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The Esequibo, the oil jewel in dispute between Venezuela and Guyana

This is a territory of almost 160,000 square kilometers west of the Esequibo River, which is almost two thirds of the former British colony
Venezuela's Vice President Delcy Rodriguez

AFP/PRESIDENCY OF VENEZUELA  -   Venezuela's Vice President Delcy Rodriguez

"The sun of Venezuela rises in the Esequibo." Almost like a mantra, the Venezuelan military repeats that greeting that reminds them of the urgency of claiming a region in the hands of Guyana, whose dispute reaches the International Court of Justice (ICJ) this Tuesday, when the promise of being the new great oil niche is fulfilled. 

Called Guyana Esequiba in Venezuela and divided into several regions in the Republic of Guyana, this is a territory of almost 160,000 square kilometers west of the Esequibo River, which is almost two thirds of the former British colony. 

On all Venezuelan maps, the region appears as another part of the Bolivarian country, although it is sometimes shown lined up as territory in claim. The same is true of the geographical planes studied in Guyanese schools, but in reverse: in Guyana, they do not hesitate. The Esequibo is theirs, without distinction of any kind. 

These are some of the keys to the dispute. 

1. An oil mine

2020 was to be the year of Guyana. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the economy of the small, forested republic was to grow by 86% thanks to the discovery of oil reserves in the sea that depends on the Esequiba region. 

Different sources were clear that the country, with some 800,000 inhabitants, was to start producing in 2020, thanks essentially to ExxonMobil with several coalition companies, around 120,000 barrels of oil per day. However, the forecasts consider that this production would grow to between 700,000 and one million barrels per day by the middle of the decade. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy has limited these growth possibilities. In April, the IMF revised its forecasts and estimated that the Guyanese economy will expand by 52.8% by 2020 in the midst of the great global recession. 

The paradox lies in the fact that its Venezuelan neighbour, immersed in a long socio-economic crisis, was producing some 700,000 barrels per day at the beginning of the year, a figure that has not been revised during the price crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and for which there are no updated official data today. Venezuela, the country with the world's largest proven oil reserves, now looks askance and envy at its small southern neighbour. 

2. A conflict of colonial origin

The British colony of Guyana is relatively late. Formally, the United Kingdom took possession of different settlements in 1814 and was consolidated as one in 1831, that is, when Venezuela was already an independent republic. 

However, the territory that corresponds to Guyana Esequiba was, de jure, a Spanish province dependent on the Captaincy General of Venezuela, but very little colonized so, in good measure, it was "terra incognita". 

Faced with a newborn republic immersed in civil wars and eternal economic crises, the United Kingdom took advantage of its status as the largest colonial empire of the nineteenth century to push the boundaries of its American territory beyond those initially drawn. 

In 1835, the British government commissioned naturalist Robert Hermann Schomburgk to demarcate the western border of British Guyana. With the British ambition to reach the mouths of the Orinoco River, the explorer put territories beyond the Esequibo River on the maps of the United Kingdom. The two parties agreed in 1850 not to go into a territory that they considered in dispute, but they did not reflect clearly in the maps what extension that territory covered.

El presidente de Guyana, David A. Granger
AP/KEVIN HAGEN - Guyana's President David A. Granger
3. The Paris Award

With the discovery of gold mines in the area, the British Empire continues to push its borders so Venezuela requested arbitration from the United States based on the Monroe Doctrine which is abhorred by the current Venezuelan government. After several discussions, the parties agreed in Washington to form an impartial arbitration tribunal that would determine the borders with an agreed legal framework. 

The tribunal met in Paris and was composed of five people: two British, two Americans representing Venezuela and a Russian who was to act as a tie-breaker vote so the Caribbean country was, in practice, absent. As expected, the five members of the tribunal voted in 1899 in favor of the largest colonial power of the time and stripped Venezuela of the almost 160,000 square kilometers that still appear on its maps.

4. Venezuela appeals to the colony

Interestingly, Venezuela's argument is based on the legal principle of "Uti possidetis iuris", used in public international law on the premise that "as you possess according to law, so shall you possess". As Simon Bolivar has already proposed, it requires that the borders of the new republics be inherited from the former colonies. 

That is to say, that Venezuela based its claim on the fact that the Spanish province of Guayana was part of the Captaincy General of Venezuela. 

Such is the importance that Venezuela gives to this territory that, under the mandate of Hugo Chávez, an eighth star was introduced in the country's flag representing the role of Guayana Esequiba, along with seven others, as one of the regions that fought for the country's independence. 

En esta foto de archivo tomada el 21 de julio de 2015, miembros del Ejército venezolano participan en un desfile militar en Tumeremo, estado Bolívar, en Venezuela, a unos 90 km de la frontera con Guyana, después de que se intensificara una disputa fronteriza entre ambos países
AFP/FEDERICO PARRA - In this archive photo taken on July 21, 2015, members of the Venezuelan Army participate in a military parade in Tumeremo, Bolivar State, in Venezuela, about 90 km from the border with Guyana, after a border dispute between the two countries intensified
5. From the UN to the ICJ

Venezuela rejected the award, but could not ignore the sentence before the powerful British army. In the 1960s, Caracas revived the claim when Guyana was close to independence. 

As a result, in 1966, the United Kingdom and Venezuela signed the Geneva Agreement to resolve the border dispute. The Republic of Guyana became independent months later and inherited that agreement. That is where the main dispute arises, for Venezuela that agreement annuls the Paris award, for Guyana it is just a framework in which to reach an agreement, "an agreement to reach an agreement". In any case, the previous "status quo" is maintained. 

After prolonging the Geneva Agreement without reaching any definitive agreement, in 1987 the two parties decided to go to the UN, which in 1989 accepted to mediate. On January 30, 2018, the UN considered its efforts exhausted and its Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, proposed taking the case to the ICJ, where it is now. 

6. Guyana goes to the ICJ, Venezuela does not recognize it

Following this decision, the Republic of Guyana turned to the ICJ, a court which Venezuela does not recognize as having jurisdiction to settle the case, and appealed to the Geneva Agreement, which, for Caracas, annuls the Paris award. It remained to be seen what decision Venezuela would take and whether it would pave the way for Guyana.