The termination of the Protocol of Port of Spain

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Burnham's visit to Caracas

On April 2-3, 1981, Forbes Burnham, now President of Guyana, paid a state visit to Venezuela. As a build-up to this event, the Venezuelan daily, El Nacional, during the last week of March, published a series of articles entitled "In the vortex of the Essequibo", aimed at stirring up national support for the Venezuelan claim to western Essequibo. At the same time, the articles unleashed a scathing attack on the political and economic policies of the PNC regime in Guyana (which was classified as the South Africa of South America). They also expressed the view that Guyanese, particularly of Indian and Amerindian descent, were discriminated against and severely oppressed.

No reason was given by the Guyana government for Burnham's visit to Venezuela. However, the Venezuelan media speculated that discussions would centre on the Protocol of Port of Spain which Venezuela might not want to renew after its expiration in June 1982.

After a welcome ceremony at the airport where he was greeted by President Herrera Campins, Burnham proceeded to a wreath-laying ceremony at the Simon Bolivar monument in central Caracas where a group of noisy demonstrators, in a picketing exercise, expressed their country's territorial claim.

The Guyana government apparently wanted to create an impression in Guyana that Burnham obtained a good reception in Venezuela. The Ministry of Information reported that Burnham was given an "impressive welcome" and matters relating to the border controversy were discussed by the two presidents in a very cordial atmosphere.

At a state dinner in Caracas on 2 April, replying to a speech by President Campins, Burnham, touched briefly on the border issue:

"There is a difference of opinion relating to our border. However, given the fact that our two countries have displayed so eloquently on numerous occasions, a collective adhesion to the noble tenets of international law and international relations such as the peaceful settlement of dispute and non-interference in the internal affairs of states, we are also convinced that our border differences can receive dispassionate attention within an atmosphere of harmony and goodwill."

And just before his departure on 3 April, Burnham at a press conference rejected the claim by sections of the Venezuelan press that Guyana was seeking military and other support from the Cuban Government in relation to the border question. He emphasised that Guyana was not soliciting the involvement of any third party in the territorial issue since the matter was between two sovereign states which were competent to settle their problems.

Venezuela's communiqué

But the events took a dramatic turn on the night of the 4 April, when the Venezuelan Government issued from Campins' Miraflores Palace a communiqué emphasising Venezuela's objection to hydro-electric project of the upper Mazaruni and asserting that it had no intention of renewing the Protocol of Port of Spain.

There was no reaction from Burnham until 8 April when he called a press conference to explain his government's position on the issue. He revealed that during his meeting with Campins both of them sought in the spirit of good neighbourliness to exchange views and discussed how they would approach the search for a solution to the differences of opinion on the border controversy. Generally, they agreed that there should be further consultations within the context of the legal instruments relating to the frontier.

Burnham said that they also examined how economic and other forms of cooperation could be implemented especially on the question of the Upper Mazaruni hydro-electric project.

The Guyanese response

By this time, sections of the Venezuelan media were already stoking up the Venezuelan claim and even calling for military occupation of the western Essequibo region. The hysteria this created in Guyana was amplified by sections of the PNC-controlled media claiming that Venezuela was amassing troops in the border region

Support for Guyana's territorial integrity came from numerous political and social organisations in the country. The government received immediate unilateral support from the United Force for the way in which it was dealing with the issue. However, the Working People's Alliance (WPA) declared that the matter could only be properly handled if Guyana had a legitimate, nationally-supported government to enter into negotiations with its neighbour. Emphasising that the party opposed Venezuela's claim, it added that that the Burnham regime did not have the necessary moral authority to enter into negotiations for a final resolution of the border issue.

The first response by the PPP to the escalation of the border issue was a brief statement made by its leader, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, and published in the Mirror of the 19 April 1981. Dr. Jagan expressed regret that the government never thought of consulting with the PPP before Burnham's visit to Caracas to ascertain its views and those of the majority of the Guyanese people on the issue.

