“I am not unhappy with the US position,” said Vice President and Foreign Minister Carl Greenidge, speaking about the US position on the Guyana-Venezuela border controversy (iNews 14/7/15). It is not known whether the use of the double negative indicated that the Vice President was merely satisfied, and not enthusiastic. If it did, he had good reason. The US played a dominant role in the 19th century in pressuring Great Britain on behalf of Venezuela to agree to arbitration of the border dispute. Like Venezuela, it accepted the Arbitral Award of 1899. The US has therefore recognized Guyana’s borders from 1899 to the present, but has pointedly not said so.
Both Caricom and the Commonwealth have repeatedly affirmed recognition of Guyana’s internationally accepted borders. Commonwealth and Caricom Foreign Ministers, meeting in New York last week, did so again, as did Caricom Heads at its recent meeting. The confirmation of such a position by the US, based on historical facts, would be fair and just. But for some unknown reason, the US has been reticent. It cannot be that a forthright position, based on the facts and international law, which the Venezuelans can hardly dispute, would be seen as taking sides. Neither would it derail its current discourse with the Venezuelan Government, or affect its relations with Latin America, many large countries of which do not support Venezuela’s claim.
US Charge d’Affairs, Bryan Hunt, in defining the US position on the matter on July 9 2015, limited his comments to the Geneva Agreement: “The dispute must be resolved peacefully; both sides should avail themselves to the international legal system that exists and it is our hope that whatever resolution is ultimately arrived at will be in full conformity with international law.” By referencing only half the story and omitting mention of the 1899 Arbitral Award, or to Guyana’s current borders being already settled, or even that the Geneva Agreement concerns a controversy over the legality of the Arbitral Award, Venezuela’s argument that the current borders are a colonialist imposition can attract sympathy and justify its aggressive behaviour. The US’s silence hinders Guyana in representing its case to the wider world because the position that the US takes influences other countries. Yet the US is tip-toeing around Venezuela.
Fifty years after the boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela was marked by the Schomburgk Line, in 1844, at the instance of the British, and to which Venezuela objected, the US Congress took action. After intensive lobbying by Venezuela, it passed a resolution in 1895 recommending that Venezuela and the United Kingdom settle the dispute by arbitration. Later that year the US Secretary of State sent a note to the United Kingdom supporting Venezuela and invoking the Monroe Doctrine as the basis of its right to intervene. In December 1895 President Cleveland reiterated the US position and argued that the US had a right to resist British aggression against Venezuelan territory. He asked Congress for funds for a commission. So intense had been the US’s confrontational posture that it almost “plunged the country into a major war” with Great Britain “over nothing.” (Daniel Larison 2012).
Great Britain succumbed and signed the Treaty of Washington in 1897, which provided for the arbitration. It eventually resulted in the Arbitral Award of 1899.
The Arbitration Tribunal included Melville Weston Fuller, the Chief Justice of the US and David Josiah Brewer, a Judge of the US Supreme Court. Venezuela was represented as counsel by Benjamin Harrison, a former US President, Benjamin Tracy, a former Secretary of the Navy and a former US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and James Soley, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Severo Mallet-Prevost was a junior counsel.
The high-powered US presence, both as members of the tribunal and as legal representatives of Venezuela, reflected the importance the US attached to the matter, with a vested interest in the outcome. While the US was not technically a party to the dispute, it had set itself up as representing Venezuela and it accepted the award. The now infamous Memorandum of Severo Mallet-Prevost has received no support from the US.
In these circumstances the position of the US today is wholly inadequate and inexplicable. By confining its comments to the provisions of the Geneva Agreement and omitting to validate Guyana’s territorial integrity as having been settled by the Arbitral Award of 1899, the US’s public statements have been a less than adequate representation of what it knows to be the truth of the matter.
It is therefore hoped that the US will urgently review its position and acknowledge its own history and involvement in the settlement of the boundary between Guyana and Venezuela and the current validity of that boundary. On the basis that the US is a friend of Guyana and had Guyana’s interests at heart, it has deeply influenced political developments from 1960 onwards. It was in 1962 at the UN, just after the commencement of US focus on Guyana, that Venezuela first reneged on the Arbitral Award, after having accepted it for sixty years. If geopolitical considerations were responsible for the silence of the US in the past, that period is over. The US should once again demonstrate its friendship for Guyana, needed now more than ever, by doing what’s right!