Venezuela-Guyana border dispute
Venezuela's President Nicholas Maduro (r) shakes hands with Guyana's President Dr Irfaan Ali during a Caricom meeting in St Vincent and the Grenadines on Thursday December 13, 2023. Photo courtesy Office of the President of Guyana's Facebook page.

A tangled web: Unravelling the historical roots of the Venezuela-Guyana border dispute

Trinidad and Tobago, a cornerstone member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), finds itself in the unenviable position of seemingly prioritising economic gain over regional solidarity with Guyana, another CARICOM member locked in a Venezuela-Guyana border dispute spanning more than a century.

In a move that ripples across the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago has signed a significant oil production deal with Venezuela for the Dragon field. This decision, while potentially lucrative for both nations, throws a delicate balancing act into disarray.

Venezuela-Guyana border dispute
Energy Minister Stuart Young, right, and Venezuela’s petroleum minister Pedro Rafael Tellechea, sign the gas-sharing agreement while Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro looks on. Photo: Nicolás Maduro’s social media page

The implications of this deal are multifaceted and raise a host of questions. Will it bolster the economies of both Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela, or sow further discord within CARICOM? Can it pave the way for a broader rapprochement between Venezuela and its neighbours, or reignite old tensions? And how will this navigate the complex legal and diplomatic landscape surrounding the disputed territory?

This article delves into the depths of this unprecedented deal, analysing its potential benefits and risks, exploring its regional ramifications, and dissecting the intricate web of legal and political considerations that lie ahead. Join us as we navigate the murky waters of Caribbean energy politics, where a single deal has the potential to reshape the region’s future.

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Venezuela-Guyana border dispute – Act I: Seeds of discord (16th-19th centuries)

Colonial Clash: Spain, claiming vast portions of South America based on papal bulls and exploration, considered the Essequibo region part of its colonial domain.

Dutch and British settlements gradually took root along the coast, however, challenging Spanish control. This competition laid the groundwork for future territorial disputes.

Shifting landscapes: Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, treaties and shifting colonial fortunes reshaped the region’s map.

Spain and the Netherlands signed various agreements, including the 1648 Treaty of Münster, which established colonial boundaries but left ambiguities around the Essequibo. Meanwhile, the British presence grew through acquisitions from Dutch colonies.

The Schomburgk Line (1835): This act’s pivotal moment arrives with Robert Schomburgk, a British surveyor. In 1835, he unilaterally drew a boundary line significantly extending British Guiana into Venezuelan territory, sparking outrage.

Venezuela vehemently rejected the “Schomburgk Line”, considering it a brazen attempt to seize land. Diplomatic tensions soared, with heated exchanges and even military maneuvers along the disputed border.

Escalating rivalry: The Schomburgk Line became a potent symbol of colonial rivalry, fuelling distrust and hindering cooperation. It cast a long shadow over future negotiations and set the stage for the centuries-long dispute.

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Venezuela-Guyana border dispute – Act II: Gold rush and legal wrangling

El Dorado Beckons: The late 19th century saw a thrilling transformation in the Essequibo region. Whispers of gold deposits turned into a full-blown gold rush, attracting fortune seekers from all corners.

The barren savannah became a teeming hive of activity, with prospectors panning rivers, setting up camps, and chasing dreams of striking it rich.

A land of two claims: This sudden influx of gold seekers intensified existing tensions between Venezuela and British Guiana.

Both nations saw the potential wealth within the disputed territory and their claims began to clash with the pickaxes and shovels of the gold rush.

Accusations of trespassing and resource stealing flew across the border, adding fuel to the fire of territorial ambitions.

Monroe Doctrine gamble: Feeling cornered by British encroachment, Venezuela turned to the United States.

Invoking the Monroe Doctrine, which declared American opposition to European colonization in the Americas, Venezuela hoped to enlist US support in curbing British expansion.

However, the gamble backfired. The United States, increasingly enmeshed in its own imperial web, chose a path of diplomatic neutrality. Despite the Monroe Doctrine’s rhetoric, the US ultimately prioritised its closer ties with Britain, leaving Venezuela feeling abandoned and betrayed.

