Last Saturday, President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela arrived here on a one-day state visit, following in the footsteps of President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1978, and President Hugo Chávez in 2004. Of the three of them, it was Mr Maduro who surprised Guyanese the most as a consequence of comments made during a press conference which followed the signing of a Joint Declaration with President Donald Ramotar.
While the usual trade issues, it appears, were under discussion, along with the perennial matter of air links between Georgetown and Caracas – earlier efforts in this regard could never be sustained – and while inevitably something was said on PetroCaribe, it was surprisingly the border which emerged as the topic du jour during the press briefing.
It all began in characteristic low-key fashion, with President Maduro indicating that he and President Ramotar had recommitted to the United Nations Good Offices process, and had agreed they would request that the UN Secretary General reappoint Professor Norman Girvan as the Good Officer. For his part, Mr Ramotar among other things referred to the border controversy as “This colonial issue, this Cold War relic,” and went on to say it would “not prevent us from trying to promote friendly relationships between our two peoples.”
His formulation of words was unfortunate. While the meretricious claim raised by Venezuela to Essequibo in 1962 could in a general sense be described as a “Cold War relic,” that is entirely different from the substantive matter of the border itself, which is not an issue at all as far as Guyana is concerned since it was established following arbitration by a tribunal which sat in Paris in 1899, and which handed down a decision both sides were committed to accepting as a “full, perfect and final” settlement. To refer to a “colonial issue,” therefore, no matter what the context President Ramotar intended, is possibly to imply (among other things) that the border was not settled in colonial times, and by extension, therefore, that the arbitral award itself was not final in some sense, something which ordinarily would be nothing short of a bombshell coming from a Guyanese head of state.
Every government in this country, beginning with Cheddi Jagan even before independence, and including every PNC and PPP administration since, has taken as its starting point the fact that the 1899 award finally resolved the boundary dispute between Venezuela and what was then British Guiana. For more than sixty years after 1899, Venezuela accepted the border, participating in its demarcation as well as in the fixing of the tri-junction point on Mount Roraima that also involved Brazil. Nevertheless, after the passage of many decades, Venezuela then raised a controversy in the United Nations over a legally settled, internationally recognized boundary. This is why governments here have invariably been careful in their language when making even casual comments on the issue – it is always a border controversy, for example, never a border dispute – and one hopes that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will brief President Ramotar thoroughly on the niceties relative to this question.
The Guyanese head of state’s misstatement aside, it was President Maduro who produced the biggest surprise of the afternoon. Asked by the Guyana Chronicle (according to its report) as to what moves Venezuela might take to conclusively resolve the status of Essequibo, the neighbouring head of state became quite animated, and eventually his speech became so rapid that his interpreter could not keep up with him, interrupting the flow of his delivery as far as the anglophone reporters were concerned. Leaving aside entirely the faux pas of the Chronicle (the status of Essequibo is absolutely not in question), President Maduro held forth on the subject that the border “dispute” was a legacy of British and Spanish colonialism. “Our two countries became independent out of those two colonies. Such a development is not the responsibility of the two independent nations today. It was settled the very same day by the UK Parliament the very same day that independence was granted to what is today the Cooperative Republic of Guyana.” Now exactly how one is to construe this statement is perhaps open to question, although it may be that something got lost in translation.
However, he went on to say that we are 50 years “from the signing of this agreement [Geneva?] between the old empire and the old party men of… Venezuela. It was precisely the beginning of a campaign… [through] the army and through the media to inject in the population… hatred and to create the psychological position against Guyana expressed through racism and hatred in order to invade this country.” This was encouraged by the north – ie the US ‒ he continued, and “the purpose was to undermine the independent forces of the left and their leaders.”
While by implication President Chávez seems to have taken this line, aside from Cold War references, he never spelt out as directly as President Maduro has done that the claim had its origins in the attempt to undermine the forces of the left in this country in the early 1960s, and was artificially stirred up by the Venezuelan media. Since this is now the declared position of the Caracas administration, the question automatically arises as to how they view the 1899 award per se. Do they still regard it as null, and if they do, how is that reconciled with their stance on the provenance of the raising of the Essequibo claim in 1962 ‒ or are they not now challenging the award?
Even if, for the sake of argument, the current Venezuelan government either accepts that the 1899 award is valid, or believes that given the circumstances it has to be regarded as such for all practical purposes, this would not mean it could publicly relinquish the claim to Essequibo. For half a century Venezuelans have been indoctrinated to believe that they were despoiled of territory which was rightfully theirs, and if President Maduro publicly retreated from that now it would cause a national outcry.
In addition, there may be the slightly problematic issue of the Venezuelan constitution to consider, whose Article 10 recognizes the territory of the state as that which belonged to the Spanish Captaincy-General of Venezuela “as amended by virtue of the treaties and arbitration awards which have not been vitiated with nullity.” Now it is true that at the time this was drafted in 1999 some leading constitutional lawyers in Venezuela questioned the wisdom of it, while others described the section about “nullity” as meaningless. Be that as it may, it would still be seized upon by opposition forces.
Which brings us to Guyana’s foreign policy. Even if – again for the sake of argument – the current Venezuelan government were to abandon its Essequibo claim, there would be no guarantee that the issue would not be resuscitated by a succeeding one, and in the current circumstances a succeeding one is almost guaranteed to take up the issue. In other words, a foreign policy cannot be built solely on an optimistic vision of the future, more particularly in this instance; it always has to factor in contingencies.
And it has to be said that the opposition has been assailing President Maduro with criticism of his policy towards Guyana. Their main concerns are in the maritime theatre, and include matters like the exploratory concession awarded by Guyana to the US oil company Anadarko. Maritime issues in the Caribbean are complex, not least because Caricom has never come together to look at possible boundaries and devise a common strategy to facilitate the pursuit of their interests, as well as because Venezuela is not a signatory to the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Caracas has traditionally taken the approach of concluding bilateral treaties with individual territories (as was done with Trinidad in 1990) and has pursued her interests in Caribbean waters with some tenacity and aggression, especially, it might be noted, under the late President Chávez.
In the days of the first administration of President Carlos Andrés Pérez the talk was of an exit to the Atlantic for Venezuela, and he remained anxious to negotiate a strip of land in our north-west to facilitate this. The ‘exit’ was still his concern in his second term of office, but in more recent times that concept has been expanded to the ‘Atlantic Front’, which includes continental shelf waters, etc.
The Venezuelan opposition is not going away, and given President Maduro’s enormous economic problems, the possibility that they might come into office at some future point could hardly be described as remote. While the Guyana government might conceivably have the good fortune in the future to deal with an administration in Caracas as benign as the current one, it can hardly depend on it; in fact it would be reckless to do so.