Guyana and The Caribbean

A persistent threat to Guyana's territorial integrity


by Cedric L. Joseph

The conflicting accounts of reported statements made recently in Venezuela and Suriname on issues concerning the territorial integrity of Guyana require careful analysis. It is tempting to dismiss the statements as misunderstandings or misreportings. Yet it is prudent to appreciate the context in which they have developed and what is really happening to guard against any eventuality. These statements are easily verifiable by the resident Guyanese diplomatic representative in the respective capitals.

The convergence of these statements, along with the record of past coincidences, should also urge a consideration of the possible implications of a pincer movement developing outside our borders. This is not meant to be alarmist; only to be practical so as to interpret accurately the intent of the manoeuvres which are taking place.

There is another consideration. States experiencing domestic disruption and dislocation or approaching strongly contested general elections are inclined to resort to dramatic action, sometimes in their foreign policy, to divert domestic attention and cultivate jingoism at home. Such action can be directed against a neighbouring state perceived itself to be enmeshed in domestic turmoil affecting national cohesion and national response. Since the elections of December 1997, Guyana appears to offer such temptation. Further, the pursuit of such activist foreign policy is usually premised upon an analysis that the foreign policy of the neighbouring victim state is vulnerable and susceptible to probing.

From the west, the issue is the environmental treaty proposed by Venezuela to cover concessions in Essequibo, later modified to deal with the entire Guyana, within the framework of the McIntyre process which deals specifically with Venezuela's territorial claim and has nothing to do with the territory of Guyana.

From the east, there is the report that the President of Suriname, responding to a question in the parliament about world maps not showing the New River triangle as Suriname's territory, stated that the government would be submitting the country's "border specifications" to the United Nations and may also raise the matter within Caricom. The report further claims the President as saying that Guyana had been informed that Suriname was not willing "to maintain the friendship this way".

The Suriname border
There is an uncanny coincidence in the assertion of the territorial claims by our two neighbours. Generally, Suriname's have followed Venezuela's and they have been advanced at times of great stress for Guyana, both in the colonial and in the independent periods. That coincidence continues in the present manouevres.

The frontier between Guyana and Suriname had never been formally settled by Britain and the Netherlands in the manner that the frontier between Guyana and Venezuela had been fully and finally settled by an international tribunal. A draft treaty, in discussion since 1930, was eventually agreed between Britain and the Netherlands establishing the boundary on the left bank of the Corentyne and Cutari rivers. The draft was awaiting translation and signature in the summer of 1939 when the outbreak of civil war in Europe in September of that year prevented its completion.

After the war, in October 1961, the British despatched the agreed draft of 1939 to the Hague. In June 1962, the Netherlands replied with a package deal proposing that the frontier should follow the thalweg, the middle of the deepest channel, instead of the left bank of the Corentyne as in the 1939 draft, and that the westerly New River, instead of the Cutari, be adopted as the southern frontier. This was the first formal proposal of the New River line by the Netherlands, although the Netherlands had protested against the 1899 Arbitral Award determining the Cutari, and not the New River which was recently discovered by Barrington Brown in 1871, as the southern boundary. The British replied that it was too late to reopen the issue.

The Dutch proposal of 1962 was advanced simultaneous with the reopening by Venezuela of the 1899 Arbitral Award on the Guyana-Venezuela boundary at the United Nations in February 1962, one of the dark periods of our domestic history. The United Nations was to continue consideration of the matter during the following session in November 1962.

The post-Independence period
In the difficult period following independence in May 1966, a virtual free-for-all occurred during the onslaught unleashed from both sides against our territorial integrity. The occupation of Guyana's part of Ankoko island some time in October 1966; President Leoni's decree of July 1968 purporting to annex part of Guyana's territorial waters outside the three mile limit between the Waini Point and the Essequibo river as Venezuela's territorial waters; intervention in the Rupununi; and other actions through publications in the British Times newspaper in May 1968 calculated to obstruct development in western Guyana. It was within this melee that Suriname seized the opportunity to occupy the New River triangle in December 1967.

Two options were available to the administration of Prime Minister LFS Burnham to secure the territorial integrity of the young state: the diplomatic and the military. First, the young but eager Guyana Defence Force acted decisively in the New River Triangle and secured the entire area for the nation.

Second, Mr Burnham proceeded to inspire and to hone a foreign policy and a foreign service with an acute sensitivity for territorial security that became de rigueur. Following his visit to Venezuela in April 1981 and the subsequent breach which developed in the existing cordial relations, Dave Martin and the Tradewinds best captured that national sensitivity in their evocative "Not a blade of Grass".

It is significant that during this period of difficulty with Venezuela, the good neighbourly relations which Mr Burnham had built with Suriname, commencing with his bold act to visit Suriname in January, 1966, prior to independence, to discuss the boundary problem with Prime Minister J Pengel, outside the forum of Britain/Netherlands discussions, proved valuable. Suriname did not respond in 1981 with a territorial claim restrained, perhaps, by the military intervention in its political process. However, the customary harrassment of Guyanese nationals resident in Suriname and the periodic police action against Guyanese fishermen in the Corentyne continued.

