At the beginning of September, Venezuela’s Attorney General, Tarek William Saab, opened a criminal investigation against self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó for treason against the country.
The investigation, reported Colombian paper El Espectador, is linked to a leaked audio file. In the recorded conversation, Guaidó’s UK representative, Vanessa Neumann, and his International Office Coordinator suggested that if Venezuela relinquished their claim to a disputed area of land on the border with Guyana, the country would garner more support from the United Kingdom.
Neumann maintains that the allegations are falses and denies the conversation ever occurred.
While the investigation is yet to reveal conclusive results, the ensuing media coverage resurfaced a centuries-long dispute over a 159,000 kilometer-squared piece of land that makes up two thirds of Guyana’s territory– the Esequibo region.
What claims do Venezuela and Guyana have to the Esequibo region?
In the 19th century, both Venezuela and Great Britain claimed all land east of the Esequibo region as theirs and in 1887, the two countries agreed to an arbitration committee. Two years later the committee defined the border between the two countries, attributing the majority of the Esequibo region to Guyana, which was under British rule.
However, Severo Mallet-Prevost, one of the lawyers who represented Venezuela in the committee wrote a memorandum where he suggested the agreement was the result of a political deal between Great Britain and Russia. He refused to publish the memorandum while he was alive, and it was not until his death in 1949 that his associate Dr. Otto Schoenrich published it in the American Journal of International Law.
According to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), no evidence was presented to support the claim of a Russia-UK deal, but disagreements were rekindled nonetheless. In 1962, Venezuela publicly rejected the arbitral award and restated its claim to the Esequibo region.
In a bid to calm the situation, the governments of Venezuela, the United Kingdom and British Guyana created and signed the Geneva Agreement in 1966, which appointed a bilateral commission to seek a peaceful solution to the controversy. However, The commission achieved very little, even after the United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) began to arbitrate the process in 1982.
In 2015, American multinational oil and gas company Exxon Mobil discovered an estimated 700 million barrels (around US $40 billion) of oil in offshore Esequibo during an exploratory mission authorized by Guyana. Venezuela’s government, which rejected Guyana’s authority to allow Exxon Mobil into contested waters, sent its navy to intervene multiple times,
In 2018 the Guyanese government finally took the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in an attempt to resolve the situation. Venezuela, however, refuses to participate in an ICJ process. While it would be legal for the ICJ to carry out a trial without the involvement of Venezuela, the Geneva Agreement states that the dispute has to be resolved using an “appropriate international organ upon which [both parties] agree.”
The future of the Esequibo
This stalemate could go on indefinitely, explained Guyanese Paul Tennassee, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia who has carried out extensive research on the Esequibo region. Venezuela’s nationalism makes it extremely unlikely that they will back down, and Guyana has stated that it will not give even “a blade of grass” to Venezuela.
“I can’t see either of them walking away,” he said. “It’s stuck now, like a bone in the throat.”
Although Venezuela claims the land, Guyana has always administered and controlled the disputed territory. Those living in the Esequibo have their own gold mines, rice farms and zero-deforestation agreements, Tennassee told Latin America Reports, but most importantly, the people who live in that region have almost no ties to Latin America.
“The British kept us away from Latin America,” he said. “At school, students studied the British curriculum, and the indigenous populations were educated by missionaries, who also had a western orientation – we were isolated from the region.
“There is no Guyanese that feels Latin American,” Tennassee said.
Colonized by the Dutch and British, who also brought slaves to the region, Guyana is comprised of a mix of ethnicities, nationalities and cultures. Guyanese do, however, feel patriotic, explained Tennassee, and define their nationalism in terms of territory and the universal quest for freedom.
“Our heritage is our land – we don’t have anything else,” he said. “Even if there wasn’t oil there, it’s our pride, our nation state.”
Guaidó recently reaffirmed his stance towards the Esequibo region, stating that it belonged to Venezuela, but Guyana is not going to give up, said Tennassee.
“We cannot blink,” he added. “We have to keep our position on the dispute on the radar of international institutions like the Commonwealth, United Nations, and the OAS.”
The case has stalled in the ICJ, and Exxon Mobil has not begun oil drilling in the area, as it needs a licence from the rightful owner of the area. If Guyana concedes a license, which would be against the Geneva Agreement, Venezuela will be forced to take action. Until then, the stalemate continues.
For another story on land disputes, read: Will Central America’s nearly two century-old land dispute finally be put to rest?
Frances Jenner is currently a writer at Latin America Reports and is based in Medellín, Colombia, covering violence, minority rights and politics. She has lived in Vietnam, Spain and France, and her work has been published on The Next Web and The Bogota Post.