The arbitral tribunal: A contested solution: In a desperate attempt to settle the dispute once and for all, both sides agreed to international arbitration. A tribunal of five jurists, including one American, one Russian, and three Brazilians, convened in Paris to examine the claims.

Venezuela’s objections and a biased verdict: From the outset, Venezuela raised concerns about the tribunal’s composition and impartiality. The inclusion of an American, considering the US’s close ties to Britain, was viewed as a potential conflict of interest.

These concerns proved prophetic. Despite Venezuela’s strong historical and legal arguments, the tribunal, heavily influenced by the US and Britain, awarded the bulk of the disputed territory to British Guiana in 1899.

Venezuela rejects, resentment sown: Venezuela, understandably outraged by the decision, refused to recognise the award. They saw it as a blatant case of political pressure and biased judgment.

This rejection planted the seeds of long-lasting resentment and mistrust that continue to haunt the relationship between Venezuela and Guyana to this day.

Beyond the award: The Act II drama goes beyond the mere legal wrangle. The gold rush brought to light the immense value of the Essequibo region, not just for gold but also for potential oil and other resources.

This ignited a deeper conflict over resource control and territorial sovereignty, setting the stage for the 20th and 21st century iterations of the dispute.

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Venezuela-Guyana border dispute – Act III: Independence and Lingering Tensions (20th century)

Rising hopes, dashed dreams: Guyana’s independence in 1966 sparked cautious optimism. Could two independent nations finally overcome the colonial legacy and find a lasting resolution to the border dispute?

The initial signs were encouraging. Leaders from both sides expressed willingness to engage in dialogue and explore peaceful solutions.

Enter the Geneva Agreement: In 1966, both Venezuela and Guyana signed the Geneva Agreement, a treaty aimed at facilitating a definitive resolution.

It established a “Mixed Commission” with representatives from both countries, tasked with finding a practical, peaceful, and satisfactory solution through diplomacy and with the assistance of the UN Secretary-General.

Years of stalemate: Despite initial enthusiasm, the Mixed Commission’s work quickly ran into roadblocks. Both sides held firmly to their historical interpretations and legal arguments.

Venezuela continued to contest the validity of the 1899 Arbitral Award, while Guyana insisted on its binding nature. Negotiations stalled, frustration mounted, and the Commission ultimately failed to break the deadlock.

Frustration and unrest: The lack of progress bred discontent and occasional incidents of tension along the disputed border.

In 1969, Venezuelan naval vessels entered Guyana’s exclusive economic zone, leading to diplomatic protests and accusations of territorial violation. Similar incidents, albeit less dramatic, continued throughout the 70s and 80s, casting a shadow over efforts to build bilateral relations.

Beyond stalemate: While the Commission remained deadlocked, other efforts emerged to keep the dialogue alive. The UN Secretary-General appointed “Good Offices” mediators, tasked with facilitating informal and confidential discussions between the two parties.

These efforts, though not official negotiations, helped maintain communication channels and prevented a complete breakdown of relations.

Domestic pressures: The dispute wasn’t just a diplomatic stalemate; it also became a domestic political football in both countries.

Venezuelan leaders, particularly during periods of political instability, often used the border issue to bolster nationalist sentiment and distract from internal challenges.

Similarly, Guyana’s government faced pressure from its citizens to uphold their territorial claims and resist Venezuelan pressure.

A legacy of frustration: By the end of the 20th century, Act III of the Venezuela-Guyana saga ended with a sense of unfulfilled promise. Despite a glimmer of hope at independence, the Geneva Agreement failed to deliver a resolution.

Years of stalemate, occasional outbreaks of tension, and domestic political pressures solidified the border dispute as a major obstacle to regional cooperation and prosperity.

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Venezuela-Guyana border dispute – Act IV: Escalation and legal recourse (21st century)

Referendum gamble (2015): In 2015, Venezuela threw a political hand grenade into the dispute with a surprise national referendum. The ballot asked Venezuelans to approve four measures: rejecting the 1899 Arbitral Award, establishing the Essequibo region as a “Zone of Peace” (implying Venezuelan control), granting citizenship to residents of the area, and rejecting the ICJ’s jurisdiction over the dispute.

