Triggered by the decision of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on December 18, 2020, upholding the Court’s jurisdiction to determine the validity of the 1899 Arbitral Award establishing and defining the border between Venezuela and British Guiana, Venezuela has predictably escalated its threat to Guyana’s sovereignty. The Secretary General of the United Nations, under the discretion granted to him by the Geneva Agreement of 1966 between Venezuela, British Guiana and Great Britain, had referred the issue to the ICJ for determination in January 2018, after decades of bilateral and UN sponsored discussions had failed to resolve the issue.

Having protested the ICJ’s decision, President Nicholas Maduro issued Decree No. 4.415 dated January 7, 2021, creating “A Strategic Area of National Development called ‘Territory for the Development of the Atlantic Façade.’” The territory includes the Atlantic façade of the Orinoco Delta up to 200 nautical miles, but not including the maritime space of other states. Guyana maritime space is not excluded because the maritime space claimed by Venezuela includes that covered by Decree No. 3.732 on December 28, 2018, and prior decrees which claim sovereignty over maritime space to which Guyana is entitled. This space in Guyana’s Atlantic “facade,” including its enormous petroleum resources, now forms part of Venezuela’s “Territory for the Development of the Atlantic Façade” and is designated as a “strategic area for national development.”

The Decree provides for the creation of a Single Authority to manage all aspects of administration and development of the “strategic area.” There will be a Board of Directors comprising representatives from seven vice presidencies, the armed forces and ministry of foreign affairs. The Board of Directors will administer the “strategic area” and will manage its income, tax incentives, import facilities and customs. Operating regulations for the Board of Directors will be prepared and issued within 90 days.

The Venezuelan government has, on this occasion, gone further than at any time in the past, in trampling on Guyana’s sovereignty and provocatively increasing tension. It has incorporated Guyana’s maritime space, in which exploration for and extraction of petroleum products are ongoing. This can only be viewed as international banditry and exposes Venezuela’s and Maduro’s empty claims of desiring a peaceful resolution of the controversy as so much hogwash. Venezuela has blatantly incorporated our territory into its “strategic area” and is preparing to make laws and regulations to manage its plunder.

This exposes Venezuela’s declarations of peaceful intentions to have always been fig leaves in its drive to take Guyana’s territory. Its intentions are hostile, belligerent and warlike. The regular and threatening presence of its warships in Guyana’s seas, not to mention the seizure of vessels, as well as the invasion of Guyana’s half of Ankoko in 1966, are not the acts of a friend. Guyana has historically tried its best to maintain good and friendly relations with Venezuela, in the face of decades of provocations. But all to no avail. Venezuela over the past two years has been showing its true colours, if there were any previous doubts. It has now exposed its aggressive designs for the world to see.

Guyana has to be prepared for worse. The breakdown of UN sponsored discussions in November 2018, and the impending reference of the controversy to the ICJ by the UN Secretary General, gave rise to the earlier Decrees which incorporated Guyana’s maritime space in the Atlantic as part of Venezuela’s. Now the ruling of the ICJ in favour of Guyana on jurisdiction has caused Venezuela to dramatically extend its jurisdiction over our maritime space in a wild violation of international law. it is clear that the Venezuelan establishment is not yet finished and that an eventual ruling of the ICJ in Guyana’s favour will exacerbate Venezuela’s imperialistic greed and lust for our land, sea space and resources. There is no telling what this will involve.

The only obstacle to more aggressive activity by Venezuela is international opinion. Venezuela understands that the international community will not countenance its physical seizure of Guyana’s territory which was awarded by an Arbitral Tribunal in 1899 which Venezuela accepted for six decades. No one can predict what nefarious deeds Venezuela is concocting in preparation for a likely ruling by the ICJ against its claim that the 1899 Arbitral Award is null and void. Guyana must therefore intensify its international campaign. Guyana needs to expand its border department several times over in order to expand the work of promoting Guyana’s case to the far reaches of Guyana and the world. The combination of the weakness of Venezuela’s case and adverse international opinion has protected Guyana so far from more severe depredations by Venezuela. As the situation moves to its inevitable denoument, Guyana must protect itself by dramatically intensifying its efforts.

These efforts must take into account the intensity of Venezuela’s promotion of its alleged entitlement to the Essequibo. On a private visit to Venezuela in the 2000s, I stopped at a roadside stand for refreshments during a long drive. The vendor was surprised that I could not speak Spanish. He understood that Georgetown, where I lived, was not far from Essequibo, where the descendants of Venezuelans lived and that they spoke Spanish!

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