Venezuela-Guyana conflict over Essequibo: for an internationalist position!

On Sunday 3 December, a consultative public referendum, called by the National Assembly, on the territorial dispute over the Essequibo territory in Guyana, was held in Venezuela. The escalating conflict over this territory has deeply reactionary implications for both peoples. It is imperative that communists adopt an internationalist position.

[This is an edited version of two articles published by Lucha de Clases, the Venezuelan section of the IMT]

The referendum took the form of five questions, which (in order) asked voters whether they: 1. rejected Venezuela’s “fraudulent” dispossession of Essequibo in the 1899 Paris Arbitration; 2. supported a 1966 Geneva Agreement to settle the question; 3. agreed with Venezuela’s historic refusal to recognise the “jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ)” over the matter; 4. rejected Guyana’s territorial claim; and 5. agreed with the development of an “accelerated plan” to establish Venezuelan sovereignty. 

Voting took place amidst reports of low turnout at polling stations. According to the official data, the percentages of approval were: 97.83 percent for the first question, 98.11 percent for the second, 95.40 percent for the third, 95.94 percent for the fourth, and 95.93 percent for the fifth. Official turnout was 10.5 million, which represents 50 percent of the electoral roll.

Although everyone anticipated a "Yes" victory, the PSUV government was hoping for a higher turnout, given its intense and million-dollar chauvinist campaign, reflecting a general apathy towards all political processes and institutions, while the workers and poor struggle with the basics of life and face continual attacks on their rights.

Interests at stake

After a long period in which the Essequibo territory dispute was shelved, in 2015 it flared up again as a result of oil and gas exploration in the disputed Atlantic zone, authorised by the Guyanese government.

The Essequibo region comprises a territory of 159,500 square kilometres – larger than Portugal – over which Venezuela has UN-recognised claims. This area remains under the jurisdiction of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, covering up to 75 percent of its territory. 

This state of affairs is the result of the Geneva Accord (1966), reached three months before Guyana declared its independence from the United Kingdom. In it, the parties were urged to seek a negotiated solution to the dispute, mediated by the United Nations, which in practice produced a stalemate, due to the refusal of the Guyanese and Venezuelan bourgeoisies to give the slightest concession.

Essequibo has enormous mineral, forest, water and biodiversity resources, but what stands out most are its energy resources. Foreign direct investment for oil and gas extraction in this country has grown by as much as 110 percent in recent years, which explains why Guyana is now the fastest growing economy in the world.

NM Voting Image Prensa Presidencial TwitterVoting took place amidst reports of low turnout at polling stations / Image: Prensa Presidencial, Twitter

The question has been sharpened by the world energy crisis, exacerbated due to global geopolitical clashes (the war in Ukraine and the blockade of Russian energy exports), and armed conflicts in energy-resource producing regions (such as the bloody Israeli military offensive against the Palestinian people of Gaza, and threat of a wider war). 

US imperialism has been strengthening relations with Guyana, increasing the number of high-level meetings between the two states, and the development of joint and international military exercises on Guyanese soil. Clearly, the US is trying to secure and extend the lead of its multinationals in the face of European and Chinese competition.

Venezuela has protested the exploitation of such resources by the multinational Exxon Mobil, which it claims violates the Geneva Agreement and international law. Something the Venezuelan government does not say is that, in addition to Exxon Mobil, companies that are partners of PDVSA in joint ventures in Venezuela (the American Chevron and the Chinese CNOOC), also participate in the exploitation of resources in this area. 

Guyana had asked the ICJ to take preventive measures to prevent the Venezuelan referendum, considering it a "threat". The court ruled on Friday 1 December, refraining from condemning the referendum, but asking Venezuela not to take measures aimed at aggravating the dispute between the two countries.

History of the dispute

The territorial conflict between Venezuela and Guyana is rooted in European colonialism. The area known as Essequibo was part of the Capitania General de Venezuela in the Spanish colony of Gran Colombia which began its process of emancipation in 1810. The eastern border of the territory was along the Essequibo River. In 1814, the provinces under Dutch colonial rule that bordered Venezuela were sold off to Britain. 

The British Empire recognised Gran Colombia’s independence (of which Venezuela was a part) in 1825, and in 1831 (with Gran Colombia’s collapse) merged the Dutch provinces, creating the British Guiana. Years later, the discovery of gold in the Essequibo compelled the first settlers to cross towards Venezuela, with bloody results.

Venezuela and the British crown reached an agreement in 1850 in which both countries committed to avoid occupying the territory in question, but this promise was not kept by the latter, which continued to expand until reaching the mouth of the Orinoco river (which currently marks Venezuela’s eastern border). There were even plans to incorporate Apure, which is now part of the Venezuelan state, into British Guiana.  

The weak Venezuelan bourgeoisie placed its confidence in US imperialism, which was emerging as the dominant power on the continent. The US government proposed in 1895 to settle the dispute through arbitration, and both the Americans and the British agreed bilaterally in 1897 to proceed in this way.

