The Ankoko Incursion

Click here to close this window and return to the main menu

Previous Chapter     Next Chapter

Venezuelan intrusion on Guyanese territory

In February 1966, the Governments of Venezuela, the United Kingdom and Guyana signed the Geneva Agreement aimed at resolving the controversy over the Venezuelan claim that the arbitral award of 1899, which settled the border between Venezuela and Guyana, was null and void.

The Agreement provided that "no new claim or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in these territories (of Venezuela and British Guiana) shall be asserted while this Agreement is in force, nor shall any claim whatsoever be asserted otherwise than in the Mixed Commission while that Commission is in being".

Despite this declaration, a few months later a well-armed group of Venezuelan soldiers, along with civilians, encroached upon and occupied territory on the Guyana side of the border. This encroachment occurred, unknowing to Guyana Government, on the Guyana half of the island of Ankoko at the confluence of the boundary rivers, Cuyuni and Wenamu (Wenamo). It took the form of the introduction of military and civilian personnel and the establishment of an airstrip and the erection of other installations and structures, including a post-office, school and military and police outposts.

The incursion on Guyanese territory on Ankoko Island by Venezuela was reported to the Guyanese authorities early in October 1966 by a diamond prospector who was in that forested and almost uninhabited area at the time. As a result, a Guyanese team of senior officials, including police officers, visited the vicinity on 12 October 1966 and verified that Venezuelan personnel were occupying the Guyana side of the island where they had already constructed an airstrip.

Subsequently, on the morning of the 14 October 1966, Forbes Burnham, as Prime Minister and Minister of External Affairs of Guyana, dispatched a strong protest to the Foreign Minister of Venezuela, Ignacio Iribarren Borges, and demanded the withdrawal of Venezuelan troops and the removal of installations they had set up on Guyana's territory.

Shortly after, Burnham called in the Leader of the Opposition, Dr. Cheddi Jagan, to brief him of the situation. Later that morning, in a radio broadcast Burnham informed Guyanese of the developments. Urging them to remain calm, he added that every step was being taken "to retain our territorial sovereignty by peaceful means."

Protest in Guyana

Burnham's announcement immediately galvanised all Guyanese to condemn the Venezuelan action. A few hours after the broadcast, members of the Progressive Youth Organization (PYO) and the Young Socialist Movement (YSM), the youth arms of the PPP and the PNC respectively, mounted a large protest outside the Venezuelan Consulate General in Middle Street, Georgetown. In the course of this noisy demonstration, some of the protestors invaded the compound and pulled down the Venezuelan flag from the mast and then proceeded to burn it on the street.

An immediate protest to the Guyana Government was made by the Consul General, Seņor Aranguren to whom the Guyana External Affairs Ministry later in the evening sent a letter expressing regrets over the flag-burning incident. On the following morning, the 15 October, the Minister of State and Attorney General, Shridath Ramphal, sent a note of apology over the desecration of the Venezuelan flag to the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry and, shortly after, Burnham met with the Consul General to personally express similar sentiments.

The opposition People's Progressive Party (PPP), on the same day, condemned the Venezuelan incursion on the Guyanese side of Ankoko Island. Some days later, the United Force at a public meeting in Georgetown also criticised the Venezuelan action.

Venezuelan reply

The Venezuelan Foreign Minister replied on the 18 October to the Guyana protest. In a note to the Minister of External Affairs, (Burnham), Iribarren Borges stated that "that the Venezuelan Government does not accept the said protest, as the island of Ankoko is Venezuelan territory in its entirety and the Republic of Venezuela has always been in possession of it." He added that if Guyana "should have any reclamation to formulate", it should do so through the Mixed Commission created by the Geneva Agreement.

Analysis of Guyana's protest over Ankoko

Guyana regarded the Venezuelan reply as totally unsatisfactory, and there followed an exchange of diplomatic notes between the two countries throughout the rest of the year. Guyana suggested that in preference to the matter being raised at the United Nations, representatives of both Governments should carry out a joint examination of the boundary map, prepared in 1905 by a joint team of British and Venezuelan surveyors, for the purpose of determining the position of Ankoko in relation to the existing boundary. This was rejected by Venezuela who insisted, again, that if Guyana wished to discuss the matter it must be done through the Mixed Commission.

