The Guyana-Venezuela Border Dispute


By Dr. Dhanpaul Narine

There is the popular belief that the oil veins are in Venezuela but the nest is in Guyana. The recent discoveries of oil and gas in Guyana could very well lend credence to that long held view.

Juan Carlos is married to Sunita Persaud. They met in college in Caracas. On the wall of their apartment is a large map. The Essequibo region is shaded with the words ‘Reclamacion.’ This means that the area is under reclamation by Venezuela.

If Venezuela gets its way, and reclaim that portion of land, one-third of Guyana will be gone. It would include the much of the unexplored wealth of the country.

Juan Carlos was born in Venezuela and is fiercely nationalistic. He learned in school that the territory in dispute belonged to Venezuela and his friends felt the same. No such information it to be found in the curriculum or lesson plans in the schools in Guyana. At election time, Juan would hear the candidates pledge to take back the land of their fathers for Venezuela.

Essequibo is usually on the agenda of the Venezuelan political campaign and who has the most persuasive argument end up winning the most votes. Sunita, on the other hand, is Guyanese. She is one of the thousands of Guyanese to settle with her family in Venezuela. She is of the firm view that ‘reclamation or not, every square inch of land belongs to Guyana.’

In border disputes, it is the side with the strongest and most convincing case that carries the day. How strong are the cases of Guyana and Venezuela? In 1498, Christopher Columbus sighted the coast of Guiana and in 1531 Europeans set foot on its shores when Diego de Ordaz led a Spanish expedition there. The name ‘Guiana’ was given to all lands between the Amazon and the Orinoco.

In 1595, Sir Walter Raleigh landed in Guiana to search for El Dorado. In his reports, he was able to distinguish the lands between Guiana and Venezuela. In 1616, the Dutch established settlements in the Essequibo and in 1811 Venezuela proclaimed its independence from Spain. In 1814, the British acquired Guiana and renamed it ‘British Guiana.’

In 1840, it was felt necessary to demarcate the borders and geographer Robert Schomburgk was given the task to draw the lines. He took into account Spanish and Dutch occupations of Guiana and came up with a boundary that was known as the ‘Schomburgk Line.’ But Venezuela did not agree to the map as demarcated by Schomburgk. The discovery of gold in the Barima basin excited the Venezuelans and they claimed the entire area west of the Essequibo.

Britain refused to negotiate over the Essequibo and Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations with Britain as a result. President Grover Cleveland of the United States intervened and called for arbitration. A tribunal was established in 1897 to look into the dispute. It consisted of two persons from Britain, two from America and one from Russia. General Benjamin Harrison, a former US president, was one of the two persons from America.

After much deliberations, it was agreed by the tribunal to award Venezuela ‘the strategic mouths and lower reaches of the Amakura and Barima Rivers and the upper reaches of the Cuyuni River.’ Venezuela agreed that the award was a full and final settlement and signed off on it in 1904.

But Venezuela was not satisfied. It wanted more territory. It should remind itself that if the British had refused to compromise Venezuela would have received much less. As it stands, Guyana has a good case to renegotiate for the loss of the Amakura, Barima and Cuyuni Rivers. In the ensuing years, Venezuela felt that the award was unjust and various political leaders in Caracas made it a political issue.

They cited a letter that was written by a junior member of the team. The letter stated that the 1899 agreement was null and void. This letter by Severo Mallet-Prevost was posthumously released in 1949. Mallet-Prevost was feted by the Venezuelan government in January 1944 and given ‘The Order of the Liberator’, and a month later, he decided to dictate his letter. No evidence was found of a deal between Great Britain and Russia but Venezuela’s claim is largely based on Mallet-Prevost’s assertions.

Venezuela’s claim for territory must be seen in the context of other neighboring countries. It was engaged in a bitter dispute with Colombia over the Gulf of Venezuela. In 1941, after legal battles, Colombia gained access to the Gulf, much to the angst of Venezuela. In order to save face with the Venezuelan public, successive governments in Venezuela have resorted to making claims on Guyana’s territory.

In 1962, when Guyana made representations with Great Britain for its independence, Venezuela was opposed to the it. Premier Cheddi Jagan refused to entertain Venezuela’s claim and pointed to the 1899 award. But Venezuela was not satisfied. Guyana’s independence date was set for May 26, 1966 and in February of that year a most dramatic announcement was made.

According to Orlando Gomez, ‘Four months prior to Guyana’s official independence date, the governments of Great Britain and Guyana agreed with the government of Venezuela to establish a Mixed Commission of Guyanese and Venezuelan representatives.’

What was the purpose of the Mixed Commission? Gomez says that, ‘the Mixed Commission was to settle the ongoing controversy as a result of the Venezuelan claim that the 1899 Arbitral Award delineating the border between Venezuela and present day Guyana was null and void. The arrangements to this effect were laid out in the Geneva Agreement in 1966 and was signed by Great Britain, British Guiana and Venezuela in February 17, 1966.’

This is where it went wrong for Guyana. There was no need for the Geneva Agreement of 1966 to talk about the border. It was settled in 1899. Guyana was still a British colony in early 1966 and Venezuela’s objection to Guyana’s independence would not have led to military action on the part of Venezuela. But was a deal struck between the opposition parties and Venezuela, prior to the 1964 Guyana elections?

Did Venezuela help the opposition parties with its propaganda work to combat Jagan’s so-called communism? Did the Guyanese opposition parties agree to talk about the border, if elected? Great Britain wanted to avoid international objections to Guyana’s independence and signed off on the Mixed Commission. Besides, it was washing its hands from a messy affair.

But the 1966 Geneva Convention was seen in Venezuela as an admission by Great Britain and Guyana that Venezuela had a case. The politicians in Caracas argued that it was a victory for Venezuela and that it was only a matter of time before the Essequibo and its adjoining lands would be returned to the fatherland.

Venezuela showed its true intention shortly after Guyana’s independence. It breached the Geneva Agreement by seizing the eastern half of Ankoko Island on October 12, 1966 and made an attempt to annex part of Guyana’s offshore waters. On January 1, 1969 Venezuela was involved in a secessionist movement to annex the Rupununi as part of Venezuelan Guayana. In the face of international criticisms, Venezuela offered a policy of ‘joint development’ for the Essequibo, but Guyana was not interested.

In April 1981, Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham made an official visit to Caracas. At the end of his visit, Venezuela issued a communiqué stating that the 1970 Protocol of Port-of-Spain was null and void. The Essequibo, it said, belonged to Venezuela. Guyana issued a statement which said that the Essequibo was always an integral part of its history. Venezuela responded by opposing the construction of the Upper Mazaruni Hydroelectric Project.

By 1981, thousands of Guyanese were living in Venezuela, mostly from the Essequibo region, and with Spanish names. Since then, there has been no resolution to the border issue and the country is in economic turmoil. Thousands of Venezuelans are seeking refuge in Guyana.

Venezuela’s border claim is weak. It is based on a note from a junior official that did not have the courage to reveal its contents, while he, and the other tribunal members, were alive.

The discovery of oil and gas in Guyana has renewed Venezuela’s territorial ambitions. But the facts do not support Venezuela’s claim to even a drop of Guyanese creek water.


The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.