In the wake of last Sunday’s (December 3 ) International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on the Guyana-Venezuela dispute over Essequibo, the Caribbean’s focus remains on the state of play over the 124-year-old neighbourly quarrel over the Essequibo region, in which Venezuela claims two-thirds of Guyana.
Originating as far back as 1899, it’s one of the longest-lasting disputes in the history of the United Nations (UN) and absence of any hint of a solution in 2023 underlines the failure of the international judicial process in since 1966, when its Good Offices process started taking root, without yielding fruits for almost six decades.
This latest ICJ’s ruling is yet-another inconclusive one that simply keeps the legal and judicial revolving door turning sine die or ad infinitum.
Both sides participated in the diplomatic and judicial processes, but the judgements, usually long in coming, have forever been sure recipes for continuity of disagreement.
So, what next?
Not much change, if any, should be expected, except in the strengthening and weakening of legal arguments while the main players talk about armaments.
Because the ICJ – also called the World Court – is a civil tribunal that hears disputes between countries and hopes parties to disputes brought before it do respect and apply its rulings, but has no power to enforce.
On the other hand, the International Criminal Court (ICC) – another UN judicial body – is a criminal tribunal that will prosecute individuals and representatives of entities found guilty by the ICJ.
But even while participating in the ICJ process, Venezuela also insists the UN’s courts have no jurisdiction over the case since the Geneva Agreement of 1966.
Now the ICJ has ruled, tomorrow’s Venezuela referendum is the next focal point in the ongoing dispute that Guyana feels sure it can and will win and which Venezuela is determined not to lose.
Interestingly (and on a related personal note) Venezuela today is actually promising to do something I treated lightly back in the last decade of the last century, while living and working in Guyana during the Dr Cheddi and Janet Jagan administrations between 1993 and 1999.
In my ‘Mirror’ newspaper column entitled ‘Things That Make Me Say OH SHUCKS!’, I once mused about the then-unthinkable prospect of Essequibo islanders having to learn Spanish quickly, get Venezuelan passports and learn to sing the Venezuelan national anthem.
I also bemoaned the possibility that I would also have had to present my passport, with an entry visa, every time I drove to the Parika Stelling (wharf) with my wife and family to board a ferry to Anna Regina, Leguan, Fort Island or Shanklands.
Any look at a map of Guyana – minus the two-thirds claimed by Venezuela – will resemble a nation erased.
In fact, a unhealthy atmosphere exists today between two oil-rich Caribbean and South American neighbors with a long history of peaceful coexistence despite the existence of the territorial claims.
Like a sore left to fester for too-long simply because it didn’t yet bleed or painfully hurt, the issue has again come to the fore – and ahead of a Presidential election in Venezuela.
This time though, the Bolivarian government has gone much-further than did the architect of the Bolivarian Revolution, President Hugo Chavez, by flexing its comparable military supremacy in ways that suggest diplomacy and international mediation might have been thrown out of the window.
On the other hand, the ICJ ruling continues keeping the controversy within the judicial realm while the two sides peacefully talk about wars of conquest and defense.
When President Chavez and then-Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo met in Georgetown, emphasis was on preventing the apparently insoluble dispute to disrupt ongoing political and economic cooperation between two neighboring anti-imperialist beacons.
But discovery and exploitation of huge offshore oil and gas blocs in the wider Essequibo region has naturally infuriated those in Caracas who oppose the presence and benefits to two major US players (Exxon-Mobil and Hess) and the expectation that the US Southern Command will eventually realize its expressed dream of having a presence in the Essequibo region “to protect US interests” in what Washington still regards as America’s Backyard.
Whether Venezuela’s claim was always based on knowledge of the oil resources in the Essequibo region while Guyana was preparing to ensure ‘Not a blade of grass’ was ceded is yet to be known, but short of a war of conquest, it’s difficult to imagine that Venezuela will win or Guyana will lose, or vice versa, on the question of which ‘owns’ Essequibo and which it’s actually part of.
British Guianese lived in the Essequibo islands before 1899 and after 124 years, any war over which country their descendants ‘belong to’ will only open-up a new war-without-end in a region struggling hard to remain a Zone of Peace.
Interestingly, both Guyana and Venezuela issued early statements yesterday expressing pleasure with the ICJ’s ruling, which will please the court and jurists, but only put the dispute on another back burner or in another deep freezer, while the War of Words heats-up.
Tomorrow, Venezuelans will vote on giving popular backing to the government’s political stance of militant pursuit of its claims on Essequibo and the warmongers will immediately up their volume, totally dismissing the lessons from Gaza and the rest of Occupied Palestine – and every other case where territorial disputes have been attended by military force.
So, for example, will Essequibo become the Caribbean’s Nagorno-Karabakh?
Will the two neighbors allow conflicting legal interpretations of history to subject Guyanese in Essequibo to the trauma suffered by those caught in the middle of the similar ongoing age-old battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
Or the everlasting Catalan fight for Independence from Spain?
The Caribbean isn’t near-ready for that type of never-ending, revolving-door war and the quicker the narrative moves to talking peace and cooperation, the better for Guyana and Venezuela, the Caribbean and Latin America – and the whole wide world.