This referendum was a gamble on several fronts. Domestically, it aimed to shore up President Maduro’s declining popularity by stoking nationalist sentiment and distracting from economic woes.

Internationally, it was a blatant assertion of Venezuelan claims, bypassing diplomatic channels and defying Guyana’s protests.

Guyana, unsurprisingly, was outraged. They condemned the referendum as a violation of international law and a cynical ploy to undermine their sovereignty. The international community largely echoed these concerns, calling the vote “unhelpful” and a setback for peaceful resolution.

The referendum’s actual impact remains debatable. Pro-Maduro sources claim high voter turnout, but independent observers suspect the numbers were inflated.

Despite the vote’s questionable legitimacy, it undoubtedly escalated tensions, hardening nationalistic stances on both sides and making compromise even more difficult.

ICJ intervention (2018): With tensions simmering after the referendum, Guyana decided to take legal action. In 2018, they filed a case with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the highest international court for resolving disputes between states.

Guyana’s challenge was two-pronged: First, they questioned the validity of the Geneva Agreement, arguing Venezuela failed to uphold its good faith obligations to resolve the dispute.

Second, they sought a declaration from the ICJ that the 1899 Arbitral Award was still binding and definitive, effectively cementing their control over the Essequibo region.

Venezuela’s response was predictable: A firestorm of objections. They vehemently contested the ICJ’s jurisdiction, arguing that the Geneva Agreement precluded any external intervention and that the 1899 award was illegitimate. This set the stage for a drawn-out legal battle, with both sides submitting written arguments and historical interpretations.

Ongoing legal tangle: As of December 2023, the ICJ proceedings remain ongoing. The court has yet to decide on Venezuela’s objections to its jurisdiction, effectively putting the case in limbo. Both sides are awaiting a crucial ruling that could determine the future of the dispute and potentially unlock a path to resolution.

This legal battle is further complicated by several factors:

  • Lack of urgency: There’s no immediate pressure to resolve the dispute, unlike more active or violent territorial conflicts. This can lead to a sluggish legal process and prolonged uncertainty.
  • Domestic politics: Domestic political situations in both countries can influence the legal case and make compromise difficult. A change in leadership, for example, could alter Venezuela’s stance toward the ICJ proceedings.
  • International interests: External actors with economic or geopolitical interests in the region might try to influence the outcome of the dispute, adding another layer of complexity.

The ICJ’s eventual decision, whenever it comes, will be a pivotal moment for the Venezuela-Guyana border dispute. But whether both sides will accept the ruling and what it means for the future of the Essequibo region remains an open question.

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Venezuela-Guyana border dispute – Act V: The present and beyond

Resource conundrum: The Essequibo region, lying at the heart of the Venezuela-Guyana dispute, isn’t just a barren savannah. It’s a land brimming with hidden treasures, primarily in the form of minerals, gold, and vast offshore oil reserves.

This resource cornucopia, while potentially a blessing for both nations, casts a complex shadow over the dispute, turning it into a double-edged sword.

Oil boom and geopolitical tensions: The discovery of massive offshore oil deposits in Guyana’s Stabroek Block, estimated to hold billions of barrels, has been a game-changer. Guyana stands poised to become a major oil producer, potentially surpassing Venezuela in production within a few years.

This economic windfall for Guyana further complicates the dispute, as Venezuela sees the Essequibo region, including part of the Stabroek Block, as rightfully its own. This fuels Venezuelan claims and potentially motivates increased pressure on Guyana.

Environmental concerns and cross-border impact: Oil exploration and extraction, however, come with serious environmental concerns. The delicate ecosystems of the Essequibo, including indigenous communities and diverse flora and fauna, face potential threats from spills, deforestation, and pollution.

The porous nature of the region means environmental consequences wouldn’t respect national borders, raising concerns about cross-border impact and shared responsibility.

