On Thursday, a research vessel on contract to US oil company Anadarko was undertaking a survey of the seabed in Guyana’s waters when it was arrested by a Venezuelan navy frigate and escorted to the island of Margarita. According to the New York Times, the boat, the Teknik Perdana had a crew of about 39 on board, including five Americans.
Well, this certainly jolted the citizens of Guyana upright, and one hopes moreover that it might also have woken the ever somnolent Government of Guyana from its slumber. After all, it was only six weeks ago that President Nicolás Maduro landed here full of bonhomie, and talked peace, diplomacy and recommitting to the Good Officer process. “Any issues we have with our neighbouring countries, either serious or not, will be solved peacefully through diplomatic channels,” he was quoted as saying after his visit.
That was all forgotten last Thursday, with the interception of the Teknik Perdana by the Yecuana and its forcible removal from the area. Anadarko is exploring the Roraima block in our EEZ under an agreement signed with the Government of Guyana in June of 2011, something which was undoubtedly known by Venezuela, but to which they never earlier raised formal objection.
So what has happened? The first thing is that the Venezuelan opposition has been waging a relentless campaign about Guyana granting concessions offshore Essequibo, which the Venezuelans perversely refer to as “their” Atlantic Front. A parade of legal and other experts, such as Venezuela’s former Ambassador to the United Nations Emilio Figueredo; former Ambassador to Guyana Sadio Garavini; and institutions like the National Academy of Political and Social Sciences among others, have registered their concerns about Miraflores’ “silence” over Guyana granting concessions in the waters to the west of the River Essequibo. There have also been reactions from opposition politicians, the most notable coming from Leopoldo López.
It might be remembered too, that on the very day the Venezuelan President visited Guyana on August 31, a group of “students” accompanied by soldiers landed at Eteringbang in a move which the opposition paper El Universal called an act of sovereignty. Whatever it was, it was clearly designed to embarrass Mr Maduro, and Guyana, it seems, lodged no protest or even sought a formal apology. Its most interesting aspect is the question as to what Venezuelan soldiers were doing with the group; was this sanctioned by anyone in senior command, for example, who must have known it would embarrass the President?
Which brings us to a report at the beginning of last month in El Universal ‒ which has been prosecuting with considerable vigour its own campaign in relation to Venezuela’s claim ‒ that according to a source close to the navy, the high command had issued a recommendation to the executive seeking a “reaction” to the award of the concession to Anadarko by Guyana. “The Navy’s intention,” said the Caracas daily, “would be [to] defend… the State’s rights.” It was also mentioned that some officials at the Venezuelan Foreign Office were worried about the issue.
The opposition forces in the neighbouring state have also come to the conclusion that the silence of the Venezuelan government on this matter is owing to Cuban influence on the nation’s foreign policy – a claim, no matter what its accuracy, which would have immediate resonance with the people of Venezuela.
In addition to a campaign in some quarters about the direction of Venezuelan foreign policy where Guyana is concerned, it also has to be observed that President Maduro is in a very weak political position indeed. The economy is in a tailspin, with foreign currency hard to get and shortages of some critical items even affecting Caracas stores; the country has been hit recently by a least one almost countrywide blackout, although smaller scale blackouts outside Caracas are by no means uncommon; and the head of state may not be all that secure within his own party.
As the difference between himself and the late President Chávez becomes increasingly apparent to the public, and as his problems multiply, Mr Maduro is beginning to sound shriller and shriller seeing assassination plots lurking in every corner. In the process he has contrived to alienate the US again by expelling some of their diplomats on specious grounds. One has to wonder, therefore, why he would add to his difficulties by ordering the arrest of a vessel contracted to a US company which has five American citizens on board. The illegal detention of US citizens by a foreign power is associated with unpleasant memories in the American public’s mind and is not looked on kindly by the State Department. If he felt he had to go this route anyway, he must be in a very weak position indeed.
The question is, did he make this decision, or did the navy take action and then he was obliged to go along with it, because he could not publicly go in a different direction when he found out. There is one interesting little detail in this connection, although it may have no significance at all, and that is Venezuela issued a protest note about the vessel’s presence in what it regarded as its waters only after Guyana had issued a protest. One would have thought that the Venezuelan government would have issued their protest from the time they arrested the Teknik Perdana, or at least, shortly thereafter, since they would have known before Guyana did that they had detained the vessel.
Whatever the case, if it is that the military, which has traditionally taken a hard line on border matters, is calling the shots, as they say, then President Maduro has serious problems on his hands, and so by extension do we. And if he has changed course because of weakness, he is also in a very precarious position and cannot be relied upon. That too has serious implications for us. (At the very least the government should be looking at a Plan B in the event of the cessation of oil supplies under the Petro Caribe facility.) The administration will certainly have to come out of its cocoon and confront the reality that as a consequence of this incident all kinds of problems will lurk to the west, and neither it nor President Maduro will be able to return to the status quo ante.
Furthermore, it should also take a hard-nosed look at its foreign policy; it should learn from this that no matter what the soothing noises emanating from Caracas, they cannot take these at face value. Secondly, they should look around and see who their friends are, and who will support them on a matter like this – not Caricom any more because it has been seduced by PetroCaribe; not China, because it has enormous investments in Venezuela; not the British because they have been alienated by Guyana’s stance on the Falklands; not the European Union, the Commonwealth or the UN, because no diplomatic work in relation to the boundary has been done there for years; not our new Latin American friends, because they have always supported Venezuela on this issue. In other words, there is a price to pay for neglecting solid diplomatic work.
There are some gaps in this story which hopefully time will fill, but one does wonder what Anadarko’s plan was in the event something like this happened. As a major oil company, it would surely have done its homework and would have been acquainted with the Venezuelan claim, recognizing that it would have to factor this in to its contingency plans. What those are, however, is simply not known ‒ or is it that at the exploratory stage it would simply decide to cut its losses and withdraw? If so, that would take us back to an earlier era of Guyana-Venezuela relations in respect of the development of Essequibo.
Guyana is now left to negotiate the release of the Teknik Perdana and its crew, although whether interested parties such as the US will negotiate for the release of their citizens (and possibly the whole crew) separately, is a matter for speculation. Unfortunately for Guyana, unlike what happened in 2000 when CGX was evicted by a Surinamese gunboat from what were later confirmed to be Guyana’s waters, there is no question of taking Venezuela to the tribunal in Hamburg which hears cases in respect of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; that country is simply not a signatory thereto.
In other words, much as this government wants to believe it was making great progress on what had previously appeared to be an intractable controversy, we might very well be back to square one.