In a booklet entitled The Ankoko Affair, (published by the Ministry of External Affairs of Guyana in 1967), the Guyana Government carefully analysed its protest over the incursion on its part of Ankoko Island. It stated that in protesting against the Venezuelan incursion on the territory given to Guyana by the Arbitral Award, it was upholding the Geneva Agreement while at the same time complaining of its seemingly unilateral cancellation by Venezuela. The object of the Geneva Agreement, the Ministry said, was clearly to keep matters in the pre-existing state until it should be otherwise decided under the procedure laid down by the Agreement. A party which was asserting rights larger than those assigned to it under the map was, therefore, asserting a claim, and if it did so otherwise than through the Mixed Commission, it was in breach of the Geneva Agreement.

The Guyana protest, therefore, indicated that Venezuela, acting outside the Mixed Commission, was asserting, by military means, certain rights larger than those accorded to it and was, thus, in breach of the Geneva Agreement. The Ministry stated that the Venezuelan suggestion that Guyana's protest amounted to an assertion of claim - which could only be done through the Mixed Commission - was, therefore, fallacious and misleading.

The Guyana protest also sounded a warning of the expansionist nature of Venezuela's ambitions and its unwillingness to be deterred either by the general principles of international law or by specific terms of bilateral or multilateral international agreements that it had solemnly concluded.

The dividing of Ankoko Island

The Arbitral Award of 1899, which settled the boundary between Guyana and Venezuela, stated clearly that the boundary should run "along the midstream of the Acaribisi to the Cuyuni, and thence along the northern bank of the River Cuyuni westward to its junction with the Wenamu to its westernmost source. . . ." At the junction referred is the island of Ankoko with an area of roughly six square miles.

In connecting the boundary from the north bank of the Cuyuni to the midstream of the Wenamu, the Mixed Venezuelan-British Boundary Commissioners drew a line passing through the island and dividing it from north to south in roughly equal parts - the eastern part of about three square miles falling on the British Guiana (Guyana) side of the boundary and the western part falling on the Venezuelan side. A boundary map showing these details was signed on the 7 January 1905 by the Boundary Commissioners, Harry Innis Perkins and Charles Wilgress Anderson of Great Britain and Abraham Tirado and Elias Zoro of Venezuela.

Ever since the completion of the work of the Boundary Commission, the eastern part of Ankoko was recognised as juridically and administratively part of Guyana and totally within its boundaries. The Venezuelan Government had never before challenged the validity or accuracy of the map produced by the Boundary Commissioners and had at no time asserted sovereignty over the entire island of Ankoko. The Geneva Agreement and the discussions which led up to it concerned the sole issue whether the Arbitral Award of 1899 was null and void; they involved no challenge to the accuracy with which the boundary line as shown on the 1905 map reflected the terms of the Award.

The boundary of Ankoko as shown on the 1905 map was indeed reproduced on Venezuelan maps published in 1911 and 1917, the former having been issued under the express authority of the administration of General Gomez, then President of Venezuela, and signed by F. Alicantara, the Venezuelan Minister of Internal Affairs.

But the most convincing demonstration of the degree to which the 1905 delimitation had at all times before been accepted by Venezuela was shown on the 13 December 1965 when the Legislative Assembly of the State of Bolivar formally acknowledged that the eastern part of Ankoko Island was in fact Guyanese territory.

The State of Bolivar, a constituent State of the Republic of Venezuela, forms part of that country's boundary with Guyana in the vicinity of Ankoko Island. An Extraordinary Gazette of the State of Bolivar on the 3 January 1966 published the relevant portion of the law passed by the Legislative Assembly which declared the boundary with Guyana to be:

". . . .down the River Acarabisi to its mouth with the Cuyuni and from this point upstream along the River Cuyuni on its left bank as far as the Island of Anacoco, where running from north to south it divides it into two portions, the western portion belonging to the State of Bolivar and the eastern to British Guiana; from the southern terminal of this line on the above mentioned Island of Anacoco it follows the left bank of the River Wenamo. . . ."

