The Guardian • Issue #2083

Book Review by Graham Holton

Unsettled Borders: Guyana-Venezuela and the Esequibo Oil-Rich Territory

by Roberto Miguel Rodriguez

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2083
Guyana-Venezuela map.

Nearly two-thirds of Guyana lies in Esequibo, covering an area of 159,500-square-kilometre of jungle and farms. President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela views the disputed Esequibo region as a matter of national sovereignty and sees its national claims as a “historic battle against one of the most brutal dispossessions known in the country.” In a recent referendum 98 per cent of Venezuelans supported the takeover of Esequibo. Maduro declared Esequibo “a province” of Venezuela and directed Venezuela’s state-owned companies to “immediately” begin exploration for oil, gas and minerals in the region. This fuelled fears in Guyana that Venezuela was planning an invasion.

This is a dispute very little mentioned in Australian media. While Unsettled Borders is timely, it only covers the bare essentials of a disagreement which goes back to 1841 and has roots in the early days of European imperialism.

The dispute has heightened since the discovery of massive offshore oil deposits in the region. More than 11 billion barrels of oil have been discovered, with daily production of 220,000 barrels of oil. There are plans for increased oil and gas production and the laying of pipelines to the coast. These oil reserves have made Guyana one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

This has impacted bilateral relations and regional stability, leading to the involvement of the United Nations, OAS (Organization of American States) and CARICOM (Caribbean Community). It has also made nearby Colombia and Brazil wary. Brazil believes that if Venezuela invaded Guyana it would have to pass through Brazilian territory to access the region. The militarisation of the Esequibo has deterred vital investments in the area such as health and education. The indigenous peoples – Wapishana, Macushi, and Akawaio – have been affected by environmental degradation, deforestation and oil spills. They prefer to stay on their traditional lands rather than move onto undisputed land. China’s interests in the oil-rich area have led to increased competition from the United States, and Britain, leading to further regional tensions.

The Venezuelan Boundary Dispute officially began in 1841 following the British delineation survey which gave it Esequibo. Venezuela appealed to the United States, citing the Monroe Doctrine which described South America as in the US ‘sphere of influence’ as justification for US involvement. In 1895, US Secretary of State, Richard Olney, demanded that the British submit the boundary dispute to arbitration. The British responded that the Monroe Doctrine had no validity in international law. In 1899 the Arbital Award was established and decided in Britain’s favour. Venezuela disagreed, and the dispute continued.

In 1966 the Geneva Agreement established a framework for negotiations, thereby formalising the dispute. This legal framework allowed for negotiations addressing environmental, economic and geopolitical concerns. The discovery of offshore oil allowed UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) to get involved. In 2018 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled it had jurisdiction to hear the case brought by Guyana.

On 14 December in 2014 Guyana and Venezuela agreed “not to threaten or use force” to settle claims over Essequibo. Soon after this, the United Kingdom sent a warship to Guyana for joint training exercises. Venezuela responded with its own defensive exercises. On 12 January 2024 Guyana’s Attorney General, Anil Nandlall, reassured Venezuela that there was no plan for the US to establish a military base in the country. The dispute continues with an uncertain future.

This will not be solved quickly, as Venezuela is determined to resolve past wrongs and establish national sovereignty over the region. If it does, Venezuela will have to deal with absorbing a territory that speaks English and Creole, has British laws and customs, and are largely Afro-Caribbean or with heritage from India. As in the case of the Guatemala-Belize dispute, Britain would most likely send its military to defend what it sees as the country’s rights to national security.

Rodriguez’ book is a good place to start, but could say much more about the history of Guyana-Venezuela, and more about the region. For example, nearby Trinidad and Tobago host a British naval base. British imperialism is still very much alive in the Caribbean.

Unsettled Borders: Guyana-Venezuela and the Esequibo Oil-Rich Territory, 2023.

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