The mighty Essequibo has been the heart of an age old unsubstantiated claim on Guyana’s sovereign territory Venezuela, which spans over 170 years, beginning in the year 1840 when the British Government felt it was necessary to demarcate British Guiana’s borders.
German surveyor Robert Schomburgk on request from the British Government was hired to conduct a survey on the Western Boundary of the territory. Schomburgk’s line of demarcation was rejected by Venezuela and this sparked a controversy that continued until 1894.
In 1899, an Arbitral Tribunal representing both British Guiana and Venezuela described clearly the boundary between the two countries, resulting in an agreement, which presumably put the issue to rest. Though Venezuela honoured this agreement for at least half a century, in 1962, the Spanish state announced that she regarded the 1899 Award as being null and void.
In 1966, the two countries signed the Geneva Agreement in which the steps for resolution of the border controversy were detailed and sought to establish a “Mixed Commission” of Guyanese and Venezuelan representatives would be established to seeking “satisfactory solutions for the practical settlement of the controversy.
It has been 50 years since the signing of the Agreement, yet Venezuela remains relentless in its claims, having showed blatant signs of disregard for Guyana’s territorial integrity.
GDF Officers during ‘Exercise Greenheart’ which focuses on close country warfare training and demonstrates military capacity.
In 2013, the region again became a subject of particular interest to our Western neighbour. The Venezuelan navy entered Guyana waters and seized and subsequently released the MV Teknik Perdana – a seismic vessel hired by the United States oil company, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. Just last year, one week after oil giant ExxonMobil discovered significant quantities of oil in Guyana’s Exclusive Economic Zone and on Guyana’s 49th Independence Anniversary, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro issued Decree 1787 claiming ownership of Guyana’s territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean off of the Essequibo region. On July 7, Maduro issued the second Decree 1859 reiterating its claims. Later in October, Venezuela objected to the operation of the Canadian mining company Guyana Goldfields Incorporated which is located at Aurora, Cuyuni-Mazaruni. In September, it was reported that gun boats and troops had been deployed along Guyana’s Borders.
Following this timeline of relentless action, Guyana has taken the position to appeal to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon for a juridical settlement on the matter. During a Foreign Policy Panel Discussion regarding the Border Controversy, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Carl Greenidge explained that after years of no results, it is time for International Law to take its course. He noted that the Geneva Convention allows the Secretary to take this course of action.
“The Secretary General has the power to choose a means to resolve a matter if the two sides can’t agree. What Secretaries General have been doing since 1982 is to identify persons as representatives of the Secretary General to facilitate dialogue and cooperation and mechanisms that can eventually eliminate the controversy, in fact all of those have failed… nothing has come out of it… Venezuela’s claims are so arbitrary that they go beyond any recognised boundaries that Venezuela endures,” Minister Greenidge said.
The entrance to the Guyana Defence Force Eteringbang Base on the Cuyuni River
The Minister reiterated Guyana’s position in February of this year, while addressing the National Assembly during the budget debates. He stated that Guyana totally rejects the backhanded attempts of Venezuela to despoil Guyana of her rights. The Minister was responding to a statement made to the United Nations by Venezuela ratifying its rights to the Essequibo. “Venezuela’s behaviour towards Guyana is a festering wound to peace and development in our region and an affront to the rule of law in the world. It must be healed by a process of law,” he said.
Upon assuming Office, His Excellency President David Granger made clear Guyana’s position with regard to maintaining territorial integrity. In his address at the opening of the 11th Parliament in June last year, President Granger pledged the Government’s determination in securing Guyana’s borders and the strengthening of friendly relations with the neighbouring states of Brazil, Suriname and Venezuela. He stated that the security of their borders is important to the stability of the continent and to the success of the Union of the American Nations.
“We will seek effective international collaboration to sustain economic growth and to preserve international peace. Your Government will continue to work towards the adherence to agreements that respect our territorial integrity on all three frontiers: Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname. We insist on the full implementation of agreements that guarantee sovereignty,” the President said.
The Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carl Greendige during his attendance at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2015 in Malta.
Sir Shridath Ramphal, who among his many posts has served as both Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of State to Guyana during his active years, and has played a great many roles in relation to Venezuelan border aggression, gave some insight into the controversy. Commenting on the state of affairs as Guyana continually attempted to protect its territory from Venezuela, Sir Ramphal noted that from the time he became acquainted with the matter in 1965, his experience was that Venezuela was as aggressive in their claims back then as they were in their most recent attempts.
In his post as Minister of State at the time, Sir Ramphal was part of a group including then President Linden Forbes Burnham and the foreign Ministers of both Great Britain and Venezuela that signed on to the Geneva Agreement. “Venezuela over all that time has cultivated the myth that the Essequibo region was stolen by the British,” he said. “So a whole generation of Venezuelans has grown up in the belief – and they genuinely do believe- that Venezuela is right -of course they are wrong -and it has hasd a serious effect on Guyana’s development.”
Most recently, on May 30 of this year, a boat carrying officers of the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission came under fire from the Venezuelan Army in the area of Eteringbang on the Cuyuni River.
Following the reports, President David Granger said that Guyana is seeking clarity on the events that transpired but it appears as though an error had been made. In response to questions posed on The Public Interest, the President said that a complaint has been made to Venezuela but that no formal response has yet been received. He made clear however, that despite the hostile nature of the occurrence; it is not a “clash between two Republics”.
“We are not saying that there is no fault, but my information is that the rain was falling very heavily and there might have been some misunderstanding about the boat that was actually taking the officials. But it is unacceptable in the relation between two states on a river owned by Guyana that shots would be fired in a hostile manner. So we are not satisfied that the matter is closed as yet but it does not seem likely that it would lead to some international conflict,” the President said.
Sir Shridath Ramphal at a recent launch of his book ‘Guyana In The World: The First of the First Fifty Years and the Predatory Challenge’
Chief of Staff if the Guyana Defence Force, Brigadier General Mark Phillips explained that he has been in contact with the General of the Venezuelan Armed forces and has been assured that it was an isolated incident. “This is an isolated incident and I would want to believe that as the Venezuelan general promised they will investigate and corrective action will be taken,” he said.
Given that it is an assumed misunderstanding, Brigadier General Phillips stated that persons traveling in that area have nothing to fear. The Chief of Staff also assured that there is adequate GDF deployment along the borders with its base located in Eteringbang and several observation posts along the Cuyuni River. And though he admitted that the Venezuelan Armed Forces far outnumbers that of the GDF, Brigadier he stated that the Army will continue to carry out its mandate to protect Guyana to the best of its ability. He stated too that the GDF soldiers undergo regular training relating to defence and all matters surrounding the security of Guyana.
The President has in the past spoken about outlined a “Total National Defence” Policy, in which he stated that in light of the border controversies all the elements and instruments of national power need constantly to be employed in order to protect the country’s territory.
“Venezuela’s persistent attempts to redraw a maritime map of the Caribbean and to seize large portions of Guyana’s land and sea space cannot be dismissed… The Defence Force and our diplomatic service, in the final analysis, are the custodians of Guyana’s territorial integrity, political independence and security. The GDF, in particular, is entrusted with defence and must be strong enough to undertake the task of defending our motherland Guyana needs a well commanded, well trained and well equipped Defence Force,” the President said at the Annual Officers’ Conference of the GDF in March 2016.
Guyana has for 50 years been burdened by the threat to the country’s patrimony. In the year of Guyana’s 50th Independence Anniversary and the 50th Independence of the signing of the Geneva Agreement, Guyanese must hold fast to our territorial rights as Government continues to advocate, with the support of the Commonwealth and CARICOM, for a final and binding juridical settlement on the matter.