Venezuela revives claim to Guyana territory


Well, this is all too telling.聽Venezuelan prosecutors finally announced charges against opposition leader Juan Guaid贸聽for “high treason”鈥攂ut not for colluding with foreign powers to overthrow the government. No,聽Guaid贸 is to face charges for his apparent聽intent to renounce Venezuela’s聽claim to a disputed stretch of territory聽that has been controlled by neighboring聽Guyana since the end of colonial rule. Fiscal General聽Tarek William Saab told AFP聽that聽Guaid贸 is under investigation for聽negotiating to renounce “the historical claim our country has on the territory of Esequibo.”

“We have initiated an investigation,”聽Saab said in a televised press conference, of Guaid贸’s involvement “in an illegal negotiation behind the country’s back that intends to withdraw the historical claim our country has on the territory of Esequibo.” He added: “The facts imply a crime of treason.”

A BBC Mundo account from last year details the long dormant but recently enflamed territorial dispute. The Esequibo region (also rendered Essequibo or Guayana Esequiba) covers 159,000 square kilometers鈥攏early two-thirds of Guyana’s national territory. In colonial times, the Spanish, Dutch and British all made claims to the territory, and the Spanish claims were inherited by Venezuela after it won independence. In 1897, Venezuela and Britain agreed to international arbitration. Two years later, a Russian judge in a Paris court awarded the territory to the British Empire. But in 1962, Venezuela revived its claim in the United Nations, asserting that there was collusion between the judge and Britain in the 1899 ruling. After Guyana won independence from Britain in 1966, it entered into the Geneva Agreement with Venezuela, in which both sides agreed the territory would be administered by Guyana until the dispute was resolved. However, a four-year timetable for resolution was not adhered to, and the issue languished. The conflict was only revived in 2015, when ExxonMobil announced discovery of a big offshore deposit in waters along聽the Esequibo coast.

This came just as Venezuela was sliding into crisis鈥擡sequibo was for President Nicol谩s Maduro both a potential goad of more oil to exploit, if he could actually get it, and (probably more importantly) a nationalist rallying cry amid the crisis of his regime. Under petition by Venezuela,聽UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last year referred the dispute to the International Court of Justice. (AFP, Jan. 31, 2018)

Ironically, from the perspective of current politics, the聽Esequibo dispute was also at issue in 1964, when a US-aligned Venezuela helpfully offered to intervene in Guyana (then still British Guiana, with only limited self-rule)聽to remove the left-populist government of聽Cheddi Jagan鈥攖hen target of a joint CIA-British destabilization effort. This intrigue, revealed in US State Department documents obtained by Guyana’s Stabroek News in 2015, involved a plot to put Jagan’s rival聽Forbes Burnham in power, with Venezuela grabbing a chunk of the聽Esequibo聽in return for its efforts. This was a special fixation of聽Venezuela’s then-president,聽Ra煤l Leoni, who in 1968 issued the so-called聽Leoni Decree, claiming a nine-mile wide strip of Guyana’s waters off the Esequibo coast. (Jagan was in fact forced to resign in favor of聽Burnham by CIA-British intrigues in 1964, although it never came to Venezuelan intervention.)

Meanwhile, a grimly amusing development in the interminable Venezuela mess is that both sides are now animatedly accusing the other of collaboration with Colombian narco gangs. Maduro’s supporters are making much of a photo that has emerged of聽Guaid贸 posing alongside two men聽identified as “El Brother” and “El Menor,” supposed leaders of the Rastrojos criminal gang and paramilitary network. The photos appear to have been taken at a February outdoor benefit concert to raise money for (opposition-controlled) “aid” for Venezuela聽in the Colombian city of聽C煤cuta, near the border. “I took hundreds of photos that day,”聽Guaid贸 protested聽to Colombia’s聽Blu Radio. “It was hard to know who was asking for a photo. Misconstruing these photos means playing the Maduro regime’s game.” But Venezuela’s Fiscal铆a says it is opening an investigation into Guaid贸’s possible involvement with Colombian paramilitaries. (The Guardian) To which we say鈥攂etter that than ceding the聽Esequibo claim, thank you!

The Wall Street Journal meanwhile claims to have seen documents filed by US federal prosecutors seeking the extradition of聽Hugo Carvajal, Venezuela’s ex-intelligence chief, from Spain, on cocaine trafficking charges. The documents reportedly allege a conspiracy by the government of Hugo Ch谩vez and Colombia’s FARC guerillas, discussed at a 2005 meeting in Caracas. “During the meeting, Ch谩vez urged the group, in substance and in part, to promote his policy objectives, including to combat the United States by ‘flooding’聽the country with cocaine,” according to an聽affidavit by DEA agent聽among the documents.

Maduro has recently revived centuries-old territorial claims to Colombia in his rivalry with his neighbor to the west. There is more than a whiff of desperation to all this.