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Venezuela’s Claim to Part of Guyana

You may have heard recently that Venezuela held a referendum on annexing part of Guyana in the Essequibo region. This dispute came out of the blue for me, so I did some research. I am fascinated by territorial disputes; the reason I got into studying the Peace of Westphalia in the first place was to learn about the French acquisition of Alsace. And this one is a doozy. As you might expect, it involves gold, oil, Indians, and even the Peace of Westphalia. Untangling what should happen in this dispute is a problem of Solomonic proportions.

Guyana was owned by the Dutch going back to the 15th century. Spain didn’t recognize the right of other countries to have colonies in the New World besides itself and Portugal; that is, until the Peace of Münster, which they signed with the Duch on January 20, 1648. At that time, they recognized Dutch rights to the land east of the Essequibo River. The problem lands between the Essequibo and the Orinoco is that no Europeans occupied them at the time, only scattered tribes of Indians. I assume from this that the land didn’t have any particular resources that Europeans wanted; Guyana is still one of the least densely-populated countries on earth. The Dutch began spreading out after 1648, mainly to pan for salt along the coast.

In the early 19th century, two important things happened. First, the Dutch transferred all of their territories to Britain; and second, Venezuela became independent. (Actually, Venezuela was a part of Columbia until 1830, but the point is that Spain was out of the picture.) Venezuela almost immediately told Britain that it claimed the land up to the Essequibo. In 1835, Britain hired a German-born naturalist named Robert Hermann Schomburgk to conduct a survey of the land. He drew a map showing British control far west of the Essequibo; this border became known as the “Schomburgk Line.” Naturally, Venezuela objected. In 1850, the two countries at least agreed not to settle in the disputed territory.

This worked reasonably well because there was nothing really valuable there. That all changed in the 1870’s, however, when gold was discovered. Britain asserted control of everything up to the Schomburgk Line, and Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations. In 1894, they appealed to the U.S. to arbitrate on the basis of the Monroe Doctrine. The commission was to have 2 men representing Venezuela, 2 representing Britain, and a fifth man, chosen by those four, to preside. Oddly, the 2 representatives of Venezuela weren’t even Venezuelan; they were Americans. Not just any Americans, however; they were two sitting justices of the Supreme Court, including Chief Justice Melville Fuller. Each country also had counsel representing them before the commission; the lead Venezuelan council was former U.S. President Benjamin Harrison.

The British argued that Spain had never taken possession of the disputed territory, while the Dutch had treaties with most of the Indians in the region, which gave them a better claim. In 1899, the commission announced their conclusion, which was to accept most of the Schomburgk Line with some minor adjustments in favour of Venezuela.

As a sidenote, this dispute gave rise to the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty, which would have required the U.S. and Britain to resolve future disputes through arbitration along the same lines. I initially assumed that Pauncefote, which brings to mind Ponce de Leon, was from a Spanish country, but it was actually the name of British diplomat Julian Poncefote. In any case, the treaty was never ratified.

As another sidenote, the case coincides with and may have inspired the first propaganda film ever, the 1896 Vitascope “The Monroe Doctrine.” It sounds absolutely comically bad, but I was surprised to learn that they even had films that early, so I’m guessing most productions were poor even by pre-talkie standards.

Unfortunately for Venezuela, they had agreed to arbitration in a formal treaty (Treaty of Washington, 1897) so they had little recourse. They nevertheless felt that the ruling was unfair and continued to object. The denounced the decision before the U.N. in 1945 and their ruler in the 1950’s even planned to invade before he was overthrown. In 1962, the Venezuelan ambassador again formally denounced the arbitration and gave reasons why it should be nullified. Four years later, Britain and Venezuela accepted the Geneva Agreement of 1966, which called for the peaceful settlement of the dispute, again through a commission.

However, this agreement was never carried out, partly because British Guyana became independent later in the same year. Naturally, they were not so willing to accept arbitration as Britain was. Venezuela did annex a disputed coastal island after Guyana’s independence, and probably assisted the rebellion of the Runpununi Indians in the disputed territory, which was soon put down. Other than that, there have been no attempts to resolve the issue by force — so far.

The dispute continued without urgency until oil was discovered off the coast of the region in 2013, which Guyana immediately took advantage of by licensing Exxon to drill. In 2018, Guyana asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule that the 1899 arbitration decision was fairly decided. The court finally ruled earlier this year (2023) that it had jurisdiction and will investigate. Venezuela disputed the court’s right to decide. Just this month, they held a national referendum on whether they had a right to the territory. Supposedly 95% voted yes, but international observers believe the results to have been falsified and say turnout was extremely low. One may doubt whether Venezuelans care very much about this stretch of land that would be unlikely to do any of them any good.

So what should happen? This is a really messy case, and I have to say that what I’ve read so far give me the impression that Venezuela has the better claim — or did have it, anyway, before the binding 1899 arbitration ruled against them. Whether there should be recourse against binding arbitration is a tricky matter. There is reason to believe that the arbitration was flawed in several respects, but this is way beyond my understanding of international law.

One thing completely missing in this case is the opinion of the inhabitants. In most cases of disputed territory, I tend to defer to what the people want, with allowances for minority opinion, quality of the disputed governments (autocratic vs. democratic, respect for human rights), etc. In this case, no one is claiming that the Indians who live there (and I have not heard of significant settlements of Europeans) want to be on one side or the other. I would certainly ask them; I suspect they would prefer Guyana, since no one wants to live in Venezuela right now.

The prescriptive right is all on the side of Guyana: they have administered the territory since 1966, and the British did so at least since 1899 and probably before. Again, though, there wasn’t much to administer.

I will be curious to see how this case developes. Hopefully there will not be a war. Venezuela is almost certainly far more powerful than Guyana, but the U.S. supports Guyana and has been accompanying them on naval patrols. Probably Venezuela does not want to risk U.S. intervention. With our record, we’d probably end up invading and deposing Maduro if we had to defend Guyana.

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