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.