23 Jan 2008
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
• Guyana and Venezuela’s longstanding territorial dispute—the “frozen conflict”—which is hopefully asleep for now
• Will Guyana’s vulnerable Jagdeo become Washington’s new best friend on the continent?
The latest confrontation between Venezuela and Guyana, which indisputably took place on Guyanese territory, has reminded Washington that Guyana exists and that complexities abound for the long troubled nation which is located in one of the South America’s newly emerging hot spots. The recent clash, which briefly revived memories of a dormant border dispute centering on the Essequibo long bedeviling the two nations’, has pushed Washington into approaching Georgetown in a less cautious, and more engaged, effort in order to gain its friendship at the hoped for expense of Washington’s most determined regional adversary, Hugo Chavez. The recent meeting between Guyanese and American military officials over defense issues may very well put Guyana’s weakened leader, President Bharrat Jagdeo ultimately in an untenable position where he may have to pick sides between Caracas and Washington, even though most specialists dismiss the recent Georgetown visit of senior U.S. naval officials as nothing more than a coincidence involved in carrying out a long-scheduled event.
A “Frozen” Conflict
Ever since Guyana gained its independence in the 1960’s, Guyana and Venezuela episodically have been involved in a recurrent territorial dispute. Caracas claims, but has not been heavily pressuring, its sovereignty over two thirds of Guyana’s total of 83,000 square miles, mainly in the sprawling timber and mineral-rich Essequibo region. In 1899, while the United Kingdom was Guyana’s colonial ruler (the country was then known as British Guiana), an international tribunal had demarcated the boundaries between the two states to be “a full, perfect and final settlement.” Nevertheless, throughout the years, Venezuelans have held mental reservations about that ruling – which gave most of the disputed Essequibo to Britain—and, from time to time, raised questions as if the issue at hand had not yet been finally determined.
At the 1899 boundary gathering, commissioners from the United States, Russia, Venezuela and Britain marked the border between the two territories. The full extent of Venezuela’s resentment over what it saw as an unjust demarcation with British Guinea became public only after its commissioner at the gathering, Mallet Provost, died in 1948. A November 21, 2007 article in Latin America explains that “writings [Provost] left behind appear to suggest that Venezuela was cheated out of the western Essequibo region that comprises a full two-thirds of Guyana’s [present] land area of 215,000 square kilometers, where most of its foreign investment in gold, diamond and timber is located.”
Latterly, Venezuela began reasserting its claim to the disputed territory, and in 1966, a commission was established to negotiate a settlement, but, as explained in the Caribbean Media Corporation in a November 17, 2007 report, border incidents repeatedly interrupted its work. However, observers are quick to point that the conflict has never been allowed to escalate into a full-fledged armed confrontation.
The November Incident
The latest challenge over the disputed territory occurred in mid-November 2007, when the Guyanese government declared that a Venezuelan military unit had attacked and destroyed two Guyanese dredges, which was followed by unauthorized Venezuelan aircraft flights into Guyanese airspace. To this day, it is unclear what motives were behind the Venezuelan attack.
As far as the handful of exact details that are known suggest, what took place during that November day was that a contingent of 36 Venezuelan armed military personnel, led by a general, “entered into Guyana’s territory” (according to Georgetown officials) and proceeded to use military-type explosive devices to destroy two gold-mining dredges. According to the Guyanese side, the attack is said to have taken place near Iguana Island on the Cuyuni River. A November 21, 2007 wire story run by Latin America presented a somewhat different version by maintaining that “about 40 Venezuelan soldiers led by an apparently overenthusiastic senior officer crossed into Guyana’s border Cuyuni district in the west and used high-powered C-4 explosives to blow up two Guyanese-owned gold mining river dredges . . . on the first of a three-day maneuver allegedly aimed at expelling illegal miners from the area.” The dredges, according to local reports were not in operation at the time, hence no casualties were reported. The name of the Venezuelan officer who allegedly led the operation is still a mystery.
Regarding Caracas’ version, its ambassador to Guyana, Dario Morandy, has said that the Venezuelan military acted to remove illegal miners and that the incidents occurred in and around the Cuyuni River, in the San Antonio/ Eldorado area, approximately 80 km west of Guyana’s generally acknowledged border; therefore, it was not on Guyanese territory.
Morandy also has explained to the Guyanese daily Starbroek News, that his country was “protecting its natural resources and we need to remove all illegal miners from the area.” Venezuelan officials claim that the Guyanese miners were polluting Venezuela territory with mercury, as part of the mining process. Guyana officials have disputed this allegation, claiming the incident took place on the Cuyuni River, in an area that is indisputably under their own control.
According to a November 19, 2007 report in Starbroek News, after explosions had been heard in the area, Guyanese Defense Forces based in Eteringbang (some 40 miles away from where the incidents took place), reached the border area but encountered no Venezuelan military personnel in fixed positions.