Soon after at a public meeting in Georgetown, Dr. Jagan declared: "We would like this border issue to be solved, and not be left dangling like a sword of Damocles over our heads." He also called for the setting up of a "genuine representative body in Guyana to meet with a similar body in Venezuela to trash out this problem. If an agreement is reached, then such an agreement could be lasting."

Diplomatic tensions

Meanwhile, diplomatic tensions rose to a new level when in mid-April 1981, on two occasions, Venezuela alleged that Guyanese soldiers fired shots at Venezuelan army personnel from Eteringbang, the Guyana border post near to Ankoko Island. However, the Guyana government dismissed the allegations as "totally without foundation".

These tensions increased when the 25 April issue of the daily El Diario de Caracas reported that the Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs had given instructions to high functionaries in the international financial organisations to try to block loans which the Guyana Government had requested for the development of the Essequibo. Then on 1 May, Dr. Sadio Garavini, the Venezuelan ambassador in Georgetown, was called home for consultations, a move linked with the stiffening of Venezuela's position on the border issue.

During this period, in Venezuela top ranking military officials held discussions with President Campins after the Venezuelan National Defence and Security Council stated that the Venezuelan claim to the western Essequibo was "a national security issue".

Burnham's speech on Labour Day 1981

Labour Day, 1 May 1981, was widely used by the Guyana government to propagandise its position on the border issue. In Georgetown at the National Park, Burnham addressed a large gathering of school children and workers and devoted his entire speech on this matter. He stated that Venezuela was engaged in both physical and economic aggression against Guyana and pointed out that the Venezuelans were trying to use their "perceived influences" in international circles to block loans and grants intended to be used for the development of Essequibo. He insisted that Guyana was prepared to discuss but not prepared to yield any territory to Venezuela.

Touching on the demand by workers for a minimum wage of fourteen dollars a day, Burnham was explicit: "We can discuss the fourteen dollars; we can discuss twenty-one dollars; but right now we have to defend the Essequibo. Let us decide to unite so that we can defend the Essequibo."

He then proceeded to ask the workers to choose "between the fourteen dollars a day and the Essequibo!" He also urged all Guyanese to join the People's Militia to help defend Essequibo from any Venezuelan military aggression. "Let me hear no squawking about guns before butter, flour and other foods because there would be none of those without the guns," he declared. (An organised large group of PNC supporters in the audience, at this time, chanted that they preferred Essequibo rather than the fourteen dollars a day wage increase!)

Burnham also announced that in an effort to prepare the country to defend itself from the Venezuelan "threat", Parliament would meet during May to review the 1981 budget so as to allocate funds to meet such needs. Further, he intimated that a special meeting of parliament would be called to discuss the border controversy.

PPP comments

On the 10 May, the PPP commented on Burnham's Labour Day speech and the hysteria it was causing. The Party stated:

"The PNC is escalating the verbal hostilities no doubt to give it a convenient lever to stifle the workers' demand for wage increases. . . . The regime, true to its anti-working class colours, is not keen in paying up the fourteen dollars (a day) or to raise wages for 1980-81 to a satisfactory level. Instead it is taking steps to restructure the 1981 budget so as to make more funds available for the military apparatus. . . . In 1980, the PNC declined to pay the $14 (per day minimum wage) and excused itself by saying that the hydro-project was more important. Now, in 1981, it is again excusing itself by saying that the border crisis is more important than "luxuries". . . .

"When the Protocol of Port of Spain expires on June 18, 1982, the Geneva Agreement of 1966 (which the PNC-UF regime should not have signed) will apply. And this provides for a recourse to the UN for a peaceful solution. It does not automatically mean that Venezuela would go to war against Guyana on June 19, 1982 or some hours or days afterwards. Are the Guyanese people to be under the added stress of war hysteria for a whole year to come?"

Diplomatic offensive

During May-June 1981, both countries launched a diplomatic offensive in the Caribbean and Latin America to brief those governments on their respective positions. While the Spanish-speaking countries preferred to remain neutral on the issue, those of Caricom were outspoken in their support for Guyana and demanded that Venezuela should withdraw its claim.

