With the recent military encroachment of armed Venezuelan soldiers into the sovereign territory of Guyana at Eteringbang, it is crucially important that our political and military leaders be prudent in their description and categorization of the territorial claims being made by Venezuela.
From 1966 onwards, there were a series of aggressions by Venezuela directed at the command and control of Guyana over its rightful territory. All of the islands in the Cuyuni River (along with the river itself), from where the Wenamu flows into the Cuyuni River to where the Cuyuni forms a confluence with the Mazaruni and flows into the Essequibo, represent sovereign territory of the 83,000 square miles of Guyana. Large circular wooden signs painted in the colours of the national flag were placed on every island between the point of the mouth of the Wenamu, to the mainland at Acarabisi, some 80 miles downriver from that point. Over the years, the Venezuelans encroached on those islands, destroyed the signs, and took control of several small islands between those heretofore mentioned points. These aggressive actions, at the time, were met with diplomatic but firm rejection by the armed forces of Guyana positioned in the area, and it is only this sensible and prudent course that averted what could have been a confrontation. The stewardship of this issue at both the local and international level at that time deserves commendation, because had it not been discharged with a high level of security consciousness and intellectual diplomacy, the consequences could have been disastrous for Guyana.
At the dawn of Guyana becoming a Republic, Venezuela mounted what up to today was its most serious aggression against Guyana. About midnight on February 22, 1970, as Corporal 4895 Vanbrook was about to raise the Guyana Flag at Eteringbang Police Station situated at Mora Landing, Cuyuni river, Venezuelan soldiers based on Ankoko island, without provocation, began firing automatic weapons across the river targeting the Guyanese side wherever there were structures under occupancy by military, police or civilian personnel. Over the months prior to that date, the Venezuelans were observed amassing troops from what were said to be crack regiments of their armed forces called the Cazadores or hunters. They wore berets with red patches on the front, and a noted change was observed in their interaction with their Guyanese counterparts on the other side of the frontier.
This firing continued, sometimes sporadically, at other times in continuous fusillades, throughout the early morning hours of February 23 and into the daylight hours. The military and para-military detachments on the Guyana side were instructed not to return fire, but to take up tactical positions, and defend against aggressive crossing unto our territory. Police and civilian personnel involved in mining and farming, including a Venezuelan family named Oronoz, the mother of whom was the reputed wife of a Guyanese national named Agrippa, were evacuated to the army base at Mora for safety. After there was no cessation in the firing, there was worry over the safety of the civilian personnel including several children, so instructions were issued to the GDF Platoon Commander Lieutenant Hinds, to withdraw overland to Ekereku, a journey that had to be undertaken through virgin forest, often with no trail, and over the Ekeruku Mountains. The withdrawal commenced on the 24th, I believe, and they made it safely to their destination.
On the 25th of February 1970, a contingent of GDF soldiers accompanied by myself and Constable 7394 Royce Boyer, flew into Eteringbang in a Twin Otter aircraft piloted by Major Chan-a-Sue. Myself and Boyer were considered to be police resource experts in navigating the obstacle and waterfall strewn channels in the Cuyuni and Wenamu Rivers, the terrain of the surrounding forested areas and locations, and were conversationally proficient enough in Spanish to act as interpreters. We left Timehri and landed first at Kamarang, from where we flew low over the mountains into Eteringbang. The doors of the Twin Otter aircraft which seated 18, and which appeared to have about 25 of us with kits, were removed for rapid exiting. As soon as the aircraft touched down on the small airstrip, and even before it had completed its taxiing, we began hastily jumping off with our backpacks and other military accoutrements, and moving to cover at the riverside. The airstrip at Mora landing runs straight to the river, and not knowing what reception was awaiting us, it was brought to quick stop after just about fifty yards of taxiing. Throughout the day more and more soldiers were ferried in from Kamarang, which, because it could accommodate larger aircraft, was serving as the main assembly base for our armed forces. I must say, at the risk of sounding too full of bravado, that none of the young men, most of us in our teens or just out of them, evidenced any reluctance to take on the task of defending our territory.
Our instructions remained that we should not respond to the cross-border firing from the Venezuelans, but that we should be prepared to repel any armed crossing of military personnel into our land territory. At nights we would creep down to the river and fill jerry cans with water and perform other tasks at the waterside that we considered would have exposed us as targets during the day.
