Underneath the lead story in our Tuesday edition there was a court report about a Venezuelan soldier being remanded to prison in Georgetown. He had been charged, it was said, with shooting at a fellow countryman and being in possession of an unlicensed gun and ammunition at Eteringbang Landing in the Cuyuni. The harrowing details of the bandit attack on Sterling Products, however, eclipsed all other news that day, and the case of Johnny Ventura Gomez Rivas as a consequence went largely unremarked.
It was, however, a matter of some interest, if only because it illustrated how little members of the legal profession and the Guyana Police Force know about the boundaries of the country they call their homeland. And if many of those in the justice system do not know, then one must presume that the vast majority of ordinary Guyanese do not know either, unless, that is, they are over a certain age, or have done some reading on the subject.
As we reported, Mr Gomez’s defence attorney, Mr Mark Conway, told the court that the man had been a sergeant in the Venezuelan military for the past seven years and had been on duty in the Eteringbang area at the time. When asked whether his client had been in Guyana’s waters when the incident occurred, Mr Conway responded that he was on duty “in the Venezuela area” and that “there were no markings in these areas.” Magistrate Ann Mclennan who was hearing the case was then quoted as commenting “there must be markings” indicating territorial boundaries.
Mr Ganesh Hira who appeared in association with Mr Conway told the court on the following day that the alleged incidents had occurred at “Ankoko which is the Venezuelan area in the Cuyuni.” This was too much for Magistrate McLennan who enquired of him if he was suggesting “that Ankoko belongs to Venezuela.” She was reported as receiving the response that “Venezuela has a military base there and they exercise jurisdiction over that area.”
There was one more reference in our Thursday report to the geographical issues in the case, and that was when the prosecutor, Inspector Michael Grant, submitted that some time before the alleged commission of the offences Mr Gomez was in a Venezuelan vessel which was moored in the area. However, he went on to say, at the time of the alleged shooting and discovery of the unlicensed gun and ammunition which Mr Gomez had in his possession, he was “standing on Guyana’s soil” on the landing. Sensibly, Magistrate McLennan advised the prosecutor to seek advice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs concerning the territorial aspects of the case.
This is all rather disturbing; if the Guyanese court system and police force do not know how this country’s frontiers run, then how will they be able to establish jurisdiction and take the appropriate action when that is required? As it is, the stretch of frontier concerned in this case is one of the most straightforward of our border sectors. Where the Cuyuni River flowing from west to east separates Guyana from Venezuela, the boundary runs along the Venezuelan bank (ie, the northern bank) until it reaches the point where the Wenamu River flows into it. In the actual phraseology of the arbitral award, the border runs “…along the mid-stream of the Acarabisi to the Cuyuni, and thence along the northern bank of the River Cuyuni westward to its junction with the Wenamu…”
In other words, there do not have to be any markers in the waters of the Cuyuni, because the whole river up to the Venezuelan bank belongs to this country. Someone could be sitting on the northern bank safely in Venezuelan territory, for example, but when they stretch their foot out to wash their toes in the Cuyuni, they will be doing so in Guyanese waters. As an extension of that, therefore, it theoretically would not really have mattered whether the alleged offence referred to above had been committed on a boat in the Cuyuni River or on Eteringbang Landing; it would still have happened in a part of Guyana.
There is, of course, the added complication of Ankoko, the status of which Magistrate McLennan correctly picked up on. The Wenamu River flows northwards, debouching into the Cuyuni on its southern side. The island of Ankoko sits in the Cuyuni River, at the “junction” with the Wenamu. A median line defines the boundary in the Wenamu, and that line therefore divides Ankoko as well, so the western portion of the island belongs to Venezuela and the eastern part to Guyana.
While that is clear enough, in October 1966 Venezuela invaded Guyana’s part and has held it ever since, establishing a military base there. The waters around this country’s Ankoko territory, are, of course, also Guyanese. Mr Hira’s words in court, therefore, are significant, viz, that the Venezuelans “exercise jurisdiction over that area.” In a de facto sense they do, simply because Guyana does not have the military means to dislodge them, but that does not mean to say they have any rights there let alone jurisdiction in a legal sense.
The problem to a lesser degree extends to the Cuyuni River itself, because the government has generally allowed the Venezuelans to treat it as their waterway, and has done nothing to ensure that the Guyanese authorities or the population in general are apprised of the fact it is part of this country’s territory. One does not know what instructions the Guyanese authorities at Eteringbang, more especially the GDF, have been issued with; at a minimum one hopes that they are not as ill informed as some of their police counterparts on the coast about where this nation’s territory begins and ends. Certainly they do not appear to have been instructed to challenge the Venezuelan military on the river who should not be there outside the framework of a mutually agreed protocol.
Be that as it may, what can be said is that for many years the Venezuelan military in one form or another have been taking liberties with the Cuyuni, and as has been mentioned before this, some years ago miners in the area told us that when travelling on that river they flew the Venezuelan flag so as not to be harassed by our neighbour’s National Guard or regular army units.
There have been enough major incidents too over the years, one of the more recent occurring last year when a group of students accompanied by armed Venezuelan soldiers landed at Eteringbang to undertake a “survey.” Before that there was the blowing up of a Guyanese dredge in the Cuyuni-Wenamu area accompanied by the overflight of helicopter gunships, and the shooting to death of a Guyanese national by the Venezuelan military on the landing at Eteringbang. The relatives of the murdered man got no satisfaction from the Venezuelans; in fact, the then Defence Minister in Caracas contemptuously denied that a shooting had ever taken place at all.
There is a problem at Eteringbang Landing itself, it would seem, since its shops and bars attract not just members of the Guyanese mining community, but Venezuelans as well, including the military. To those on the coast the area has something of the odour of a wild west situation, albeit on a small scale. For their part the authorities in Georgetown probably do not want to do anything about it; they have been tip-toeing around the Venezuelans for years, terrified that they would jeopardise PetroCaribe, among various other things.
They feel too they enjoy this left-wing bond with President Maduro, and before him President Chávez, and of course, both nations share a solid bond with Cuba. The government here should be aware, however, that PetroCaribe and by extension the rice deal are in jeopardy; the Venezuelan economy is in serious trouble; Mr Chávez’s international arrangements along with ALBA are fading away; and the popularity ratings of Mr Maduro himself have sunk to an all-time low. In short, unless critical economic decisions are taken by Miraflores in the not-too-distant future, Venezuelan stability could be undermined.
In other words, the cosy relationship Georgetown has enjoyed with Caracas may not endure very far into the future; uncertainty in Venezuela has never been good news for Guyana.
At this point, Takuba Lodge and the Office of the President should therefore go back to the drawing board and do some serious contingency planning in the first instance; and in the second, they should go on a campaign to ensure that all institutions in this country at least, know rather more about the boundaries of their country than they seem to at present.