The Essequibo conflict

Samuel Augustus Mitchell, Map of South America with its political divisions, 1863


It is important to tell the story of Essequibo. It is the best way to destroy nationalist and bourgeois mystification

A hearing was held at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the Essequibo territorial conflict on 30 June 2023. This comes after decades of failed UN mediation under the 1966 Geneva Agreement signed between Venezuela and the United Kingdom, a few months before Guyana's independence. In January 2018, UN Secretary-General António Guterres ended his mediation and entrusted the matter to the International Court of Justice. Guyana is asking the International Court of Justice to validate the 1899 Paris arbitration award under which the disputed territory was awarded to the United Kingdom. This process will likely end with a ruling in Guyana's favor, given the weakness of the Venezuelan claim.

The Venezuelan civil-military government is carrying out an aggressive propaganda campaign, accusing Guyana of acting in the service of North American imperialism, particularly the oil company Exxon-Mobil. The reactivation of the Venezuelan claim, made by Nicolás Maduro in 2015, coincided with the detection of oil deposits off the coast of the Essequibo territory. It also coincided with the coming to power of a government not allied with Chavismo in Guyana and the advanced decline of Chavismo, which that year would suffer its worst electoral defeat. The irony is that Venezuela's claim to sovereignty over the Essequibo was instrumentalized by the US in the late XNUMXth and mid-XNUMXth centuries.

At this point, only the claim to 159 thousand square kilometers, 74% of Guyanese territory, persists as an atavism of the reactionary maneuvers of the North American and Venezuelan bourgeois governments of the time. The only fair solution – what we, Venezuelans, must demand from the government – ​​is for the Venezuelan State to abandon its claim, which, if it originally had legitimacy in the face of British imperialism, has now lost it completely, to the point of becoming an instrument of aggression against a fraternal Caribbean people.

Another irony is that there have never been as many Venezuelans in the Essequibo territory as there are now. But the contrast could not be greater with the epic fantasies of expansionist nationalism: Venezuelan emigrants fleeing to the east escape the greatest economic and social disaster in our history, in conditions of absolute poverty.

More than 3.000 Venezuelans have crossed in the last five years to a neighboring country practically unknown to Venezuelans, a country with which the only thing that united us was an absurd conflict invented by colonial and imperialist powers. These lines on a map, the so-called recovered zone, are yet another call for the unity of all classes in Venezuela, so that the oppressed and exploited forget their desperate situation and make common cause with their oppressors. Both the civil-military government and the pro-US opposition led by Juan Guaidó participate in the diversionary operation.

This conflict has never been part of our concerns and struggles, few know how we got to the current situation. That's why it's important to tell your story. It is the best way to destroy nationalist and bourgeois mystification.

From attacked country to aggressor

The Essequibo was never Venezuelan, it was Spanish, as a result of the papal bull of 1493. In 1596, Spanish colonizers founded San Tomás de Guayana, which was for a long time the eastern border of the Spanish colony. At the beginning of the 1814th century, Dutch colonization began. The Treaty of Münster with the Dutch establishes a border that recognizes Spanish control up to the Essequibo River. But English colonization begins. In 1831, the Netherlands ceded part of the territory to the United Kingdom, the world's main colonial power, with the Essequibo River as its western limit. In XNUMX, the British completely displaced the Dutch and set their sights on the coveted mouth of the Orinoco River.

Just like the territory that would later become Venezuela, the Guyanese territory was the scene of major anti-slavery rebellions in the XNUMXth century. The independence of Gran Colombia and its Venezuelan secession occurred under the aegis of a white slave-owning Creole elite. Slavery was abolished in the British colony two decades earlier than in Venezuela, where civil wars and great precariousness persisted after independence.

The newly independent Venezuelan republic, therefore, had nothing to offer the indigenous people or former slaves of the English colony. The British took advantage of the weakness of their former colonial neighbor and tried to draw the border incorporating the Cuyuní River basin, which was rejected by the Venezuelan authorities in 1841, starting the territorial dispute. There was a border agreement in 1850 with the British, who, however, continued to colonize beyond what was agreed, up to the mouth of the Orinoco.

