By P.I. Gomes
The writer is a former Cooperative Republic of Guyana Ambassador to the European Union and ACP Group of States, Brussels. These remarks are made as a citizen of Guyana residing in the Diaspora.
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad & Tobago | 22 December 2023 (IDN) —The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on 8 December 2023 held closed consultations on the territorial controversy between the Cooperative Republic of Guyana and Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela over the Essequibo region in Guyana. This is a matter before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) initiated in 2015 by then-Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
The SC meeting was in response to a 6 December 2023 request from Guyana, facing the imminent threat of annexation of two-thirds of its territory by neighbouring Venezuela, some four times the size of Guyana. Threatening talk by Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro had increased in the last few months as campaigning for an anticipated “positive” outcome of a consultative referendum scheduled for 3 December 2023.
The referendum had become the tipping point following hostile threats and movements of Venezuelan armed forces, supposedly constructing aircraft landings, close to the Guyana border of the Essequibo region. This build-up of activities marked a conjuncture of negative socio-economic forces to be countered by the “desired” responses of the referendum.
President Maduro would be able to claim popular national support for annexation of Guyana’s region known to be rich in minerals and oil. Additionally, the President would be demonstrating his democratic credentials, ahead of Presidential elections due in 2024.
To this, Maduro had given assurances of free, fair and transparent elections as a condition for the reductions of sanctions that had been imposed by the US and European countries. These followed the 2018 elections, boycotted by the opposition and considered illegitimate due to alleged widespread irregularities. (The Guardian, 21 May 2018). Moreover, an upsurge of political support for a rival woman candidate was unsettling for Maduro and his followers, mainly drawn from the armed forces.
Simultaneously, economic ills in Venezuela were in sharp contrast to the oil and gas boom in Guyana. This resulted from the discovery by ExxonMobil in 2015 and an inaugural export in December 2019 from the coastal waters of the Essequibo region, contested by Venezuela. These were circumstances that enflamed President Maduro’s aggression and set the stage and date for the proposed referendum.
By political rallies and extensive media coverage deep-seated Venezuelan nationalism was mobilised as agency for a challenge of the validity of the 1899 Arbitral Award.
This Award had been agreed by the UK and Venezuela, represented by the US, as the “full, perfect and final” settlement of the territory of British Guiana. Venezuela had received 5,000 sqm of British Guiana territory that included the oil-rich Orinoco Basin and for the subsequent 160 years, the validity of the Award was accepted by Britain and Venezuela.
However, Venezuela reopened the award by complaints at the UN General Assembly in 1962, it is said at the request of the USA. Negotiations between the United Kingdom and Venezuela were initiated in which the USA strenuously supported Venezuela’s claim to nullify the 1899 Arbitral Award.
Those negotiations occurred in a geopolitical context of the Cold War and at the height of USA’s anti-communism crusade. Coincidentally, debates for political independence of Guyana were taking place amidst civil disturbances in the country and had been instigated by the USA to prevent the Soviet-aligned Dr Cheddi Jagan being elected in 1964.
The UK and Venezuela in February 1966 arrived at the Agreement to Resolve the Controversy over the Frontier between Venezuela and British Guiana (known as the Geneva Agreement, 17/02/1966) after which Guyana became independent on 26 May 1966.
Maduro’s Referendum Endorses Annexation of Essequibo
On 3 December 2023, the National Electoral Council (NEC) of Venezuela held the referendum that President Maduro had promised and declared it “a total success for our country, for our democracy”.
It was reported that 10.5 million people voted, a number questioned by the international media, judging from the low numbers observed at polling stations. Notwithstanding that, responses were unanimous and achieved President Maduro’s desired outcome on four key issues.
These were the rejection of the Arbitral Award of 1899 and the jurisdiction of the ICJ to resolve the controversy while supporting the 1966 Geneva Agreement as the only valid legal instrument to solve the controversy. Additionally, the referendum created Guayana Esequiba as a state of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, with the “annexed” area displayed on the map of Venezuela.
The referendum was held despite a ruling from the ICJ received two days before its scheduled date and had unanimously decided that Pending a final decision, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela shall refrain from taking any action which would modify the situation that currently prevails…whereby the Cooperative Republic of Guyana administers and exercises control.
The ICJ further directed that Both Parties shall refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute before the Court or make it more difficult to resolve.
In defiance of the ICJ’s ruling, President Maduro announced measures for the administration of the newly created state by appointment of a Governor, a Major-General. To the Governor, authority was conferred to grant concessions for mining and oil exploration, while companies already operating in the region were given three months to leave. This implied a direct threat to the US, and Chinese conglomerates ExxonMobil, Hess and CNOOC, which had formed a consortium producing oil and gas on the coast of Essequibo. Foreign-owned gold mining companies are also undertaking lucrative operations on land and in rivers of the “annexed” region.
All such acts of aggression and language threatening military action were strongly condemned by Guyana and diplomatic engagements accelerated with allies and friendly countries. Precautionary measures also entailed the army being placed on “high alert”. In the atmosphere of heightened tensions, Brazil moved military resources to its southwestern border with Venezuela.
CARICOM & CELAC Intervene for Peace
In face of the ominous signs of armed conflict, the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM), convened an emergency summit of its 15-member Heads of Government. The tense situation of impending military action by Venezuela was generally perceived as having serious regional, political, and economic implications for the peaceful, tourism-dependent Caribbean islands.
On 8 December 2023, the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, hosted CARICOM’s summit that adopted a statement that repeated support in principle for Guyana’s position that the resolution of the border controversy rests with the ICJ and urged Venezuela to respect the ruling of the ICJ on the 3 December referendum. Most importantly, the CARICOM Heads also called for de-escalation of the conflict and an “appropriate dialogue” between the leaders of Venezuela and Guyana.
The Community of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (CELAC) was invited to co-sponsor the dialogue between the two Presidents that was held on 14 December 2023 in the presence of representatives of the President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, of the UN SG and CARICOM’s Heads of Government.
The dialogue concluded with a Declaration that agreed on a de-escalation of tensions, appointment of a Mixed Commission of Foreign Ministers of Guyana and Venezuela and a further meeting between the two Presidents in three months.
The context and issues in the Declaration are of wide import to economic and geopolitical relations between neighbouring countries on the South American mainland, the islands across the Caribbean and further afield. At their core are trade in oil and the sale of gold and other minerals that affect the sustainable livelihoods of the peoples of Venezuela and Guyana. These issues are also firmly embedded in the survival of small states facing growing militarism and the weakness of international institutions to counter the authoritarian actions of States endowed with military might.
This Guyana-Venezuela controversy of worrisome tensions and turmoil lucidly reveals that peace between countries cannot be achieved without justice, and justice requires respect for the rule of law. [IDN-InDepthNews]
Image: Satellite map showing the Region of Essequibo/Guayana Esequiba disputed between Venezuela and Guyana. Credit: Suriname Central via Wikimedia Commons.
IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.
 See “The Venezuela-British Guiana Boundary Arbitration of 1899” by Clifton J. Child in American Journal of International Law, vol 44 Issue 4,1950 -online by Cambridge University Press: 20 April 2017.
 Refer to C. B Jagan, The West on Trial
 Summary of the Order of 1 December 2023 https:// www.icj-cij.org