Guyana (254735)
Credit: Image by Ronny K from Pixabay

Guyana’s Caribbean neighbors and fellow regional community member nations are paying increased attention to a stark rise in tensions between the country and an overly aggressive Venezuelan military as Caracas steps up its decades-old claim to Guyana’s western Essequibo region.

In the past few weeks, Guyanese government officials have been forced to protest aggressive overflights by Venezuelan fighter jets, the arrest of local fishing trawlers and crews and to closely monitor a suggestion by a prominent parliamentarian that the time has come for Venezuela to constitutionally and legally incorporate the disputed area into its law books. 

For decades now, Caracas has been laying claim to Guyana’s mineral-rich Essequibo region bordering Venezuela on the premise that an 1899 international boundary settlement had, through colonial era conspiracy, cheated it out of the vast land area that comprises about two-thirds of the Caribbean community nation. 

The two sides have tried a plethora of methods to bring some semblance of settlement to the issue, including mediation by the United Nations and internationally brokered moratoriums on claims. 

The latest attempt at a settlement has come in the form of Guyana’s approach to the World Court in The Netherlands for final settlement, a move that Caracas has bitterly opposed as if Guyana wins as widely expected, it could represent its last nonmilitary chance to annex the area. 

The Guyana-Venezuelan row and the Belize-Guatemala are the two border disputes which are repeatedly monitored by Caricom governments but the Venezuelan one is by far the one with most turmoil and demands constant monitoring by governments.

In the case of the military overflights of Guyana’s western border settlements last week, the local foreign ministry said, “Guyana condemns this latest act of aggression by the Venezuelan armed forces as a violation of the sovereignty of Guyana over the air above its territory.” It called the air incursions “the latest acts of hostility.” 

It also complained about a recent decree by President Nicolas Maduro establishing a maritime territory encompassing Guyana’s exclusive economic zone as well as the Essequibo Region. 

Worse yet, Guyanese officials say, was the absurd suggestion by lawmaker Hermann Escarrá to incorporate the Essequibo into the country’s constitution “in order to ratify that the Essequibo territory is ours.” 

Caracas has been increasingly strident about its territorial claims since mid-2015 when American supermajor ExxonMobil found world class deposits of oil and gas offshore. Nearly 20 gushing wells have since been discovered ever since, making Guyana and neighboring Suriname one of the world’s most attractive basins. Officials believe this is a major reason for the increased levels of aggression. 

Earlier in the year, Venezuela gunboats had arrested and detained two Guyanese fishing vessels that authorities say were operating in undisputed Guyanese waters, holding the crew for more than a week and later releasing them without any real charges. 

“The era of gunboat diplomacy and forcible acquisition of foreign territory, in particular, is past,” Guyanese adviser on borders and former vice president Carl Greenidge had told the local Kaieteur newspaper. “This is not the 19th century. Gunboat diplomacy is a doctrine with no place in modern Latin American international relations. A state cannot simply forcibly seize a piece of territory and the people of another state on some flimsy excuse, because it feels like it or because it chooses to rewrite or right imperial history of 150 or 350 years. People’s lives and livelihoods matter. This is the 21st century,” he said. 

The World Court has already taken a series of preparatory steps ahead of official hearings on the actual case. Its judges have already ruled it has jurisdiction to hear the case that could once and for all settle the issue.