The diplomatic offensive to construct friendly neighbourly relations on all sides, albeit buttressed by geo-strategic buffers within and outside the hemisphere, pursued by both the administrations of LFS Burnham and HD Hoyte, yielded good dividends. The Protocol of Port of Spain reached in June 1970 was the first product of this era; and the McIntyre process, which really implements Article IV(2) of the Geneva Agreement, was another.

A seminal result of this established cordiality is that territorial claims or assertions are constrained politely through the diplomatic channel and emerge, as a first option, as tactical manoeuvres so as to escape international censure. The administration of Dr Cheddi Jagan which took office in December 1992 is the successor and beneficiary of this effective diplomacy.

Joint development
The Venezuelan proposal for an environmental treaty reveals Venezuela's consistency in the parallel approach towards the Essequibo: direct claim or, alternatively, an indirect compromise of sovereignty. First, accepting the unreality of making good a legal claim to the Essequibo region within the existing cordiality, the parallel options explored are a token session of territory by Guyana, the joint-development of the region, or some permutation thereof.

The issue of joint-development first surfaced when President R Betancourt suggested to the British Ambassador, Sir Douglas Busk, in March 1962 that Britain and Venezuela should "jointly administer" an area along the frontier, not specifically defined, to provide a security cordon, as the Ambassador reported, "behind Jagan's back". The Ambassador immediately disabused this idea of excluding Dr Jagan and reported to the Foreign Office which froze a decision.

Venezuela continued to canvass this line. In June 1963 the Venezuelan Ambassador in London, reacting to a discussion in Caracas in March, 1962 between President Betancourt and the Head of Shell, proposed to British Foreign Secretary, Lord Home, that the World Bank should be asked to send a mission to survey the minerals and other resources of the frontier area with a view to their joint-development by Britain, Venezuela and the World Bank. Lord Home assessed that the proposal had been made "somewhat perfunctorily". However, in the run up to the Geneva meeting the British had concluded that the Venezuelan proposal for economic cooperation, as it had then developed, was "constructive" and should be pursued.

In response, the Burnham administration which took office in December 1964 submitted that the frontier issue and the question of economic cooperation should be kept separate; Deoroop Maraj, then Minister without Portfolio, conveyed this to the Foreign Office in June 1965. When the new British Ambassador in Caracas was advised of the discussions, he warned the Foreign Office in August 1965 that the proposal of joint-development of the claimed area which was relevant during his predecessor's time (Sir D Busk's) would not satisfy Venezuela unless the terms gave her something "near de facto sovereignty".

In the diplomatic jostle leading to the Geneva Conference of February 1966, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Dr Ignacio Iribarren Borges, formerly the Ambassador in London, proposed in December 1965 the cession of territory to Venezuela and the establishment of a Mixed Commission, inter alios, to formulate plans for collaboration in the development of "Essiquiban Guyana and British Guyana." Joint-development had been transmuted to the development of eastern Venezuela and Guyana. Why eastern Venezuela and not all Venezuela?
Mr Burnham and the British rejected easily the proposed cession of territory. And as the British were receptive to economic cooperation, it was pursued, but separate from the border issue proper.

Notwithstanding, the Mixed Commission, established by the Geneva Agreement, failed to discharge its mandate partly because Venezuela maintained its former position and insisted on the joint-development of the Essequibo as distinct from general economic cooperation.

Globality
The concept of "globality" was raised in May, 1995 after Dr Cheddi Jagan took office in December, 1992. "Globality" it was stated, was designed to cover the entire relationship including the boundary within the bilateral framework. The concept was certainly reflective of the existing good relations. I have maintained in this newspaper, and have found no cause to adjust my position, that this was a well-crafted attempt to get outside the Geneva agreement and the McIntyre process. The Venezuelans have denied this intention.

The current proposal from an environmental treaty is further indicative of the dynamism of Venezuelan intention for the Essequibo and for stymieing its exclusive development by Guyana. There is on record its demarche to the World Bank in June 1981 and the reply by H.D. Hoyte, then Vice President, Economic Planning and Finance. This exchange took place during that period of estranged relations following Prime Minister Burnham's visit to Venezuela in April, 1981 and the Venezuelan President's rejection of the Hydroelectric Project for the Upper Mazaruni and the extension of the Protocol of Port of Spain.

In proposing an environmental treaty, whether it relates to the Essequibo or to the entire Guyana does not diminish the intent. Venezuela is assuming a metropolitan authority to impose a regulatory mechanism over a ward, the Essequibo, or Guyana, to delimit the course of development. The proposal exposes an authority not dissimilar from that of the developed countries and the multilateral financial agencies which unilaterally set environmental pre-requisites which we deem unacceptable yet are obliged to make tolerable. Our Latin American neighbours can hardly claim to be models of environmental probity. Yet we do share and accept a responsibility to sustain our ecological system as best we can for the benefit of our peoples.

