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Venezuelan opposition wants "mediation" of the border controversy with Guyana

By Ambassador Odeen Ishmael - Posted February 16th. 2016

The Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD), the opposition coalition which now holds a huge majority in the Venezuelan National Assembly, feels that mediation should be applied to solve the problem surrounding the controversy over the arbitral award that delimited the boundary between Guyana and Venezuela in 1899.

This position is highlighted in a document prepared by the coalition's International Affairs Committee in September last year immediately after the short meeting at the UN headquarters between Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Guyana's President David Granger and Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro. The document, entitled "The intransigent position of Guyana is a consequence of the wrong foreign policy of the Government of Venezuela" denounces the meeting, claiming that Venezuela lost the initiative to push for bilateral negotiation on the issue.

Press conference by the MUD

Back on September 28, 2015, Timoteo Zambrano, the coordinator of the International Affairs Committee of the MUD, at a press conference regretted that "the accumulation of errors" by the governments of Venezuela and Guyana through the UN meeting "caused the loss of the bilateral control of the border negotiation, transferring the decision to a third party: the United Nations (UN)."

This declaration by the MUD about the involvement of a United Nations remains somewhat confusing since the world body has been involved in the process since 1982-an involvement specified by the Geneva Agreement reached by the British, Guyanese and Venezuelan governments in February 1966. Further, Zambrano failed to specify the "errors" of the Venezuelan and Guyanese governments.

The MUD document, publicized in the run-up to the December parliamentary elections, remains as the main policy statement by the Venezuelan opposition on the border issue with Guyana. No doubt, mediation will be the method it intends to suggest to the Venezuelan government and will raise with the UN Secretary General if it wins the presidential elections in three years' time.

Guyana wants ICJ involvement

In fact, mediation is one of many choices at the disposal of the UN Secretary General who is mandated by the Geneva Agreement to select a method of finding a solution to the controversy. Even though it is believed that he can unilaterally decide on a particular method as listed in Article 33 of the UN Charter, he will no doubt want to have both parties having consensus on his selection. Both Guyana and Venezuela initially agreed on his decision to apply the Good Office methodology, by which a representative of the Secretary General met with both governments separately or together to hear their ideas of reaching a solution. But after twenty-five years, that method has not produced any tangible result. Subsequently, Guyana announced in early 2015 that it would opt out of the Good Office process and proposed that the UN Secretary General should now involve of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to help solve the issue.

The MUD opposition, in its statement, wants the Venezuelan government to "clarify publicly" that the nation does not accept the jurisdiction of the ICJ in the effort to find a solution to the existing controversy. It insists that Venezuela cannot accept that jurisdiction since that would contravene the protocol of Bogota, which it sees as "keeping our tradition of resolving border disputes bilaterally."

The Bogota protocol of 1948 formally established the Organization of American States, but no reference is made to it on the 1966 Geneva Agreement. And, in any case, Guyana's position is that the dispute was already settled in 1899 by the arbitration tribunal, which was itself a form of "mediation."

"Ostrich diplomacy"

The Maduro administration also objects to the involvement of the ICJ and, in what can be described as "ostrich diplomacy," insists that the UN Good Office should be retained, despite its ineffectiveness over the past twenty-five years. From time to time, too, successive Venezuelan administrations have suggested bilateral negotiations on the issue, a position that Guyana does not support. Furthermore, Venezuela feels that a solution to the controversy entails the ceding of territory by Guyana; on the other hand, Guyana maintains that Venezuela should withdraw its spurious claim and accept the finality of the 1899 award as it did up to 1962.

At a press conference, Zambrano, who was accompanied by former Foreign Minister Fernando Ochoa Antich and the executive secretary of the MUD, Jesus Torrealba, said "mediation" should be applied, as was first suggested by the government of Hugo Chavez, in 1998. This method, he insisted, would "allow the establishment of a more effective negotiation to find a satisfactory solution for the practical settlement of the dispute." He also stressed the need to apply this method as the "state policy," while urging the Venezuelan armed forces "to maintain a militant stance in defense of the rights of Venezuela in the Essequibo and not be fooled by the chauvinistic positions of Nicolas Maduro."