Venezuela also held a high-level meeting between Venezuela and the United States Government in Washington DC. The American representatives at the top-level talks included Vice President George Bush and Secretary of State Alexander Haig while Venezuela's delegation was headed by Interior Minister Rafael Andres Montes De Oca and included Dr. Gonsalo Garcia Bustillos, Minister to the Presidential Secretariat and one of Venezuela's representatives on the Guyana-Venezuela Commission appointed under the Geneva Agreement.

Reporting on the outcome of this meeting, the Guyana Chronicle on 31 May stated:

"American sources at the United Nations Headquarters have been quoted as saying that the USA will never side with Venezuela against Guyana on the border question. Members of the Venezuelan delegation themselves have admitted that the USA is definitely neutral. According to one source, the Venezuelans have been advised by Washington that they (the Venezuelans) can lose many good friends by not abandoning their territorial claim against Guyana".

Venezuela stepped up its "aggression" when on 8 June 1981 the Venezuelan Foreign Minister José Alberto Zambrano Velasco, in a letter to the President of the World Bank, objected to the financing the Upper Mazaruni hydro-electric project by the multilateral institution. While saying that Venezuela had never recognised the arbitral award of 1899, the letter further declared Venezuela's claim to Guyana's territory, and alleged that "the objective pursued by Guyana with its Upper Mazaruni project was political".

The letter also attacked the World Bank insisting that it was not within the Bank's "competence" to "prejudge or adopt a position on border controversies". It also reaffirmed Venezuela's opposition to any transaction between Guyana and the World Bank involving finance of the hydro-electric scheme. In any case, Venezuela argued, the feasibility of the project depended on the purchase of electricity by Venezuela, something which the Venezuelan government did not intend to do.

But in a lengthy letter to President of the World Bank on 19 September 1981, Desmond Hoyte, Guyana's Vice-President for Economic Planning and Finance, strongly denounced the Venezuelan claim and insisted that Venezuela had no right to determine what development projects should be carried out on Guyana's sovereign territory.

Hoyte added that the Venezuelan Foreign Minister was under a misconception that the feasibility of the hydro-electric project depended on the purchase of electricity by Venezuela. The project, he explained, was independently assessed by the World Bank, among others, as being technically and economically feasible, in circumstances which did not "involve or require Venezuelan participation in any shape or form."

UN & Commonwealth meetings

Matters moved in September 1981 to the UN General Assembly where both countries to forward their respective positions. Guyana's Prime Minister, Dr. Ptolomy Reid, in his address on 24 September noted that in Venezuela there were increasingly clamorous calls for a military solution to the controversy. In a reply to Reid's speech on the same day, Dr. Zambrano, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, outlined the Venezuelan version of the history of the border and alleged that the 1899 Award was non-existent. However, Noel Sinclair, Guyana's Permanent Representative to the UN, in exercising his right to reply to Dr. Zambrano's statement, told the UN General Assembly on the 5 October 1981:

"If all a state has to do to secure revision of a frontier is to allege the nullity or the non-existence of the agreement establishing that frontier, without being required to advance proof in support of that contention, then our planet would be thrown into a turbulence of ghastly and unimaginable proportions."

Guyana won further support at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference which was held in Melbourne, Australia during the first week in October 1981. President Burnham addressed the summit which, in its final communiqué stated: "Noting that the existing boundary has been laid down by an international arbitral award in 1899 and accepted by all concerned as the final settlement, they expressed support for Guyana and called for the peaceful settlement of the controversy in accordance with established procedures and with full respect for the sanctity of treaties."

Venezuela's notice to end the Protocol

On 11 December 1981, Venezuela officially gave notice of its intention not to renew the Protocol of Port of Spain beyond 18 June 1982, the date of its expiry. This was communicated in a letter from Venezuela's Foreign Minister Dr. Zambrano to Guyana's Foreign Minister, Rashleigh Jackson.