Illegal mining and security risks: Gold deposits within the disputed territory have long attracted illegal miners, often operating under precarious conditions and contributing to environmental degradation.

This unregulated activity fuels cross-border crime and raises security concerns, with the potential for exploitation by armed groups and increased tension along the border.

Resource nationalism and economic leverage: Both Venezuela and Guyana see their claims to the disputed territory as intertwined with their own economic development and national pride.

Resource nationalism adds another layer to the dispute, potentially hindering compromise and fuelling unilateral actions in the pursuit of resource control.

Potential for international involvement: The resource dimension of the dispute also attracts international attention and potential involvement.

Neighbouring countries and multinational companies with vested interests in oil and mineral extraction could play a role in influencing the course of the dispute, adding complexities and potential new sources of pressure.

Thus, the resource conundrum within the Essequibo region acts as a catalyst for further tension and complexity. While the economic potential fuels the dream of prosperity for both nations, it also creates new layers of conflict, environmental risks, and security concerns.

Finding a peaceful resolution to the territorial dispute that balances resource rights with environmental protection and regional stability remains a critical challenge for both Venezuela and Guyana in the years to come.

The saga of the Venezuela-Guyana border dispute stretches back centuries, a tangled web of colonial legacies, conflicting claims, and legal intricacies. In this latest chapter, Trinidad and Tobago’s oil deal with Venezuela casts a complex shadow.

While the potential economic benefits for both nations are undeniable, the decision leaves Trinidad in a precarious position. As a fellow CARICOM member alongside Guyana, the act feels like a tightrope walk between regional loyalty and national interests.

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Venezuela-Guyana border dispute: Enter Trinidad and Tobago

The Dragon Field, nestled in Venezuelan waters, has long held the promise of vast oil reserves. Yet, its story is one of frustration and stalled potential. Initial talks of joint exploration between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, fellow CARICOM members, in 2018 sparked excitement.

Venezuela-Guyana border dispute
“We have secured the licence to the Dragon gas field! Yes, in the spirit of good neighbourliness, the dragon can dance. Congratulations to the people of Venezuela and the people of Trinidad and Tobago, a door to a new commercial frontier has been opened for the benefit of all our people.” Dr Keith Christopher Rowley, Prime Minister – Trinidad and Tobago
Venezuela-Guyana border dispute

Plans for a pipeline to transport Venezuelan gas to Trinidad for processing and export seemed like a win-win. However, political turmoil in Venezuela and US sanctions threw sand in the gears, halting progress for years.

Fast forward to January 2023, and a glimmer of hope. The US grants a two-year license to Trinidad, allowing a narrow window for a deal. Negotiations intensify, and in October, the Dragon awakens.

Trinidad inks a groundbreaking agreement with Venezuela to extract some 350 million cubic feet of gas per day, initially for domestic use and later potentially for liquefied natural gas production.

This deal carries significant weight, not just for its economic potential but also for its geopolitical implications within the region, where the Venezuelan-Guyana border dispute casts a long shadow.

This brief history leaves much to be unravelled. The Dragon Field’s saga is still a work in progress, with questions of long-term stability, resource sharing, and regional harmony yet to be fully answered.

But one thing is clear: The Dragon has finally taken flight, and its journey will undoubtedly have a profound impact on the future of both Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, and perhaps even the wider Caribbean landscape.

Can this deal be a bridge towards broader reconciliation in the region, or will it exacerbate existing tensions? Can economic cooperation pave the way for diplomatic progress, or will the unresolved border dispute remain a constant thorn in the side of CARICOM unity?

Only time will tell how this unprecedented partnership unfolds, but one thing is certain: the ripples of this deal will be felt far beyond the Dragon field, shaping the political and economic landscape of the Caribbean for years to come.

It is a reminder that while history may provide context, it is the choices made in the present, and the delicate dance between regional obligations and national ambitions, that ultimately determine the future.

Perhaps, in this complex equation, Trinidad and Tobago’s decision can catalyse dialogue, understanding, and ultimately, a lasting resolution to the long-standing dispute, ensuring that the Caribbean becomes a region of both prosperity and unity.

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