Venezuela’s border controversy is political

Back in 1988, I submitted a paper, “Legal and political issues in the Guyana-Venezuela border controversy”, for my writing assignment towards a JD (juris doctor) degree. The question raised was why Venezuela created the controversy on August 18, 1962, over the Arbitral Award that was handed down in 1899, by claiming before the UN General Assembly that the latter was “null and void”.
Of note was that Venezuela also had a border dispute with its eastern neighbour Colombia that had been submitted to Spain for settlement in 1891. The results of that Arbitration Award in 1898 were mostly in Colombia’s favour, and Venezuela claimed the Colombians had unduly influenced the Spanish Queen, and they had evidence of collusion. The demarcation was conducted in 1907, but disputes led to the Swiss being called in to mediate a border agreement by 1922 that was demarcated in 1932.
Another dispute necessitated further negotiations in 1941, resulting in another demarcation, which Venezuela again protested as a “sell out” to Colombia. But Venezuela did not raise this dispute at the UN, as it did the controversy it manufactured with our Essequibo border. Why? The latter was a lower-hanging political, not legal, fruit.
My contention remains that a confluence of several political factors led to Venezuela claiming the Award was “null and void”, rather than any legal grounds supported by the posthumous publication in 1949 of an allegation by Severo Mallet-Prevost, Venezuela’s legal counsel, that the tribunal had acquiesced to a back-room deal between Russia and Great Britain. As such, Guyana correctly refused to enter into subsequent negotiations with Venezuela – either directly or through arbitrators as Colombia did – but after a long and tortuous process, used the Geneva Agreement to have the Venezuelan-generated controversy over the status of the Arbitral Award decided by the ICJ.
What were the political factors motivating Venezuela? Firstly, after decades of dictatorships, democratic governance was introduced in 1958 with the election of Romulo Betancourt, which led to great expectations of improvement in living conditions. When these failed to materialise, armed leftist insurrections inspired by Castro’s exploits in Cuba were launched by several groups, such as the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), based near the Guyanese border. Betancourt’s energies began to be increasingly consumed in trying to contain the “communist terrorist threat”.
Similar movements were also launched in several other Latin American countries, and the US, under JFK, launched the USAID and the Alliance for Progress to counter “the spread of communism in the western hemisphere”.
In Guyana, Jagan’s PPP had won the August 1961 General Elections, and had expected they would lead Guyana to independence from the British. When the US expressed concerns about Cheddi Jagan and his “communist” inclinations after JFK’s meeting with the latter on Oct 25, 1961, these would have matched Betancourt’s fears of an independent Guyana providing a sanctuary to Venezuelan leftist “terrorists”.
President Kennedy visited Venezuela, and met Betancourt on Dec 16-17, 1961 to promote his anti-communist Alliance for Progress. The very next day, on December 18, Jagan addressed the 4th Committee of the United Nations and called for the British Government to decide on a date for Independence. By that time, the US had convinced the British to hold off granting independence to British Guiana, and on Feb 16, 1962, there were CIA-AFL/CIO-inspired “Black Friday” riots in Georgetown. MIR was banned by the Venezuelan Government in May 1962.
It was against this background that Venezuela raised its border controversy at the UNGA in August 1962, as a political strategy to kill two birds with one stone: rally Venezuelans on a nationalistic line against “perfidious Albion” for elections due in 1963, and pre-empt a “communist threat” on its eastern border.
They would have calculated that the Americans would not oppose them because of their common concern. They were also holding a seat on the U.N. Security Council during 1962, and may have felt they were in a stronger position to raise their border controversy then. They would have also calculated that in order to maintain their credentials in the Non-Aligned Movement, it was better to tweak the British Lion’s tail than to be seen bullying a small, newly independent Guyana.
In the present, Maduro has also raised the ante on their border controversy to counter the political challenge he faces next year after the economic and social implosions. These will intensify immeasurably when the ICJ’s legal judgment is announced in our favour. We must hold the line against his bullyism.