The British government, as a party to the Protocol, was also informed by the Venezuelan government of its decision. In a statement issued in London, the British Government expressed the hope that on the expiry of the Protocol, the Guyanese and Venezuelan Governments would pursue the procedures for arriving at a peaceful settlement provided in the Geneva Agreement, to which Great Britain remained a party.

That same day the Guyana Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement that it was studying the implications of the Venezuelan notice of termination in the light of the currently evolving circumstances, including statements and pronouncements emanating from Venezuela at that time. The Ministry also reaffirmed that Guyana's policy remained firmly based on the maintenance of good neighbourly relations and the peaceful resolution of the controversy.

In a comment on the Venezuelan notice to end the Protocol, the Guyana Chronicle of the 14 December 1981 quoted Venezuelan Ambassador to Guyana Dr. Garavini as saying that both Guyana and Venezuela failed to make constructive use of the time frame of the Protocol. The Ambassador said three basic sets of consideration influenced the Venezuelan Government to end the Protocol. These, he said, were domestic politics, which was of prime importance, the state of international relations, and the state of affairs between Guyana and Venezuela.

Dr. Garavini did not believe that his Government would be moved to exercise the military option even though there were forces in Venezuela advocating such a move. But he felt that prolongation of the matter would lead to dangerous emotionalism and nationalism on both sides and could jeopardise the prospects of settlement.

Burnham's reaction

In an address on the 25 January 1982 to the Guyana Parliament, Burnham strongly attacked Venezuela for its hostile campaigns against Guyana. Because of the military threat from Venezuela, he declared, Guyana would have to further strengthen its defence measures. This statement was made during a period when production in all sectors of the economy was falling rapidly. This was the period, too, when the PNC administration strengthened its ban on a large variety of imported foodstuffs, including wheat flour, a basic staple of the Guyanese population. Burnham also stated that Guyana would begin an international campaign to inform the world about the spurious nature of the Venezuelan claim.

During the debate on Burnham's address which followed a few days later, the PPP charged that it was not being consulted about the alleged deterioration in Guyana-Venezuela relations, and charged the PNC of using the border issue as a diversionary tactic to justify the imposition of more taxes on the Guyanese people.

Burnham again dealt with the border issue during a speech in Georgetown to mark the twelfth anniversary of the achievement of republican status by Guyana on the 23 February 1982. After dealing with the history of the issue, he examined the current situation:

". . . Now that Venezuela has refused to permit automatic renewal of the Protocol, Guyana stand ready as provided by Article VI of the Geneva Agreement to have recourse to any one of the means of settlement provided under Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations. These include negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement - obviously by the International Court of Justice, resort to regional agencies or organisations, or other means of settlement mutually agreed by the two parties. One means set out under Article 33 of the Charter, which is closed to Guyana, is resort to the regional agency of the Organisation of American States, for by another Treaty of Washington and on the insistence of Venezuela, Guyana is not and cannot be a member of that organisation as it is at present constituted.

"When I paid a state visit to Venezuela on the 2-3 April last year, I proposed to the President of Venezuela that we continue a round of discussions and negotiations with a view to a peaceful solution. Such discussions were to be at the levels of Presidents, Ministers and officials, and I invited the Venezuelan President to return my visit. Though he intimated that Venezuela proposed to exercise its right to terminate the Protocol of Port of Spain, he did not agree to the continuing of dialogue as proposed by me."

He again denounced Venezuela's economic aggression and the "repeated violations of our air space; the violation of Guyana's territorial integrity by an invasion into the Guyana portion of Ankoko Island in September 1966 and its continued illegal occupation since that time; and last but not least, her attempt to appropriate Guyana's offshore waters in July 1968."

He then announced the establishment of "defence bonds" and appealed to all Guyanese to purchase them so that funds could be accrued for the defence of the country.

The "defence bonds" scheme was subsequently launched at the beginning of March 1982 with the government announcing that a target of 10 million Guyana dollars was set for that month. As the scheme went into operation, there were numerous complaints that many persons were being coerced by PNC officials to purchase the bonds, and many workers in the public sector were actually ordered by their superiors to purchase them. Despite big promotional campaigns involving the President and members of the Cabinet in many parts of the country, less than half of the target was met by the end of the month.

