By the time that this column reaches your eyes, the historic initiative by CARICOM states for face-to-face conversation between Venezuela and Guyana, both countries situated on the South American continent but washed by the Caribbean sea would have ended in host nation, St Vincent
and the Grenadines. Naturally, the column would not be able to comment on its outcome. It would be too much to expect a settlement of the controversy after this one encounter, but the very fact that it has taken place should engender optimism over a continuation of a process of peaceful discourse and negotiations.
While the controversy rages currently, it is important that we all realize that this is no overnight controversy. It dates back as long as the 19th century when colonial plunder was at its height. In fact, all of Venezuela and Guyana, including the contested territory of the Essequibo, was stolen from the indigenous owners. The main culprits were the then major military and naval European powers, Spain and the United Kingdom, seizing land and arriving at settlements when it suited their interests. That is how it was in predatory Europe of those days, as evidenced by the notorious 1884 Berlin Conference which divided the world among European nations.
In the case of the Essequibo, there was an Agreement hammered out with the help of the USA in 1899 which granted sovereignty over the Essequibo to then British Guyana, a colony of Britain but this has not been accepted by Venezuela. The matter came up again when Guyana was about to achieve its independence in 1966, leading to an Agreement that both countries were to engage in a process of dialogue and negotiation leading to a peaceful settlement of the controversy. This lies at the heart of the current-day disagreement. Unfortunately, there are too many who believe that the claim by Venezuela to the Essequibo is one manufactured by the Bolivarian state of Venezuela, especially in light of the huge oil and gas deposits found in the Essequibo. But it is instructive that Essequibo was not the only Venezuelan territorial claim in the Caribbean. Earlier Venezuelan governments had, more than four decades ago, even laid claim to Bird Island in the Caribbean Sea, offshore to Dominica.
Today’s context is coloured by and influenced by the interests of big capital, in this case the giant oil and gas giant, Exxon, headquartered in the USA. Exxon Mobil is the fourth largest oil conglomerate in the world with revenue of over US$386 billion and net income of US$51 billion. It has signed agreements with Guyana for the lucrative deposits found in and offshore to the Essequibo. The interests of big capital especially in the context of the not very friendly relations between the USA and Venezuela is a major factor in the worsening relations on both sides.
The combination of nationalist feelings, greed and self-interests can be very combustible. To worsen the situation there is the unhelpful and ossified positions being taken by some Caribbean governments and opposition parties as well as sections of the media. Almost instinctively, Caribbean people with their long associations with Guyana are backing Guyana in the dispute. This is also evidenced by the position of CARICOM and its Heads of Governments. But we cannot allow short-sightedness, ignorance nor lack of understanding of the delicate and difficult situation to lead us into stoking the flames of war, unwittingly so in most cases.
Four decades ago, after the tragedy in Grenada leading to the murder of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and many of his colleagues, the stoked-up anger and apparent helplessness led us to back calls for US military invasion as the only solution. The region has not been the same since. If we allow this controversy to deteriorate to such an extent that war seems to be the only solution, the consequences for the entire region can be horrendous.
That is why, irrespective of one’s political views about our Prime Minister Gonsalves, he deserves highest praise for the initiative to foster dialogue on the issue. It is critical that every effort be made to lower the temperature and to demonstrate that unlike in 1899 or in pre-independence 1966 Guyana, the Caribbean can seek and find solutions to long-standing disputes and controversies in our regional family. We are capable of doing so, especially when we have leaders in our midst such as our distinguished PM. Gonsalves.
I end by quoting former Chief Justice Sir Dennis Byron in a letter earlier this week to our Prime Minister. Sir Dennis congratulated Dr Gonsalves for his focus on “mature, respectful and wise discourse in times when diplomatic tensions can quickly escalate”. He went on to state that the PM’s leadership exemplifies a “commitment to unity and peace” which are crucial to conflict resolution”. Such a proactive approach, Sir Dennis contends, is “a monumental step towards diffusing long-standing tensions”.
We have to learn to be patient and wise in handling such matters. It makes no sense for people without sabres to be sabre-rattling or for us to welcome dangerous warmongering at the end of which we all will suffer.
Let us GIVE PEACE A CHANCE and support the ongoing efforts at dialogue initiated by CARICOM and facilitated by our own government. It is also another significant testimony to the standing of our tiny country and its role and contribution many times its tiny size. Let us not be hurry, but be patient and understanding the positions of both sides, it is but a start to a process of dialogue. Ignore those who seek to stoke fires which will consume us all.
- Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.