Economic aggression and new maritime
claims by Venezuela (1967-1968)

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Matters surrounding the seizure by Venezuela of Guyana's half of Ankoko Island reached a stalemate after October 1966. The Guyana Government refused to raise the issue in the UN Security Council, and Guyana's representatives on the Mixed Commission (established by the Geneva Agreement earlier in the year) refused to raise the issue at the third meeting of the Commission held in Caracas in December of that year.

The Kabakaburi affair

Relations between the two countries simmered down for a while. But on 14 April 1967 the Guyana government announced that a meeting of Amerindian chiefs held at Kabakaburi on the Pomeroon River (in the western Essequibo area claimed by Venezuela), a Venezuelan diplomat and the British husband of a Guyanese Amerindian participated and carried out subversive activities relating to the border controversy with Venezuela. The government claimed that the chiefs were influenced by these persons to move a resolution in favour of "joint development" by Guyana and Venezuela of the western Essequibo region.

One week later, the chiefs were summoned to Georgetown for a meeting with the Minister responsible for local government and Amerindian affairs. At the end of this meeting, they issued a statement denying that they had advocated joint development, and insisted that they were always loyal to the Guyana government. But the fact remained that the chiefs indeed passed the resolution as was indicated in the Government's announcement of 14 April, and it was widely believed that they were pressured to issue the denial at the meeting with the minister.

There was much mystery surrounding the Kabakaburi meeting, and all that Guyanese were told was that the police authorities were carrying out investigations. Eventually, an Englishman, Michael Wilson, was arrested and while he was in detention, amendments to the Expulsion of Undesirables Ordinance were rushed through a specially summoned meeting of the National Assembly. These amendments gave the government additional powers to deport any non-Guyanese in the interest of "good order" by removing the conditions that persons facing deportation should first be placed before the courts.

Then on Sunday 1 May, Leopoldo Talyhardat, Vice-Consul for Venezuela in Guyana, returned to Venezuela after the Guyana Government declared that he was "unacceptable". Here again, there was mystery surrounding his departure, but newspaper reports indicated that he was linked with the Kabakaburi conference. In a statement on the same day, the Guyana Government said that "Guyana wishes at all times to maintain friendly relations with neighbouring Venezuela and the question of Senor Leopoldo Talyhardat being unacceptable to the Government should not be regarded as an indication of any new policy on the part of Guyana towards Venezuela."

However, there was no doubt that Talyhardat's expulsion was due to his involvement in the Kabakaburi affair which was regarded by the Guyana government as a clandestine attempt by Venezuelan diplomatic personnel to interfere in the internal affairs of Guyana through the subversion of members of Guyana's indigenous Amerindian community.

Opposing Guyana's access to international forums

Meanwhile, Guyana was attempting to gain greater access in international organisations, but was finding that such access was not always very easy due to opposition from Venezuela. On 23 May, three days before Guyana's first independence anniversary, Guyana's Ambassador to the USA and the UN, John Carter, asked the Venezuelan Government to withdraw its claim to Guyana's territory so that Guyana could join the Organisation of American States (OAS). (The OAS Charter at that time precluded any country having a territorial dispute with a member-state from being accepted as a new member). However, Venezuela refused this request and maintained that its claim to the western Essequibo was just, and that Guyana's entry to the OAS could not be considered because of the existing territorial "dispute".

Similarly, Venezuela used this excuse bar Guyana from signing the Latin American Treaty of Denuclearisation. Despite repeated requests that the date be set for Guyana to sign the treaty, Guyana was not been permitted to sign.

Difficulties also existed at meetings of the Mixed Commission in which Venezuela wanted to raise territorial issues. However, Guyana took the view that the correctness of the existing boundary could not be discussed unless Venezuela first make good in the Mixed Commission its contention that the Arbitral Award of 1899, under which that boundary had been established, was null and void. This Venezuela persistently refused to do.

Economic aggression by Venezuela

Venezuela then steeped up its economic aggression. On 15 June 1968, the Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs placed an advertisement in the London Times stating that the Essequibo region of Guyana belonged to Venezuela, and that the Venezuelan government would not in consequence recognise mining concessions granted in the region by Guyana.

