Mon | Feb 26, 2024

Editorial | Tread carefully, Venezuela

Published:Friday | December 1, 2023 | 12:08 AM
Venezuela has claimed a large swathe of Guyana known as the Essequibo region since the 19th century as its own, rejecting the borders decided by international arbitrators in 1899.
Venezuela has claimed a large swathe of Guyana known as the Essequibo region since the 19th century as its own, rejecting the borders decided by international arbitrators in 1899.

It’s probably too late to expect Nicolás Maduro to do the right thing and abandon Wednesday’s referendum asking Venezuelans to pronounce on their country’s claim to two-thirds of Guyana.

But, as he pursues this rash policy, we hope that Mr Maduro doesn’t miscalculate, leading to unintended consequences, including conflict between the two countries. In any event, Mr Maduro must be reminded where the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) stands on this matter: with Guyana; on the side of international law, and with a resolve to extract a political and economic price from Caracas if its provocation moves beyond boundary in internal, domestic posturings. In this regard, Mr Maduro must be aware that CARICOM isn’t without muscle.

Venezuela has long claimed Guyana’s 62,000-square-mile Essequibo region, saying that it was unfairly awarded to Britain, Guyana’s colonial ruler, by an 1899 arbitration in which Venezuela was a big player. At Guyana’s Independence in 1966 the parties agreed to continue to work towards a resolution of the dispute and for a long time used the ‘good offices’ of an interlocutor appointed by the United Nations secretary-general.

However, five years ago, Guyana took the dispute to the International Court of Justice for resolution. Venezuela continues to insist that the World Court has no jurisdiction in the matter, despite the court’s ruling that it does.

Last month, Mr Maduro’s government confirmed the resolution in which Venezuelans are being asked to affirm that the Paris arbitration agreement was fraudulent and that it deprived “us or our Guyana Esequiba”.

Venezuelans are also being asked to confirm that the 1966 agreement is the only valid route for resolving the problem and to endorse the government’s stance that the World Court is without jurisdiction in the issue.

CONCERNED

What, however, has particularly concerned CARICOM is the call for the endorsement of the unilateral creation of a Venezuelan state in the Essequibo region and to “reject by all means in accordance with the law” the arbitration ruling and Guyana’s recent award of oil exploration licences in the seas off Essequibo.

“It is open to reasonable persons to conclude that ‘by all means’ includes means of force or war,” CARICOM said in an October 25 statement.

This newspaper shares that view, as well as the analysis that Mr Maduro’s action at this time is the type of jingoistic sabre-rattling that leaders often get up to, hoping to rally their citizens. In this case, Mr Maduro probably wants to build support for himself and his party ahead of next year’s assembly and presidential elections and distract attention from years of internal political and economic crisis, which was exacerbated by US sanctions.

But as this newspaper warned on October 26, actions of this type have a tendency of spiralling out of control. It is not enough for Venezuelan officials to just declare that the government’s consulting its citizens is nobody else’s business. Not when the question posed can be interpreted, as CARICOM noted, as a veiled threat.

The community, or most of it, rightly defended Caracas, during America’s economic and political harassment, including the ill-advised and ill-fated move of appointing Juan Guaidó interim president. But such support can’t be carte blanche or at the expense of a community member, notwithstanding the economic benefits the region enjoyed under the Petrocaribe oil accord.

In that respect, Mr Maduro is reminded that CARICOM has 15 votes at the United Nations. We believe, too, he wants to maintain the Dragon Field gas project with Trinidad and Tobago

CARICOM must be prepared to wield those votes in protection of Guyana and Port of Spain tell Caracas that in the absence of assurance of its good behaviour regarding Essequibo, it is willing to abandon the Dragon Field partnership.