By David Jessop
Every time that CARICOM heads of government meet, they include language in their final communiqué on the Guyana-Venezuela border dispute.
However, at their encounter next month in Barbados the matter will no longer be about a dormant claim but one that has come alive and is potentially dangerous.
The strength of their response will demonstrate whether CARICOM has the unity and willingness to address the significant questions that have been raised by the decision of an economically and regional neighbour, to promulgate a decree law that, in part, claims the offshore territory of three CARICOM nations.
On May 26, Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro gazetted a decree which contained co-ordinates and language that effectively claimed sovereignty over the offshore territorial waters of the Essequibo region of Guyana, a small part of Suriname’s exclusive economic zone and and over Bird Island on which Venezuela has built a naval base but which Dominica may have a de jure, if not de facto maritime claim.
A map produced to coincide with the decree indicates Venezuela claims that all of the territorial waters within a 200 mile range are now so-called ‘Areas of Integral Defence of Marine Zones and Islands.’
Guyana President David Granger’s tough response was hardly surprising coming against the background of having only just taken office and Venezuela’s objection earlier this year to the concessions granted by Guyana to the U.S. oil company Exxon-Mobil and that company’s announcement of what it described as a significant discovery of hydrocarbons at a location in the Stabroek Block covered by Venezuela’s decree law.
Whatever the background, the issue has been escalating ever since; and while Dominica has said nothing and Suriname may be compromised by whatever previously may have been agreed to by the Dutch government, Guyana has a strong political and economic case to argue the decrees’ content is illegal in relation to the still-unresolved border dispute dating back to 1899.
The new Guyanese administration stressed that the country would seek to attract the world’s attention to the border dispute. Granger said he would internationalize the issue and seek resolution through the UN.
Speaking on state-run Venezolana de Television (VTV) Maduro said Guyana’s communiqué was the “continuation” of a strategy to take over Venezuelan territory and had been developing for two years. He asserted ExxonMobil was the mastermind behind the border dispute between Guyana and Venezuela, adding that the company was putting pressure on key officials to mount an international lobby against Venezuela.
Venezuela Minister of Foreign Affairs Delcy Rodríguez additionally described the communiqué issued by Guyana as “a dangerous provocation, (a) policy against the peaceful Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, supported by the power of U.S. transnational company ExxonMobil, and such policy must be resisted.”
Guyana’s new Foreign Minister Carl Greenidge subsequently confirmed there are ongoing discussions with Venezuela and an invitation from UNASUR to mediate in the conflict but denounced in Parliament the Venezuelan decree as a “flagrant violation of international law” and rejected “this illegality which seeks to undermine our efforts at development through the exploitation of our natural resources offshore.”
For CARICOM the issue is diplomatically challenging. Twelve CARICOM nations benefit from extensive Venezuelan economic support under its PetroCaribe arrangement and seven are members of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, with Haiti as an observer.
Against this background, at issue will be the resolve of CARICOM members who rightly will wish to protect the national sovereignty of a member state while recognizing the special relationship they have with Venezuela through their PetroCaribe membership; in some cases borne out of economic necessity.
The observable measure of CARICOM’s resolve will be in the nature of the language contained in the final Barbados communiqué and its backing for the issue to be resolved as Guyana wishes: through a judicial settlement process supported by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who, coincidentally, will be in Barbados to participate in the second day of the CARICOM summit on issues related to sustainable development.
David Jessop is director of the Caribbean Council.