In any other circumstances, we would be paying more attention to the matter of the Venezuelan border. But we are so absorbed with yet another in our own never-ending series of political crises, and the fact that we have applied to the ICJ to hear the controversy case, that we have been anaesthetised to recognising the full range of risks originating from the other bank of the Cuyuni River. We are too, perhaps, a little diverted by our new role assisting Venezuelans who have fled here as a consequence of economic hardship, when once it was Guyanese who took refuge with our western neighbour because of the conditions locally. It all seems so ironic.
This is not to say that the situation in Venezuela has not been given considerable coverage here, or that Guyanese citizens have not been made aware of the dangers for us which lurk in untoward developments in that country; it is just that we can have no impact on events next door. Where that is concerned, we are merely spectators.
And the situation to the west is dire: hyper-inflation, a lack of food and medicines along with all the basic necessities to sustain even the most basic of living standards in what was once South America’s second most successful economy after Chile. It is the story of how quickly a relatively modern society can be laid low. And if all that were not enough, the worst blackout ever to hit Venezuela struck the week before last, bringing disaster in its wake − no telecommunications including mobile phones and the internet, no banks, no credit-card machines, no electric cookers or air-conditioning; no public transportation because the petrol pumps need electricity, no machines in the hospitals to supply oxygen or to keep the neo-natal units functioning, no open stores (where food supplies are scarce in any case), and worst of all, in many areas, no water.
The government closed schools and businesses for five days, causing the society effectively to grind to a halt. By last week, electricity had been partially restored in some places, but it was intermittent at best.
Without food and water, the inevitable happened, and stores were looted in Caracas. How-ever, the most serious incidents of looting took place in Zulia state and in Venezuela’s second city of Maracaibo, in particular. According to reports, the National Guard did intervene.
One might have thought that with this level of crisis, the population might go into open revolt, the military might break ranks, or President Maduro might finally be pressured to cave in, but none of that happened. As is well known, Mr Maduro is being challenged by the President of the National Assembly, Mr Juan Guaidó, who has declared himself interim president of the country, because, according to the opposition, the former is in office as a consequence of a fraudulent election. Venezuela now finds itself in the anomalous position of having two governments of a sort: that of Mr Maduro, and that of Mr Guaidó. The last named of these is recognised by most Latin American countries along with the US, Canada, UK and Europe, among others, and the former by Russia, China, Cuba, Bolivia and Mexico, inter alios.
It turns out that heaving Mr Maduro out of the President’s chair in Miraflores and into exile, is a great deal more challenging than the opposition, some neighbouring countries and, not to forget, the White House, had anticipated. The much-hyped humanitarian rescue mission of two weeks ago turned out to be a damp squib, as the government succeeded in preventing food, medicines and other supplies from entering Venezuela both from Colombia and Brazil.
So what happens now? None of the academics and knowledgeable commentators both from within Venezuela and without are agreed on what is likely to follow. None of the scenarios they have put forward is good for Guyana, it might be said. Since Mr Maduro can only stay in power courtesy of the military, the issue is whether it will break ranks and a significant proportion back the opposition. There are several informed observers from within the nation who think that will not happen. As social scientist Félix Seijas pithily remarked to the Washington Post earlier this month: “The law of amnesty isn’t attractive enough.” He was quoted as going on to say, “Those [army officers] who are compromised are very compromised. The amnesty law will not benefit them. Those who aren’t that compromised won’t need the amnesty law.” As such, some feel that what might be facing Venezuela is a future as a Cuba or a Zimbabwe, for example. That would put even further pressure on all the country’s neighbours including Guyana, not least in terms of refugees.
However, Venezuela is no Cuba, and it is possible to envisage a break-down of law and order if economic conditions get even worse – and they will, given Washington’s sanctions on the country, and the new financial ones about to come into operation. During the period of looting, the BBC reported that colectivos, Mr Maduro’s armed thugs on motorcycles, rode the dark streets at night to keep order. Are there circumstances where one could envisage the military – or at least a segment of it – intervening with a coup? That would not be good news for Guyana, more especially given Venezuelan actions in support of their spurious maritime claim.
