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Venezuela - Guyana: No fundamental change

Editorial from Stabroek News

Reprinted from the Stabroek News edition of (22.02.2004) - The charismatic President of Venezuela, full of charm and good humour, touched down last Thursday on the soil of the nation whose economy he has stymied, and three-fifths of whose land-space he has claimed in the name of his people. Riveting speeches were made, children were kissed and invited to Caracas, Guyana's presidents - past and present - were praised, oil purchases were discussed, debt was forgiven, health and education projects were agreed, a Caracas-Georgetown road link was announced, integration was proposed and a "love process" was declared.

In the midst of all this 'amour,' ordinary Guyanese had only one question to ask: Did President Chavez give any indication that Venezuela might be prepared to move in the direction of abandoning her claim to our territory? The answer is, of course not. And is she now disposed to stop placing obstacles in the way of Essequibo's economic development? The answer to that one too seems to be a qualified no. If it is roads, water, energy, communications and agriculture, there might not, apparently, be a problem. But the Venezuelan head of state informed the media that he considered any other project should be discussed within the context of the high-level bi-lateral commission.

Fortunately, the Government of Guyana did not share this view, and so no agreement was arrived at regarding it, although in our edition yesterday we did report Foreign Minister Insanally as saying that the commission could be used to exchange information - whatever that means. Be that as it may, the bottom line is that Venezuela's position in relation to the 1899 arbitral award has not changed, all the displays of affection notwithstanding.

Let it not be forgotten that President Chavez has not always been so accommodating in his dealings with us; prior to his present domestic difficulties, he adopted the most aggressive stance of any Venezuelan President on the matter of the frontier since Herrera Campins in the early 1980s. Since this issue has not yet been resolved, we should always be conscious of the possibility that if the political situation to the west of us stabilizes, it could again be revived in a more active form.

In other words, assurances about a "love process" mean nothing in the long term; it is at the whim of any given Venezuelan administration as to how it treats with us. Our neighbour is not only far bigger and more powerful than we are, but she is also the one making the claim against us, and not vice versa. How and when she prosecutes that claim, therefore, is entirely within her discretion and not ours.

And there are some very compelling reasons why President Chavez should be seeking a warm relationship with us now. He is facing a possible recall referendum at home; he governs a bitterly divided nation; and he is at serious odds with Washington which he accuses of trying to bring down his government, and which in turn has accused him of linking with Cuba's President Castro to destabilize democratic governments in the region. A sympathetic Guyana to the east, therefore, is far more in his interest at the moment than one which is openly aligned with the US, as is the case with Colombia where border tensions are high.

All of which does not mean to say that he is allowing the matter of the territorial claim to lie completely dormant for the time being; he has other avenues open to him. His talk in our capital was all of integration - including the political integration of the continent of which Simon Bolivar dreamed. The instrument of 'integration' where we are concerned is the Caracas-Georgetown road link, to which the Government of Guyana, it seems, has unhesitatingly committed itself without a second cautionary thought.

It is an area where we should tread carefully. Venezuela is undoubtedly unhappy with the Brazil-Guyana road, which, in conjunction with a deep-water harbour, will allow our neighbour to the south a degree of influence over large areas of this country - including parts of Essequibo - which has not been possible hitherto. Venezuela's primary territorial focus has always been the north-west, and a road to Georgetown would allow her to create her own sphere of influence there.

With two major arteries linking us with big neighbours, and a deep-water harbour servicing Brazil's Amazon region, we will have relatively little room for political manoeuvre. Apart from anything else, Brazil and Venezuela would become political allies in relation to Guyana; there would be no neutralizing the one with the help of the other. This would all be in addition, of course, to the likelihood of us becoming a nodal point in the region for the export of narcotics.

The road to Brazil appears to be a fait accompli. The road to Caracas, however, and the deep-water harbour are not yet in that category. It is not that these things will not come eventually; it is just that we need to make haste slowly in this area. Until we have experience of the kind of problems the Georgetown-Lethem highway will produce, and what measures we can take to counteract these, we should not be rushing blindly into 'integration' with anyone.

In addition, when you are integrating with politically and economically powerful neighbours, it is not their national identity which is going to be subsumed under yours. Finally, and most important, racing into integration with a border controversy extant, is a move fraught with danger, a point that so far has appeared obvious to everyone except the Government of Guyana.

To repeat the point made above, while it is very nice to be on better terms with Caracas, at the most fundamental level nothing in the relationship with our neighbour has changed. Given that, the administration can do no better where Venezuela is concerned than to adopt the old Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared.

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