There’s an unfolding issue which Barbados and other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries should closely monitor with great interest over the coming weeks and months. It relates to a reignition of the century-old border dispute between Guyana and Venezuela following a controversial recent decision by the Nicolás Maduro administration in Caracas.
On May 27, President Maduro issued Decree No. 1787 creating the “Atlantic Coast of Venezuela”, and effectively extending the Bolivarian Republic’s sovereignty to include the maritime waters off the natural resources-rich Essequibo region. Venezuela has laid claim to this area, which represents two-thirds of Guyana’s land mass, since an 1899 arbitration ruling in favour of Guyana when it was under British colonial rule.
Venezuela’s decision, coming 11 days after the general election in Guyana produced the first change of government in two decades, seems to have been triggered by the news of the discovery of significant petroleum deposits by United States company ExxonMobil, which was given approval by the previous PPP/Civic administration to carry out exploration in the said maritime area. The development means new president David Granger has had a baptism of fire instead of the customary honeymoon period afforded newly elected
Eventual confirmation of the commercial viability of the offshore oil find will be great news for Guyana, whose economic fortunes have been showing encouraging signs of a turnaround in recent years after being in the doldrums for most of a quarter century. Under the leadership of President Granger, a former army brigadier-general, the new administration in Georgetown has made clear it will vigorously defend Guyana’s interests against any aggression from its Spanish-speaking neighbour. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says Decree No. 1787 represents a “threat to regional peace and security”.
Never mind the cordial relationship that exists between Venezuela and the CARICOM region, and the generous development assistance which Caracas has provided to CARICOM countries over the years, we consider it unreasonable for Venezuela to seek to hold modern Guyana morally responsible for any perceived wrongs committed during the colonial era. Furthermore, the evidence shows that Venezuela, even though it was disappointed with the ruling, still ratified the findings of the 1899 arbitration which suggests acceptance.
It is about time for the ghosts of the past to be finally laid to rest, so that Guyana can concentrate fully on its economic development instead of having to divert its attention, every now and then, to flare-ups of an old issue that only serves to compromise its development prospects.
Prior to the issue of the presidential decree, the Venezuelan Navy in October, 2013, had detained an oil research vessel operating under contract for United States-based Anadarko Petroleum Corporation because Caracas claimed it was conducting exploration in its waters without authorization. Guyana had said the vessel was operating in its territory.
The dispute is most likely to go before next month’s annual CARICOM Heads Of Government Summit to be hosted by Barbados. This issue presents a dilemma for some CARICOM states because it may place them in an uncomfortable situation where their loyalty to both Guyana and Venezuela may be put to the test.
This is especially so in the case of countries that have benefited from Venezuelan generosity under the PetroCaribe oil facility that provided a cushion from the full effects of high oil prices. Some countries, therefore, are walking a diplomatic tightrope where this issue is concerned.
Needless to say, we hope cool heads will prevail so that there will be some appeasement instead of an escalation of current tensions. Escalation of the dispute has the potential to extend beyond Guyana and Venezuela.
Considering that United States commercial interests are involved, the issue has the potential to rope in the United States which, though remote, can never be ruled out. Besides, considering the tense relations which have existed between Washington and Caracas under Maduro and his colourful predecessor Hugo Chavez, the opportunity for the United States to square off directly with Venezuela might just be too tempting to resist.
Our fervent desire, nevertheless, is for the Caribbean to remain a zone of peace where countries harmoniously cooperate in the pursuit of regional development in the hope of bringing about increased prosperity for a better quality of life for the people of this region, which historically has had more than its share of conflict and strife.