The recent statement by Foreign Minister Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett that Guyana has made a full submission of a claim to an extended continental shelf to the United Nations, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), has elicited an interesting pair of responses in Venezuela – or rather, one interesting response and one interesting non-response.
In the latter instance, there has been no official reaction by the Venezuelan government. On the other hand, El Universal, a major Caracas daily generally regarded as conservative, appeared to take umbrage at this perfectly legitimate move to extend our continental shelf by up to 150 nautical miles from the 200 nautical mile outer limit of the existing exclusive economic zone. Venezuelan objections are, of course, rooted in that country’s spurious and irritating claim to the Essequibo region and, by extension, the adjacent maritime zone, which has long been a hindrance to our development.
El Universal begins its September 13 article on a note of high indignation: “The old Venezuelan claim to the Essequibo territory has not been able to gain a centimetre of that area, but on the other hand Guyana is trying to acquire a maritime space greater than it enjoys.” The newspaper goes on to report that the Venezuelan foreign ministry has not issued any public statement, in the absence of which, it turns to Sadio Garavini, the Venezuelan ambassador to Guyana from 1980 to 1984.
Mr Garavini explains that, in such cases, the extension of the continental shelf is made known via a unilateral declaration: “It is like information which is provided to the effect that one is assuming the right that one already has.” But then he adds that Venezuela should reject the extension, since the area under consideration is part of the so-called “Zone in Reclamation.” It obviously escapes Mr Garavini’s attention that this term is itself a unilateral assertion, not supported by international law.
Moreover, Mr Garavini contends that since, in his view, Venezuela has rights to Essequibo, “this would be a good reason and a good moment to press for negotiations.” Even more startling is his reported allegation that when there were “serious” negotiations, Guyana had indicated “informally that it was ready to give Venezuela a very small piece of territory on the coast.” This would have offered Venezuela, in Mr Garavini’s words, “the possibility of extending our territorial sea and exclusive economic zone, which is very important because it is rich in petroleum.”
It would be all too easy to dismiss this unsubstantiated recollection as the ramblings of an embittered, former diplomat put out to grass by President Chávez, but Mr Garavini is remembered as an intelligent and energetic ambassador. There has to be another reason for such a position and it most probably lies in the complex domestic political situation prevailing in the ‘Bolivarian Republic.’
Mr Garavini is a known critic of Mr Chávez and his government. In this regard, he assails the Venezuelan president for having delegitimized the Venezuelan claim by saying to President Jadgeo, according to a February 2004 US Embassy cable published by WikiLeaks, that it was “spurious and the product of imperialist pressures.” Mr Garavini believes, furthermore, that for Venezuela to say nothing now would be a tacit recognition that the area is Guyana’s and that Mr Chávez’s government has already ceded one of the most important weapons of negotiation by not withholding recognition of the investments made by transnational corporations in the Essequibo region.
This view of Mr Chávez’s seemingly benign disposition towards Guyana notwithstanding, no comfort should be taken from the official silence of the Venezuelan government thus far. The history of our relationship with our western neighbour shows that domestic political pressures have a way of rekindling nationalistic ogling of Essequibo. And the online reactions to El Universal’s article have been unanimous in their anger at Mr Chávez for allowing Guyana to hold on to and develop Essequibo.
We must therefore be vigilant with regard to the political dynamics in Venezuela and the popular belief in the righteousness of their false claim. The move by our government to protect our territorial rights and developmental interests, from the northwest to the Corentyne, in accordance with international law is correct. We must be equally unanimous in our support for such a course of action.
From our perspective, there is, of course, nothing to negotiate, no concessions to be made. Nor can Venezuela seek a negotiation on the extension of our continental shelf or the delimitation of our maritime borders, when it has chosen to remain outside the international legal framework of UNCLOS. And any solution to the border controversy has to remain within the multilateral ambit of the good officer process under the auspices of the UN Secretary General.