in Venezuela. Cornered from all sides, threatened by US military might at its border, Chavismo saw no other way to protect Venezuela’s interests than falling back on its biggest strength—the people. On September 21, 2023, the National Assembly approved a motion to call for a consultative referendum on the Essequibo, asking the people of Venezuela to decide the Venezuelan State’s future course of action in defense of the stolen territory. It must be highlighted here that contrary to the narrative in mainstream media and that of a part of the Venezuelan opposition, the referendum does not ask whether the Essequibo territory belongs to Venezuela. That is a question that, for Venezuela, is already answered. What the referendum actually does is that it gives power to the people of Venezuela, true to the mechanism of participatory democracy mandated by the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, to set the course that the Venezuelan State must adopt in recovering the territory. Instead of waiting for an alien—and to all appearances compromised—judicial body to decide the fate of Venezuela’s righteous claim to a part of its national territory stolen by a colonial power, like alien judicial bodies had been deciding on the same all these years to the detriment of Venezuela, the government of Venezuela has done the right thing by putting the power of decision in the hands of the people.
Saheli Chowdhury is from West Bengal, India, studying physics for a profession, but with a passion for writing. She is interested in history and popular movements around the world, especially in the Global South. She is a contributor and works for Orinoco Tribune.
This article was produced by Orinoco Tribune.