Continuing our series on Venezuela:
We now move to Venezuela’s territory claim to everything west of the Essequibo river. In case you aren’t familiar with Guyana the graphic below will give you an idea of just how much of Guyana this is. The area claimed by Venezuela is shaded with the wider spaced horizontal lines. This is not some vague historical claim, if you go to the Venezuelan Embassy today you will see the area marked as “Zona de reclamacion”. Of course the area is rich in mineral wealth, timber and other resources.
The border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana goes back at least to 1844 when, soon after independence from Spain, Venezuela made claims to the Essequibo region of what was then British Guiana. The conflicting claims were rooted in the fact that the region had changed hands many times in its colonial history, between Spain, France, and the Netherlands, before firmly becoming part of the British Empire in 1831. When Venezuela first stated its claim to the Essequibo region it was simply reviving an older claim that Spain had back when Venezuela was a Spanish colony. The Essequibo region is nearly sixty percent of modern day Guyana and consists of all territory west of the Essequibo River.
Latin American Studies Center – Maryland University
In 1897 the matter was submitted to arbitration, at the end of a long drawn out process lasting more than two years a decision was reached which awarded part of the area including the mouth of the Orinoco river to Venezuela. Neither the British nor the Venezuelans got what they wanted but they declared themselves satisfied. The Venezuelans couldn’t force their claim against the mighty British Empire, and the Brits didn’t want to tick off the Americans who had placed themselves firmly on the side of the Venezulans. (Funny how things change isn’t it?)
Flash forward to the 1960’s with Guyana moving towards independence. Venezula produces a memo from one of the lawyers who agreed the original deal stating that they were pressured to accept the deal. As a result of this Venezuela repudiated the agreement and renewed its claim.
In 1968 Venezuela invaded and annexed Guyanaís half of Ankoko Island (in a river junction forming part of the border agreed in 1899). That year Venezuela also decreed that they had annexed the coastal waters of the disputed Essequibo territory. There were also covert moves made by Venezuela including an attempt to organize the indigenous inhabitants, or Amerindians, in the Essequibo region to support their claim, and even train and arm dissidents there to launch a rebellion, but little ever came of it. The indigenous population consists of only about four percent of Guyanaís population, and speak a variety of local languages.
The situation has gone hot and cold since then however Venezuela has never renounced it’s claim. The continued claim has hamstrung Guyana’s efforts to develop the region as no one is going to invest in a region that may suddenly change ownership. (There are alot of similarities in this regard to the Barbados/Trinidad dispute but we’ll talk about how this dispute affects that dispute in a later post)
Some of the harshest critics of the Venezulan claim have been the Caricom Territories, they are unlikely to say anything now if they are beholden to Venezuela, with loads of “easily financed” oil debt. I am once again asking the question “What does Venezuela get out of Petro Caribe?”