Simón Bolívar was one of the first to propose resolving the limits of newly independent nations, applying the principle of Uti Possidetis: the independent nation inherits the territories that constituted the colony. Venezuela demands that the British respect the borders it had with the Spanish colony.

The problem is that these limits were not precise and were drawn in largely unpopulated territories, whose indigenous populations had no loyalty to any State. In 1887, the British advance led to the breakdown of diplomatic relations; The possibility of an invasion was also feared. In 1895, US President Grover Cleveland supported Venezuela based on the Monroe Doctrine, which claimed the American continent as its sphere of influence.

After the implementation of warmongering threats by Grover Cleveland in 1897, the two powers agreed on an arbitration mechanism. Such is Venezuela's subordination that it is accepted that the United States represents Venezuelan interests in arbitration. In 1899, the Paris arbitration award granted the British a territory twice as large as that which they had acquired from the Dutch, although Venezuela was recognized as having the mouth of the Orinoco.

For the nascent Yankee imperialism it was a victory to obtain English recognition of arbitration, so it was satisfied. A binational commission established the border applying the criteria of the arbitration award, and the Venezuelan military dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez accepted a definitive demarcation in the first decade of the 1932th century. In XNUMX, the demarcation of the border between Brazil, British Guiana and Venezuela was completed.

Years would pass after the death of Juan Vicente Gómez, until in 1944 the Venezuelan parliament questioned the arbitration award. Mallet Prevost, one of the American lawyers who represented Venezuela in Paris, left a will, published after his death in 1949, denouncing the irregularities of the trial and the existence of a pact between British and Russian imperialism.

In 1951, in the midst of the Venezuelan military dictatorship and in the face of increasing discoveries of mineral deposits on the Venezuelan side of the border, the Venezuelan government presented its challenge to the meeting of foreign ministers of the Americas before the meeting of foreign ministers of the Americas.

In addition to the desires of the Venezuelan military right, the international situation fueled Venezuelan irredentism. It is no longer a challenge to British imperialism, but its opposite, a reactionary instrument in the service of imperialism against the just struggle of the Guyanese people for their liberation.

The weakening of British imperialism represents an opportunity for the Venezuelan bourgeoisie to position itself as an auxiliary to the capitalist and imperialist order at the regional level. In 1950, the People's Progressive Party (PPP), led by Cheddi Jagan, emerged in Guyana, and in 1953 it won the first elections for limited self-government under British sovereignty.

British imperialism quickly dissolves the elected government in order to prevent an anti-imperialist leadership from achieving independence. Under British and American auspices, in 1955 a right-wing split occurred in the PPP led by Burnham, who founded the PNC. In 1961, Jagan won the elections, already under an openly pro-independence program, although his leftism never went beyond the horizon of class collaboration.

In 1962, Venezuela rejected the 1899 arbitration before the UN. In a reactionary move, he introduced the territorial discussion in the decolonization committee that discussed Guyana's independence. The Betancourt government sees an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone: show itself nationalist, divert attention from domestic problems while the guerrilla struggle inspired by the Cuban Revolution unfolds, and serve US strategic interests in Guyana.

Betancourt proposed to the British government joint management of the Essequibo area, without the participation of the government with limited autonomy from British Guiana, a proposal that did not prosper. The territorial claims were used by the United States, determined not to allow “another Cuba”, to extort the Guyanese people to opt for a government that did not leave the capitalist margins.

The British only recognized Guyana's independence when they managed to impose a pro-Yankee government, led by Burnham. There was Venezuelan interference in the 1964 elections in favor of Burnham and the PNC, including the delivery of weapons under the tutelage of the CIA. The junior coalition partner with the PNC, Força Unida (UF) was clearly right-wing and pro-Yankee, supporting the invasion of Vietnam and the Dominican Republic.

In 1964, the year of Burnham's election, the Venezuelan government participated in a plot to stage a coup against Cheddi Jagan, kidnapping and imprisoning him in Venezuela, according to documents from the State Department's Office of the Historian. Commander Iribarren asked for Yankee support for the change and offered to train Guyanese mercenaries in Venezuelan territory. The foreigners did not support the stratagem, they negotiated a system of proportional representation that would guarantee that Jagan would not come to power, a formula that ended up being imposed).