The Diplomatic and Political Hot Seat
In the aftermath of these events, Venezuela’s Vice Minister for External Relations, Rodolfo Sanz, led a delegation to meet with Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo and some of his advisors. Venezuelan Ambassador to Guyana, Morandy, continued to deny that the destruction of the dredges and subsequent over flights by Venezuelan aircraft could be described as incursions into Guyana’s airspace.
Opposition Guyanese factions have seized the entire affair to exploit tactical possibilities for scoring political points against the ruling PPP party, which he’s not been in particularly good shape as a result in its being repeatedly targeted regarding for its involvement in a sphere of corruption charges, growing levels of drug activity and a lack of political coherence. In a joint statement, the opposition groups, Alliance For Change (AFC) and the Guyana Action Party/Rise Organize and Rebuild (GAP/ROAR) Movement alliance, insisted on a more aggressive projection of sovereignty abroad, as mentioned in a Caribbean Media Corporation November 20, 2007 report, that “quite frankly, a Note Verbale is a tame response to this action [the destruction of the dredges] and we call on the government of Guyana to register a stronger protest using all appropriate diplomatic options available.” According to a CMC November 22, 2007 report, Vision Guyana, a political faction run by Peter Ramsaroop (a possible presidential contender in 2011), joined other opposition parties in condemning the Venezuelan action and called for “a stronger government response.” The attack by Venezuela on Guyanese facilities in Guyana’s waters “cannot be condoned, not even in the face of a shipment of 16,000 barrels of fuel to avert a crisis gripping our nation. We should not be bought,” Vision Guyana declared in a statement.
The cargo referred to above was an “extraordinary” shipment of gasoline and diesel sent to Guyana by Venezuela in late November, which surely, even as an after thought, was in part meant to help diffuse the crisis. A press release by the Venezuelan embassy in Georgetown left no doubt of this when it pointedly explained that “this supply of fuel constitutes an extraordinary shipment to attend to the emergency that the Government of Guyana presented last week through Samuel Hinds […]” The embassy went on to say that with this delivery of fuel, Venezuela ratifies its policies of cooperation and solidarity to guarantee direct benefits for the people of Guyana and the other Caribbean countries. Likewise, it shows its disposition to work for the economic and social integration of the people of Latin America and the Caribbean.” The shipment also occurred amidst a dramatic shortage of fuel across the English-speaking state, which forced a number of pumps in the Georgetown area to temporarily shut down for lack of fuel during November 2007.
President Jagdeo, after the destruction of the dredges had occurred, chose to attend a previously scheduled Heads of Government meeting of the Commonwealth Nations in Uganda. After the gathering, the Guyanese leader declared that he had received the solidarity backing of the 53-member organization. “Heads… took note of the incursions by Venezuelan military personnel and aircraft into Guyana’s territory and airspace on November 15, 2007 and reiterated the need for the controversy to be resolved by peaceful means,” he observed, after quoting the Commonwealth communiqué, (according to a November 30 article on the Guyana Chronicle website). The IPS Article America account weighed into the Jagdeo administration for not exhibiting any muscular intensity in responding to Venezuela, as the “Starbroek News newspaper might have put it,” being saved with a proper amount of spleen, and for its “tortoise-like approach as it urged the government to internationalize the incursion fully.” With the Guyanese economy already in straitened shape, and with the political tension between the ruling PPP party and the main opposition party—under the uninspired leadership of Robert Corbin of the PNC—Guyana is not in a position to take much buffeting.
There have been several rumors that Guyana might make a grievous tactical mistake and take this incident to the Organization of American States or the United Nations, but COHA’s investigators have found that such a scenario was not likely to happen and in fact would reflect a tempest in a teapot mock crisis, coming after some bona fide confidence-building initiatives (like the oil shipment) had been staged to bring Georgetown and Caracas closer together.
A communiqué issued at the end of the Twenty-Eighth Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) held in Barbados in July 2007, contained a section on the Guyana-Venezuela border issue (actually, a month before the Essequibo incident had occurred). They stated that “the Conference expressed satisfaction with the efforts made by Guyana and Venezuela to maintain good relations.” In August 2007, Jagdeo attended the Third PetroCaribe summit in Caracas (again, before the demolition of the dredges had occurred). It is noteworthy to mention that Guyana, along with other Caribbean countries, had signed an agreement with Venezuela on June 2005 during the first PetroCaribe summit, which took place at Puerta la Cruz. Guyanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Rudy Insanally has declared that the Venezuela attack will not affect the flow of its fuel to Guyana. “The two things are not linked and have never been,” the minister has said. This comment may have represented on of the more constructive statements in the entire donnybrook.
In another incident, according to a report published in the Starbroek News on December 10, 2007, a shoot-out with police forces in Guyana resulted in the death of a Venezuelan national and the arrest of another suspect.
