Calling Arsonists to Quench Fires? Careful, Guyana

By Corey Gilkes
December 03, 2023 –

lettersCalypsonian/Philosopher Brother Valentino sarcastically sang how the average Trini “doh care if Ash Wednesday fall on Good Friday,” alluding to an acquiescent, happy-go-lucky, carefree culture of conformity in the face of exploitative authority figures. This can be a good thing sometimes, otherwise plenty places coulda (and shoulda) bun down already.

Now is NOT one of those times.


Not with what is unfolding between Venezuela and Guyana including today’s Venezuelan referendum.

I’ve said a million times: information is ammunition which we must stockpile until it’s time to turn into informed action. This should be done independently now given that much of our media are at best sycophantic stenographers for whatever comes out of Washington and Wall Street via local elites. But then again, that same Valentino also told us that in this play called life everybody are actors and have parts to play. So notwithstanding of course the Wayne Kublalsinghs who are like voices in the wilderness, I guess our version of journalism must remain marionette mouthpieces which is the general rule in countries that are post-colonial but not yet de-colonial.

I’m not sure how many are aware that that developing situation between Guyana and Venezuela over the disputed Essequibo area can destabilise this entire region (which is precisely what I suspect certain powerful entities are banking on, think Naomi Klein’s “Disaster Capitalism”). Today the people of Venezuela are supposed to hold a referendum as to whether they agree that the Essequibo should be annexed to their country. This of course can lead to a very volatile chain of events. Now the way the issue is presented in the media and even the release issued by CARICOM a few days ago, one gets the impression — familiar to those who study conflicts in other parts of the world— that this is a straight case of David vs Goliath with the larger bully of course being Venezuela. This has some merit but is largely simplistic, indeed, dangerously simplistic, and frankly, should have sounded familiar to us because it’s the same narrative used to manufacture consent in response to the Iraqi military actions against Kuwait, or in more recent times the military action taken by Russia against the Ukraine in response to NATO’s constant provocation using various proxies.

By the way, those who studied the history of warfare would tell you that David always had the advantage, not Goliath, just saying.

As the situation in our region unfolds, I am seeing on both sides a lot of narrow nationalism and emotionalism that I am certain is being manipulated by and playing into the hands of a third party, the real culprit we should be keeping a close eye on and kicking firmly out of the entire region. But that will not happen anytime soon because as we have seen, regional governments are only too willing to invite the arsonist to help with fires.

Be that as it may, in the last two weeks the Cipriani College of Labour and Co-Operative Studies hosted an event in which both the Guyanese and the Venezuelan perspectives were presented (the conspiracy theorist in me is still wondering why there were so many technical glitches during the Venezuelan presentation). In the Venezuelan presentation, the Ambassador, himself an historian, pointed out that prior to 2015 both governments of Guyana and Venezuela maintained cordial relationships and sought, using the 1966 Geneva Agreement and boosted by the Port of Spain Protocol of 1970 as the platforms, to move towards a mutually amicable settlement regarding the Essequibo region.

So what happened?

Whatever happened, I think that to get a clearer picture we need to be aware of the other parts of the story mainstream media couldn’t be bothered to include. Unfortunately, the people of Guyana and Venezuela today have inherited an issue that goes back well over 180 years. For now I have to set aside the equally important question of the indigenous peoples who have been made invisible yet again by both Guyana and Venezuela.

In much of what I have heard or read regarding this dispute, the 1899 “agreement” — I’ll come back to why I used quotation marks — between Venezuela and Britain which had colonised what was then called British Guiana, keeps coming up as our point of departure. Indeed, many people (and CARICOM) on social media and on radio talk shows consider that “agreement” the same way they defer to local and international laws: with an unquestioning reverence. No pausing to consider the question as to who wrote many of these laws, what were their core beliefs, what interests they were seeking to protect. Nah, the law is the law; me eh understand why people like Ugo Mattei waste he time to write books like “Plunder, When the Rule of Law is Illegal.”

Almost completely absent is any mention of how that “agreement” came about in the first place — think of it as what some in legal circles call “the fruit of the poisonous tree.” But we must first go back a few years before to gain context. In 1814 the British sent a Prussian named Robert Schomburk to draw a map of the area. He arbitrarily drew a line west of the Essequibo River as the new border between Venezuela and British Guiana. In 1850 both governments reached an agreement not to occupy the region but in 1887 Venezuela broke off relations because the British disregarded the agreement and continued to annex territory west of the Essequibo. In 1895 the US, prompted by Venezuela, who appealed to the otherwise problematic Monroe Doctrine, got involved and here is where it gets even more muddled because in 1899 it appears that the British, US and the Russian figures decided to strip Venezuela of almost all the territory west of the Essequibo

And this, for me, is the main thing I haven’t heard or read in any of the reports, maybe I missed it. There was a memorandum published in 1949 by Severo Mallet-Prevost who was an international lawyer appointed by then US President Grover Cleveland during the 1895 controversy to function as agent and then counsel for Venezuela before the Paris Tribunal. He wrote that memorandum in the American Journal of International Law (AJIL, 43 [1949], pg 523-530) posthumously published in 1949 in which he stated that during the adjudication Britain, although party to the dispute raised by Venezuela over Britain’s breaking of a prior agreement and acquired lands west of the Essequibo, nonetheless managed to have appointed two British jurists on the five-man tribunal which was headed by Russian Friedrich von Martens.

