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US intervention in Venezuela-British Guiana border dispute

By Ambassador Odeen Ishmael - Posted June 5th. 2018

In a February 1877, the Venezuelan government proposed to British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Lord Derby a settlement of the border with British Guiana by the arbitration of a conventional line fixed by agreement, though it continued to insist that the Essequibo River was the territorial boundary. At the same time, the Venezuelan government appealed to the United States to support its claims, but the latter refused to become involved.

Break in diplomatic relations

Diplomatic exchanges continued for the next ten between the Venezuela and Great Britain, but no solution to the problem could be reached. But tensions escalated in February 1887, after the British Government again rejected Venezuela's claim to the disputed area and demands to evacuate the territory. When the British refused, Venezuela then accused Great Britain of "acts of spoliation" and broke off diplomatic relations. Nevertheless, it continued to maintain a Consulate in Georgetown, British Guiana, while the British Government's interests in Venezuela were handled by the German legation in Caracas.

During 1890 and 1893, negotiations were initiated by the Venezuela for the renewal of diplomatic relations and a settlement of the boundary dispute. However, they failed to have any successful result because of the persistence of the Venezuelan negotiators in asserting the claim of Venezuela to all territory as far as the Essequibo River or its immediate vicinity.

American suggestion of arbitration

Despite the United States' refusal to be involved in the issue in 1877, that country's policy had by 1885 begun to take a decisive turn when the Grover Cleveland administration indicated its interest in the matter by offering advice to the British Government to solve the issue. By this time, the United States had achieved great economic strength and international political stature, and many leading American politicians viewed their country as a major competitor to Great Britain in the field of international politics. The Secretary of State, Thomas Bayard, in 1885 expressed the interest of the United States in helping to bring about a solution, but he was not too pleased over the British response to the American overtures. In a note addressed to Edward Phelps, the American Minister Plenipotentiary in London, he stated "that if it should appear that the British claim had no fixed limit, the friendly desire of the United States to assist in finding a solution would be predestined to failure, that a deep feeling of regret would take its place."

The administration of President Benjamin Harrison (1888-1892) was concerned over the suspension in 1887 of diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Great Britain. In February, 1888, Bayard, in a note to Phelps said that it would be a matter for grave consideration if it should appear that no bounds were being placed upon the British territorial claims. Apparently, Bayard felt that the British expanded claims were a stumbling block to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Great Britain.

Subsequently, efforts were made in 1890 by the Secretary of State James Blaine to heal the rift. He suggested to both Great Britain and Venezuela that they should hold of an informal conference involving a representative of each country, along with a representative of the United States, to cordially discuss the pending difficulties. Blaine hoped that this would enable them to arrive at a final settlement, and allow the two Governments to renew their friendly relations.

While Venezuela was willing to participate in such a conference, Great Britain felt that such a conference was not possible until Venezuela put a halt to its claims of dominion over lands owned and occupied by the British in British Guiana.

British counter-proposal

Shortly after Blaine made his proposal, Robert Todd Lincoln, the United States Minister in London, obtained from Prime Minister Lord Salisbury a formal declaration describing all the country to the east of the Schomburgk line as unequivocally British. Lincoln had relayed Blaine's proposal to Lord Salisbury who replied that, while he was ready to agree to an arbitration commission, he must insist that the only subject to be decided by such a commission should be the ownership of the territory west of the Schomburgk line. This was a practical suggestion since the British regarded themselves as entitled to portions of the territory not allotted to Great Britain by Schomburgk. In fact, the British actions in the past decade were consistent with this view, since British settlement was steadily advanced westward, occupying the country and establishing posts. A police station had already been established at Cuyuni Mine, at the confluence of the Yuruari and Cuyuni Rivers, not far from the gold mines of El Callao, the new El Dorado.

The Venezuelan lobby

Continued efforts by the United States to get the two countries to negotiate a settlement brought no result throughout 1891, and on December 9, 1891, President Harrison, in his annual State of the Union message to the United States Congress was obliged to report:

"I should have been glad to announce some favorable disposition of the boundary dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela touching the western frontier of British Guiana, but the friendly efforts of the United States in that direction have thus far been unavailing. This Government will continue to express its concern at any appearance of foreign encroachment on territories long under the administrative control of American States. The determination of a disputed boundary is easily attainable by amicable arbitration where the rights of the respective parties rest, as here, on historic facts readily ascertainable."

By this time, President Grover Cleveland's second administration was already being lobbied by Venezuelan supporters to take Venezuela's side in the dispute. William L. Scruggs, the former American Consul in Caracas, who had been recalled by the Cleveland administration in 1893, was recruited by the Venezuelan government to operate on its behalf in Washington D.C. as a propagandist and legal consul. Shortly after his recruitment, Scruggs published a booklet entitled British Aggression in Venezuela, or the Monroe Doctrine on Trial. This booklet attacked what he termed as British aggression and claimed that the Venezuelans were anxious to arbitrate over the border dispute. Scruggs also claimed that British policies in the disputed territory violated the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.