According to local police, the Venezuelan and his accomplice had kidnapped a woman and her child, and later tried to escape with them by boat, before they were confronted by Guyanese police in Pomeroon. Rather than being associated with the attack on the dredges, the local authorities, in a statement that they later issued, emphasized that the police are convinced that this incident involved drugs which is a burgeoning problem in Guyana. One of the men involved in this incident is identified as being involved in the drug-related activities. Sad to say, the founding father of modern Guyana’s Platonic Republic, the lordly Cheddi Jagan, would have been charging if he were aware of the drug-sodden entity his PPP party has become. But with the ineptitude of the opposition’s leadership by the PNC’s Corbin, the anti-Jagdeo grouping has not been able to make much political headway.
Predictably, the Bush administration may be seizing the occasion to tighten its relations with Guyana, as a function of what it surely must view. The much more important relations—or lack thereof—with Venezuela. According to the Embassy of the United States in Guyana, on December 13, 2007, the U.S. Embassy’s Military Liaison Office (USMLO) and the Guyana Defense Force wrapped up the last of three meetings, which concluded the first ever U.S.-Guyana Civil-Military Relations Conference. At the conference, U.S. and Guyana officials discussed a range of issues, including “improved security cooperation and security assistance, perspectives on modern security challenges that impact U.S. and Guyana defense policy, and implications of civilian oversight of defense activities.” The conference also allowed for discussions between “senior Guyanese civilian and military leaders regarding Guyana’s role as a partner for specific U.S. security assistance programs.” However, any dialogue over a future U.S. military base in Guyana was not discussed or, at least, not publicly announced. Even though representatives from the USMLO-Guyana, Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, and the U.S. Defense Institute for Security Assistance Management participated in the event.
Perhaps unrelated, but even before the previous incident occurred, Washington’s interest in Guyana had seemed to have grown in recent months. Perhaps it was purely coincidental, but during July, U.S. security forces intercepted four individuals who were allegedly plotting to attack New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. The suspected leader of the Islamic group was a Guyanese-born U.S. citizen. The planned attack was meant to promote the idea of an emerging presence of radical Muslim organizations in the Caribbean, historically considered part of Washington’s backyard. In addition, in late 2007 as part of an effort to parade Washington’s humanitarian credentials throughout the Caribbean but before the November incident took place, the USNS Comfort (a 900-foot-long floating hospital) had visited Guyana where it provided medical services to the local community, as part of the Bush Administration’s good will policy.
The Reason Why Borders Matter
Guyana’s resources and its strategic geographical location could make it an important factor for global policy makers. In December, at the same time that Guyana and Venezuela were in the middle of the row over the dredge affair, Guyana Goldfields Inc. announced the results of the ongoing diamond-drilling exploration on its 100%-owned Aurora Project, located in the Cuyuni mining district of the country, according to a December 12, 2007 MarketWire report. In fact, Venezuela’s growing concerns about mercury poisoning of the environment caused by Guyanese gold-digging operations are not totally unfounded. A study conducted by the World Wildlife Fund For Nature showed, according to an August 2007 AP story, that about 90 percent of the 200 residents screened in one particular mining area community showed symptoms of mercury-derived illness from mercury traces found among Amerindians in the affected areas.
Its closeness to Venezuela makes Guyana, by definition, important to Washington; its president,
Jagdeo, knows this almost instinctively. Caracas has successfully used its oil diplomacy to help gain an open door in Central America and throughout the Caribbean through its founding of Petrocaribe. Washington is now attempting to use its own rather lame eco-diplomacy to gain allies in the region, in order to stay the expansion of Venezuelan influence; Guyana could play an important role, in Washington’s view, as a member of CARICOM, by monitoring the growth of Caracas’ influence in the Caribbean basin.
From the Guyanese point of view, however, it is important to have allies to lend it support and solidarity, as the impoverished country, on occasions, has had border issues which have brought on a great amount of friction with other neighbors, not only with Venezuela. A CMC September 22, 2007 report explained how pleased Georgetown was that, apparently, its border differences with Suriname had been finally settled. The area in dispute between the two countries is believed to be rich in oil and gas. There have been different estimates regarding what percentage of the disputed land Guyana was able to obtain from Suriname, but it seemed to have ranged from 51% to as much as two-thirds of the terrain. Nevertheless, it will be important for Guyana to have strong area allies to safeguard the country’s natural resources, and Washington appears to be more than willing to take up the task, particularly since one of Guyana’s immediate neighbors is Venezuela.
The Venezuela-Guyanese border dispute could be characterized as a kind of “frozen conflict” zone (a term used to describe unsolved conflicts in the post-Soviet world). In spite of the long history of boundary issues, an open all-out war involving Guyana has never occurred, nor is it likely to take place in the near future. With Venezuela being one of the parties in the potential dispute, adding to the fact that there are even more significant natural resources likely to be found on Guyanese territory in the future, any ongoing friction between Guyana and Venezuela would be of great interest to several international actors, with Washington being at the top of the list.