Thus, in 1899, an Arbitral Award was made in Paris without the participation of Venezuelan representation, with five judges: two British, two American and one Russian. As was to be expected, the final decision (which was in reality stitched up behind the scenes), issued on 3 October 1899, legitimised the British dispossession of the extensive territory of the Essequibo. Guyanese officials have historically based their country's sovereignty over the Essequibo on this Award.

After the Second World War, the world witnessed numerous revolutions and uprisings in the colonies under European rule in Africa, Asia and the Americas. In 1950, the People's Progressive Party (PPP) was founded in British Guiana and won a majority of seats in 1953 in the first elections allowed for the House of Assembly. 

Its main leader, Cheddi Jagan, became Prime Minister of a British-led government. The left-wing ideas promoted by Jagan, though reformist, worried the British and Americans in a world marked by Cold War tensions. Months after the elections, Britain sent troops to Guyana, dismissed Jagan and dissolved the legislature. The US then promoted, along reactionary racial lines, a split in the PPP led by Forbes Burnham, who founded the People's National Congress (PNC) party.

In Venezuela, after the fall of the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958 to a popular insurrection, the AD, COPEI and URD parties reached the Punto Fijo Pact to, among other things, ensure the protection of US interests in our country. 

On the Guyanese side, new elections were held in 1961, which the PPP won by a narrow margin, allowing Jagan to once again head a limited government. This government was immediately destabilised by acts of racial violence, fomented by Washington, with the participation of the CIA and British collaboration, and the collusion of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. 

According to document 523 of volume XXXI of the Office of the Historian of the State Department, the government of Raúl Leoni participated in a CIA-led conspiracy to train 100 mercenaries, finance the destabilisation of Guyana, stage a coup d'état against Jagan and kidnap Jagan and his wife to be taken to Venezuela. 

British guyana Image public domainThe Venezuelan claim to Guyana Essequibo is one of the banners that the traditional bourgeoisie has historically raised / Image: public domain

These plans were not carried out, and this obscure episode is omitted almost entirely by Venezuelan history on the dispute with Guyana. It is important to understand how this territorial claim went from a just protest against colonial and imperialist dispossession to a reactionary demand against the process of national liberation for the Guyanese people. 

After numerous negotiations, on 17 February 1966, Venezuela, the United Kingdom and British Guiana, soon to declare its independence, signed the Geneva Agreement, in which all parties committed to seek a peaceful solution, with any disputes mediated by the UN. The arrangement established a Venezuelan-Guyanese commission that had a time frame of four years to put an end to the dispute, which stalled as both bourgeoisies refused to give an inch into each other’s demands.

In October 1966, civil and military Venezuelan personnel took the Anacoco island. The following year, Venezuela had a hand in the making of the Indigenous Conference of Kabakaburi, which called for the development of the Essequibo under Venezuelan sovereignty. In 1968 Venezuela expanded its territorial waters by about 12 miles into the disputed area, an act that was condemned by the Guyanese government. 

Lastly, once again weaponising the demands of indigenous people with reactionary intentions, the Venezuelan government supported the separatist Rupununi revolt, which killed between 70 and 100 people in 1969. In view of all this, the loss of historical legitimacy of the Venezuelan territorial claim is evident.

Exacerbated nationalism on both sides

The Venezuelan claim to Guyana Essequibo is one of the banners that the traditional bourgeoisie has historically raised to express its frustrated aspirations for regional power and domination. It has also been used to disorient and manipulate the population, both in periods of heightened class struggle and in elections.

We see how most sectors of the political spectrum compete to portray themselves as the nation's greatest champions over this question. The pro-imperialist opposition groupings all support Venezuela’s sovereignty over Essequibo, only differing on the methods: some favouring the referendum, others saying the matter should be settled before the ICJ.

The different fractions of the opposition are the heirs of Puntofijismo, which plundered the country for the benefit of the Creole elites and their foreign partners, as well as persecuting and assassinating popular, workers' and leftist leaders. Since the beginning of this century, these same characters have had no qualms about organising coups d'état, calling for foreign military intervention, ordering incursions by US mercenaries and promoting economic sanctions against their own country. We are not surprised they have no qualms about Guyana.

On the other side, we have the PSUV government playing the nationalist card, after having pulverised the wages and fundamental rights of the working class, and been the first to invite capitalists from all over the world to come and exploit the cheapest labour on the planet. The intensification of the conflict has given the PSUV an opportunity to keep the population distracted from the multiple problems it faces. Meanwhile, the anti-popular adjustment measures, combined with repression and the violation of political and democratic rights, continue. 

