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The Guyana-Venezuela border dispute: A short fused Time Bomb

Guyana's President David Granger and  Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro Guyana's President David Granger and Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro
The issue of the Guyana-Venezuela border dispute constitutes an increasingly bitter confrontation that could threaten the stability of the Caribbean Region.

Guyana is an integral and important part of the mostly english speaking 15-member Caribbean Community of States (CARICOM), most of which are members of the British Commonwealth.

CARICOM media briefing460
Guyana’s President David Granger, Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, and CARICOM Secretary General Ambassador Irwin LaRocque apprising members of the media of some of the decisions taken by Heads of Government of the CARICOM community.

On the other hand, a vast number of CARICOM member states are members of the Venezuela led Petro Caribe initiative, where Venezuela sells petrol to them on a concessionary basis, and which has provided for them a critical energy lifeline.

CARICOM Heads at their 29th Inter-Sessional meeting in Haiti, maintained “their full confidence in the decision of the United Nations Secretary General, in exercise of his authority under the Geneva Agreement of 1966. The Heads of Government reiterated the firm and unequivocal support of the Caribbean Community for the maintenance and preservation of Guyana’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

But what is more interesting about this dispute, is the ‘hands off’ attitude of the United States of America, in this long standing border controversy created from the time that Britain ruled the world, and had responsibility for British Guiana, one of its colonies on the South American continent.

The United States of America played a critical role in the original settlement of the Guyana-Venezuela dispute in 1899, as it had almost threatened to go to war with its long time ally, Great Britain if the matter was not suitably addressed.

Today, Washington is exhibiting what can best be described as a ‘strange silence’ on this potentially confrontational and divisive issue, as it no longer sees eye-to-eye with its one time surrogate due to political and economic reasons.

Last August, in a speech at the presidential palace, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro said relations between Caracas and Washington are at their lowedt point ever. “Unfortunately we are in the worst moment of the relationship with the government of the United States,” said Maduro.

It was the United States, which in 1897, insisted that Britain arbitrate Venezuela’s territorial claim to the then British Guiana. Up to the time of the arbitration, Venezuela claimed almost all the territory west of the Essequibo River, including an area, which is now Brazilian territory.

venezuela guyana territorial claimsActing for British Guiana, Great Britain counter-claimed as its sovereign territory not only the area claimed by Venezuela, but also the upper Cuyuni basin and a swath of land in the Amakura and Barima basins up the right bank of the Orinoco River.

A negotiated settlement of the dispute was so important to the US at the time, that when it seemed that Britain might have been dragging its feet on the matter, there were loud calls in the United States for war against England.

According to Derrick G. Arjune, writing in the New York Times in an op-ed piece on December 26 1981, “When London hesitated, Washington viewed its reluctance as a significant threat to the Monroe Doctrine - the United States held that any attempt by European powers to extend their systems in the Western Hemisphere was an unfriendly act…”

Arjune maintains that “this helped to establish the United States as a sturdy and effective world power” because the then President Grover Cleveland stood firm, Britain yielded and this led to the ‘Treaty of Washington of 1897’ where Britain and Venezuela decided to set up a five member arbitration panel to settle the dispute.

The United States had so much “skin in the game” that no less than US Supreme Court Chief Justice Melvin Fuller and an associate Justice David A. Brewer were named to represent Venezuela, while Britain appointed its Lord Chief Justice and a justice of Appeal to act on its behalf. A distinguished Russian jurist was drafted as a fifth member of the team, who acted as president of the Tribunal.

Article Xlll of ‘The Washington Treaty’ specified that the two countries agreed “ to consider the result of the Tribunal of Arbitration as a full, perfect and final settlement of all questions referred to the arbitrators.”

Also interesting, is the fact that US thought the matter was so important that the Venezuelan legal team was led by none other than a former United States President, Benjamin Harrison who was backed up by a former Secretary of War for the United States General Benjamin Tracy.

The arbitral tribunal was finally set up in 1898 and began to receive written submissions from Venezuela and Great Britain. After 54 negotiating sessions, from June to September 1899 a decision, which was arrived at and announced on October 3, gave Venezuela some 5,000 square miles of territory and most of the important Orinoco River.

The decision which was accepted and lauded by all parties to the dispute, awarded to the British, on behalf of Guiana, most of the claimed territory west of the Essequibo River but denied Guiana’s entitlement to the upper Cuyuni basin and an area of land on the eastern bank near the mouth of the Orinoco River. Thus ended the dispute, which had existed since 1840.

In addition it awarded territory, which included a 4,000 square-mile block south of the Pakaraima Mountains bordered by the Cotinga River on the west, the Takutu River on the south and the Ireng River on the east and north.

Maduro and Granger at the UN
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (centre) brings together Guyana’s president David Granger (right) and his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolás Maduro to shake hands.

This portion of territory, originally claimed by Venezuela in its case before the arbitral tribunal, was awarded to Brazil on June 6, 1904, following another arbitration conducted by the King of Italy after the Brazilian government claimed ownership based on historical occupation.

Dr. Odeen Ishmael, writing for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, COHA on September 11 2015 indicated that “on February 20, 1897, President Joaquín de Jesús Crespo, in a message to the Venezuelan Congress, dutifully thanked US President Grover Cleveland and Olney for their “laudable efforts” to push the British government “to accept arbitration unreservedly and unconditionally . . . in order to adjust, with greater facility and success, this unpleasant dispute of almost a century.”

joaquin crespo
Venezuelan President President Joaquín de Jesús Crespo

In praising American support for Venezuela, he proclaimed that arbitration “would put an end to the old dispute between the two nations.” He especially thanked Olney who “generously interposed in this dispute, seeking an arrangement which would at once preserve the laws of the national decorum and the continental integrity.”

