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The Venezuela/Guyana territorial dispute

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The vast majority of the countries of the western hemisphere continue to face significant challenges to maintain and further their economic development, particularly in the context of the still lingering fallout from the global crisis of 2008. In order to succeed in their quest for socio-economic development, it is necessary to have a climate of stability, peace and security in the hemisphere.

This fact was recognized by the last Summit of the Americas, held in Panama in April of this year where member states unanimously agreed that the region should be a zone of peace. All hemispheric states were present and subscribed to this principle.{{more}}

It is therefore worrying that little over one month after the conclusion of the Summit, there should be a revival of the territorial dispute between two member states, the Republics of Guyana and Venezuela, which share common borders. This dispute is well over a century old and grounded in the actions of the former colonial power which had controlled Guyana.

A settlement was arrived at in 1899 which awarded the disputed area of the Essequibo in Guyana to that country and settled the current boundaries as they are today. However this has not been accepted in some quarters in Venezuela, and from time to time various Venezuelan regimes have challenged that ruling, even to the extent of what is termed “sabre-rattling”.

In recent years however the matter seemed to have been put to rest, particularly under the late President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. This resulted in an improvement in relations between the neighbours to the extent that Guyana became part of the generous Petrocaribe arrangement, joining most of its Caricom neighbours in this engagement with Venezuela.

But unfortunately, President Chavez passed away and his successor, President Nicolas Maduro, has come under heavy pressure from opposition forces. Not only have these been attacking the Petrocaribe Agreement, but they have also raised a narrow nationalist argument, accusing President Maduro of “giving away” the country to Guyana. Recently, following the holding of general elections in Guyana, there has been a change in government there as well.

Additionally, a new factor has emerged. The giant US oil giant, Exxon Mobile, has been granted permission by Guyana to explore for oil off the coast of Essequibo and has announced finding substantial deposits in that area. But Exxon Mobile and the government of Venezuela are locked in a bitter dispute following the nationalisation of that company’s operations in Venezuela.

All of this seems to have stirred the pot of the territorial dispute and on May 27, President Maduro issued a decree establishing Venezuelan sovereignty over what is termed “the Atlantic coast of Venezuela.” This includes Guyana’s territorial waters in the Atlantic off Essequibo, effectively blocking Guyanese right of access to the Atlantic.

This has been rejected outright by Guyana. It has led to strong language on both sides which can only further stoke the fire. It has also raised alarm and concern particularly in Caricom and calls for recourse to international dispute mechanisms in order to arrive at a peaceful settlement.

It is unfortunate that such territorial disputes have been revived and we believe that the governments of Caricom in the first instance, and those of the Commonwealth, Organisation of American States and the United Nations intervene early to stave off a ratcheting up of the dispute and prevent any recourse to armed conflict.

There is too much at stake to allow a deterioration of the conflict. Peace, respect for territorial integrity and stability are essential prerequisites for ensuring economic and social development.

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