Guyana protested on 28 June 1968 to the Venezuelan government declaring the advertisement "as a deliberate attempt by the Government of Venezuela to retard the economic development of Guyana through the intimidation of persons, organisations or governments genuinely prepared to contribute to the development of Guyana and to the advancement of the economic well being of its people."

Guyana also viewed the act of "economic aggression" as a new violation of the Geneva Agreement which did not prohibit Guyana from continuing to grant concessions over any part of the territory within its existing boundaries.

Despite the Guyana statement, two North American oil companies, Continental and Globe, which had been granted mining concessions in the Essequibo region of Guyana, gave up these mining rights and closed down their exploration operations. It was obvious that these companies which held business connections with oil companies operating in Venezuela succumbed to intimidation following the publication of the Venezuelan advertisement.

Venezuela's Decree of the Sea

Venezuelan economic aggression increased further on 9 July 1968 when President Raul Leoni issued a "Decree of the Sea" which purported to annex as part of the territorial waters and contiguous zone of Venezuela, a twelve mile belt of sea lying along the coast of Guyana between the mouth of the Essequibo River and Waini Point. The decree also ordered the Venezuelan armed forces to impose domination over that belt of sea.

It must be noted that since 1954 this belt of sea became internationally recognised as Guyana's maritime space when by the British Guiana (Alteration of Boundaries) Order in Council made by the Queen in Council of the United Kingdom, the country's territory was extended seawards to cover the entire continental shelf.

Burnham's statement to the National Assembly

On the day after the decree was published, Guyana's Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham, issued a brief statement condemning the Venezuelan action. On the morning of 12 July, in the absence of PPP leader Dr Cheddi Jagan who was out of the country, he conferred with the party's deputy leader, Ashton Chase, on the new situation; and in the afternoon, he addressed the National Assembly on the issue.

After reviewing the history of the Venezuelan claim to Guyana's territory, Burnham showed how Venezuela frustrated the work of the Mixed Commission and violated the Geneva Agreement.

Burnham continued:
"...Now comes the preposterous decree signed on the 9th instant by the President of Venezuela. The decree is, we contend, a nullity and will be exposed for the unprecedented absurdity that it is. Whatever positions individual countries may take in relation to the breadth of territorial sea, it is palpably clear that only one state may possess sovereignty over the territorial sea relating to the same coast.

"If this needed demonstration, it is shown by Article 1 of the 1958 Geneva Convention of the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, which provides that "the sovereignty of a State extends beyond its land territory and its internal waters, to a belt adjacent to its coast, described as the territorial sea". Venezuela signed the Convention on the 30th October, 1958, and ratified it on the 15 August, 1961, without any reservations relating to that Article. Indeed such reservations as there were related to Trinidad, Aruba and Curacao. The Convention itself came into force on the 10th September, 1964. Unless and until a decision in favour of Venezuela is forthcoming under the procedure of the Geneva Agreement, Guyana's sovereignty over the generally recognised continental shelf and territorial seas cannot be disturbed. Indeed, Venezuela has at all material times heretofore recognised Guyana's sovereignty over the territorial waters in relation to the coastline in question, and she cannot claim sovereignty over territorial waters relating to the same coastline. . . ."

"The Venezuelan Decree is an unmistakable attempt to assert a claim to the Essequibo region of Guyana outside of the Mixed Commission and is, therefore, yet another calculated breach of Article V (2) of the Geneva Agreement which expressly provides that no claim whatsoever shall 'be asserted otherwise than in the Mixed Commission while that Commission is in being'."

Burnham revealed that he had asked Guyana's Ambassador in Caracas to return to Georgetown for immediate consultations. He also announced that at the request of Guyana's Permanent Mission to the UN, the UN Secretary General had circulated to all member states a report of the Venezuelan decree together with the earlier statement he had issued.

In addition, he stated that he spoke with the British High Commissioner in Georgetown, since the United Kingdom was a party to the controversy with Venezuela and a signatory to the Geneva Agreement. And based on the lengthy discussions with the deputy leader of the PPP, Ashton Chase, it was agreed that the National Assembly would meet the following week to discuss and debate fully the Venezuelan decree.

