(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own)
It was predictable that, in an attempt to show that they are capable of collaboration, the rival political groups in Venezuela would pick their spurious claim to two-thirds of Guyana’s territory as a show of unity.
Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali, quickly and rightly rejected this grand but cheap show of solidarity, displayed at yet another attempt to broker an agreement between the warring Venezuelan parties.
The Venezuelans were meeting in Mexico from September 3 to 6, in Norway’s third effort to mediate between the factions led by President Nicolás Maduro and pretender Juan Guaidó. Their joint statement “ratified Venezuela’s rights” over what they call “Guayana Esequiba”.
Of course, the statement changed nothing in Venezuela and did not improve the lives of its people, millions of whom have already voted with their feet. More than five million Venezuelans have fled the country, making Venezuela the country with the world’s second largest refugee crisis, exceeded only by war ravaged Syria. Indeed, the statement was met with a shrug by most Venezuelans except the political- military regime that have long held ambitions to seize the Guyana territory.
What the rival political factions in Venezuela should be focussing on is improving the dire conditions in which most Venezuelans live and restoring an economy and a country of which the Venezuelan people can be proud and to which the refugees can return.
But that’s the hard part. It would call for political compromise by the opposing parties, including the ceding of power by leading politicians on both sides; an agreement on an independent electoral machinery to organise Presidential and other elections in a transparent and trusted manner; open election campaigns with guaranteed media freedom; observation of the elections by international groups; credible machinery for spending the country’s oil and gas revenues; an agreed social welfare programme that does not discriminate politically; a judicial system that is independent; a military that stays out of politics; and an interim government comprised of the major political parties until elections are held.
The likelihood of achieving these major but necessary measures is extremely remote. Yet, both within Venezuela and in its diaspora and refugee community, there exists remarkably talented and skilled people in the areas of governance, economic development and finance. Given a stable political climate, they could rebuild their country,
It is right that Mexico, Norway and others should try to promote an agreement that would end the political impasse that has plagued the country and contributed to its rapid economic and social decline. But the joint statement on Guyana, that they oversaw from the Venezuelan factions, has not advanced their efforts in any way. The mediators merely grabbed the one thing that would not be contentious to Venezuelan parties. It gave the Venezuelan people no greater hope of rising out of the morass into which their country has sunk.
Responding to the joint statement by the Venezuelan Government and Opposition, the Guyana foreign ministry described it as “an overt threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Guyana” and went on to say, “Guyana cannot be used as an altar of sacrifice for settlement of Venezuela’s internal political differences”. In diplomatic but cutting language, the Guyana government said that while it “welcomes domestic accord within Venezuela, an agreement defying international law and process is not a basis for mediating harmony”.
The Venezuelan contention with Guyana is before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and Guyana says it will remain there, rebuffing a remark from Jorge Rodriguez, president of the Venezuelan Congress and leader of Maduro’s negotiating team, calling on Guyana “to resume the path of negotiations in order to reach an agreement on the territory.”
But Guyana has never negotiated with Venezuela on any “agreement on the territory”. Guyana has always maintained that the Essequibo is Guyana’s territory, an assertion that it has been prepared to put before the ICJ for a decision in keeping with a decision by the UN Secretary-General. For its part, Venezuela has rejected an independent hearing by the world’s leading international judges, indicating a lack of faith in the merits of their demand for Essequibo.
The Venezuelans base their claim on a memorandum, written in 1944, by an American lawyer, Severo Mallet-Prevost, who was a junior counsel for Venezuela at an 1899 Arbitration that settled the boundary between Venezuela and Guyana (then British Guiana). Shortly after Mallet-Prevost received from the Venezuelan government the Order of the Liberator for services to Venezuela, he allegedly wrote a note to his law partner that was opened after his death in 1949. In the note, he alleged the settlement of the boundary was the result of collusion between the British judges, the Russian President of the Tribunal and the American Judges. That is the pretext for the Venezuelan claim.
It is no wonder that no Venezuelan government wants to lay a case before the ICJ and prefers to cajole Guyana into direct negotiations where its military capacity, that it has used in the past, could be employed as leverage.
Great hope was placed in the talks in Mexico by the Venezuelan factions. At a meeting of the Organization of American States, I publicly expressed support for any further attempt to end the political impasse that would help Venezuela to rebuild in the interest of its people.
If the joint statement on Guyana by the Venezuelan politicians is all that the mediation produced, then the mountain went forth and produced a mouse.
The countries of the Americas must continue to hope that the talks, when they resume, will yet prove productive for the Venezuelan people.
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