Cedric L Joseph  Anglo-American Diplomacy And The Re-Opening Of The Guyana-Venezuela Boundary Controversy, 1961-1966 (Trafford Publishers, 2008. 522p)

By R M Austin

One of the many attractive features of the Foreign Service of which I was once a part is that it allowed individual officers to specialize in a particular foreign policy question. The late Jimmy Matheson was a master of things economic. Barton Scotland was an acknowledged expert in the Law of the Sea. Cedric Joseph, despite his wide diplomatic experience, always had a specialist and consuming interest in the border controversy between Guyana and its western neighbour, Venezuela. Indeed, Joseph came to public notice in this field when in 1970 he published ‘The Venezuela-Guyana Boundary Arbitration of 1899: An Appraisal…’ in the journal Caribbean Studies.  The passage of years notwithstanding, this two-part exposition and analysis of the issues remains the most lucid introduction to the field available. In 1998, Joseph published an interesting and insightful booklet which bore the title Anglo-American Diplomacy and the reopening of the Guyana-Venezuela Boundary Controversy, 1961-1966 This booklet has now been updated and expanded into a full book with the same title.

Taking advantage of the availability of diplomatic correspondence and 20090315guyanaother primary documentation, Joseph has transmuted the booklet into a full length book. And although it is a long read it is at the same time informative, insightful and instructive. For his theme is that of a small nation caught up in the policy differences of two of the major powers of the day, the United States and Great Britain. Indeed, it is the account of Anglo-American rivalry involvement in the re-opening of the border controversy between Guyana and its western neighbour, Venezuela.

It is a saga of the dispute over the border between the two countries in the nineteenth century which would burgeon into a full blown controversy in the twentieth and continue, at this time of writing, to plague the development of this small and fractured nation. The differences between the United States and Great Britain over the border between British Guiana, a colony of the British Empire, and Venezuela, which became independent in 1811, was ultimately referred to arbitration, the political weight of Washington being decisive. The Arbitral Tribunal met in Paris in 1899 and it handed down a unanimous decision determining the boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela.

For more than sixty years this decision stood until the publication of a posthumous memorandum by a junior counsel representing Venezuela on the tribunal claimed that the award had been the result of a “political deal” between Great Britain and Russia. This memorandum would form the rather flimsy basis for the repudiation of the award by Venezuela at the height of the Cold War and at the very moment that British Guiana would descend into political fratricide. This made it easy for the Anglo-American powers to inject the poison of their Cold War considerations into the equation to the detriment of the young and emerging nation of Guyana. But as British Guiana faced the hostility of Venezuela in the west, Suriname also took the opportunity in the east to subvert the understanding between Britain and Netherlands reached in 1939 over the land boundary between Suriname and Guyana, to press its claims to the New River Triangle. David Granger comments appropriately in the Foreword to Joseph’s book: “No other Caribbean Commonwealth country embarked on statehood with such impediments.”

But Joseph does not only narrate and analyse the reasons for the re-opening of the border controversy in a narrow or limited fashion. His book is not only seasoned by the study of many well known historical characters but also by the insertion of the great historical developments of the time which had an impact on the evolution of the controversy. In this book you will find Lord Salisbury and Grover Cleveland, John Kennedy and Harold McMillan, Harold Wilson and Anthony Greenwood, Lyndon Johnson and Betancourt. Indeed, it may appear that Guyana which nowadays is of minimal interest to the global community was the source of considerable interest to some of the great statesmen of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In a memorandum to John Kennedy in March 1962, Schlesinger admitted that Jagan would be gratified to know “that the United States and British Governments were spending more man hours per capita on British Guiana than any other current problem.”

There is a fairly full-length portrait of the man whose memorandum was the cause of so much confusion and misunderstanding: Mallet-Provost.

As a young diplomat I was always fascinated to know more about this gentleman. Joseph has rewarded my patience. Now we know that Mallet-Provost was a fierce defender of the Venezuelan national interest who was prepared to falsify information and bend the truth. An example would suffice. Joseph points out that as a member of the Cleveland Commission (set up to determine to boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela), “on two occasions during the preparation of the case for Venezuela, he was chided by members of the commission for suppressing their conclusions and inserting his opinion to give what he considered an advantage to Venezuela.” Yet this is the man whose memorandum would undermine sixty years of international law and become the main source of Venezuela’s attempt to repeal the decision of the 1899 Arbitral Tribunal.

Joseph has interestingly pointed out that the findings of this tribunal were not without significance. It was part of the development of international law. This is his observation; “The Tribunal was convened simultaneously with the Peace Conference, called by Czar Nicholas II at The Hague from July 1899 to codify the law regarding arbitration, that would eventually lay the foundations of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Indeed, the tribunal was viewed by some contemporaries as a practical working example of arbitration in progress.”

Joseph says that he is aware of the historian’s duty to inquire and study the reasons for the development of a particular set of historical circumstances. Accordingly, he sets himself the goal of determining what caused “an arbitration award that was unanimously reached and the product of some of the most exhaustive and complex expositions to be reopened after six decades of international endorsement.” In pursuit of this answer Joseph takes the reader from the opening years of the contemporary historical development of British Guiana when the young and handsome Guianese Premier, Cheddi Jagan, in less than prudent terms, praises the success of the Cuban revolution and rattles political and diplomatic cages in Washington. Like a figure in a Greek tragedy, Jagan seems unaware of the forces he will unleash by his admiration and support of the Cuban revolution and its leader, Dr Fidel Castro. For after the Cuban revolution the young American President John F Kennedy had determined that no other communist revolution should succeed, especially as Joseph observed: “…since the construction of the Panama Canal, British Guiana’s geopolitical and strategic position on the South American mainland off the eastern extremity of the Caribbean Sea had been considered in the United States as a vital strategic zone.”

