On September 6 this year, Guyana formally submitted her claim for an extended continental shelf of 150 nautical miles to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, pursuant to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The following day Venezuela was given notification of Guyana’s submission. There was no immediate response from the Government of Venezuela, but then there was no response from our western neighbour either when in May 2009 Takuba Lodge first apprised them of this country’s intention to submit a formal claim to the extension. On that occasion the Chargé d’Affaires of the Venezuelan Embassy had been given a note verbale and an executive summary captioned, ‘A submission of data and information on the outer limits of the continental shelf of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.’ Furthermore, according to the Venezuelan daily El Universal, Venezuelan Ambassa-dor to Guyana Dario Morandy had advised his government to issue an immediate response to the note. This advice was not acted upon.
As was clear from our editorial of September 16, this time around it was opposition figures and “experts” contacted by El Universal for a comment who were the first to give their views on Guyana’s formal submission on September 6. Their positions all reflected the traditional revanchist stance of Venezuela, and were in general expressed with some vehemence which in one or two instances bordered on bellicosity. In the process the interviewees relieved themselves of a number of erroneous and misleading observations, including one that suggested that by submitting the claim Guyana was not adhering to the Geneva Agreement and that it had abandoned the Good Officer process.
El Universal, as was said in our leader of September 16, is generally viewed as a fairly conservative paper, but what is more pertinent here is that it sits squarely in the opposition camp. At this point in time President Chávez because of his recent illness and his chemotherapy regimen is only functioning at “half-throttle,” to use his own words, while the opposition in general is in vigorous mode, not least because national elections are due in Venezuela in 2012. The boundary controversy with Guyana can always be depended upon to have resonance with the populace in the republic to our west, although it can lie dormant for long periods, as indeed it has done in recent years. Guyana’s continental shelf extension, therefore, has provided an excuse for the opposition to resuscitate the border controversy and create a cause which can rouse the Venezuelan electorate. It is also an easy issue with which to assail Miraflores. It might be noted, for example, that El Universal reported that one private institute was printing maps showing Essequibo as part of Venezuela for free distribution.
President Chávez is no laggard when it comes to politics, and the implications of the clamour from some quarters that a strong stance should be adopted towards Guyana would not have been lost on him. Any perception that he was too weakened to assert himself in relation to Georgetown, or that he lacked the necessary commitment to his country’s territorial interests, or that his foreign policy was in a shambles, could not be allowed to take hold in the public mind. Almost three weeks after Guyana had formally submitted her continental shelf claim, therefore, the Government of Venezuela issued a statement on the matter. Whether anything official would have been said at all had it not been for the brouhaha stirred up by some in the opposition and the media, is perhaps a moot point, although the fact that the statement lambasted the “bourgeoisie” who it said were unleashing their “propaganda” and seeking to “manipulate the Venezuelan people [who are] uninformed about such a sensitive topic,” may be a hint that indeed it would not have been. In addition, of course, if Caracas did not want to make an issue of the extension claim in 2009, it is difficult to see why it should have wanted to do so now.
As it was, the statement which the Government of Venezuela eventually released on Monday, September 26, was remarkably restrained in its tone, although in careful language by implication it acknowledged the concerns which had been made public by alluding to the fact it was taking action to preserve the law with regard to the extent of Venezuela’s “maritime façade” – an oblique reference to the Essequibo coastline. However, it went on to reflect the tenor of a part of Guyana’s submission of September 6, which had said the claim had been made without prejudice to the delimitation of the continental shelf boundaries between states. The Venezuelan statement, however, did expand Guyana’s limited reference to continental shelf boundaries, by saying that Guyana’s claim did not prejudge the issues relative to the determination of maritime boundaries between the two countries. It is true that maritime boundaries, let alone continental shelf boundaries, have not been fixed in this part of the Atlantic, and involve not just Venezuela and Guyana, but also other states such as Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. (Venezuela and Trinidad signed a maritime boundary treaty in 1990, to which Guyana made formal objection since it encompassed waters believed to belong to this country.)
The Venezuelan government statement, of course, did not satisfy the critics, from whom there was an immediate reaction. The Unified Democratic Panel, an alliance of various opposition personalities and groups, issued a release describing Miraflores’ response as “insufficient,” and saying that Guyana had ignored “the very existence of our claim and seems to ignore the Geneva Agreement of 1966.” Another commentator said that Guyana did not take Venezuela’s claim seriously. It is nonsense to suggest that Guyana has ignored the Geneva Agreement, and as for the claim, every government in this country has always recognized the 1899 Award (the 112th anniversary of which falls tomorrow) as a “full, perfect and final settlement” – as did Venezuela up until 1962. The current boundary with Venezuela is an internationally recognized border and no government in this country has ever seen the claim as an impediment to development in Essequibo, although in practical terms, various governments in Caracas, including the current one, have stymied projects there at one time or another.
The issue for the Venezuelan critics is not the continental shelf per se, since they are conveniently ignoring the fact that Guyana has made clear in its submission, as said above, that this would not prejudice future delimitation of continental shelf boundaries; it is simply about the Essequibo claim. As they see it, if Venezuela secured even a portion of Essequibo, it would affect boundary contours in the maritime zone and by extension, the continental shelf. As said earlier, therefore, Guyana’s submission is an opening for them to beat the nationalistic drum and resort to jingoism against a President who says he will lead his party to elections next year, and who for reasons which are not altogether apparent, has not pursued an aggressive line on the Essequibo claim in more recent times.
President Chávez reacted quickly to this round of criticism too, and promptly dispatched his ForeignMinister, Nicolás Maduro to Trinidad to meet with his Guyanese counterpart, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett. They issued a joint statement, the substance of which was published in our edition yesterday. Some of its key points were that Guyana recognized the right of Venezuela to make its views known to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf; and that the delimitation of their maritime boundaries was an outstanding issue and would require negotiations. The Ministers also recommitted to the Geneva Agreement and the Good Offices process, and the two facilitators under this process are to meet to discuss Guyana’s submission and report back to their respective governments.
The statement had one sentence which might be a source of slight unease, namely: “The Ministers recognized that this controversy is a legacy of colonialism and must be resolved.” It must be emphasized that the Venezuelans alone generated the controversy in 1962, when they first challenged the validity of the 1899 Award at the United Nations after having recognized it for more than 60 years. It is true that Guyana (then British Guiana) was a British colonial territory at the time, and technically, the initial negotiations with regard to the claim were conducted between the British and the Venezuelans. However, given that Caracas raised a meretricious challenge to the Award, the controversy could hardly be described as a British legacy; it was and is a Venezuelan ‘legacy.’ If the Venezuelan government is implying, therefore, that the challenge is valid but Britain would not resolve the issue, then that would be problematic from Guyana’s point of view. Perhaps the Guyanese public would feel more comfortable if such ambiguities of expression were avoided, lest our unqualified commitment to the Arbitral Award of 1899 is erroneously perceived as less than solid.
What can be said is that the controversy looks as if it has become an election issue for Venezuela, and that the opposition there is adopting a hawkish line. One hopes that Guyana’s Ambassador, Mr Geoff da Silva has acquired a sufficient understanding of the issues and of Venezuelan politics to keep Takuba Lodge fully informed of developments and likely trends, and that he is provided with the necessary diplomatic resources if those are required.