Venezuelan ‘visit’ to Eteringbang

On Tuesday we reported that the Government of Guyana was investigating the circumstances of the ‘visit’ by a group of Venezuelan civilians and military personnel to Eteringbang on the Cuyuni River. Eteringbang is the location of the GDF base on that river, although from the photographs, it would seem that at least one kayamoo and possibly other non-military structures have sprung up there over the years. This landing occurred on the same day that President Maduro was on a state visit to Guyana – August 31 – to hold talks with President Ramotar, and it was clearly timed to embarrass him.

The news about this unannounced visit came via the Venezuelan daily El Universal, which has made no secret of its posture where the matter of the Venezuelan border controversy is concerned, and which also supplied the photographs in handout form. One of these shows a GDF officer on the Eteringbang shore speaking to a Venezuelan officer. Exactly who these Venezuelan military personnel were was not explained in detail; the Caracas daily in its English language online edition merely described them as army officers and reported that they were there to provide security to the civilians. One presumes, therefore, that they came from one of the official armed services of Venezuela, ie, the military per se, or the new border security force which was recently formed, or even the National Guard, and not from one of the armed militia groups set up by the late President Hugo Chávez.

Whatever the case, the purpose of the unannounced visit of this 45-member group was, according to El Universal “a mission crossing the Cuyuni River and into the Guyana-Venezuela disputed area” to carry out “an act of sovereignty.” This was not the account which Minister of Foreign Affairs Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett gave this newspaper when contacted last Monday.

She said that preliminary reports indicated that the Venezuelans were students who had been granted permission to do research on the border. Exactly who gave them permission, and the nature of the research they were undertaking was not elaborated on.

Subsequently, the media were told that the GDF had completed their report on the incident, and that this had been submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Defence Board, and one presumes that both of them struggled with the draft of the public statement since nothing more was heard from them, until Dr Luncheon made some inadequate remarks on Thursday.

The first thing which should be observed about this is that under the 1899 award the whole of the Cuyuni River as far as the Wenamu River belongs to Guyana. There is no median line or thalweg boundary in this waterway, and so the minute the Venezuelan party launched their boat onto the Cuyuni they were already in Guyana’s territory; they did not have to land in Eteringbang to go through their little charade. They could have sat on the Venezuelan bank, wiggled their toes in the water and done their ‘research’ right there.

The second thing to be observed is that this incident is part of a pattern which goes back many years, in addition to which it is far from being the worst example of its kind in recent times. Leaving aside a whole string of earlier incidents, there is the case in October 2006 of the killing of unarmed Guyanese Parasram Persaud in cold blood at Eteringbang by members of the Venezuelan military (not the National Guard). To this day there has been no formal admission of this by the Venezuelan authorities, although it is said they held four army personnel in relation to the shooting, and then released them. Futhermore, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Mr Persaud’s family has never received compensation.

Another particularly egregious example occurred in 2007, when two Guyanese dredges in the Cuyuni/ Wenamu were blown up, and there were incursions into Guyanese airspace by two Venezuelan helicopters. In neither instance was there a particularly animated response from Guyana, and the reasons are not far to seek. This country is a beneficiary of Venezuela’s largesse, and it will go to great lengths not to cause offence to our western neighbour.

To give but one example ‒ which has been pointed to before in these columns ‒ less than two weeks after Mr Persaud was killed, then President Jagdeo met a fairly low level delegation from Caracas and asked for our debt to Venezuela to be cancelled, and the PetroCaribe offer to be adjusted so it would meet IMF conditionalities.  In return, he reiterated that Guyana would vote for Venezuela’s candidate to fill a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.  Following that request, President Chávez obliged both on the debt and the PetroCaribe fronts, but not surprisingly perhaps, nothing much else was heard about Mr Persaud’s case. Similarly in the matter of the dredges, although in that instance diplomatic notes were sent.

One imagines, therefore, that what has been exercising the minds of the Defence Board members for so long is how to explain to Guyanese the presence of Venezuelan armed forces personnel on their soil when these did not first go through the protocols, yet at the same time, not say anything which would cause offence to Miraflores. It is a conundrum if Dr Luncheon’s comments are anything to go by, that has not been satisfactorily resolved. According to Gina he said that an apology had been offered by the “delegation” which crossed to Eteringbang, because the presence of armed soldiers breached the agreement by which the “students” were to be allowed “to enter Guyana.”

Well this is all very curious. In the first place, as said above, we still do not know exactly what the students were going to do, although the HPS’s version was that they were “to engage the members of the Guyanese communities on the border…”  On a day trip? Exactly what can be researched in one day in Eteringbang is not something which would be immediately apparent to a Director of Studies in any acknowledged institution of learning, and surely reconnoitering a GDF base should not be on the list for which the Guyanese authorities (whoever these might have been) should have been granting permission.

Considering the ‘students’ belonged to an obscure group called ‘My Map of Venezuela also includes our Essequibo’ and that El Universal gave an altogether different account of the purpose of their visit, the ‘research’ claim would seem to have been a pretext to allow them to land on the Guyana bank. It is clear, therefore, they were not questioned very carefully before permission was granted. And who exactly did give them permission, and when was it given? Did an advance civilian party arrive first to conclude the so-called ‘agreement,’ or did, as seems to have been the case, the Venezuelan officers arrive at Eteringbang simultaneously with the ‘students’? If the latter, what “breach” of agreement can Dr Luncheon possibly be talking about?

And as for the armed soldiers, they didn’t need to land at Eteringbang to be in breach of existing conventions; they should not have been on the Cuyuni River either carrying arms. And any apology where this was concerned should have come from an official source, not an unofficial one like the group.

The problem is that going back to the early 1990s, the Venezuelans have been treating the Cuyuni as their river. Even this latest party appeared to be labouring under the delusion that Essequibo started on the Guyana bank – Eteringbang in this case. In the days when the National Guard was charged with responsibility for security on Venezuela’s frontiers, Guyanese miners in the area used to tell this newspaper that when on the Cuyuni they would fly the Venezuelan flag in order not to be harassed. Whether that is still the case we do not know, but what can be said is that Venezuelans still act with impunity on the Cuyuni, and as said earlier, still treat it as part of Venezuela. It is a kind of extension of their occupation for 47 years of our half of Ankoko Island, located in the middle of the Cuyuni River across the mouth of the Wenamu (which has a median line boundary).

The GDF has told this newspaper on more than one occasion in the past that it conducts regular patrols on the river, although what happens nowadays has not been disclosed. Whatever it is, it does not appear to have made much impression on our western neighbour.  It is Guyana’s apparent weakness and reluctance to assert itself on this segment of the frontier which seems to have emboldened the local Venezuelan forces at least, on the Cuyuni.  Since relations between Venezuela and Guyana appear so sunny at present, perhaps now is the time for Takuba Lodge to engage their counterparts in Caracas on the protocols which should operate in respect of Venezuelan citizens traversing this riverine portion of this nation’s territory. In addition, ‘students’ should apply for permission to undertake research in this country in the normal way like everyone else; no one should turn up at a sensitive border post to do instant ‘research’ and expect the application to be approved there and then.

Finally, there is one other thing which potentially might be of interest to our government, and possibly even to President Maduro. Who authorized Venezuelan “army” officers to accompany this zany little civilian expedition to Eteringbang to engage in an “act of sovereignty,” as El Universal described it? Either it was sanctioned at the level of the Ministry of Defence, or it was not. If not, was some segment of the military doing its own thing, with the possible implications that might carry for the Caracas civilian authorities? And if it was sanctioned, so much for the Venezuelan head of state’s statements to the media on August 31.

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