Nevertheless, Guyanese sentiments were totally against the Venezuelan claim, and a popular song entitled "Not a Blade of Grass" became a rallying tune throughout the country. The song, recorded the year before by the calypso group, the Tradewinds, was played numerous times everyday on the radio, and it was soon regarded as Guyana's "second" national anthem.

End of the Protocol

At midnight on the 18 June 1982, the Protocol of Port of Spain finally expired. Earlier that day, Guyana Minister of Foreign Affairs Rashleigh Jackson confirmed Guyana's "abiding commitment to international law" and, "while reserving its position on past and continuing Venezuelan acts, now publicly reiterates its consistent resolve to participate in good faith in the processes provided for in Article IV of the Geneva Agreement for seeking a solution to the controversy. . ."

Some four hours before its expiry of the Protocol (on the evening of 17 June), President Burnham made a nation-wide broadcast in which he dealt with the consequence of the termination. He said, inter alia:

". . . . You may ask what next? Simply, Guyana and Venezuela must now return to the Geneva Agreement of 1966 which requires them to identify procedures designed to settle the controversy which has so far, and unfortunately, inhibited the development of those friendly relations which should characterise dealings between neighbours. . .

"From our point of view it was unfortunate that Venezuela never sought . . . . to establish the nullity of the Award, but rather proceeded on the unilateral assumption that the alleged nullity was a fact. . . . We are, nevertheless, prepared to continue the search for a solution in the friendliest manner with our western neighbour; it is our hope that Venezuela stands ready to do likewise. . . .

Five days later, the Venezuelan Embassy in Guyana issued a press statement explaining Venezuela's position on the border issue now that the Protocol had expired. It explained that with the Geneva Agreement back in full force, the Venezuelan government would invite the Guyana government to fulfil its duties in accordance with that Agreement, choosing direct negotiations between the two parties as the means of solution of controversies mentioned in Article 33 of the United Nations Charter. The statement also emphasised that for the two parties to negotiate "a satisfactory solution for the practical settlement of the controversy" they would have to consider "not only the juridical elements involved in this issue, but also all the historical, moral, political, geographic and other aspects that could lead us to a balanced, practical, acceptable and definitively, just solution."

The Embassy further rejected "as absurd, baseless and not serious" recent accusations of Venezuelan intention of using force to solve the controversy. Venezuela, it added, wanted to exist in peace and fraternity with Guyana and, therefore, it was in their common interest to try to understand each other better.

One year after Burnham had promised that the National Assembly would meet to discuss the border issue, this eventually materialised on the 8 July 1982. At the end of the debate, a resolution mandating the National Assembly to establish a "Parliamentary Committee on the Territorial Integrity of Guyana" for the purpose of keeping under constant review developments relating to the Venezuelan claim, was passed unanimously. The resolution, while rejecting "the untenable claim by Venezuela to territory of Guyana", also directed the government seek the support of the international community at all forums including the United Nations.

The nine-member Parliamentary Committee on the Territorial Integrity of Guyana, (five members from the PNC, three from the PPP and one from the UF), was subsequently formed on 25 August 1982.

Proposals and counter-proposals

With the Protocol of Port of Spain having been terminated, there followed an exchange of letters between the two governments as to the way forward as contemplated by the Geneva Agreement. On 1 July 1982, in a letter from Zambrano to Jackson, the Venezuelan government officially proposed to Guyana that direct negotiations should now begin between both Governments.

Jackson responded on the 20 August 1982 saying that Guyana could not accept the proposal and counter-proposed the adoption of judicial settlement as the means of settlement and suggested that the matter could be handled by the International Court of Justice.

However, in a reply on 30 August, Zambrano stated that the proposal of judicial settlement was not suited to the aims and objectives of the Geneva Agreement. He complained that Guyana's negative reply to invitation to negotiate suggested "an unwillingness to discuss or even to listen." He again repeated his proposal of direct negotiations between the two countries.

