In May, Exxon Mobil reported that it had made a “significant oil discovery” in a maritime area disputed by two neighboring South American countries, Venezuela and Guyana.
In spite of the long-running border dispute, which dates back to the colonial period, the oil giant was given unilateral permission to explore through an agreement with Guyana.
Venezuela considered that agreement a “provocation” and called for a dialogue between the two nations to settle the dispute in line with a 1966 agreement.
Its president, Nicolas Maduro, has described the “serious campaign, promoting hatred and distrust, which is promoting negative elements about Venezuela,” with foreign petroleum lobbies provoking the situation to undermine growing solidarity between Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Exxon Mobil Corp. has had strained relations with Venezuela, after refusing to respect the South American nation’s 2007 petroleum laws, which require foreign companies to become minority partners in oil exploration with the state oil company, PDVSA. Exxon sought billions in compensation from Venezuela as a result.
The diplomatic dispute between the two South American nations heightened after Guyanese elections in May 2015, when a coalition of political parties ended the 23-year rule of the People's Progressive Party. Retired army Gen. David Granger was sworn in as president after winning with a narrow margin of 5,000 votes.
“It is unacceptable that the new government of Guyana take this position with a territory that is under dispute,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said in a statement, continuing that Guyana “has also expressly recognized this area of the sea is subject to an amicable settlement of territorial claims, as envisaged in the Geneva Agreement,” referring to the international dialogue process both countries had previously signed up to.
Guyana's Ministry of Foreign Affairs upped the rhetoric and called Venezuela a "threat to regional peace and security," after Venezuelan President Maduro reasserted Venezuela's long-held territorial claims.
Foreign Minister Rodriguez took exception to the aggressive tone of the statement by her Guyanese counterpart, saying it “exhibits a dangerous provocative policy against the peaceful Bolivarian (Republic of) Venezuela, backed by the imperial power of a U.S. transnational, Exxon Mobil, which should be rectified immediately.”
Nevertheless, Venezuela has made it clear that it’s goal is for “cooperation, peace, integration … respect, and processing the conflict through dialogue and the international way,” as President Maduro explained July 6.
Map showing Venezuelan states with disputed territory on right of map with red and white stripes. | Photo: Venezuelan government
Context: Borders Decided by Empire
The disputed border between Venezuela and Guyana goes back to Venezuela's own independence battle, which was finally achieved in 1821. After defeating the Spanish Empire, the newly independent nation found itself bordered on its east by a territory controlled by the British Empire.
The precise boundaries were disputed by newly independent Venezuela – which always regarded the entire area west of the Essequibo River as its border – and the United Kingdom. This dispute was heightened in the 1850s by the discovery of vast gold reserves in the area.
Venezuela refused to accept the ruling of an 1899 U.S.-inspired Arbitral Tribunal, which mainly backed Britain’s claim to the disputed territory. The South American republic, which was not given its own voice at the hearing but represented by delegates appointed by the United States, claimed the U.K. unduly influenced members of the tribunal.
In 1966, Guyana’s won independence from Britain and a deal was reached that the border dispute would be settled in accordance with the rules of international law and the United Nations system: the so-called Geneva Accords. Four years later, the two countries agreed to a 12-year moratorium on the matter.
Venezuela and Improved Caribbean Ties
Far from Guyana’s allegations of Venezuela’s aggressive stance, over the past decade Venezuelan has intensified its diplomatic efforts in the Caribbean, including the PetroCaribe initiative, which provides oil at preferential rates to countries throughout the region.
As David Comissiong explained to teleSUR, “Venezuela (under both Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro) has been an extremely good friend to our Caribbean Community (Caricom) nations. We are aware, for example, that Venezuela has willingly shared its oil wealth with us through the ‘Petrocaribe’ energy cooperation agreement, and has contributed positively to the health and nutrition of our people through ‘Operation Milagro’ and a variety of regional food production projects. Furthermore, Venezuela – under both Chavez and Maduro – has never threatened nor attacked any nation in the world, much less in our region! Rather, Venezuela has been a peace-broker, and has led the recently revived call for the Caribbean to be constituted a ‘zone of peace’.”
Seeking a Diplomatic Resolution
In a positive move, the two South American nations agreed to settle their territory dispute through open dialogue in June 2015.
The Venezuelan foreign ministry welcomed “the recent statements by Guyanese foreign minister, Carl Greenidge,” who ensured that Guyana “has decided to benefit from the joint 1966 Geneva agreement.” The document outlined various mechanisms to resolve controversy over the disputed territory, including the creation of a joint commission to engage in peaceful dialogue.
On July 3, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also offered help to resolve the dispute.
At a summit of 15-member Caribbean Community (Caricom) trade bloc on July 4, leaders met with Venezuela's vice president, who emphasized his country would do all it could to maintain peace and tranquility in the region. While also offering support to Guyana, the chair of Caricom said, "We believe that scope exists for an amicable resolution of present difficulties."
"Caricom also has a good relationship with Venezuela, and we are not about to try to disrupt the relationship or to pollute it in any way,” he added.
Dialogue, and the “peaceful path” advocated by Venezuela, are the best antidote to the the divide and rule tactics of powerful oil companies, which echo the strategies long ago perfected by colonial powers and in whose origins this border dispute lies.