Whether or not the latest confrontation with Venezuela is a purely maritime issue hinges on one thing alone, namely, where the maritime border begins. If it is at Punta Playa, the terminus of the land boundary laid down in the 1899 Award, then we are indeed dealing with a new dimension to the matter of the western frontier. If, on the other hand, the Venezuelans repudiate this and claim what they call their Atlantic Front as far as the Essequibo River (or any point between Punta Playa and the Essequibo) as their starting point, then we are again facing an old controversy in a new guise.
The distinction is a critical one, since any commencement point for a maritime border other than Punta Playa would undermine the 1899 Award and compromise our territorial boundary. As it was, however, Minister of Foreign Affairs Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett might conceivably seem to have answered this question in an interview with the Guyana Times last Sunday. With presumed reference to the discussions she had had with her counterpart in Trinidad, she was reported as saying that both Guyana and Venezuela started their determination of the maritime boundary from the ‘correct point,’ but that the two lines ended in different directions. She had earlier explained that this country had applied the equidistance principle, although what principle Venezuela was applying if the starting point was the same is something of a mystery.
Ms Rodrigues-Birkett subsequently appeared to reinforce the interpretation that the line would begin at Punta Playa when she was quoted as saying, “Essequibo remains Guyana’s territory and we have full control over it. In short, as far as we are concerned, that border issue has been fully settled.” According to the paper she then continued, “They are two separate issues… the maritime boundary is what we have to settle together with Venezuela now.”
Well all of this is very interesting. Certainly such a Venezuelan position would be more in tandem with President Nicolás Maduro’s remarks to the press when he came here on August 31 than the arrest of the Teknik Perdana might otherwise suggest. In other words, are we to understand that the current Venezuelan government will not pursue the land claim any further, but is seeking substantial concessions on the continental shelf as the price of that? At the very least, any acceptance by our western neighbour that an originating point for a maritime line should be Punta Playa, is potentially, at least, an enormous step forward in the fifty year old controversy, since it would constitute a critical act of acquiescence where 1899 is concerned.
Be that as it may, this is not quite the account which some elements of the Venezuelan press are relaying. El Universal, for example, quotes a Venezuelan Foreign Affairs source as saying that the two parties arrived in Trinidad with irreconcilable differences – although whether those were over the direction of a maritime boundary beginning from Punta Playa or a more fundamental problem of where the line should commence, was not elaborated upon. The daily went on to report that “The talks… reached a point of extreme difficulties…”
The newspaper then quoted sources as saying something more familiar: “At the upcoming meetings [ie those slated for early 2014] Venezuela would advocate the stance that maritime delimitation is impossible in so far as no satisfactory solution is found for the practical settlement of the controversy between Venezuela and the UK [sic].” The reference to the UK is interesting, since while it was a signatory to the Geneva Agreement in 1966, along with Venezuela and the then British Guiana, there is no doubt that the controversy relates to Venezuela and Guyana. One can only feel, therefore, that the sources in this instance were not official ones, and that the quote may have represented what they felt should happen, rather than reflected the current position favoured by Caracas.
But let us imagine – purely for the sake of argument only – that Guyana and Venezuela came to an agreement on a maritime border beginning at Punta Playa during the course of 2014; and let us imagine that it was acceptable to the Guyanese people. The question would then be whether the government in Caracas could sell it to the opposition there, the people and above all, the military. Earlier last week El Universal had reported that the navy had ordered the permanent patrolling of the ‘Atlantic Front,’ while President Maduro had also ordered that a “system including satellite, digitalized control of our Caribbean Atlantic Front featuring a state-of-the-art computerised command centre, with all kinds of equipment and radar” be established. In a different edition the daily had reported a source as saying that the navy had stopped patrolling for almost a year, until two weeks ago – which seems rather strange.
Apart from the fact that nobody on this side of the Amakura appears to have had any inkling that our neighbour’s navy was patrolling our continental shelf up until about a year ago, or that these patrols were allegedly resumed a couple of weeks ago ‒ not, that is, until the Teknik Perdana was held ‒ we still have the question as to whether the military and the civilian government are at one on this issue. Was the vessel arrested in waters undoubtedly claimed by Venezuela but calculated on a line originating from Punta Playa, or rather along the length of what that nation perversely describes as its Atlantic Front reaching to the Essequibo River?
SN’s editorial of Friday, October 25, suggested, among other things, that the Venezuelan military will become the real power in Venezuela following the creation of the spy agency known by the abbreviation CESPPA. Even without that unpalatable development, however, as has been noted before in these columns, President Maduro is in a weakened position, both within his own party and in terms of the country at large. No government in Georgetown can guarantee that however benign the present incumbent of Miraflores might appear, he will be able to maintain his presumed stance on the maritime boundary in the face of opposition from a variety of quarters. As such, we still might at some point be forced to confront the fundamental issue of the meretricious Venezuelan territorial claim.
In the meantime, as Takuba Lodge prepares for the meetings in 2014, one trusts that maritime law experts from outside this country have been retained – or are about to be retained – no matter how astronomical the cost. This is one area where parsimony is not appropriate; a mistake here will have everlasting consequences.
Furthermore, one hopes that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also engaged in contingency planning, in case events in Venezuela make impossible the outcome which everyone would like to see. In the first place, the government should start sensitising the population on the issue, and in the second, it should have some mechanism or mechanisms in place, one of which perhaps should be in a parliamentary setting, to keep the leaders of parties, among others informed, and ensure that the nation speaks with one voice. This is not a party political issue; it is a national issue.