Observations of an Expat: Colonial Problem

A colonial era Latin American border dispute is threatening to blow up into a major conflict involving the United States, Brazil, Venezuela, the tiny country of Guyana and possibly Britain as the former colonial power.

The catalyst is the discovery of large oil and gas deposits off the coast of the Essequibo region which is claimed by both Venezuela and Guyana. It has been occupied by Guyana since 1840.

On December 3, President Nicolas Maduro held a referendum in Venezuela in which 95 percent of those balloted voted in favour of annexing the 100,000 square mile Essequibo region which is two-thirds of Guyanese territory. It should be noted that international observers labelled the referendum “grossly unfair” and with a “low turnout”. Furthermore, no one in the Essequibo region voted.

International criticism, however, has not stopped Maduro from ordering foreign companies out of the jungles of Essequibo and the exclusive economic zone off the coast.

Venezuela has also mobilised its army of 100,000 in preparation for a possible invasion. Guyana has put its 7,000 troops on alert. And Brazil has sent troops to its border with Venezuela because the Venezuelan army would have to pass through Brazil to attack Guyana.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has said America will protect Guyana’s sovereignty and additional US warships have been dispatched to the Caribbean for manoeuvres with Guyana’s five-boat navy.

Venezuela’s claims are currently before the International Court of Justice at The Hague which has urged President Maduro to wait for its judgement. Maduro, however, has indicated that he will not be bound by the court’s ruling.

Venezuela’s lack of faith in the judicial process is understandable. Claims pursued in that quarter have consistently failed.

The dispute goes back to 1840 when the British—then the colonial power in what was then British Guiana—employed German cartographer and surveyor Robert Hermann Schomburgyk to map the colony’s boundaries. He did so, drawing the western boundary to encompass all the land drained by the country’s main river, the Essequibo. The Venezuelans immediately disputed the “Schomburgyk Line”, claiming that the west bank of the river was Venezuelan.

As most of the territory was uninhabitable jungle, neither side pursued the claims, although Britain did settle some of the territory. But in 1876 interest was revived with the discovery of gold.

The two sides agreed to submit the dispute to a five-person arbitration panel which met in Paris and in 1899 decided in favour of the British. But 50 years later, a memo emerged claiming that the British bribed or threatened the Russian chairman of the panel. Venezuela revived its claim.

This resulted in the 1962 Geneva Agreement which was effectively an agreement to disagree and talk further with the hope that the two countries would find a “peaceful, practical and satisfactory solution.” In 1966 British Guiana became the independent country of Guyana and the disputed territory became the problem of the new country.

Venezuela recognised the independent Guyana—but without the Essequibo region and in 1968 it backed a failed uprising of farmers. In 1970, Venezuela and Guyana signed a 12-year moratorium on the dispute. But when that ended Venezuela reasserted its claim. It reasserted it again when in 2011 Guyana extended its exclusive economic zone 100 miles out from the Essequibo coast.

Then in 2015 came the catalyst for the current crisis. The Guyanese government issued offshore exploration rights to Exxon. And the following year the oil giant reported large oil and gas reserves in the 10,500 square mile Stabroek Block.

The prospect of oil meant that Venezuela repeated its claims with renewed vigour. This time it agreed to let the UN refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice. The ICJ was meant to hear arguments in 2020 but the case was postponed by the covid pandemic. The court is now up, running and actively considering the case. On December 1st it warned Maduro not to act until it had issued its judgement.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Steve Trevethan 9th Dec '23 - 10:00am

    Might the commercial dimension be the main factor of this situation as seems to have been/be the case with the Invasion of Iraq?

  • Jenny Barnes 9th Dec '23 - 11:24am

    “The catalyst is the discovery of large oil and gas deposits off the coast of the Essequibo region”
    How interesting. But as humanity plans not to drill for any new oil & gas, there’s no motive to go to war over it, surely. Oh, COP28 didn’t decide that? Silly me, imagining that any action on climate was likely.

  • @ Jenny Barnes -I am not an apologist for the fossil fuel industry. But the fact is that we will need gas and oil long after the petrol-driven motor car is a dust-covered museum piece. Oil and gas are essential ingredients in hundreds (probably more) every day items that we take for granted. A few of them are lenses for spectacles, asphalt, polyester, nylon, life preservers, lubricants, MRI scanners, pacemakers, prosthetics, tars, lipstick, deodorants, dentures, plastics…. I want to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels that affect climate change. I do not want to eliminate fossil fuel production. There is a difference.

  • Steve Trevethan 10th Dec '23 - 7:49am

    Might it then be the case that oil extraction licenses could be differentiated according to the climate consequences of use?

  • Jenny Barnes 10th Dec '23 - 10:28am

    “we will need gas and oil l[for] essential ingredients in hundreds[of] every day items”

    It’s not entirely true. one could generate pretty much any required hydrocarbon from wood or waste vegetation (straw eg) plus hydrogen plus energy. However, accepting for the sake of argument that gas/oil would be used only for such everyday items, rather than burned in cars, electricity generators, aircraft, lorries etc., existing supplies would be more than sufficient.

    The problem would be with trying to produce sufficient cement, steel and fertiliser without fossil fuels. I’ don’t think there’s an answer to that.

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