Do we in CARICOM really know our friends?
Elizabeth Morgan TRADE POLICY BRIEFINGS Elizabeth Morgan is a specialist in international trade policy and international politics. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
THE BORDER controversy existing between Guyana and Venezuela is a David and Goliath affair which has been long in the making. It is not a new issue. It has been on the agenda of the conferences of heads of government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the United Nations for many years. It is one which many of us in this region, including in Jamaica, know very little about and may have been lulled into a false sense of security in our friendship with Venezuela.
I cannot recall in my university years studying Caribbean politics and government that there was any in-depth consideration of border disputes existing in this region/ hemisphere. There have been several such disputes – Guyana/ Venezuela, Guyana/Suriname, and Belize/Guatemala – all going under the radar.
Jamaica prized its relationship with Venezuela, as Simón Bolívar, the South American liberator, wrote his famous ‘Letter from Jamaica’ (Carta de Jamaica) while exiled here from May to December 1815.
He was in Jamaica really seeking the support of the British Government in his revolt against the Spanish and his effort to keep Venezuela independent, which occurred in July 1811. Note that Bolívar’s family owned African slaves, and slavery was abolished in Venezuela in 1854, for those interested.
Venezuela started exporting oil in 1918. By the end of the 1930s, it had become the third-leading oil producer in the world. The country was a founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1960.
Venezuela was among the first group of countries with which independent CARICOM members established diplomatic relations: Trinidad and Tobago – 1962; Jamaica – 1965; Guyana – 1966 amid border controversy; and Barbados – 1968.
Venezuela’s oil and gas industry was nationalised in the 1970s. With the 1970s OPEC oil crises, Venezuela was becoming rich and influential, and was interested in using its oil to expand its interest in the Caribbean. Thus Caribbean countries saw it as an important economic partner.
THE BORDER CONTROVERSY
By 1897, Venezuela had claimed a large portion of then British Guiana, the Essequibo region. The area under dispute was nearly twothirds of Guyana’s territory and was suspected to have oil reserves. The country’s boundary was clarified in the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award. The USA had sided with Venezuela, as it would mainly do for nearly 100 years with its interest in oil. This Paris decision was thought to be accepted by all parties.
In 1962, Venezuela announced its intention to no longer abide by this 1899 decision. A border commission was established in 1966, but failed to reach agreement. Guyana became independent in May 1966 led by Forbes Burnham. Venezuela blocked Guyana’s membership of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1967. In 1969, it supported an abortive uprising in its claimed area. In 1970, it agreed to a 12-year moratorium in the dispute, but refused to renew it in 1981. Relations improved in the 1990s, with Venezuela agreeing to Guyana joining the OAS. In 1998, Venezuelans elected the populist Hugo Chavez, and US/Venezuela relations soured.
By 1999, border tensions flared again as Venezuelan troops were seen at the Guyana border. In 2007 and 2013, there were other reported incidents involving the Venezuelan military in Guyanese territorial waters and its Exclusive Economic Zone.
By 2015, oil was discovered in the Essequibo region by a US company. Tensions have been increasing since. Guyana took this boundary controversy to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2018. In September this year, Venezuela’s National Assembly approved a consultative referendum for Venezuelans to decide on its rights over the Essequibo region. This referendum is to be held on December 3.
There is also concern in Guyana that Venezuela could take military action to seize this region. This is now a very serious national security matter for Guyana. The bellicose utterances from Venezuela are indeed troubling.
Historically, although the various border flare-ups were reported in The Gleaner, nationally, I am not sure how seriously this matter was actually taken in this country.
THE PETROCARIBE AGREEMENT
Since 1980, Venezuela’s promise as an oil giant has lagged. With the world’s largest oil reserves of over 500 billion barrels, Venezuela has been unable to increase production and prices have fluctuated. In spite of its difficulties, the country still practised oil diplomacy under President Hugo Chávez.
In 2005, in another oil crisis, Chávez instituted the PetroCaribe Energy Cooperation Agreement, providing a preferential payment arrangement for petroleum and petroleum products to energy-dependent Caribbean countries. The plan allowed countries to buy and pay the balance later over 25 years at a low interest rate. It also allowed payment through a trading arrangement. This arrangement was welcomed by participating CARICOM countries which included Guyana.
The PetroCaribe deal collapsed in 2019 when Venezuela’s oil production further declined and the USA imposed economic sanctions on the administration of President Nicolás Maduro.
Commentators and governments continue to regret the demise of the PetroCaribe and praise the generosity and goodwill of Venezuela towards the Caribbean, seeing primarily the economic benefits.
Listening now and reading more about the history of the Venezuela/ Guyana border controversy, I am wondering about the motives behind Venezuela’s oil generosity to the Caribbean throughout the years. Was this a deliberate policy decision to actually blur the lines of support in CARICOM on the border issue, taking the long view?
I find that in CARICOM, countries and the regional secretariat do not focus enough on intelligence, policy analysis and formulation. A policy formulation department tends to be a poor relation in some government ministries and is under-resourced. The region needs to be more mature in policy analysis and formulation. Not only developed countries bearing gifts may have nefarious objectives.
Should the referendum proceed on December 3, I hope that good sense will prevail and Venezuelans will not support a proposal to annex Guyanese territory.
The advice given by then Prime Minister Hugh Shearer, cited in The Gleaner editorial of July 23, 1968, is relevant to Venezuela today: “Keep your cool”. A military confrontation in this hemisphere, at this time, is in nobody’s interest.
In addition, it is said that oil is a curse, and climate change may well be dictating that its value is limited.
OPINION & COMMENTARY