He added: “The recourse to arbitration offered itself, and, although by no means in the manner wished for by Venezuela, was more consonant than any other with the desires manifested. The government deemed it proper to insert in the treaty a provision that Venezuela should have a voice in the naming of the arbitral tribunal. As soon as this change was proposed, its acceptance was procured. The action of the United States had produced a result the after effects or which were, from a moral point of view, indispensably subject to the effective and powerful prestige of said nation.” [The New York Times, March 12, 1897]

Shortly after President Crespo’s presentation, the Venezuelan Congress ratified the arbitration treaty and offered its full support to the arbitral tribunal.”

When Venezuela in 1962 renewed its claim to the territory west of the Essequibo River on its alleged grounds that the 1899 award was null and void, that nation did not make any claim—and has never since made any—to that section of territory awarded to Brazil.

Says Arjune, “it was a major victory: It was the first time that Washington had successfully put pressure on another major power to negotiate with a weak country in the Hemisphere.”

A mixed boundary commission was set up by the two countries, and conducted a survey and demarcation of the boundaries as stipulated by the award and which was adjusted to take into consideration the British Guiana-Brazillian arbitration award.

On January 10, 1905, both Venezulean and Guyanese Boundary Commissioners signed off on the map of the agreed boundaries for both countries.

“Twenty-six years later, in 1931, a boundary commission made up of representatives from Great Britain, Venezuela and Brazil made special astronomical, geodesical and topographical observations on Mount Roraima so as to fix the specific point where the boundaries of Brazil, Venezuela and British Guiana should meet.

Diplomatic notes were exchanged among the three nations on October 7 and November 3, 1932, by which they expressed agreement on the specific location of the tri-junction meeting point of the boundaries. A concrete pyramid marker was soon after erected there. The matter of the border was then considered permanently settled,” Dr. Ishmael said.

In 1962, just as Britain was making preparations to grant independence to British Guiana, Venezuela had a change of heart and decided to unilaterally declare the 1899 Arbital award with Guyana null and void, threatening not to recognise the new state or its boundaries.

It is interesting to note that Venezuela did not make any claim—and has never since made any—to that section of territory awarded to Brazil in 1904.

Negotiations between Venezuela and Guyana were again entered into, and culminated in 1970 in a protocol that tabled the issue for 12 years.

Recently, however, Venezuela has renewed its claim to more than five-eighths of the territory that now comprises Guyana. In the last few years, Venezuelan politicians and journalists have made strident demands for a military solution.

This new Venezuelan militance is based on a letter left by Severo Mallet-Prevost, a junior lawyer in the Venezuelan legal team that worked out the 1897 treaty.

In this letter, which was not opened until his death, in 1949 (by which time all the other participants were also dead), Mr. Mallet-Prevost stated that the arbitrators' decision was the result of a secret deal between the British and the Russians.

Today, Caracas is using this tenuous piece of evidence to launch a vigorous international campaign to gain support for its irredentist policies.

After 51 years of mediation provided for in the 1966 Geneva Agreement between Venezuela and the United Kingdom before then British Guiana was granted independence by the latter country, Guyana has grown tired of mediation and has since successfully called for the matter to be sent to the ICJ.

According to the Guyana foreign ministry, Venezuela has never produced any evidence to substantiate its belated repudiation of the 1899 Award. That country has used it as an excuse to occupy territory awarded to Guyana in 1899, to inhibit Guyana’s economic development and to violate Guyana’s sovereignty and sovereign rights.


The government of Guyana has dedicated its US$18–million signing bonus from ExxonMobil to be used to pay legal fees to fight Guyana’s case against Venezuela in the border dispute at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

exxonSince May 2015, ExxonMobil has made seven major oil strikes in the waters offshore the Guyana mainland. The most recent is the Pacore-1 drill site, 107 miles from the coast of Guyana and covers an area of one square kilometer. This discovery adds to previous world-class discoveries at Liza, Payara, Snoek, Liza Deep, Turbot and Ranger-1, which are estimated to total more than 3.2 billion recoverable oil-equivalent barrels.

Venezuela has been pressing its claim to Guyana’s Essequibo region, since the US oil giant discovered oil in disputed waters off its coast in 2015.

The government of Nicolas Maduro said in a recent statement that it does not recognize the ICJ’s jurisdiction “as mandatory.” Venezuela instead proposed to rekindle diplomatic ties with Guyana “that will allow a practical and satisfactory solution of the territorial dispute to be reached.”

When it filed its position with the ICJ, Guyana said it was requesting the court to confirm the legal validity and binding effect of the 1899 Arbitral Award regarding the boundary between the two countries.

In its application to the court, Guyana highlighted that Venezuela had, for more than 60 years, consistently recognised and respected the validity and binding force of the 1899 Award and the 1905 Map agreed by both sides in furtherance of the award.

“Venezuela had only changed its position formally in 1962 as the United Kingdom was making final preparations for the independence of British Guiana and had threatened not to recognise the new State, or its boundaries, unless the United Kingdom agreed to set aside the 1899 Award and cede to Venezuela all of the territory west of the Essequibo River, amounting to some two-thirds of Guyana's territory,” a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Georgetown noted.


Last modified onSunday, 15 April 2018 03:02
  • Countries: Guyana

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