By Dr Terrence Blackman and Dr Carolyn Walcott
During the 1970s, Guyana’s leadership pursued a socialist economic path. Guyana’s Non-Aligned stance and fundamental governance and foreign policy principles were built upon western non-interference and self-sufficiency. The Non-Aligned Movement’s ideology of anti-colonialism and liberation struggle was embedded in the national psyche as part of the Nation’s post-independence ideological ethos. In retrospect, the Non-Aligned Movement’s ideology was not a position isolated to the then-ruling PNC administration.
It was, in fact, the clarion call of the architects of Guyana’s independence, the late LFS Burnham and Dr Cheddi Jagan. They led a unified political front in the lead-up to Guyana’s independence. Almost fifty-six years after Guyana gained its independence from Britain, fissures harkening back to the early cracks in the foundation of national unity remain visible in the country’s political architecture. Guyana’s political leaders and constituents remain frustratingly shackled to the partisan walls of Jericho. The current moment’s politics seem incapable of marshalling societal unity to bring it down. Even a contemporary reboot of the famous Not a Blade of Grass by the Tradewinds band cannot galvanize the internal cohesion necessary to manage Guyana’s external threats effectively.
This reflection on Guyana’s position as a new oil giant and the existential threat from neighbouring Venezuela, prompted by the webinar series Transforming Guyana Episode IV- Guyana’s emergence as a Petrostate and its implications for the Venezuela Essequibo Controversy, highlights the role of international diplomacy in building allies for the Nation, the need for internal cohesion, and a narrative that unifies Guyanese. Notably, the views of senior Guyanese diplomats and academics offer guidance for Guyana’s current and future foreign policy posture.
The Venezuela and Guyana border controversy is a decades-old territorial dispute. The Essequibo region, 74 percent of Guyana’s land, is the subject of this dispute. The controversy, which predates Guyana’s independence from Britain in 1966, was resolved in 1899 and embraced from 1899 until 1962, when Venezuela formally raised the matter by the contention that the Arbitral Award of 1899 was null and void, in a bid it appears, to prevent Guyana’s independence. This contention is pending before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
On May 26, 2015, Venezuela issued a decree titled Presidential Decree 1.787 of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, which was revised on 8 June 2015. This decree laid claim to all the Atlantic waters off the Essequibo coast of Guyana. It affected the maritime space of not only Guyana but also several other CARICOM Member States.
In 2015 the government of Guyana complained to the secretary-general that the Venezuelan government had placed troops along its maritime and long-land borders, some of whom were breaching those frontiers. That action led to the secretary-general inviting both presidents to meet with him to discuss peacefully keeping the 1966 Geneva Agreement. This agreement was initially signed by the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of Venezuela; after attaining its independence, Guyana became a party to the agreement. The agreement established a mixed commission to seek satisfactory solutions for settling the border controversy and outlined procedures in case the commission should not arrive at a complete understanding. UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, agreed with Guyana that this matter could not simply be deemed null by one party, which had enjoyed the benefit decision in their favor.
The Guyana-Venezuela border controversy has been a fixture of Guyana’s pre- and post-independence reality. Over the years, attempts to resolve the dispute have ended in a stalemate as Venezuela remains unyielding in its claim to a third of the nation’s landmass. Guyana’s negotiating teams have included erudite diplomats such as Sir Sridath Ramphal and the late Rashleigh Jackson, Guyana’s longest-serving foreign minister. Another stalwart who remains on Guyana’s negotiating team is Carl Greenidge, another former foreign minister of Guyana. Foreign minister Greenidge was adamant that the controversy is far from over despite the highest levels of intervention by the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of American States (OAS).
Significantly, Guyana’s ability to freely exploit its oil and gas resources as a sovereign nation is fueled by support from investors based in major western powers, the United States and Britain, and China. Guyanese oil and gas production in the Stabroek Block has been driven by a three-company consortium involving ExxonMobil, Hess Corp, and CNOOC, with ExxonMobil serving as the operator.
Moreover, Brazil is also a key South American ally, according to Guyana’s former US ambassador, Dr Riyad Insanally. However, he insists that battle is legal and political and therefore requires intentional efforts to catalyze political and national unity, supported by increased international engagements, to solidify friendly global alliances. Similarly, former foreign minister Greenidge insisted that Guyana intensify its awareness-raising efforts among the international community to highlight the salience of Venezuela’s threat to its inheritance.
Whether one perceives Guyana’s emergence as a South American oil giant to be advantageous or inherently politically problematic, the estimated US $150B in revenue earnings for the country in the next thirty years indeed represents a season of plenty. It also comes at a time of economic crisis for Venezuela and outward migration for many of its citizens based on the nation’s tumultuous political climate. These turbulent times in neighbouring Venezuela are lessons for Guyana and its leadership and an opportunity for the state to leverage its current and yet-to-be-discovered economy as it pursues international partnerships.
Guyana’s future looks bright, but the Venezuela controversy could quickly dim it without a singular national vision. Borders are not just lines on a map but reflect a nation’s political psyche and will. Guyanese leadership across the political divide must find the political will to invest meaningfully in the communication infrastructure necessary to drive local, regional and international awareness of the controversy and the shape of the preferred resolution, they must invest in the military and intelligence infrastructure that can deter Venezuelan breaching Guyana’s frontiers with minimal consequences, they must invest in a national curriculum that centers Guyana’s territorial integrity, and they must support the socio-economic transformation of the Essequibo region across its various sectors.
Guyana is poised to take the title of the crown jewel of the South American continent and a place at the table of global energy powers. Her leaders must find the wisdom to articulate, with clarity, a singular national vision that secures the entirety of Guyana’s 83,000 square miles for Guyanese today and Guyanese long into the future.