In February 1966, the Geneva Agreement was established, leaving the dispute open indefinitely. In October of that year, Guyana achieved independence. Shortly before, the USA and Venezuela supported the formation of the Amerindian opposition party, headed by Anthony Chaves. In the same month, the Venezuelan army militarily occupied the island of Anacoco, on the border. In April 1967, a conference of indigenous leaders was held in Kabakaburi, at the instigation of Venezuela, which called for binational development of the Essequibo territory. It is a clear intensification of the aggressions of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie in the midst of Guyana's independence process.

Burnham alleged that the PPP and the Venezuelan MIR were linked by OLAS to promote socialist revolution through armed struggle and used Venezuelan threats and aggression to unite the population under nationalist banners and prevent any popular rebellion. In 1968, the Venezuelan government unilaterally established maritime borders and, in January 1969, promoted the Rupununi secessionist revolt, in which large landowners of European origin and their indigenous employees, armed and trained by the Venezuelan government, rose up against Burnham.

Once the movement was defeated militarily, the Venezuelan government granted Venezuelan identities and asylum to members of the movement, linked to the right-wing UF party. The movement's spokeswoman, Valerie Hart, who was unable to obtain direct Venezuelan military support, compared the issue to the Bay of Pigs case. Emilio Máspero, from Copeyan syndicalism, expressed support for the Rupununi right-wingers.

It is estimated that around seventy people died as a result of the repression. The adventure had been carried out by the outgoing government of Raul Leoni. Caldera, a native of Copey, had been elected in December 1968 and had not taken office. But the Copeyans would maintain the same line of auxiliaries to imperialism in the Caribbean. In 1970, the Venezuelan government sent weapons to the Trinidad and Tobago regime and deployed troops to the east coast during that country's black power rebellion in April.

After years of extreme tension due to Venezuelan aggression, with the Port of Spain Protocol, the two countries froze their territorial claim from 1970 to 1982. It was during this period that the use of the recovering area marked by stripes on maps was incorporated into official propaganda . In 1974, Burnham's government shifted to the left. The PAC improved bilateral relations in the context of the nationalization of oil in Venezuela and the nationalization of bauxite in Guyana.

In February 1982, Herrera Campins, from Copeya, carried out a mobilization with the slogan “the Essequibo is ours”, led by the Christian Social Youth, denouncing Guyana's relationship with Cuba. The Falklands War encouraged right-wing sectors to demand the invasion of Guyana. In April 1982, in fact, there was a movement of Venezuelan troops on the border and Brazilian intelligence considered an invasion of Guyana imminent. In October of that year, Herrera Campins carried out the Cantaura Massacre against Red Flag militants. The expansionist fury of the bourgeoisie has always been linked to repressive situations at home.

The inconsistency of Chavismo

Hugo Chávez had a rapprochement with Caricom and Guyana, which he included in the Petrocaribe program in 2005. Guyana also joined CELAC and Unasur. In 2004, Hugo Chávez visited Georgetown, six months before the presidential recall referendum, and declared that he would not prevent any infrastructure development that directly benefited the population of the claimed area. “The Essequibo issue will be eliminated from the framework of the social, political and economic relations of the two countries”, he announced, implying that the failure to reach an agreement cannot impede the development of bilateral relations.

The right-wing opposition accused him of betraying the national interest and abandoning the Essequibo cause, through spokespeople such as Pompeyo Márquez, Jorge Olavarría, Ramón Escovar Salóm and Hermánn Escarrá, among others. Significantly, the debate never became central to Venezuelan politics nor did it entail any political cost for Hugo Chávez. He won the referendum by a large margin, demonstrating that he had the opportunity to resolve this historical and political problem at minimal political cost. As with everything, Chavismo was inconsistent. A final agreement was never formalized. As soon as the political tide turned, it turned into a sexist reaction.

Amid economic, political and social decline, Chavismo reacted to the discovery of oil deposits in early 2015 by the Yankee transnational Exxon Mobil in the disputed territorial sea and adopted military slogans such as “The sun of Venezuela rises in the Essequibo” in July 2015 The theme is beginning to be explored in Venezuelan domestic politics.

