It is said that all politics is local and the latest sabre rattling by Venezuelan strong-man Maduro over their concocted controversy on our 1899 settled Essequibo border merely illustrates that truism. Faced with an economic meltdown of catastrophic proportions that has witnessed five million citizens fleeing the country; inflation reaching 4000 per cent food, fuel and medicine shortages forcing people to scavenge garbage bins to survive, Maduro needs a distraction. He created the means after the December 2020 Legislative Elections, which the Guaidó-led Opposition boycotted because the Elections Commission had been unilaterally reconstituted.
Maduro’s Socialist Party and its allies won 67 per cent of the 31 per cent of the registered voters that bothered to vote. He now controlled the Legislature to go with the military, Judiciary, and Executive. But he knew that all of this was built on sand since there was no real legitimisation from the majority of the people, who were only kept in line through force. The other variable in his calculus for maintaining power was that his bête noir, Donald Trump and the Republicans had just lost their November 3rd elections. It would appear he believes the incoming Democratic Administration of Joe Biden will be less implacable to his undemocratic credentials and can be challenged. He also calculates that he can challenge the new People’s Progressive Party (PPP) regime at a point when the A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) Opposition Leader has refused to accept its legitimacy.
As such, last Thursday, Maduro announced, “I signed the decree by which the Territory for the Development of the Atlantic Façade of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is established, which becomes part of the legal, diplomatic and political actions for the defence of our rights for more than 200 years.” The “Atlantic Facade” is the Essequibo Coast, through which Guyana has rights to the adjoining Atlantic Ocean, and not coincidentally, its massive oil fields now being developed by Exxon. He also convened his hand-picked Assembly and established a Special Committee to “defend” the Essequibo Region, which had been conclusively awarded to us in the 1899 Arbitral Award. He insisted, “It is ours; it belongs to the Venezuelans and we are going to reconquer it in peace, in national union, we are going to achieve it.”
The Assembly explicitly rejected the ICJ’s December 2020 decision that it had the requisite jurisdiction to pronounce on the validity of the 1899 Arbitral Award, in consonance with Venezuela’s agreement in the 1966 Geneva Accord. Maduro wrote the United Nations Secretary General requesting that the latter again invoke his “good office” to facilitate bilateral talks between Guyana and Venezuela that had been “exhausted” after 50 years.
Maduro is clearly following in the footsteps of so many of his predecessors in trying to use the Essequibo border controversy they concocted in 1962 to divert domestic attention away from their internal challenges that are tearing apart their national fabric. He is hoping to provoke a nationalistic response against Guyana and the United States, which is the home of Exxon, with which Venezuela has a long-running feud.
In a broadcast to the nation, President Irfaan Ali gave a pellucid statement of Guyana’s position. Pointing out that Venezuela had violated “at least two fundamental principles of international law”, both of which are under the purview of the ICJ, Dr Ali declared unequivocally, “Guyana rejects entirely the decree issued by President Maduro.” He explained, “Venezuela’s attempt to claim for itself the seas and seabed adjacent to the coast west of the Essequibo River is another legal nullity, which will receive no legal regard from any other State in the world, including Guyana.”
The President also instructed his Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Guyana Consulate in Venezuela to convey, respectively, to the Venezuelan Ambassador and the Venezuelan Government, Guyana’s position, from which it has not veered since 1962. We seek friendly relations, but “not a blade of grass”.