Also, by the beginning of 1895, President Cleveland has already realized that his administration was losing popularity especially among western and southern farmers and workers everywhere in the country. In July, Secretary of State Gresham died, and to succeed him, Cleveland transferred Richard Olney from the Department of Justice to the take up the post. To divert attention from the domestic problems that faced the country, both Cleveland and Olney decided to adopt a vigorous foreign policy. They, therefore, decided, inter alia, to openly support the Venezuelan side in the boundary dispute with Great Britain.

U.S. support for Venezuela

Despite its support for Venezuela, the administration was more interested in helping both countries to re-establish diplomatic relations, and this feeling was reflected in a letter from the Secretary of State Walter Gresham to Thomas Bayard, now the American Ambassador in London, on July 13, 1894:

"The President is inspired by a desire for a peaceable and honorable settlement of existing difficulties between an American state and a powerful transatlantic nation, and would be glad to see the re-establishment of such diplomatic relations between them as would promote that end. I can discern but two equitable solutions of the present controversy. One is the determination of the rights of the disputants as the respective successors to the historical rights of Holland and Spain over the region in question. The other is to create a new boundary line in accordance with the dictates of mutual expediency and consideration. The two governments having so far been unable to agree on a conventional line, the consistent and conspicuous advocacy by the United States and England of the principle of arbitration and their recourse thereto in settlement of important questions arising between them, makes such a mode of adjustment equally appropriate in the present instance, and this government will gladly do what it can to further a determination in that sense. . ."

This position was re-emphasized by President Cleveland in his annual message to Congress on December 3, 1894 when he also openly supported arbitration of the dispute, a position championed by Venezuela. He stated:

"The boundary of British Guiana still remains in dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela. Believing that its early settlement on some just basis alike honorable to both parties is in the line of our established policy to remove from this hemisphere all causes of difference with powers beyond the sea, I shall renew the efforts heretofore made to bring about a restoration of diplomatic relations between the disputants and to induce a reference to arbitration-a resort which Great Britain so conspicuously favors in principle and respects in practice and which is earnestly sought by her weaker adversary."

This declaration was followed on February 21, 1895 by a joint resolution of the United States Congress in support of arbitration.

Venezuela's response

The Venezuelan government was highly pleased with President Cleveland's statement in December 1894 and the Congress resolution. This feeling was reflected on March 29, 1895 when Venezuela's President Joaquin Crespo sent the following message to his nation's Congress:

"The high powers of the United States have just given on the occasion of the pending question between Venezuela and England a proof of the extent to which the principle of human justice prevails in the spirit of the great northern people. The Chief Magistrate of that powerful Republic, being persuaded at the peril which involves the American interests in the prolongation of a conflict of so grievous a nature, expressed in his annual message to Congress a strong wish and the disposition of inducing Great Britain to put an end to the dispute through the arbitration earnestly proposed by Venezuela.

"The American Congress in February last, as a consequence of the wise advice contained in President Cleveland's annual message, passed a resolution to this effect. . . The terms of this resolution disclose the noblest interest in having this long controversy settled in conformity with the principles of justice and reason. Therein it is earnestly recommended that the two contending parties adopt the course indicated by the President of the United States in order peacefully to settle the dispute, as has been suggested by Venezuela.

"The legislative act referred to was approved by both the branches of the American Congress, and his Excellency President Cleveland affixed his seal thereto February 21. Such tokens of the spirit of justice with which the overshadowing question at the Guiana boundary is studied and considered by the Chief Magistrate and legislators of the great Republic of the north requires from Venezuela a significant act of special gratitude which only you can sanction so as to interpret the thought of the whole republic. I am sure that this idea will have the most enthusiastic acceptance in the hearts of the worthy legislators of my country."

Both branches of Venezuelan Congress immediately adopted a joint resolution expressing their hearty appreciation of the friendly interest shown by the American people in their dispute with Great Britain.

Olney's letter

This was later followed by a lengthy letter of support for the Venezuelan cause by Secretary of State Richard Olney to Lord Salisbury in July 1895. In his letter which extended the Monroe Doctrine, Olney declared that the United States regarded any dispute between a European colony in the western hemisphere and any sovereign Latin American state as a matter of American national interest. He also insisted that Great Britain must agree to the arbitration of the boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana. In a strong reply, Lord Salisbury rejected any application of the Monroe Doctrine to the territorial issue and denounced it as having no bearing on international law.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Congress resolution and Olney's letter gave the Venezuelans what they desired since 1877-full United States intervention on the side of Venezuela.

June 3, 2018

(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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