Further, Mallet-Prevost stated that he was summoned into the hotel room after an adjournment where he was told that the two British jurists who agreed with the Schomburk Line which essentially, gave the British control of lands right up to the mouth of the Orinoco River. If Venezuela insisted on starting the boundary line from the Moruca River which was further east, then Martens would side with the judges. If, however, the Venezuelans were to accept a line which Martens had in mind, then he, Martens, would convince the two judges to accept it as well because all he was concerned about was arriving at a unanimous decision.

Thus Mallet-Prevost, along with his client, were pressured to agree to the decision they had no hand in making. The Venezuelans were effectively stripped of 90% of the lands west of the Essequibo River, they could not even present their own case but were represented by US American lawyers, Mallet-Prevost being one.

This led to a simmering controversy that endured down through the decades; it even got to the point where during the 1950s, then Venezuelan dictator (a real one) Marcos Evangelista Pérez Jiménez, threatened to invade and occupy the region.

Fortunately, he was removed by a coup in 1958, very likely by the same United States that supported him before.

So, as I pointed out, in his presentation last Monday, the Venezuelan ambassador argued that prior to 2015 both governments sought to maintain cordial relationships. But in 2015 the Guyanese government unilaterally approached the International Court of Justice to declare the validity of the 1899 “Agreement” and also preceded to have installed an oil installation in the contested region— against the terms of the 1966 agreement. But 2015 also happens to be the year that the government announced that ExxonMobil had discovered a huge oil find in the waters off the Guyanese coast.

Exxon, some may recall, was kicked out of Venezuela years before when the company refused to comply with Venezuela’s laws (kinda like how BP didn’t want to deal with our environmental and safety laws when dey was building dey platform, which our media spun in the most disingenuous way, but dais a nex story dey).

The point is that although the government made the announcement in 2015, Exxon knew very well what lay below the Guyanese surface long before they signed the agreement in 1999 to prospect in that region.

As a consequence of that aggressive exploration undertaken by Exxon and a mining company owned by Canada (the other parasite we need to keep a close eye on), it reignited long-simmering issues between not only Guyana and Venezuela, but Guyana and Suriname.

And speaking of agreements, you might want to pause here and refer to my previous illogical rant about how the Guyanese people, through the stellar guidance of its own government and Trinidadian advisors from a certain Opposition party, got suckered and “agreed” to give away to Exxon some 75% of oil revenue towards exploration cost recovery with the remainder split 50-50 between Guyana and Venezuela AND, on top of that, Exxon get ah boss exemption from taxes; read Article 32 of the….”agreement” between Guyana and Exxon then go listen to this guy, take all the time you need, and then ask yourself where does this apply to us in this country? Maybe our violent street crime situation might make a little more sense rather than the shallow bullshit you get on i95.5 and some of the other radio talk shows.

Because if we’re serious of making this region this so-called “zone of peace” (which in my opinion, should be determined by the indigenous peoples, but that’s a next bag of worms for another time), it needs to be clearly, explicitly outlined what that is supposed to mean. Is it the peace some of allyuh thinking of, or is it the Roman peace the other of allyuh thinking of (“peace” achieved by maintaining order through armed repressive containment policies and institutions without rectifying the root causes of the disorder). Whichever one you’re thinking of, get used to the idea that both will require various types of cohesive force in order to be maintained, because like it or not, your ideas of independence and sovereignty remains a hollow farce and a cynical joke to those who carry on the baton from the ones who created our socio-political-economic order. That order set up this hemisphere to be work-stations, not sovereign nations; a network of settler-colonies and plantation societies arranged in a global division of labour to extract from the mineral-rich regions of the world, so for them, your ideas of self-determination means we eh know we place.

So to my Guyanese cousins, I fully understand your anger. But I strongly, very strongly, suggest you redirect some of your anger away from the Venezuelans who are pawns just like you and who themselves were never to exercise sovereignty over their own resources — according to people like the late George Kennan — because, as Valentino points out, “on your oil them foreign parasites dwell;” these multinationals and the governments they direct are anything but the allies and saviours you think they are. Instead, focus more on what (y)our own leaders are doing in (y)our name. We in Trinidad had learned people who warned you long before, not to get tangled up with Exxon, but we all share a similar malaise, namely being afflicted with sellout leaders.

So we might want to look at this thing a little deeper.