Venezuelan reaction

However, despite the wealth of historical and legal evidence to prove that eastern Ankoko was Guyanese territory, the Venezuelan Government continued to maintain, after its incursion, that eastern Ankoko was Venezuelan territory. And even though soldiers from the recently formed Guyana Defence Force were rushed to the border area to establish a military post at Eteringbang on the south bank of the Cuyuni River in the vicinity of Ankoko Island, the Venezuelans refused to withdraw its personnel from the Guyanese part of the island. Shortly after the incursion, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Dr. Iribarren Borges, at a press conference in Caracas adamantly insisted that the entire island "has always been Venezuelan and the presence of Venezuelans there is permanent".

In addition, while the first Guyana protest was being considered in Caracas, the semi-official newspaper, La Republica, on 17 October 1966, while stating that Guyana's protest completely lacked foundation, revealed that Venezuelan troops had been installed in eastern Ankoko six weeks before the incursion was discovered by Guyana.

Noting that Guyana's protest should have been directed through the Mixed Commission, the paper stated that Burnham preferred to make a prior "demagogic posture" in addressing the Guyanese people on the radio. The paper further claimed that the Guyanese Prime Minister made a political blunder when he sought the support of Dr. Cheddi Jagan in the "unfounded protest against Venezuela. . . One does not know to what point the demagoguery which Jagan is putting into practice against our country might lead, as deduced from his recent speeches."

No doubt, the Venezuelan newspaper was referring to speeches made at public meetings in Guyana in which Dr. Jagan severely castigated Venezuela for seizing Guyanese territory, and urged the Guyana Government to raise the matter in the UN Security Council.

Announcement in National Assembly

On the 25 October, the National Assembly (Parliament) of Guyana met to hear a statement from Prime Minister Burnham on the situation. The statement set out the background to the drawing of the boundary line through the island of Ankoko and gave details of the border controversy up to that time. A motion by Dr. Jagan to debate the issue was refused by the Speaker of the Assembly who said that the time was not opportune. As a form of protest over the Speaker's action and the Government's refusal to agree to a debate, the PPP representatives staged a walk-out from that sitting of the Assembly.

Statement by Venezuelan Ambassador

Matters remained at a stalemate for the rest of the year with Venezuela determined not to withdraw from Guyanese territory. By the beginning of 1967, Venezuela upgraded its Consulate General to that of an Embassy and appointed Walter Brandt as its first Ambassador to Guyana. On the 26 April 1967, the Guyanese evening newspaper, Evening Post, featured on its front page an article based on an interview with the Ambassador. According to the paper, Brandt insisted that the entire island of Ankoko was Venezuelan territory, none of which would be yielded to Guyana. The island was one of Venezuela's border outposts, he stated. He explained that when the Guyana Government objected to Venezuela's occupying the eastern section of the island, the impression was gained that the Venezuelans had just invaded that area. He claimed that Venezuelans had long been living all over the island which became known as "Anakoko" because a Venezuelan woman named Ana used to sell coconuts on the island.

Brandt told the newspaper that the island was not being used as a military base, and that the airstrip built on the island was to allow for an air service to be operated between the island and populated centres to enable the residents to obtain food and medicine.

The Ambassador also reported that relations between Guyanese on the Cuyuni River and the Venezuelans on the island were very friendly. He added that Guyanese and Venezuelan soldiers mixed freely, visited each other and played dominoes and other games, and exchanged food and gifts. No Guyanese soldiers, he said, were stationed on Ankoko and only the Venezuelan flag was flying on the island.

US interest

The invasion of Guyanese territory was viewed with great concern in the region and almost immediately the English-speaking Caribbean countries expressed solidarity with Guyana and called upon Venezuela to withdraw. The United States Government, a close ally of both Burnham and President Leoni of Venezuela, also became very worried over the border conflict and the military developments. According to a State Department circular telegram from the Department of State to all American Republic Posts, dated 17 July 1968, the American Government encouraged President Leoni in mid-1967 to receive "a Guyana emissary" to discuss the situation. The subsequent discussions resulted in easing of tensions, and Leoni assured the Guyana Government that Venezuela had no intention to use force in the dispute and that the matter "would be played in low key during pre-electoral period in Guyana." (Elections in Guyana were due in late 1968 and the US administration would later heavily involve itself in helping Burnham rig the results in his favour).