American opposition to the decree

The United States government was concerned over this new situation and expressed its opposition to this decree. On Saturday 13 July, the Under Secretary of State, Nicholas Katzenbach, called in Venezuelan Ambassador Tejera Paris to discuss the developments. He told the Ambassador that the meaning of the decree was unclear to the American government and would appreciate an explanation since it was potentially serious both from the point of view of international law and also of internal Guyanese politics. He said that if the intent of the decree was merely to put the world on notice that "when and if Venezuela attained sovereignty over territory it claimed", the United States would have no problem with it, although it was difficult to see what advantage there was to Venezuela in issuing this decree at that time. However, he added that the US did not accept decree's validity if it implied actual exercise of sovereignty and, if the matter came up in any international forum, the US could not support Venezuela.

The United States also viewed the decree as serious in terms of the Guyanese electoral situation. The American government felt that it was of more immediate interest to Venezuela and hemisphere if Forbes Burnham - whom the Americans were supporting - would win the forthcoming elections in December 1968 in order to prevent Jagan and the PPP from re-gaining power. Katzenbach believed that moves such as this claim made by the Venezuelan decree were not helpful because they eroded Burnham electoral strength and diverted his attention during the critical remaining six month campaign period. Accordingly, it also made it difficult for the American government to counsel Burnham to use moderation whenever he felt obligated to defend his position.

The details of this meeting were set out in a secret telegram sent by the Secretary of State Dean Rusk to the US Embassy in Caracas. Copies were also sent to the American Embassies in Georgetown and London. The telegram instructed the US Embassy in Georgetown to "convey general line of conversation to Burnham in strictest confidence but should avoid giving him any encouragement to take matter to international organizations."

In a response, the US Embassy in Caracas in a secret telegram to the State Department on 16 July 1968 reported that Venezuelan officials were "piqued over US position on decree as stated Saturday by Katzenbach." In a meeting held on the same day with the American ambassador in Caracas, Maurice Bernbaum, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Iribarren Borges, declared that Venezuela's "territorial claims must take precedence over any consideration their effect on Guyana's domestic political situation." The telegram also stated that on the same day Minister of Interior Leandro Mora told an Embassy officer that the State Department did not appreciate "Venezuela's 'feelings' on this matter."

(These telegrams were declassified and published in 2004 by the US State Department in Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, Volume XXXI, South and Central America; Mexico).

Resolution of the Guyana National Assembly

The debate on the Venezuelan decree took place on Wednesday 17 July in the Guyana National Assembly and the leading members of the three political parties - PPP, PNC and UF - were unanimous in condemning Venezuela. However, Dr. Jagan was the only leader who urged that all matters relating to Venezuelan aggression should be raised in the Security Council of the United Nations. He also sharply criticised the government for signing the Geneva Agreement.

Burnham, in his speech, did not fully agree with approaching the Security Council immediately since support first had to be obtained from the regional groupings. He qualified this by saying: "The Government and people of Guyana, in the present circumstances, have got to think in terms of support not merely of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and the USSR. It has got to think in terms of the support of the United Nations from the large range of members who are in groups. It is proposed also to hold discussions with all the groupings in the United Nations and each of these groupings there are members of the Security Council."

At the end of the debate a resolution condemning the Venezuelan aggression, including the occupation of Guyanese territory on Ankoko Island, was unanimously passed by the National Assembly. By this resolution the members of the National Assembly:

"(1) declare the decree to be a nullity and approve of it being so treated by the Government of Guyana insofar as it purports to relate to any part of the sea, including the territorial sea and the contiguous zone, adjacent to any part of the coast of Guyana and to any part of the continental shelf forming part of the territory of Guyana;

"(ii) condemn the said Decree as constituting a threat of aggression against Guyana and a situation likely to endanger peace and security;

"(iii) denounce as an act of aggression against Guyana done contrary to the Charter of the United Nations any attempt by the Government of Venezuela to implement the said Decree over any part of the sea, including the territorial sea and the contiguous zone, adjacent to any part of the coast of Guyana or any part of the continental shelf forming part of the territory of Guyana;

"(iv) approve of the Government of Guyana taking all necessary steps to secure the territorial integrity of Guyana, including the rights under international law to and over the sea adjacent to its coast, including the territorial sea and contiguous zone, and the continental shelf forming part of the territory of Guyana."

