The Guyana-Venezuela border controversy: The drama of two strategic blunders

The current and continuing impasse between Guyana and Venezuela over ownership of two-thirds of the current territory of Guyana, a sizeable piece of real estate, is traceable to two strategic blunders, one by the British Government in 1966, the other by Forbes Burnham also in 1966. Both blunders were incubated within the larger geopolitical and geostrategic context of the Cold War. And both were avoidable.

By Daniel K. Gibran
PhD (Retired). Professor of International Relations and Security Studies and Fulbright Scholar. Tennessee State University, Nashville, TN USA

Today, the Cooperative Republic of Guyana is facing an existential territorial threat that is at the heart of its existence, a threat that will not simply disappear into thin air by the waving of a magic wand. In short, Guyana’s security, the security of the State in the context of its physical space, is threatened by an unstable, belligerent neighbour that claims two-thirds of its territory. This sharp and heavy sword of Damocles continues to hang over Guyana.
Understanding what happened in 1966 is crucial to any explication of the current impasse. But before we get to 1966, we must first know what happened in 1899. The Arbitral Award of that year is the linchpin event in the dispute between Britain and Venezuela. Britain acquired possession of the Colonies of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice from the Dutch in 1814. Spain, the original European power to lay claim to this region, did not contest Britain’s acquisition. Twenty years later, Britain delineated the physical boundaries of its newly acquired possession. And a new physical map was published in 1840 to the chagrin of Venezuela. When Venezuela became an independent state in 1810, it claimed this “disputed” territory as part of its inheritance from Spain.
But Spain did not possess this territory in a manner that granted it ownership. Hence, Spain cannot grant title of this territory to Venezuela because it never acquired title, not even an inchoate one. Venezuela’s claim that Essequibo was occupied and settled by Spain does not chime with historical reality. It was the Dutch who first occupied and settled this region in 1616 and Spain recognised Dutch sovereignty. Both countries sealed this arrangement when they signed the Treaty of Munster in 1648. The Dutch, the undisputed owner of Essequibo since 1648, ceded this territory to Britain through the terms stipulated in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814.
A few years preceding 1899, Venezuela severed diplomatic relations with Britain and requested US intervention to arbitrate its claim, basing it on Spain’s ownership of the disputed territory. In 1897 both disputants agreed to submit their case for arbitration and under the aegis of the American Government, an arbitration tribunal was established.
A total of five jurists, two Americans, two British, and one Russian who acted as President constituted the tribunal. After two years of deliberation in Paris, the Tribunal issued a unanimous decision, which awarded 90 per cent of the Essequibo Region to Britain and 10 per cent of the land approaching the estuary of the Orinoco River. The disputants agreed to abide by the terms of the Treaty as being “full, perfect, and final.” Venezuela did not protest the Award. And six years later in 1905, the borderline was fixed by a joint Anglo-Venezuelan Boundary Commission. Venezuela accepted both the 1899 Paris Tribunal Award and the 1905 boundary line. And the contentious issue was settled.
Entered Severo Mallet-Prevost in this drama. A junior lawyer on the Venezuelan legal team, Mallet-Prevost contended in a letter that the Paris Arbitration of 1899 was improper because of collusion between the two British jurists and the Russian President of the Tribunal. He sealed his letter and requested that the contents be made public after his death.
The letter was published in the American Journal of International Law in 1949. For the next 12 years, Caracas remained silent. But in 1962, it decided to act by declaring its intention not to abide by the terms of the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award followed by a strident pronouncement that the Award was “null and void.” The entirety of Venezuela’s disavowal was based on the letter of a disgruntled, dead man, who did not have the audacity while he was alive to make public his accusations or to publish his letter.
Great Britain’s agreement to hear Venezuela’s contentions while noting that the 1899 Arbitral Award was “final” was a monumental strategic blunder. The culmination of what followed after “talks” between Britain and Venezuela was the Geneva Agreement of 1966. In this 1966 Agreement, Britain sold its former colony, British Guiana, down the Orinoco River. And the question is why? Two plausible explanations should be considered.
The first explanation centred on a mutual perception shared by London and Washington DC that Guyana’s Opposition Leader, Dr Cheddi Jagan was an avowed Marxist and Communist. And should he be voted into office after 1966, Guyana would join Cuba and become another Soviet satellite in America’s strategic backyard. The USA played a pivotal role in persuading Britain to grant Independence to its former colony under the political leadership of Mr Forbes Burnham, the lesser of the two evils, in 1966, months before the Geneva Agreement was signed with Venezuela.
The second explanation of Britain’s behaviour and subsequent proclivity to rid itself of British Guiana was driven by the imperatives of culture and ethnic affinities. British Guiana was not the Falkland Islands. It was a different place in its ethnic makeup and cultural affinities. It would be more accurate to say that British disposition towards its former colony was fairly similar to how they treated the inhabitants of the Island of Diego Garcia located in the Indian Ocean. In 1966 an Anglo-American military agreement attempted to turn the island of Diego Garcia into a military outpost. At the time, the island was inhabited by about 1800 settlers. Diego Garcia had been their home for several decades.
After the Agreement was signed with America, the Ilois people were forcibly deported en masse to Mauritius over a thousand miles away. They were not consulted about their wishes or compensated by the British Government. Both the Labour and Conservative Governments had, in succession, approved the wholesale removal of these island people against their wishes. These people were “Black,” they had no cultural or ethnic affinities to Britain and were perceived this way by the British.
Contrast this treatment with that of the less than 2000 Kelpers of the Falkland Islands. They were of British stock in colour and culture, and of kith and kin. The same cannot be said of the people who inhabited British Guiana. They were different and of inferior stock in the perception of Downing Street. Hence, the eagerness to rid itself of this colonial territory and at the same time unburden itself from the “mess” it created.
The newly independent state of Guyana was left to pick up the pieces.
And pick up it did. Mr Forbes Burnham, the coalition leader, was sanguine and gleeful to pick up the pieces in 1966. Leading British Guiana to Independence was for him a signal victory and high honour. He knew fully well what he was getting into. So, in a correspondence to his counterpart in Caracas who had objected to British Guiana’s Independence, Burnham stated his intention to revisit the border controversy and requested Venezuela’s acquiescence in the march to Independence. This was the second strategic blunder.
Independence cannot be foisted upon a former colony without the political leadership of said colony agreeing to accept it. It must be negotiated. By not refusing the transfer of sovereignty from Downing Street, Burnham committed an incalculable strategic blunder. He should have, instead, insisted that Britain clean up the mess it created and have the border controversy with Venezuela settled before agreeing to a formal transfer of sovereignty.
His refusal to do so saddled the independent State of Guyana with a strangulating burden and placed the country in shambles. Venezuela’s claim to Essequibo is not simply Maduro’s claim and boisterous fulminations. It resides in the soul of every Venezuelan citizen. It is a national feeling, unlike anything we have seen demonstrated in Guyana.
Two strategic blunders, both committed in the same year, have burdened Guyana and stymied its path to economic development. The Ali-Jagdeo Government is well placed to strengthen its relationship with the United States.
Today, Washington DC is eager, ready and willing to support and defend Guyana. And the current governments on both sides of the Atlantic are ready to do business.