Guyana has called for diplomatic assistance from the African continent as it seeks to deter aggression from neighbouring Venezuela over a border dispute, writes Ifa Kamau Cush.
The provenance of Venezuela’s aggression against Guyana is its 1841 protest against Great Britain’s delineation of Guyana’s western boundary, eponymously known as the Schomburgk Line, named after Robert Schomburgk, a British surveyor and naturalist. At the time Guyana was a British colony.
Incapable of confronting the British militarily, Venezuela asked the United States to arbitrate the dispute. The US government convened an American boundary commission in 1895 in which Venezuela participated “enthusiastically”, according to historical records. The British government participated under protest. Venezuela was enthusiastic because America was its ally; thus, it expected a favourable outcome.
On 3 October 1899, the American boundary commission rendered its decision: the Schomburgk Line will stand! Venezuela ratified the commission’s decision.
For sixty-three years following that decision, official Venezuelan maps showed the Essequibo region as belonging to Guyana, says the Venezuelan author Francisco Toro, writing in the 12 June 2015 edition of the Caracas Chronicles.
According to Toro: “If you know anything about international law, you probably know that accepting territory as belonging to someone else on official maps puts a serious dent on any attempt to convince people that, ‘Oh wait, that land is mine’.”
Immediately after Guyana became independent from Britain in 1966, Venezuela took advantage of Guyana’s small size and population and began plotting to seize the Essequibo territory. In fact in 1969, Venezuelan-trained and equipped Guyanese secessionists declared an “Essequibo Free State”.
Guyana’s current president, David Granger, wrote about this insurrection in his 2012 book, National Defence: “Armed with rifles, machine-guns and anti-tank ‘bazooka’ weapons, the rebels easily seized Lethem, the district centre, and all outlying areas, killing several policemen and imprisoning ‘coastlander’ government employees in the process.”
However, within 24 hours, the rebels were routed by soldiers of the Guyana Defence Force and order was restored. Where blatant military aggression failed, Venezuela tried bribery and resorted to economic sabotage. In 1978, during a state visit to Guyana, the Venezuelan president, Carlos Andres Perez, offered to finance the upper Mazaruni hydro-electric project if the Guyana government would agree to cede 31,000 square kilometres of territory to his country. Guyana’s then president, Forbes Burnham, rejected the proposal outright!
Venezuela subsequently opposed all efforts on the part of Guyana to obtain the financing needed to exploit its hydroelectric potential, frustrating the country’s industrialisation programme in the process; thus stultifying its economic growth. Fast-forward to 2015 and the same strategy by Venezuela, of using military threats, bribery, and the co-option of Guyanese citizens, still prevails.
Over the past several years, the Venezuelan government has purchased rice from Guyana at obscenely exorbitant prices – paying almost twice the world market price. Political observers saw this as a gimmick on the part of Venezuela to build a constituency of Guyanese rice farmers and their beneficiaries to pressure the Guyanese government to accede to Venezuela’s territorial demands, similar to the strategy employed in 1969 when Venezuela organised Rupununi ranchers to secede from Guyana.
However, with the election of a new government headed by President David Granger on 11 May 2015, observers believe that Guyana now has a leadership made up of individuals who are more patriotic and committed to the preservation of Guyana’s territorial integrity. No wonder, soon after the May elections, Venezuela stopped purchasing rice from Guyana, hoping, experts believe, to trigger unrest in the rice-producing areas of Guyana. Additionally, with the announcement by ExxonMobil of the discovery of oil in Guyana’s territorial waters, Venezuela has once again invoked what Francisco Toro describes as a “childish fantasy” the idea of the country being a “threat to world peace”.
Last May, the Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro, reacting to the oil discovery in Guyana’s waters, issued a decree claiming the area as Venezuela’s. A well-placed source at the Washington DC-based Organization of American States urged Venezuela to respect international law in its dispute with Guyana. The source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, noted that President Maduro’s decree “affects Guyana as well as Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and Columbia”, raising tensions and contributing to the destabilisation of the region.
While President Granger sees Venezuela’s decades-old aggression as “a fishbone in our throats”, choking his country’s economic life, he, nevertheless, is committed to a diplomatic solution. In that regard, his government has reached out to several global, continental and regional bodies, including the United Nations, the African Union, Caricom, and the Commonwealth to build global opposition to the Venezuelan aggression.
“We are a small nation of less than one million people. Venezuela has a population of over 25 million,” says Granger. “A military confrontation between our two nations will not be in Guyana’s best interests.”
Legal experts believe that a settlement must be imposed by the International Court of Justice. However, Maduro’s government in Caracas, bolstered by support from what Dr. Gerald Horne of the University of Houston describes as a “feisty and combative” elite, is reluctant to take this matter before an impartial panel of judges, fearing another 1899 result, a good 116 years after Venezuela ratified the American boundary commission’s ruling which established the western border of Guyana.
What is happening reminds one of a pattern of Venezuelan behaviour towards its small island neighbours in the Caribbean. In 1816, after Simon Bolivar, eulogised as the founder of the Venezuelan nation, suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Spanish forces, he landed on the shores of Haiti to be enthusiastically welcomed by the Haitian revolutionary leaders who, a few years earlier, had routed France’s slave-owning army and established an independent African state.
The Haitians gave Bolivar boats, arms and soldiers. That assistance enabled him to eventually defeat Spain, creating the country we now call Venezuela. Strangely, after defeating the Spanish forces with the arms, materiel, and men provided by Haiti, Bolivar’s Venezuela refused to recognise Haiti’s independence, thus, hastening that country’s capitulation to France’s $21.5 billion extortion requirement, camouflaged as repayment of French expenses on the island. It took Haiti over 150 years to repay. The country never recovered!
Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan author of the seminal work, The Open Veins of Latin America, said this about Bolivar’s perfidy in a 2004 article in Progressive magazine: “Not even Simon Bolivar recognised Haiti, though he owed it everything … Haiti gave him everything with only one condition: that he free the slaves [in Venezuela] – an idea that had not occurred to him. The great man triumphed in his war of independence … Of recognition, he made no mention!”
This is why many observers say Venezuela should not be allowed to continue to treat its African-descended neighbours in such a cavalier manner again. It is why Guyana’s new government under President Granger is appealing for diplomatic support from all African nations, and other nations of goodwill, to help bring Venezuela to see the wisdom in good neighbourliness and stop bullying little Guyana for a piece of territory whose boundaries were settled 116 years ago.
Ifa Kamau Cush