A copy of the resolution was sent on 19 July 1968 by the Guyana government to the Venezuelan of Foreign Affairs Minister. Just the day before, Guyana also sent to Venezuela an official protest note strongly condemning the decree as a form of aggression.

At the same time this protest was sent, Guyana's Permanent Representative at the United Nations, John Carter, issued a statement to the Latin American Group at the United Nations in which he described the decree as an act of "international lawlessness".

Pressures against going to the Security Council

Most likely, Burnham was pressured into not raising the issue in the Security Council. The day before the debate in the National Assembly, the US Ambassador to Caracas, Maurice Bernbaum, declared in the Venezuelan capital that the United States would take a neutral position on the border issue. And according to the Guyana Graphic of 20 July, the American government was not anxious for Guyana to take its territorial controversy with Venezuela to the United Nations Security Council. The paper reported:

"The Graphic was reliably informed yesterday that the reasons for the American anxiety were clearly stated to the Guyana Government by the US Ambassador in Georgetown, Mr. Delmar Carlson.

"To quote authoritative sources, "the intricacies and ramifications" that would be involved if the border row with Venezuela went before the Security Council at this stage, was impressed upon the Government.

"The same sources also confirmed that the US Government was seeking to influence both Venezuela and Suriname against pressing their border claims on Guyana at this stage since this may add to the problems of Prime Minister Burnham's Government and militate against him at the forthcoming elections.

"The American Government has made it clear that while it was friendly disposed to the Burnham Government - which it was committed to support - it was also mindful of America's responsibility towards Venezuela, and the hemisphere as a whole."

On 20 July 1968, Burnham left Guyana for a visit to the United States where, among other duties, he was engaged for an address to an Overseas Press Club on "political conditions and the communist threat" in Guyana.

On his arrival in New York he said that his government was considering taking the border issue before the UN Security Council in order to appeal for protection. His government would also appeal to "friendly nations" such as Canada, Britain and the USA for such protection.

Later, in the US capital, Burnham brought US Acting Secretary of State, Nicolas Katzenbach, up to date with the border developments. On 27 July, he conferred with President Lyndon Johnson, and on the same day departed for Canada where he later held discussions with Canadian Government leaders.

PPP condemnation of Venezuela

The first meeting of the Mixed Commission after the issuing of the Venezuelan Decree of the Sea opened at the City Hall in Georgetown on 26 September 1968. The delegates were greeted with a massive picketing demonstration organised by the PPP and its youth arm, the Progressive Youth Organisation (PYO). At the same time the demonstration was going on, the PPP issued a statement which said:

The PPP has again picketed the Mixed Boundary Commission in protest against the continued meetings which are considered absolutely useless in the light of Venezuela's hostile acts of aggression.

The PPP believes that continued collaboration with the Venezuelans at this period makes a mockery of Government's protestations concerning the occupation of Ankoko and the Decree issued by the Venezuelan President in relation to our territorial waters.

Guyana's statement to the UN General Assembly

Despite Burnham's threat to raise the territorial issue, and particularly the Venezuelan new maritime claim, at the UN Security Council, the Guyana government never actually did so. Nevertheless, Guyana's Minister of State and Attorney General, Shridath Ramphal, did refer to Venezuela's unilateral decision to reject the arbitral boundary award of 1899 and that country's claim to Guyanese territory, when he addressed the UN General Assembly of the United Nations on 3 October 1968. There he questioned the unilateral renunciation of border treaties stating that such action would be to the disadvantage of a small State anywhere in the world. He added:

Indeed, it could be the experience of any State at the hands of some powerful neighbour, once boundary settlements lose their sanctity and become forever arbitrable in response to the dictates of power. My Government invites this Assembly to consider the chaos and confusion into which most of the world's frontiers would be thrown if all that one party to a boundary settlement need to do to secure that boundary's revision is to constitute itself a judge in its own cause; to assert that the settlement is not valid; to proclaim a new boundary consonant with its own ideas; and to assume the right, once it has the strength and power, to extend its frontiers into the territory of a neighbouring State. It is preposterous and unthinkable that such a situation can be tolerable twenty-three years after the signing of the Charter, and yet this is the course upon which the Government of Venezuela has embarked. . ."

19 November 2007