Guyana, it must be emphasized, does not recognize the existence of a territorial dispute since that was already settled by the international arbitral award in October 1899. What Guyana recognizes is the existence of a "controversy" as a result of Venezuela's contention of the nullity of the 1899 arbitral award. This is specified in the Geneva Agreement which established a Mixed Commission of Venezuelan and Guyanese representatives who were given four years to find a practical settlement of this controversy, and not in any way to cancel the arbitral award. After the Mixed Commission failed in this task, the UN Secretary General, as empowered by the Agreement, was then given the authority to select a means of solution as listed in Article 33 of the UN Charter.

Desire for mediation

The MUD's document shows that the opposition feels that the methodology of the UN Good Office has failed to show results, thus the necessity "to choose another method of peaceful settlement. The logic indicates that the next step should be to propose mediation as a method to be chosen by the Secretary General of the United Nations." However, the document does not indicate the entity that will manage the mediation process that is proposed.

The MUD claims that actions and omissions of Hugo Chavez and Maduro himself, while he was foreign minister, led to a "total betrayal of the rights of Venezuela." It says that the policy changed suddenly with the issuance in May 2015 of the decree 1,787 and in June of the decree 1,859, by which operational zones have been created for comprehensive defense. In the second decree, the statement says, the previous coordinates are totally suppressed, but it is unable to establish any new elements in the complaint that Guyana was ignoring the Geneva Agreement by discarding the mechanism of the UN Good Office and "threatening to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague."

Admonishing the Maduro administration

The document also bemoans two issues which it claims to have encouraged Guyana "to advance its territorial claim" on the Essequibo. It cites statements by President Chavez who "with total self-confidence and irresponsibility" in 2004 said, "Venezuela is not opposed to any development project in the Essequibo, unilaterally authorized by Guyana, if it benefits the people;" and in 2007 "Venezuela started the Essequibo claim under pressure from the United States to destabilize the communist government Cheddi Jagan."

It also heavily admonishes Maduro whose conduct it says produced confusion during his tenure at the Foreign Ministry by remaining silent after receiving information about Guyana's decision to extend its continental shelf to 350 miles, "thus cutting the Venezuelan Orinoco Delta platform." It complains: "This perception was expanded by not protesting during his official visit to Guyana in 2013 . . . and agreeing to concessions [by Guyana] that year to Anadarko, Exxon-Mobil and CNOOC, the Chinese transnational. All these actions could have generated acquiescence and seriously compromised our claim."

Actually, this part of the MUD's statement is not too factual since, as was widely publicized, the Venezuelan government arrested a survey ship used by Anadarko and actively opposed Exxon-Mobil's oil exploration activities, and even when so far as to extend territorial claims to almost all of Guyana's maritime space by Maduro's decrees of May and June last year. The Venezuelan opposition coalition, according to the statement, retains the view that the issuance of the decrees was designed by Maduro "to win internal political gains to strengthen his slim chances of victory" in the then upcoming parliamentary elections and "distract public opinion from the tragic reality of inflation, insecurity, drought and famine that our people live."

In a final outburst, the document claims that the Guyana government "by its diplomatic action, got the ambassador of Brazil in Georgetown, in a ceremony commemorating the independence of Brazil, on September 8 last, to support Guyana in its dispute with Venezuela, going so far as to assert that for Brazil it is inadmissible for territorial claims generated in the nineteenth century intends to raise in the twenty-first century. South America is a place of peace and continues to be, because Brazil does not accept any disturbance in its borders." The MUD expresses surprise that "in the face of a fact as serious as this, the national government was silent."

Overall, the MUD's document has not declared a position on the controversy at any significant variance with that of the Maduro administration. Indeed, it is widely known that some of the component parties in the coalition have always taken a position much harsher than that of the socialist-oriented governments led by Hugo Chavez and now by Nicolas Maduro. However, what the MUD coalition clearly expresses is the political difference it has with the current administration, but nevertheless provides support for the country's claim to Guyana's territory.

February 15, 2016

(Dr. Odeen Ishmael, Ambassador Emeritus (retired), historian and author, served as Guyana's ambassador in the USA (1993-2003),
Venezuela 2003-2011) and Kuwait and Qatar (2011-2014). He actively participated in meetings of UNASUR from 2003 to 2010 and has written extensively on South American integration issues.)

(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Government of Guyana.)

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