Venezuela revives claim to Guyana territory

Well, this is all too telling. Venezuelan prosecutors finally announced charges against opposition leader Juan Guaidó for "high treason"—but not for colluding with foreign powers to overthrow the government. No, Guaidó is to face charges for his apparent intent to renounce Venezuela's claim to a disputed stretch of territory that has been controlled by neighboring Guyana since the end of colonial rule. Fiscal General Tarek William Saab told AFP that Guaidó is under investigation for negotiating to renounce "the historical claim our country has on the territory of Esequibo." 

"We have initiated an investigation," Saab said in a televised press conference, of Guaidó's involvement "in an illegal negotiation behind the country's back that intends to withdraw the historical claim our country has on the territory of Esequibo." He added: "The facts imply a crime of treason."

A BBC Mundo account from last year details the long dormant but recently enflamed territorial dispute. The Esequibo region (also rendered Essequibo or Guayana Esequiba) covers 159,000 square kilometers—nearly two-thirds of Guyana's national territory. In colonial times, the Spanish, Dutch and British all made claims to the territory, and the Spanish claims were inherited by Venezuela after it won independence. In 1897, Venezuela and Britain agreed to international arbitration. Two years later, a Russian judge in a Paris court awarded the territory to the British Empire. But in 1962, Venezuela revived its claim in the United Nations, asserting that there was collusion between the judge and Britain in the 1899 ruling. After Guyana won independence from Britain in 1966, it entered into the Geneva Agreement with Venezuela, in which both sides agreed the territory would be administered by Guyana until the dispute was resolved. However, a four-year timetable for resolution was not adhered to, and the issue languished. The conflict was only revived in 2015, when ExxonMobil announced discovery of a big offshore deposit in waters along the Esequibo coast.

This came just as Venezuela was sliding into crisis—Esequibo was for President Nicolás Maduro both a potential goad of more oil to exploit, if he could actually get it, and (probably more importantly) a nationalist rallying cry amid the crisis of his regime. Under petition by Venezuela, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last year referred the dispute to the International Court of Justice. (AFP, Jan. 31, 2018)

Ironically, from the perspective of current politics, the Esequibo dispute was also at issue in 1964, when a US-aligned Venezuela helpfully offered to intervene in Guyana (then still British Guiana, with only limited self-rule) to remove the left-populist government of Cheddi Jagan—then target of a joint CIA-British destabilization effort. This intrigue, revealed in US State Department documents obtained by Guyana's Stabroek News in 2015, involved a plot to put Jagan's rival Forbes Burnham in power, with Venezuela grabbing a chunk of the Esequibo in return for its efforts. This was a special fixation of Venezuela's then-president, Raúl Leoni, who in 1968 issued the so-called Leoni Decree, claiming a nine-mile wide strip of Guyana's waters off the Esequibo coast. (Jagan was in fact forced to resign in favor of Burnham by CIA-British intrigues in 1964, although it never came to Venezuelan intervention.)

Meanwhile, a grimly amusing development in the interminable Venezuela mess is that both sides are now animatedly accusing the other of collaboration with Colombian narco gangs. Maduro's supporters are making much of a photo that has emerged of Guaidó posing alongside two men identified as "El Brother" and "El Menor," supposed leaders of the Rastrojos criminal gang and paramilitary network. The photos appear to have been taken at a February outdoor benefit concert to raise money for (opposition-controlled) "aid" for Venezuela in the Colombian city of Cúcuta, near the border. "I took hundreds of photos that day," Guaidó protested to Colombia's Blu Radio. "It was hard to know who was asking for a photo. Misconstruing these photos means playing the Maduro regime's game." But Venezuela's Fiscalía says it is opening an investigation into Guaidó's possible involvement with Colombian paramilitaries. (The Guardian) To which we say—better that than ceding the Esequibo claim, thank you!

The Wall Street Journal meanwhile claims to have seen documents filed by US federal prosecutors seeking the extradition of Hugo Carvajal, Venezuela's ex-intelligence chief, from Spain, on cocaine trafficking charges. The documents reportedly allege a conspiracy by the government of Hugo Chávez and Colombia's FARC guerillas, discussed at a 2005 meeting in Caracas. "During the meeting, Chávez urged the group, in substance and in part, to promote his policy objectives, including to combat the United States by 'flooding' the country with cocaine," according to an affidavit by DEA agent among the documents.

Maduro has recently revived centuries-old territorial claims to Colombia in his rivalry with his neighbor to the west. There is more than a whiff of desperation to all this.  

Venezuela voters reject ICJ jurisdiction in Guyana dispute

The citizens of Venezuela voted Dec. 3 to support a claim of sovereignty over the Essequibo region, endorsing the move to assert control over the oil-rich area, which comprises two-thirds of Guyana. The vote also rejected International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction in the dispute. It supported the creation of a Guyana Esquiba state, which would be incorporated into Venezuelan territory.

The long-standing dispute over the region came to a head in October when Guyana requested provisional measures with the ICJ, asserting that the referendum was a ploy by the Venezuelan government to "abandon" the proceedings and an attempt to use "unilateral measures to 'resolve' the controversy with Guyana by formally annexing and integrating into Venezuela all of the territory at issue."

The referendum comes two days after the ICJ responded to Guyana’s request and ordered Venezuela to refrain from taking any actions that might alter the current situation in the disputed territory. (Jurist)

Venezuela, Guyana resolve to peacefully settle Essequibo dispute

The presidents of Guyana and Venezuela came to a resolution Dec. 14 agreeing not to use force against each other and to resolve the ongoing Essequibo border dispute according to international law, following a day of talks in St. Vincent & the Grenadines.

Guyanese President Irfaan Ali and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro met face to face along with Brazillian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, St. Vincent & the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit and Trinidad & Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley. The meeting also included representatives from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Community of Latin American & Caribbean States (CELAC).

The resolution arrived at, called the Declaration of Argyle, explicitly stated that neither Guyana nor Venezuela would use force against each other in any dispute between the two nations. It also said that both nations will approach the controversy in accordance with the 1966 Geneva Agreement, which provided for a "mixed commission" to resolve the dispute. Accordingly, the parties said they will establish a "joint commission" to review the issue and produce an "update" within three months.

Additionally, the two states agreed to "refrain, whether by words or deeds, from escalating any conflict or disagreement arising from any controversy between them." In the event of an incident "on the ground," the parties are to communicate with each other, CARICOM, CELAC and the president of Brazil. 

However, the document acknowledged differences between the two countries' attitudes to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ took up the dispute in 2018 following a referral from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Venezuela refused to acknowledge the ICJ's jurisdiction over the controversy in a referendum last week, with Venezuelan voters endorsing the inclusion of Essequibo as a Venezuelan state. The vote was held two days after the ICJ ordered Venezuela to refrain from interfering with the Essequibo region, altough the court stopped short of telling Venezuela to cancel its referendum. Guyana is continuing its case to keep the region before the ICJ.

In the days following last week’s referendum, Brazil bolstered bolstered its military presence along the Venezuelan border, and Guyana placed its armed forces on alert amid fears of a Venezuelan invasion.

The Essequibo border dispute has flared up in recent years after oil reserves in the disputed territory were discovered. Maduro ordered Venezuela's state-run oil companies to look for petroleum in the region just two days after the referendum. The controversy goes back to 1899 when a tribunal comprised of US, UK and Russian arbiters awarded the Essequibo region to Guyana. Venezuela argues that the award was superseded by the 1966 agreement.

Representatives from both countries are slated to meet again in Brazil within the next three months. (Jurist)