The border spat was supposed to have been settled back in 1899. That’s when an arbitration court, pressured by the United States, decided where British Guyana ended and Venezuela began.
But more than a century later, South America’s only English-speaking nation and its Spanish-speaking neighbor are again engaged in a high-stakes border battle that has both governments trading barbs and accusing the other of violating international law.
“I want to have relationships of respect,” Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said Wednesday in Caracas after accusing newly elected Guyanese President David Granger and Foreign Minister Carl Greenidge of launching a new round of “attacks” amid mounting tensions over the contested Essequibo region.
An upset Maduro, who had already withdrawn his ambassador in July from Guyana, put on hold approval of Guyana’s designated ambassador.
“On the one hand, they ask us to approve their ambassador, and on the other hand, they destroy us, they attack us, and issue offensive statements against Venezuela,” Maduro said during his weekly radio and television In Touch with Maduro address, referring to comments Greenidge allegedly made while visiting Miami this month. “The government of PresidentGranger must come clean.”
At the center of the long-running dispute is Exxon Mobil Corp.’s recent discovery of massive oil deposits off the coast of Guyana and an Oct. 26, 1899 letter by a U.S. lawyer representing Venezuela during the international arbitration that awarded the territory to Guyana.
“Venezuela denounced its nullification, which was proven with the publication of the memorandum by U.S. lawyer Severo Mallet-Prevost that was made public internationally in 1949 after his death,” said Eduardo Trujillo Ariza, a Venezuelan lawyer and international law expert.
But Guyana isn’t budging from its stance that it is the rightful owner of the area. Granger plans not only to raise the issue during his first appearance at the United Nations General Assembly later this month, but his government is ready to take the matter to the International Court of Justice.
“Only one [option] is left, the ICJ,” Greenidge told the Miami Herald, adding that neither arbitration nor mediation by the United Nation’s good offices has helped resolve the conflict. “Instead of going to the ICJ, the Venezuelans want to continue with the good offices, which is really one of the options.”
Greenidge says Venezuela is using what’s supposed to be a non-issue as a pretext to lay claim to a huge swath of Guyana, including the country’s exclusive economic zone in the Atlantic where the estimated 700 million barrels of oil reserves were found. Venezuela made this clear, he said, in its May 26 decree reasserting its sovereignty over Essequibo.
And that’s not all.
The Maduro government, Greenidge said, also has somehow convinced Google Inc.’s map service to change the English names of streets in the sparsely populated jungle area in the disputed territory to Spanish-sounding names. Google did not reply to requests for comment.
“These claims are ridiculous,” said Greenidge, noting he wants Google to rename the streets. “There is no convention or rules operating under the sea that allows them to do this.”
Shouldering the Atlantic on the north coast of South America, Guyana is bordered by Venezuela to the west, Suriname to the east and Brazil to the south and southwest. The third smallest South American nation after Uruguay and Suriname, it is one of two Caribbean nations that isn’t an island and one of the poorer nations. Some 43 percent of Guyanese live below the poverty level, the World Bank says, despite the country’s rich deposits of gold, timber and other natural resources.
The oil discovery, government officials and others say, could transform Guyana’s struggling economy and the lives of its nearly 800,000 citizens who leave in droves for the United States and elsewhere in search of economic opportunities.
But Venezuela isn’t making that easy, officials concede, despite their public pronouncements that the drilling will go on.
“It has followed the strategy to speak nicely to Guyana and then it uses military force to try and terrorize us,” Greenidge said.
Over the years, Venezuela has sent troops marching into Guyana, terrorizing communities on the border and destroying mining dredges, Greenidge said. Its military has even occupied an entire island in one of Guyana’s rivers.
There has also been “economic terrorism,” Greenidge says, detailing pressure Venezuela has applied with global development organizations to block projects in the disputed region by declaring it is the real owner. In 2013, the nation even detained a Malaysian-owned seafloor survey ship hired by Guyana and the U.S. oil company Anadarko that was doing oil exploration off the coast.
“That’s what they do all of the time. They discourage economic activities and go about their business,” Greenidge said. “Traditionally, when Venezuela does these things, we have no military power and we cannot confront them.”
International law experts say the only resolution to the dispute may be a diplomatic one because Guyana can take Venezuela to the International Court of Justice only if Venezuela agrees to go.
And while Maduro’s decree doesn’t carry much value, one Caracas-based international law expert said Venezuela may have a valid claim to the territory based on the Mallet-Prevost letter, which surfaced nearly 50 years after the award was made. In the letter, Mallet-Prevost indicates that the judges in the case may have been pressured to award the Essequibo region to Great Britain over Venezuela. Guyana at the time was a British colony.
“The right of Venezuela on Guyana Essequibo, the territories located west of the Essequibo River, is based on the initial possession that the Kingdom of Spain had on those territories during colonial times,” Trujillo said.
Today, the agreement that has governed the area has been a 1966 decision known as the Geneva Accord in which both Guyana and Venezuela agreed to settle the conflict by peaceful means. The agreement also calls for the use of the U.N. good offices as an option for mediation.
In July, Guyana received some diplomatic help when the 15-member Caribbean Community warned Venezuela that it could “poison relations” within the regional grouping.
For its part, Venezuela has sought to counter Guyana’s diplomatic lobbying by deploying its Foreign Affairs Minister Delcy Rodriguez throughout the Caribbean to meet with prime ministers in order to inform them of “the historical truth, the legitimate rights of Venezuela over the Guyana Essequibo.”
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