Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said his government will facilitate necessary dialogue and possible resolution to the longstanding border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana.
The government of Venezuela is making moves to seize and occupy two-thirds of Guyana, known as the Essequibo Region, in a referendum which is scheduled for December 3, 2023. The referendum on the matter, seeking Venezuela’s “defense” of the region, was approved by the Venezuelan National Assembly and was reported by Reuters on September 23.
On Monday 23, October 2023, the National Electoral Council (CNE) of Venezuela unanimously approved five questions for the referendum, one of them asking the Venezuelan people whether they agree to make the Essequibo Region a state of Venezuela and to grant current and future residents Venezuelan citizenship and identification cards.
However, this is not going down well with the government of Guyana, which said such a move would be a violation of international law since the Essequibo Region belongs to Guyana.
“On the Venezuela-Guyana situation we have been in touch with both countries,” Skerrit said while addressing a press conference on Wednesday. “We believe in the territorial sovereignty of all countries and we continue to ensure that there are no conflicts between Guyana and Venezuela in this matter.”
According to him, the Government of Venezuela decided to carry out a referendum, “that is in their right to carry it out.”
“There is a process in place to address this border situation,” he stated. “These are sovereign issues and we are there to support and to facilitate whatever dialogue and possible resolution to this longstanding border situation between Venezuela and Guyana.”
Venezuela has been laying claims to Guyana’s Essequibo region for decades saying that an international boundary treaty dating back to 1899 had robbed it of its rightful land. The matter has a long and complicated history – a direct legacy of colonial powers that ruled over the two nations, Spain in Venezuela and the United Kingdom in Guyana.
The dispute goes back all the way to 1814 when the British bought what is now Guyana (known as British Guiana in colonial times) from the Dutch. At that time there was no defined boundary with Venezuela until 1835 when the British Government commissioned Robert Schomburgk to survey the border region and draw a boundary. He drew what is called the Schomburgk Line which claimed some 30,000 square miles for Guyana.
In 1841 Venezuela disputed the British border, claiming territories established at the time of their independence from Spain. The South American country said its borders extended as far east as the Essequibo River, effectively claiming two-thirds of British Guiana’s territory.
The dispute was further complicated when gold was discovered in the region and the British, seeking to extend their reach, claimed an additional 33,000 square miles west of the Schomburgk Line. Venezuela protested and called on the United States for assistance saying under the Monroe Doctrine, there is justification for US intervention. The United States expressed concerns but did not offer a resolution.
On October 3, 1899, an Arbitral Award was given in favor of British Guiana following the Schomburgk Line. The Venezuelan government expressed its disapproval of the results and maintained its claim on Essequibo saying the award was null and void.
The matter has never been fully resolved. For example, in the 1960s Venezuela went to the United Nations in an attempt to prevent Britain from granting independence to Guyana. In 1966, the Geneva Agreement was signed which gave a mixed commission to arbitrate the dispute but the commission never produced a lasting solution. In 2018, the UN referred the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) but the government of Venezuela refused to recognize the ICJ’s jurisdiction over the matter.
Although the December 3 referendum is non-binding, it will measure popular support among Venezuelans over the sparsely populated region. During his weekly broadcast, President Nicolas Maduro called on the Venezuelan people to vote massively in the referendum.
Many CARICOM countries, including Dominica, have cozy relationships with Caracas. Additionally, Venezuela supplies some CARICOM countries with oil through the PetroCaribe oil program.
An article by the Counter Terrorism Group said CARICOM countries might push for a diplomatic solution rather than a more aggressive confrontation.
In the meantime, many Guyanese are talking about ‘war’ on social media, while government supporters in Venezuela have held demonstrations last month holding signs that said the Essequibo Region belongs to them.
Now it’s just a matter of waiting to see what will happen after Venezuela’s referendum.