A Historical Territorial Dispute Between Venezuela and Guyana heats up

Venezuela’s territorial claim over the Essequibo could easily plunge the two countries into war

By: /
11 December, 2023
Map of South America in 1831 showing Venezuela, English or British Guiana and the Essequibo River. Map of South America in 1831 showing Venezuela, English or British Guiana and the Essequibo River.
Tomás Salcedo Albert
By: Tomás Salcedo Albert
international relations professional

On December 3, Venezuela held a referendum to consult the population on whether they agreed that Venezuela should exercise effective sovereignty over the Essequibo territory – a territory of approximately 160,000 km2 east of Venezuela, that is claimed by both but currently belongs to Guyana. 

The result was that more than 10 million voters approved the proposal, but it aroused reactions in both countries and the international community. The President of Guyana, Irfaan Ali, assured his citizens that the Essequibo, which makes up two-thirds of the country, would be protected against any possible claim. As well as with international organizations and countries allied with Guyana, he warned Venezuela to respect the rule of law and to obey the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued on December 1, 2023, to avoid any action aggravating the territorial dispute. 

On the other hand, the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, announced that the referendum’s result offered him a mandate to initiate a “new and powerful” stage in the territorial dispute. Although Venezuelans, and the international media, have casted doubt on how many people actually took part in the referendum, comprehending the reasons that explain this territorial dispute and the possible future of this conflict is important for Canada and the international community to understand.

Indeed, this is a conflict that comes with a complex history, which subjects Public International Law to the discussion on which of the legal principles uti possidetis Iuris (de jure, legal possession) and uti possidetis de facto (effective possession) should prevail in territorial delimitations. Furthermore, the dispute is mixed with geostrategic interests determined by an energy market constrained by multiple variables. As if the above were not enough, one of the most critical moments of this territorial dispute comes when the Venezuelan government is trying to survive in the face of international economic sanctions, accusations of systematic human rights violations and the consolidation of an opposition leadership to achieve victory in the 2024 presidential elections. Venezuela’s territorial claim over the Essequibo territory is part of this multidimensional scenario.

The territory, more than twice the size of New Brunswick with a population of 125,000 people, has vast forest and water reserves, making it a potential source of hydroelectric energy. Additionally, it houses significant deposits of precious minerals such as gold, exploited by Guyana since 1841 when the territorial dispute with Venezuela began. The most attractive asset of the Essequibo is undoubtedly its reserve of oil and gas located in an area of about 26,000 square kilometres known as Stabroek, and much of this reserve is in the territorial waters of the region contested by Venezuela.

Since its independence, Guyana has granted licenses to international companies, including from China, one of Venezuela’s most important allies, to exploit the Essequibo’s resources. This explains Guyana’s position in the territorial dispute with Venezuela. Specifically, the Stabroek reserve has been awarded to a consortium led by ExxonMobil. In this reserve, Guyana hopes to produce 1.2 million barrels per day by 2027, making it one of the largest oil producers in Latin America, surpassing only Brazil and Mexico and above the current 750,000 barrels per day produced by Venezuela.

Historically, the Essequibo was part of Venezuela. This claim is based on documents and acts from the time of the Spanish colony, demonstrating that the territory of Venezuela, then called Capitanía General de Venezuela, extended to the Essequibo line, thus including the Essequibo. Before Guyana became a republic, it was a colony of the United Kingdom (UK) and, previously, the Netherlands. Both the kingdoms of Spain and the Netherlands signed the Treaty of Munster (1648), recognizing Spanish sovereignty on the river’s western side. When the UK acquired the provinces of Demerara, Berbice, and Essequibo, later known as British Guiana, through the Treaty of London (1814), the country acknowledged that its territory extended to the Essequibo River.

Moreover, when the territory of the Great Colombia, of which Venezuela was a part until 1830, was presented to the UK on several occasions, no claims or objections were made. To the extent that when the UK recognized Venezuela as a free and sovereign nation in 1845, it accepted that the territory belonged to the Capitanía General de Venezuela (administrative structure of the Spanish colony), including the lands of the province of Guayana (another region of Venezuela), limited to the east by the Essequibo River.

Indeed, in 1835, a Prussian explorer in the service of the UK, Robert Schomburgk, produced a map of the region correctly drawing the demarcation line, a map the UK government hid away during the tribunals that arbitrated Venezuela’s claim a few years later. Schomburgk, conveniently for the British, published a second map attributing Venezuelan territories to British Guiana four years later. From this point, claims to the territory swung between British demands and internal political crises in Venezuela. The latter was a young country, and the Venezuelan War of Independence against Spain affected economic production. At the same time, a long process of internal armed struggles began. It was almost impossible to defend against British policy because it was essential for Venezuelan politicians of the time to maintain power in Caracas and hold the main cities.