After the right wing won a parliamentary majority in December of that year, the National Assembly appointed a “Parliamentary Commission for the Defense of Essequibo”. According to Julio Borges, “interim chancellor”, Chavismo handed over Essequibo to “Cuba” – but doubts remain. In turn, in September 2019, the civil-military government denounced the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, to the Public Ministry, accusing him of conspiring to hand over Essequibo to transnational companies, based on a communication between two authorities that discuss abandoning the demand to guarantee British support for the self-styled “US-backed interim government”.

Sectors of the left, both Chavista and independent, unfortunately capitulate to the government's position. The Communist Party of Venezuela, one of the parties supporting Chavismo, fully aligned itself with Nicolás Maduro, repudiating the intervention of the International Court of Justice and describing it as an imperialist aggression to take Venezuelan oil and calling for national cohesion.

Other expressions of nationalist expansionism appear under an ecological cover; thus celebrates the status quo current that slows economic development in Essequibo; or adopts the bourgeois Venezuelan State of a messianic and environmentalist role, as protector of natural resources, ignoring the deplorable record of the Venezuelan State in the administration of its own territory.

It even calls for the repetition of the failed aggression of the Rupununi movement, through the instrumentalization of the indigenous peoples of the region. All these arguments must be repudiated. The annexation of Guyanese territory by either of the two political factions of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie would not bring any benefit to the Venezuelan or Guyanese working people.

Let us examine the comparison made at another time between the Argentine claim to the Falklands and the Essequibo dispute. It's a mistaken analogy: the Falklands were usurped by the British from Argentina, not Spanish colonialism, and the islands are still under British occupation today. In reality, Venezuela's claim to Essequibo is more similar to its claim to “recover” the island of Trinidad, which was a Spanish colony under the same administrative unit as what would become Venezuela after independence.

As Venezuela has no cultural, social or economic ties with this territory, Trinidad would invoke the principle of Uti Possidetis for the entirety of its territory at the time of achieving independence from British colonial power. The same happens in the case of Guyana. A just claim against an aggressive and expansionist colonialist power, the British Empire, a claim that Venezuela could not sustain on its own without recourse to Yankee aid, which was never disinterested, lost all its legitimacy in 1966, when Guyana conquered its independence.

Guyana is responsible for the entire territory that constituted the then colony, including the territories that the British usurped from the Spanish and that Venezuela has been unable to recover in more than a century. Already within the framework of Guyana's independence process in the 1960s, Venezuelan demands played a reactionary role, within a strategy of aggression by the United States and the United Kingdom against those people.

The annexation of a territory with which we have no cultural or historical ties, without a population claiming to be Venezuelan, could only be carried out militarily. A diplomatic or judicial resolution favorable to Venezuela is impossible. Thus, nationalist delusions meet the limits imposed by reality. It is preferable to recognize that Venezuela was defeated, not now, but in the XNUMXth century, and can no longer settle accounts with the aggressor British Empire.

The false substitute of aggression against a much smaller and poorer country, whose population does not reach 800 thousand people, must be absolutely rejected by the true revolutionaries and democrats of Venezuela. In the interest of the people of Venezuela and Guyana, the only thing that remains is the unilateral withdrawal of the Venezuelan claim and the bilateral negotiation of maritime borders. Maduro's civil-military government does not have the dignity or courage to take this step.

For the Venezuelan working people today, more than ever, it is clear that our liberation can only mean one thing: removing the “bolibourgeoisie” from power by our own means, at the same time that we defeat the Trumpist mafia of the parliamentary opposition and take our destiny in our own hands. Any distraction from this task is criminal.

Once freed from the shackles of this infamous civil-military regime, we will have much to occupy ourselves with in our own territory, destroyed and plundered by transnational corporations and organized crime. We are not guilty of the crimes committed by the Venezuelan bourgeoisie, both the “puntofijista” and the “bolibourgeoisie”, but free from expansionist illusions we can fully embrace our real and urgent current task.

*Simón Rodríguez is a social activist and member of the Socialism and Freedom Party of Venezuela.

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

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