Now Venezuela’s Chief Prosecutor Tarek Saab is asking the Supreme Court to investigate Mr Guaidó for allegedly sabotaging the country’s electrical system. President Maduro has claimed that the blackout resulted from “electromagnetic and cyber attacks” on the grid, which were engineered in the US. Mr Guaidó was described as “one of the intellectual authors” of these attacks. The BBC reported experts, however, as alluding to more mundane origins for the power failure.
This is occurring in a context where two weeks ago, US Vice-President Mike Pence had warned Mr Maduro’s government that threats against Mr Guaidó would not be tolerated. What that meant was not explained, but what Guyana would particularly not want to see is a US military invasion of Venezuela to remove Mr Maduro à la Manuel Noriega of Panama. Nearly all nations on this continent would be of a similar view, and it is difficult to avoid the impression that Washington, for all its brinkmanship, has no genuine appetite for it either. However, Mr Pence’s incautious remarks, coupled with the pressure from the powerful Cuban/Venezuelan lobby in Florida might find them cornered into inappropriate adventurism. And Mr Trump’s main interest in the whole question, one suspects, is the Florida vote in the 2020 election which he will need if he wants to get back into the White House.
Of course, everyone hopes for a peaceful outcome and that a free and fair election is held. But make no mistake: Mr Guaidó and the opposition are also not good news for Guyana. The Washington Post carried an article not so long ago captioned ‘Taking land from Guyana might be the one thing all Venezuelans can agree on.’ This does not inspire confidence on this side of the boundary, the ICJ notwithstanding.
At the end of January, Venezuelan parliamentary reporter Maru Morales had referred on a blog to the Lima Group’s endorsement of Guyana’s position on the border controversy with Venezuela (i.e. the Venezuelan navy’s interception of a seismic vessel in Guyana’s EEZ) and had spoken with Mr Guaidó about what should be done to prevent governments from violating Venezuela’s “sovereignty.” She reported him as responding that one of the first agreements the country’s National Assembly had adopted dealt with the “sovereignty” of Essequibo. “We don’t speak of sovereignty, we exercise sovereignty,” she quoted him as commenting. Among other things, he was reported to have expressed the view that it was not the time for the Lima Group to take sides, and that once they had made the agreement known, “over ten countries corrected their position in this respect.”
If that were not bad enough, there was his own tweet from January 9 this year when he wrote (in translation), “For years we have been visiting Ankoko to express sovereignty, not to talk about it. Because we believe in respect and because we are faithful defenders of our land and our freedom.”
All of this could not be happening at a worse time politically for Guyana, but whatever the PPP thinks about the legality or illegality of the coalition government, there has to be a common position presented to the outside world, and particularly the Latin world, on the controversy. No matter what happens internally here, or how strong feelings are, the parliamentary parties have to create a framework to continue to work on this one matter, even if there is no recognition, no cooperation and a total impasse on everything else. It is a true national issue, not a partisan one. On their side, the Venezuelans who are so at odds with each other and so wrong in their claim, know all about unity when confronting Guyana.
The powers that be need a sophisticated PR campaign for the Spanish-speaking universe, targeted in the first instance at academia, because academics are the ones who normally inform the politicians on subjects like this. And there are several earlier pieces which could be reprinted, translated and distributed to key individuals as a start. Even if the ICJ hears the controversy case, and finds for Guyana, which hopefully, it will do, then most of the Latin nations to whom Venezuela will appeal for support afterwards, should not be unaware of the truth.
Most of all, the authorities must ensure they exercise sovereignty over the Cuyuni, the whole of which is our river, and where the island of Ankoko is situated. (The Venezuelans occupied our half in 1966, and have remained there.) We have mining interests to protect in the Cuyuni and our half of the Wenamu River, and the military base at Eteringbang should make certain that is done.