After a couple of days had elapsed, myself and Boyer received instructions to fuel up the police boat and carry out a riverain patrol of the surrounding area. We did, and the only incident of note was being buzzed by a medium military aircraft with a glass canopy that allowed us to see the pilots and co-pilot in the San Martin area where the river was quite wide. In the days following we were instructed to accompany Guyana Defence Force Officers Featherstone, Canzius and others ‒ whose names I cannot now recall ‒ Assistant Commissioner of Police Glasgow, and also the then Minister of Communication Eugene Correia, on a peaceful exploratory mission across to Ankoko to speak with Venezuelan military personnel, and attempt to ascertain the reason for the firing across the border. We received a cordial reception from them and were assured that there would be no more firing, but the reasons behind the aggression were never provided or explained. We subsequently retrieved and delivered to the authorities in Georgetown, hundreds of spent lead warheads from the wattled wall that enclosed Eteringbang Police Outpost, the personal cupboards of policemen based there, and the civilian buildings alongside the river.
This represents just one in a vast array of incidents of Venezuelan military aggression targeted at Guyana from 1966 onward. As an adjunct to this, let me state that relations between the Guyana and Venezuelan military and paramilitary forces at Eteringbang did not always involve hostilities.
There were extensive periods when we enjoyed cordial relationships, to the point where we would exchange visits to compete in volleyball, or even hunt iguanas. Those cordial relationships were crucial to the resolution of an issue that cropped up in 1975 when a platoon of Venezuelan soldiers crossed the border in the Paruima/Great Falls area, and encroached 35 miles into the territory of Guyana. This ostensibly was in response to rumours that Guyana police and soldiers at Paruima had captured and were holding two missing Venezuelan soldiers.
A contingent of army and police officials, including the then ‘F’ Division Police Commander Balram Raghubir, and GDF Military Intelligence Commander Ulric London, visited Eteringbang with a view to using that cordial relationship to resolve the issue. We were instructed to invite the Venezuelan Commander on Ankoko to speak with the officials. He was aware of the situation, and explained that because the border was not distinctly marked, the Venezuelan troops could have possibly unwittingly crossed into Guyana’s territory without knowing. After receiving assurances that the missing soldiers were not in our possession and had not been seen by any of our forces in the area in question, he promised to advise his superiors accordingly.
Later on that evening GDF helicopter reconnaissance observed the soldiers wending their way back to the Venezuela side of the border.
Just over six months before the Protocol of Port of Spain was scheduled to expire on June 18 1982, there were articles in the Venezuelan media that identified every hinterland police and army location in Guyana as a Cuban military base that threatened the sovereignty of Venezuela. Of course this was a blatant falsehood, and clearly being used as a pretext to rationalize Venezuela’s armed aggression against Guyana. These were acquired by the police at Eteringbang, translated and sent to the authorities in Georgetown. The expiration of the Protocol coincided with the then Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina, and there was much trepidation at border locations that there might be military hostilities against Guyana by Venezuela in quest of our territory. Fortunately none of this happened.
The internal politics of Venezuela have always determined the temperature of our relationship with that country, and that continues up to today. What we have to guard against is that the possibility that the internal politics of Guyana operate to weaken our ability to deal with whatever crops up in the ensuing period. Although there might be some confidence that the current Venezuelan government will abide by the Good Officer arrangements to control discussion of the baseless claim on our territory, we would be making a grave error in thinking that the present regime will last forever, and that a change could not produce dangerous repercussions for Guyana.
What occurred recently, contrary to the explanation of Dr Luncheon, cannot simply be categorized as ‘a breach that was corrected after it was pointed out.’ That description is more apt in situations in which someone violates a dress code, and after it is pointed out, corrects that situation. Every soldier in every border location, moreso one in which there is a claim being made for territory, would understand that he or she cannot enter into the territory of the neighbouring country under arms. If Guyanese soldiers committed that ‘breach’ with respect to the sovereign territory of Venezuela, they would be immediately arrested or maybe worse.
I am not arguing that we should become hostile over this incident; I am arguing that we should categorize it for what it unequivocally represents, and display the kind of serious objections at the diplomatic level to ensure that our prudence in dealing with such issues is not misinterpreted as a sign of weakness or easy capitulation.
Yes we are undermanned, under-armed, and as Dave Martins and his band made clear, a peaceful nation not seeking conflict. At the same time we cannot allow ourselves to be bullied and deprived of the rights all nations enjoy as a matter of protocol.
Keith (Robin) Williams