Subsequent and multiple invasions of settlers into the disputed Essequibo territory eventually led to the rupture of relations with the UK in 1887 Under the Monroe Doctrine, both sides requested the intervention of the United States in the controversy. This intervention allowed for the signing of the Arbitration and Conciliation Treaty in Washington in 1897. The treaty and the arbitral award obtained later were part of a history of domination between the United States and the UK. It is essential not to decontextualize this idea; it was the end of the 19th century. Venezuela was an agricultural country immersed in internal wars in an international balance of power system.

Two years later, the Paris Arbitral Award of 1899 awarded over 80% of the territory claimed by Venezuela to the UK. It was a colonialist decision that did not recognize the territory of the Capitanía General of Venezuela. The Arbitral Award decision, however, was not a legal decision but the result of a political agreement, clearly documented in the Memorandum of Severo Mallet Prevost, the lawyer representing Venezuelan interests and published in 1949. Nevertheless, the Arbitral Award gave legal validity to a falsified map that granted to the UK what belonged to Venezuela.

This is why the 20th century saw a period of claims by Venezuela before the Extraordinary Inter-American Conferences, the Organization of American States, and from 1945, before the United Nations in which Venezuelan diplomacy succeeded in having Venezuela’s claim recognized by the UK and later by Guyana, the latter becoming a republic in 1965. The intervention of the Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, Marco Falcón Briceño, before the Special Committee of the 17th General Assembly of the United Nations (1962), positioned the issue and paved the way for the adoption of the Geneva Agreement of 1966, which brought the dispute to the international stage.

The Geneva Agreement is important because it recognized the claim and created a joint commission between Guyana and Venezuela, which sought a satisfactory dispute resolution. The agreement stipulated that if no agreement were reached within four years, the parties would have six months to choose one of the peaceful means of dispute settlement established in the United Nations Charter. Unfortunately, negotiations failed. During these four years of talks, civic society uprisings related to the dispute occurred, such as anti-Venezuelan protests in Georgetown or the Rupununi Rebellion (1969), the latter being an indigenous separatist movement ready to reunite with Venezuelan territory formally.  Throughout, Guyana had no intention of resolving the dispute; it would imply acknowledging that the territory belonged to Venezuela and relinquishing the Essequibo’s natural resources.

The failure of the talks led to the adoption of the Port of Spain Protocol in 1970, which suspended all negotiations for 12 years without implying a waiver of rights to the claimed territory. In 1982, the then-president of Venezuela, Luis Herrera Campins, decided not to renew this additional protocol. At the same time, Guyana proposed submitting the dispute to the judicial settlement of the IJC, to which the Venezuelan government objected. Thus, the then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, intervened according to what was established in the Geneva Agreement and appointed a good officiant to suggest an appropriate solution to the controversy that would not be binding on the parties.

From 1990 to 2014, the Secretary-General of the United Nations-supported the search for a resolution to the dispute through the good offices of a representative. However, no satisfactory result was obtained. Although the conflict was subjected to a peaceful settlement method for years and Venezuela developed active cultural and economic diplomacy towards Caribbean governments, it never exploited its position to seize the best opportunity from the United Nations-sponsored good offices.

Indeed, since President Hugo Chávez’s tenure began until today, Venezuela’s actions regarding the Essequibo region have been unclear and erratic from Chávez’s 2004 declaration granting freedom to Guyana from military interventions by Venezuela in Guyanese territory. Events were then compounded by a prolonged political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, accompanied by accusations against the leaders of the Venezuelan government of human rights violations against the population and links with terrorist and criminal organizations.

Today, the possible actions that the Venezuelan government may take under the argument of the alleged mandate granted by the recently held referendum, far from vindicating Venezuela’s historical rights over the Essequibo, threaten compliance with the decision of the ICJ. The Venezuelan government, to evade its responsibilities in the face of multiple accusations of human rights violations, links with criminal and terrorist organizations, and to address the need for transparent presidential elections, would easily be capable of attempting any maneuver.

Faced with Venezuela’s actions, Guyana’s president indicated that his country’s first defence was diplomacy. In this regard, and in search of support, Guyana initiated a campaign with the United States, Canada, Brazil, and the member countries of the Caribbean Community and obtained declarations of their support. As for the Organisation of American States, there has not been an expression of support for Guyana and probably will not be. Although the Secretary General of that organization rejected the holding of the referendum, the legal tradition of Latin America gathered in the Organization of American States leans towards the recognition of territories and boundaries inherited from the Spanish colony. Recognizing that Guyana has rights over a territory that historically and legally does not belong to it would mean establishing jurisprudence in a sensitive matter.

The solution to the nearly 200-year-old territorial conflict between the two countries goes beyond consulting voters. But it would be risky to specify a solution. Still, it is possible to say that any solution begins with the legitimacy and transparency of the public policies of the conflicting governments. Next, it is essential to re-establish a permanent binational commission to pave the way for a peaceful solution. Finally, but not exclusively, in the case of the Essequibo dispute, negotiations should aim to establish a model of sustainable cooperation that respects indigenous communities and their natural environment.

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