But in a strongly worded reply on 19 September 1982, Jackson expressed disappointment with the Venezuelan government's "summary, peremptory and seemingly irrevocable a dismissal of one of the means of peaceful settlement" contemplated by the Geneva Agreement "through its clear requirement for a selection to be made of one of the means of peaceful settlement provided for in Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations, which explicitly include both negotiation and judicial settlement."

Jackson urged the Venezuelan government to reconsider the proposal for judicial settlement claiming it was well adapted to deal with the controversy in an independent, impartial and objective manner.

By the 18 September, three months after the ending of the Protocol of Port of Spain, no mutual agreement on solving the issue was arrived at by Guyana and Venezuela. As a result, both countries were now expected to refer the decision as to the means of settlement to an appropriate international organ upon which they should both agree. If an agreement was not reached on which appropriate international organ the question should be referred to, then the Secretary General of the United Nations, according to the terms of the Geneva Agreement, would eventually be requested by both parties to choose a method of peaceful settlement, as stated in Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations, i.e., judicial, negotiation, fact-finding, inquiry, arbitration, mediation, conciliation, or resort to regional agencies or UN bodies.

Eventually on the 19 September, Zambrano wrote to Jackson stating that since the three-month period had elapsed during which the two sides could not reach agreement on the method of peaceful settlement that should be applied, the Venezuelan Government intended to refer the issue to the UN Secretary General and suggested that Guyana should do the same.

On the following day, the Secretary General of the UN, Javier Perez de Cuellar, stated that he was ready to use all the resources at his disposal to settle the Guyana-Venezuela controversy. He said that the problem of the two countries provided an opportunity for both the Secretary General and the Security Council to assist the countries in overcoming their differences. He added that he was in contact with both Governments to consider the ways of preventing a conflict and noted "a genuine desire on both sides to find a just and peaceful solution".

However, in a reply on the 8 October to Zambrano's letter, the acting Foreign Minister of Guyana, Dr. Mohamed Shahabuddeen, noted that while Guyana held the highest respect for the UN Secretary General, he would be competent to act "in circumstances in which the two Governments have failed to agree on an appropriate international organ under the first alternative, an event which has not yet occurred". It was pointed out further that the two Governments had not yet embarked on any steps to reach agreement on an international organ as contemplated in the first alternative. For these reasons Guyana was of the view that the proposal of Venezuela at this stage was "premature and inadmissible".

The letter concluded that Guyana was ready to endeavour to reach agreement with Venezuela on an international organ, and, as such, suggested that the appropriate organ would be the UN General Assembly.

Zambarano replied on 15 October 1982, expressing Venezuela's disagreement with Guyana's latest proposal. He added that since there was no agreement on the selection of an international organ, it was obvious that the issue should be entrusted to the Secretary General of the UN.

Referral to the UN Secretary General

Now that it was clear that the two countries could not concur on an appropriate international organ to deal with the issue, the Guyana government on 28 March 1983 agreed to refer the matter to the Secretary General of the UN who would decide on the means of settlement after consulting with both parties. In a statement expressing this sentiment, the government declared that Guyana "has every confidence in the impartiality and integrity of the Secretary General of the UN and will cooperate full with him in the execution of his task as envisaged in the Geneva Agreement".

At the same time the statement was issued, Foreign Minister Jackson dispatched a letter to his Venezuelan counterpart in which he expressed Guyana's agreement to refer the border issue to the UN Secretary General. Jackson also communicated this information to the UN Secretary General, Perez de Cuellar, who replied on 31 March indicating his readiness to undertake the responsibility of selecting the means of peaceful settlement to resolve the controversy.

Zambrano eventually responded to Jackson on 23 May 1983 expressing satisfaction for the acceptance by the government of Guyana our proposition to go before the UN Secretary-General as the most appropriate international body to fulfil the role envisaged by the Geneva Agreement. He was optimistic that this decision would lead to "a solution satisfactory for the practical settlement of the dispute, so it is amicably resolved in a manner acceptable to both sides. . . ."

30 April 2008