Last Thursday, Reuters issued a report headlined ‘Guyana oil exploration stirs up Venezuela border dispute.’ Untypically for Reuters it was long on inaccuracy and short on verified data where the background to Venezuela’s controversy with Guyana over the boundary is concerned, although not on developments in Venezuela itself. The most problematic portions read as follows: “Venezuela’s opposition accused the government on Wednesday of turning a blind eye to neighbouring Guyana’s oil exploration in a border region claimed by Venezuela, potentially inflaming a territorial dispute that dates back more than a century.
“The conflict was stirred up in recent days by local media reports that Exxon Mobil Corp, in partnership with Royal Dutch Shell, is exploring for crude off the coast of the disputed Essequibo region.
“The two South American nations squabbled over the area, which is the size of the U.S. State of Georgia, for much of the 20th century. Venezuela calls it a ‘reclamation zone,’ but in practice it functions as Guyanese territory…”
While the reporter’s failure to reproduce correct information which is both well known and not too difficult to access cannot be defended, perhaps some allowance can be made for the fact that he presumably sits in Caracas, a passive recipient of Venezuelan distortions (and propaganda) the veracity of which he lacked the time or the energy to ascertain. The same excuse – if such it is – cannot be made for the members of the Guyanese journalistic fraternity who sit in Georgetown; they really should at least be au courant with the basic outlines of the story. How could it be, therefore, that more than one of our media houses, not excluding one belonging to the state, could reproduce this nonsense verbatim for the consumption of local readers? On an issue such as this it is not just careless, it is irresponsible.
One might have thought that the Reuters’ comment that “Essequibo… shows little sign of Venezuelan presence,” might have given them a moment’s pause for thought; but no, they went ahead and published this too. Even if they didn’t know that there has been no Venezuelan “presence” here of any kind since before the 1620s, surely they must have been aware that in their own lifetimes and that of their parents and grandparents, there has been no Venezuelan settlement here in any shape of form, even on a very small scale. The words “little sign” emanate from an outsider, who is unfamiliar with the matter, and, it seems, unfamiliar with Essequibo. It is true that with our porous borders and the rise of the drug trade and the current gold rush, we are seeing more Venezuelans on Guyanese soil than used to be the case – although even then, not that many; but they are birds of passage, quite often staying here illegally or having criminal associations.
How can the local media pass totally inaccurate statements that Guyana and Venezuela have been ‘squabbling’ over Essequibo “for much of the 20th century”? How come that agencies on which the public depends for reliable information do not know that the issue was settled by an international arbitral tribunal which sat in Paris in 1899? That the boundary which was laid down in that award has been internationally recognized since that time? That Venezuela herself accepted it for more than sixty years in the twentieth century? It might be noted in passing that she participated willingly both in the marking exercise at the beginning of the 20th century following the award, and in the fixing of the tri-junction point on Mount Roraima in the 1930s, in which Brazil participated too. As a matter of fact, in both instances the surveyors involved in those demarcations had suggested minor alterations given the difficulty of the terrain, but Caracas insisted on a strict adherence to the line of the 1899 award. There were, too, other acts of acquiescence, as they are called, on Venezuela’s part.
While one doesn’t expect the average reporter here to know anything much about acts of acquiescence, it must be repeated again that there is simply no excuse for not knowing that the frontier was settled in 1899, that it is internationally recognized and that for most of the 20th century Venezuela recognized it too. As such, therefore, there is no dispute; there is a controversy which was raised by Venezuela sixty-three years after the boundary had been established. A Reuters correspondent can use the word ‘dispute,’ because as far as he is concerned, it is a neutral term. However, in the case of Guyana, both the PNC and the current PPP/C governments have always employed the word ‘controversy’ because of what the term ‘dispute’ implies, and up until recent years, the entire press corps here also followed suit.
The older generation of Guyanese know all these things, because they were sensitized to the issues as part of an information campaign. They know that Venezuela challenged the award at the United Nations in 1962 on the grounds (which happen to be meretricious) that it was the product of chicanery, the details of which need not detain us here. And they may know that in a very general sense the real reason for the Venezuelan government raising this at all had to do with a Cold War context, as the late Dr Cheddi Jagan was never tired of saying. It is a position that President Chávez too is reported to have adopted in recent years, although in the beginning he had taken up an altogether more bellicose stance where Guyana was concerned.
The latest resuscitation of the claim in Venezuela is coming from the opposition there. The Democratic Unity coalition is, of course, on the campaign trail in preparation for the presidential election due on October 7, and it was reports that oil exploration had restarted offshore Essequibo which triggered its latest statements. Among other things, it accused the President Chávez government of being “weak” in relation to the matter, and said that it “should address the issue immediately,” according to the Reuters report. At an earlier stage the opposition had criticized the Venezuelan government’s flaccid response to Guyana’s application for an extended continental shelf under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The situation is, therefore, that the opposition has made the continental shelf application and any pursuit of actively exploring for oil in Essequibo waters Venezuelan election campaign issues – the Stabroek Block which is the source of their complaint was awarded to Exxon Mobil in 1998 and subsequently abandoned following a protest from Venezuela. No one can predict at this stage the outcome of the Venezuelan election since above all else it revolves around the state of President Chávez’s health. In the meantime, however, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here should look at the possibility of educating the public as used to be done, about the basics in relation to the boundary.
Most of all, it needs to make efforts to ensure that the media here are careful about the language they use, and that where the western boundary is concerned, the word ‘dispute’ is banished from their vocabulary. It should be explained to them (especially the state media) that these reports potentially could be presented to tribunals as evidence that the general perception in Guyana is that there is indeed a ‘dispute.’ In certain circumstances that could present problems for our negotiators. There is no reason not to use a Reuters report for what is going on in Venezuela in relation to the boundary issue; the point is that it should be rewritten, excerpting and acknowledging those portions which deal with Venezuelan politics. Where background is concerned, however, there should never be any reliance on accounts emanating from sources which are simply not au fait with the facts.
Finally, the controversy is one of these situations where Guyana really does have right on its side. As such, there need be no reticence about embracing the official position as it relates to the fundamental issues mentioned above. Where there is room for different opinions and possible criticisms is in the handling of developments arising out of the controversy by an administration, but where the case is concerned the nation should speak as one.