Meanwhile, the Guyana Government, despite being urged by the PPP to do so, refused in 1966 and the following year to raise the issue at the United Nations. The Government had even instructed its representatives on the Mixed Commission not to raise the matter at the meeting of the Commission Caracas during December 1966. It was apparent that Burnham wanted to allow the American Government to utilise its clout with Venezuela to encourage a military withdrawal.

However, in 1968, after Venezuelan issued a decree by which it declared "ownership" of a 12-mile strip of the maritime area off the Essequibo, the Guyana Government made mention of the Ankoko incursion in its statements to the UN General Assembly on Venezuelan aggressive actions. Minister of State Shridath Ramphal in a statement to the UN General Assembly on 3 October 1968, for instance, spoke of the Venezuelan occupation of the Guyanese part of Ankoko as an "aggressive act".

Attack on Eteringbang

The Guyanese and Venezuelan military contingents in the area kept a close watch on each other during the period. For a while no serious incidents of interference were reported. But then on 21 February 1970, two days before Guyana was proclaimed a republic, Venezuelan soldiers on Ankoko open fire with guns and mortar on the Guyanese military outpost at Eteringbang. The firing continued intermittently throughout the next day, but there were no reports of injuries even though buildings were damaged.

On 22 February, Minister of State Shridath Ramphal made a verbal protest on these incidents to the Venezuelan Ambassador in Georgetown. Later that evening the Ministry of External Affairs delivered a note to the Venezuelan Embassy protesting in the strongest terms these recent attacks on Guyana's territorial integrity, and calling upon the Government of Venezuela to provide adequate compensation for the damage done.

The information about the attack on the Guyana outpost was soon after brought to the attention of the UN Security Council following another protest note delivered to the Venezuelan Government. In response, Venezuela denied opening fire, and argued that its military forces had no interest in doing so.

Despite these protests, intermittent firing by the Venezuelans into Guyanese territory continued on 24 February, but according to a Guyana Ministry of Defence statement later that day "at no stage in any of the attacks was there retaliation by Guyanese personnel."

A Reuter report from Caracas on the same day stated that while there was a Venezuelan troop build-up in the Ankoko area, and Venezuelan soldiers were evacuating civilians from all areas of Ankoko Island. The report added that more than 100 families were removed, while about 100 students of a Catholic school were also evacuated.

Another Reuter report from Caracas stated that President Rafael Caldera on the 27 February urged the people and Government of Guyana not to consider Venezuela as an enemy and to realize that his country was not interested in war. He also insisted that the note handed to the UN by Guyana charging Venezuela with acts of aggression lacked justification.

Conclusion - 40 years of occupation

No doubt, with Venezuela in occupation of Ankoko Island, any dispute over the occupation, according to the Venezuelan view, had to take the form of a claim to possession of the territory by Guyana. That was why, in those early post-independence years, Venezuela kept insisting that Guyana should raise this "claim" to eastern Ankoko Island in the Mixed Commission set up under the Geneva Agreement - despite the fact that the division of the island had been clearly marked by a joint boundary commission since the beginning of the twentieth century. (The Mixed Commission, comprising Guyanese and Venezuela representatives, was eventually dissolved in 1970).

At different times, Guyana took the complaints about Ankoko to various international forums, but most of the time action was limited to normal diplomatic channels. On the other hand, Venezuela expressed concerns that Guyana's accusations were part of a strategy to present Venezuela as a warmongering nation.

By the 1980s the Ankoko issue declined in prominence, and both countries, since then, left this matter and also the efforts to find an overall solution of the "border" controversy in the hands of the Good Office of the UN Secretary General.

At the present time, Venezuela still occupies the Guyana side of Ankoko Island. By refusing to withdraw after 40 years of occupation, Venezuela, at the very least, created a genuine border dispute with Guyana over this tiny piece of territory.

29 January 2006