With regard to the referendum, Maduro seeks to exalt his figure as "leader of the nation" in the face of the foreign threat posed by Exxon Mobil, US imperialism and Guyana, manipulating and distorting the anti-imperialist instinct of broad layers of the population. Some sectors of the left wing of chavismo have shamefully capitulated to the group that is calling for the deposition of demands and the "closing of ranks" for the homeland. 

On the Guyanese side, things are no different. On 24 November, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali, accompanied by military officers, led a nationalist rally on Pakarampa Mountain, a few kilometres from Venezuela's Bolivar State, where he recited the "Oath of National Allegiance" and a giant Guyanese flag was raised. 

The PPP administration has raised the option of establishing foreign-backed military bases in Essequibo and has announced the visit of officials from the US Department of Defence. All these actions and threats constitute dangerous acts of provocation, which we at Lucha de Clases – IMT Venezuela categorically oppose.

Thus, we are witnessing how government spokespeople of both countries are increasingly upping the rhetorical ante, under the watchful eye of the various imperialist powers. The ruling classes of Venezuela and Guyana are inviting the workers to forget their problems, to focus their attention on the threat from across the border, with the help of million-dollar publicity campaigns. 

Urban and rural workers, Guyanese and Venezuelan, are being invited into a dangerous game, where we alone will do the killing if the conflict escalates into a war scenario. It is necessary to be clear on this issue: the elites on both sides of the border only believe in the sovereignty of their bank accounts.

For an internationalist class position

We recognise that the territory of the Essequibo was stripped from Venezuela as part of the expansionism of the British Empire in the 19th century, in search of gold and a privileged position on the banks of the Orinoco River.

The turbulent first five decades of the 20th century introduced new elements into the equation. In particular, the emergence of the USSR as a major player, the development of the Cold War and the revolutions in the colonial world. The combination of all the above factors transformed the Venezuelan claim into its opposite. 

The Guyanese working people fought to win their emancipation from the United Kingdom, countering interventions by British troops, coup plots and racial clashes sponsored by the USA. Throughout this process, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie was a beachhead for imperialist interests against Guyana. It used the claim to the Essequibo as a weapon to disrupt the national liberation process of a brotherly people.

We must not lose sight of the question of the self-determination of the inhabitants of Essequibo. While we have said that these territories are inhabited by various indigenous peoples, some of whom do not adhere to any national jurisdiction, the absolute majority of the population feels part of Guyana.

We ask left-wing patriots the following question: would they be willing to support the subjugation of a brother nation that does not want to be Venezuelan? If the answer is yes, it is striking to see sectors that on the one hand express correct solidarity with Palestine, while at the same time being ready to accept Venezuela playing a role similar to that of Israel. 

venezuelan tanks Image Cancillería del Ecuador Wikimedia CommonsGiven Guyana's military alliance with the US, the chances of war seem almost nil / Image: Cancillería del Ecuador, Wikimedia Commons

Lenin, in his work The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, said: 

"The interests of the working class and of its struggle against capitalism demand complete solidarity and the closest unity of the workers of all nations; they demand resistance to the nationalist policy of the bourgeoisie of every nationality.” And in this same text, he remarks: “Those who seek to serve the proletariat must unite the workers of all nations, and unswervingly fight bourgeois nationalism, domestic and foreign” [our emphasis.] 

It could not be any clearer.

Foreseeing that our words may be manipulated by some chauvinist, we never said that today's Venezuelan revolutionaries should side with the Guyanese government either, which is subservient to US imperialism. If a US military base is installed in Guyana, the ruling classes of this country will serve as a beachhead for aggression against our people. 

That is why, just as strongly as we condemn the manoeuvring of the PSUV and the chauvinism of the traditional bourgeoisie, we also repudiate the actions of the Guyanese bourgeoisie and its pro-imperialist government. Let it never be forgotten that the national question is first and foremost a class question.

Will there be war? A diplomatic solution, satisfactory to all parties, is, to say the least, utopian. It is only through a war that the Venezuelan might achieve sovereignty over Essequibo. But given Guyana's military alliance with the US, the chances seem almost nil. Maduro is nevertheless under huge pressure to commit to the process he started following this referendum. No scenario is ruled out. 

It is necessary to defend an internationalist position, in the face of the shameful chauvinism of exploiters on both sides, and of jingoists of all colours. The working people, both east and west of the Essequibo River, have the same enemies: the imperialist vultures and their sell-out bourgeoisies. Class war, aimed at overthrowing the capitalist social regime, is the only kind of war we must be prepared to wage.

The only path to a real and just resolution lies in the workers of both countries, at the head of all the oppressed, overthrowing their respective ruling classes and advancing towards the construction of socialism. Only on this road, freed from the yoke of those who have plundered us all our lives, and within the framework of a Socialist Federation of Latin American and Caribbean States, will it be possible to use the wealth of this region for the benefit of the entire population.

 With the same courage as Karl Liebknecht in 1914, consistent revolutionaries must raise the slogan: "No war, the main enemy is at home".

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