The full machinery of the US government would be deployed to get rid of Jagan. And Washington was not alone in this aim. Venezuela was also alarmed at the prospect of a communist regime on its doorstep. The policy objectives of Washington and Caracas coincided. Did they collude? Their interests were certainly similar: Kennedy wanted Jagan out and Caracas wanted to re-open the boundary controversy. Joseph has been careful to point out that Kennedy’s visit to Caracas came on the heels of his assessment of Jagan when he visited Washington in 1962. Moreover, the Kennedy administration saw the Betancourt government as important to the building of democracy in the hemisphere as an alternative to the socialist constructions of the Castro regime.

This is Joseph’s comment: “No ‘smoking gun’ would be uncovered to indicate any direct complicity in prompting Venezuela’s reopening of the border issue. The censors would certainly take care of that for the time, though it is unlikely that there will be documentary evidence of complicity. Only the slightest nod of support was required as, is suggested, may have been conveyed by Kennedy to Betancourt.” It is not surprising that important files for this period remain closed. The sad fact is that in all this the interest of British Guiana and its people escaped the attention of both Washington and London. British Guiana and later Guyana’s territorial integrity was “squandered to appease Venezuela.”

The willingness by America to cosset Venezuela for strategic reasons, and by Britain for commercial ones, would facilitate the introduction of the border controversy at the United Nations in 1962, cause the tripartite examination of the documents, and lead straight to Geneva. Of course, not for the first or the last time, the Guyanese people did not help themselves.

The collusion of the Anglo-American powers and the re-opening of the border controversy were played out against the background of a “deeply polarized and weakened colony about to be independent.”

Any Guyanese reading this book would be concerned that after Jagan had been removed from office and replaced by Burnham, Venezuela still pursued its claim to Guyana’s territory. The reason lies in Caracas’s regional ambitions, which are still in evidence today with the blandishments of the Petro-Caribe scheme and the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). The fact of the matter is that Venezuela has always had expansionist ambitions in the Caribbean. Joseph has proven that at the end of the Second World War Caracas was very active in the discussion as to what should happen to the European colonies in the hemisphere.

No less a person than Betancourt would submit that Curacao and Aruba should not be returned to the Netherlands; proposals should be made for their incorporation into Venezuela. In fact, Betancourt published an article on May 9, 1945 in which he argued “Venezuela, in the name of the principles for which the war had been fought, and of the Atlantic Charter, could and should demand an active share in the solution of Aruba, Curacao and other colonies near to Venezuelan territory.” As it was, Venezuela’s revived interest in Guyana’s territory would coincide with the search for a solution to European colonies in the hemisphere. In making it possible for Venezuela to revive its claim to Guyana’s territory, therefore, both the United States and Britain were merely whetting its appetite for expansion, an expansion that would draw stern criticism from the Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Eric Williams, in a now famous address to the PNM in 1975.

Joseph takes his role as an historian of the border controversy and an analyst of Guyana’s diplomatic evolution very seriously. He is therefore not averse to castigating our leaders for the lack of statesmanship and the refusal to follow enlightened policies. Strictures fall on Dr Jagan not only for failing to understand the geopolitical realities of the times, but also for not making the right tactical and diplomatic choices. As the leading member of the Council of Ministers, Jagan could have made strong objection to the decision to have a tripartite consideration of the documents relevant to the border controversy. However, “What emerges from these documents is that Dr Jagan had neither grasped nor applied himself fully at the time to the implications of the tripartite proposal as he would do some nine months later in 1963.”

Jagan would later accuse Burnham of re-opening the border controversy by signing the Geneva Agreement in 1966, when in fact he helped to make this possible by accepting the tripartite proposal. Burnham, in contrast, while he “inspired the most creative and dynamic period of foreign policy formulation” did not do enough to find a consensus before he departed for Geneva. I want to be accurate and clear here. Joseph does not say this directly. But it is certainly an inference the reader can draw.

There is still a dispute about exactly what happened, but at the end of the day the PPP was not represented at Geneva. The upshot has been the Geneva Agreement has become a political football between the two main parties, the very document which is one of the key elements of the border controversy. On the other hand all the main political parties in Venezuela were represented at Geneva.

The examination by Joseph of the diplomacy of both Burnham and Jagan takes place in the wider context of the consideration of the kind of statesmanship that would be required to end the agony of the border dispute and its enervating effect on Guyana’s development. Joseph makes it a clear that national unity is a prerequisite to the conduct of the kind of diplomacy necessary to win us peace in the east and the west. Here is his conclusion: “It is their [Venezuela and Suriname’s] interpretation of the cohesiveness and vulnerability of the Guyanese state that will continue to be a decisive factor in fostering a resolution.”

One puts down this book impressed by its range and scope and the consistent high quality of the writing. It is comprehensive, authoritative and enlightening. It is a judicious blend of narrative, analysis and recommendation. For Joseph offers some policy solutions such as the revamping of the ‘Good Officer’ process and using the need for economic development to soften the animosities between Guyana and Venezuela. The footnotes are copious and highly instructive; the Index, superb. In the end, I believe this is the best book of its kind in the English language. Joseph may do more in the future. I very much doubt that he will surpass the achievement represented by this work.

There are, however, a few printing errors which can be corrected in the next edition. Repeatedly a full stop seems to have fallen off the page or is in the wrong place. And the publishers and proof readers seem to have a difficulty in knowing when to use ‘cession’ as opposed to ‘session.’ However, these are minor problems in an outstanding work.

[Editor’s note: The book is available at Austin’s bookstore on Church Street.]

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