It is arguable the extent to which concessions granted by sovereign Guyana can have adverse effects on the environment of our larger neighbours. Any pact about Guyana's environment can best be pursued in collaboration with all of our neighbours, Brazil, Suriname and Venezuela. The option of the full membership of the Treaty of Amazonian cooperation is also equally attractive.
Any pact should also cater adequately for Guyana's concerns about industrial and other emissions from our neighbouring states. Only then will the principles of mutuality and equity be respected.

Sovereignty
Hovering above remains Guyana's unfettered sovereignty over the Essequibo. Joint-development impinges on that sovereignty in the same way that globalism advances interdependence but qualifies the independence of the weaker states. A significant difference, however, is that national territory is not exposed to physical seizure, at least as yet. Any narrow arrangement or treaty that enshrines any aspect of de facto sovereignty for the other signatory constitutes an erosion of sovereignty for Guyana. And any erosion in the west will, as the night follows the day, set in motion a corresponding erosion in the east. The record is explanatory. In the circumstance it is dangerous to pursue a bilateral environmental treaty of the type unfolding.

New River Triangle
With respect to the New River Triangle, which is one of three constituents of the boundary with Suriname, each reacting on the other, British and Guyanese title to the Triangle is supported by:
(a) The arrangement in 1799 between the two provincial Governors, Imbyze van Batenburg of Berbice and Frederici of Suriname that the territory of Berbice extended to the western (left) bank of the Corentyne up to Devil's Creek; though remaining silent on the sovereignty of the river;
(b) The statement by the Netherlands Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1913, that is after the protest over the 1899 Arbitral Award, that the boundary was formed by the Corentyne and its upper course, the Cutari-Curuni, and that the observation that the New River is the real Corentyne and forms the boundary is based on "a misconception";
(c) A similar statement by the Netherlands Minister of the Colonies in 1925 making a stronger dismissal of the New River;
(d) The Netherlands aide memoire of August 1931 stating a preparedness to recognise the left bank of the Corentyne and the Cutari as the frontier;
(e) The instructions during 1935-1936 to the Netherlands, Brazilian and British Commissioners to establish a tri-junction point based on the source of the Cutari;
(f) The establishment of this point by the Commissioners and the signature of a joint report affirming this.

If, as reported, Suriname should refer the New River matter to the United Nations, and also to Caricom, it can eventually court a cumbersome, tortuous and expensive judicial process. It will also present the Caricom community with a novel and diversionary issue at a time when Community resources strained by the demands of weighty matters dealing with hemispheric free trade, the succession to Lome IV and the very survival of the region. Not forgetting the Community's already delicate engagement in Guyana's political process and that Suriname's membership was hardly tenable without Guyana's support.

One of the unsung achievements of the Community is its incalculable contribution to the security of Guyana and Belize. Indeed Dr Cheddi Jagan had obtained appreciable support for the existing border from Caribbean Prime Ministers at their meeting in Port of Spain in July 1963. It will be inappropriate for the Community's resources to be diverted at this crucial period to a border issue among two member states which have its source in the colonial era.

The reported statements of the Suriname President should be properly verified. For the continuing official acts showing the New River Triangle as Suriname's territory, one such map was reported to be circulated during the first Caricom meeting convened in Suriname last May, and the continuing problems with the Ferry Project confirm a pattern of calculated foreign policy rather than of isolated and random acts.

Suriname should know that tradition, history, usage, prescription, recognition in official communication, the exercise of jurisdiction and international law support Guyana's title to the New River Triangle. And Suriname should be persuaded within the context of the long existing cordial relations to back off. Pursuit of the issue will be wasteful to Suriname, Guyana and the Community. For Guyana's case is unimpeachable.

Geneva Agreement
Those who continue to rail against Mr Burnham's signature of the Geneva Agreement should ponder two things: first, they ignore the overwhelming body of historic evidence revealing that the process of reopening the boundary issue commenced before the advent of the Burnham administration in December, 1964. Re-opening had its genesis at the United Nations in the decision taken in November 1962 for a tripartite (including Guyana) study of the documents, notwithstanding the British caveat, and in the conversion of that activity from official to Ministerial discussions of a wider agenda in November 1963. The Geneva Agreement essentially completed that phase of reopening.

Second, persisting in such criticisms, at this time, exposes a myopic approach which can eventually undermine, or destroy, the McIntyre process and elevate "Globality" to exclusive eminence. Venezuela would welcome this development.

The signals and manoeuvres outside our borders have meaning. It will be foolhardy to ignore them and shelter behind one's own interpretation. It is also perilous to respond with confused signals and let intellectual nebulosity trigger a more vigorous array of manoeuvres.

Nor is it the season for deception, obloquy or flippancy. It is a time, everywhere, for statesmanship of a high degree that can heal our societal fractures and mobilize a national and definitive rejoinder to secure beyond any reasonable doubt the territorial integrity of the state.