Tensions rising in Venezuela-Guyana territorial dispute
BY TIM JOHNSON
ALONG THE GUYANA-VENEZUELA BORDER -- With surprising vigor,
Venezuela has revived a territorial claim on its small eastern neighbor, Guyana,
for a region that covers two-thirds of that country and brims with uranium, gold,
diamonds and timber.
The dispute has touched off patriotic protests in Guyana.
``This is our country. This is where we were born,'' said a Guyanese
Trotman, as he gazed sternly across the river at Venezuela.
Venezuela's claims on the Essequibo region of Guyana took on unusual
Oct. 3 when Venezuela declared it had been robbed of the territory in a treaty
signed a century ago in Paris. It demanded compensation ``for the grave injustice
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel said in an interview
country was the victim of a ``colonial swindle'' in 1899 ``that was very
characteristic of the era.'' Venezuelans still feel the loss of territory sharply today,
``This is a wound that Venezuela has in its flank, and it hurts
us,'' he said. ``But
we are not going to lose our heads over it.''
TALKS, NOT WAR
Rangel said Venezuela will press its claim through U.N.-sponsored
not through war -- and would be satisfied with a part of the disputed, mineral-rich
region. He did not specify which part.
``We are proposing compensation, ways to leave the matter behind.
want this issue to poison relations with [Guyana], which is an important
neighbor,'' Rangel said.
At stake is a 56,000-square-mile region -- roughly the size of
Florida -- that is
covered with dense hardwood forest and is home to 160,000 of Guyana's 750,000
``The Essequibo area is very, very rich,'' said Rudolph Chance,
a retired school
headmaster in the border hamlet of San Martin, Venezuela. ``It's the area where
you find the most uranium. It's got large deposits of gold and diamonds. It's got
copper and other mineral resources. Let's not even talk about the timber.''
In the past decade, Essequibo has attracted 80 percent of Guyana's
Faced with Venezuela's campaign, Guyana's English-speaking neighbors
Caribbean have rushed to its defense. In late October, 15 heads of state of the
Caribbean Community stated ``firm support for the sovereignty and territorial
integrity of Guyana.''
DISPUTE RUNS DEEP
The issue is touching a deeper nerve perhaps than at any time
independence from Britain in 1966. On Oct. 20, protesters in Georgetown,
Guyana's capital, carried placards outside the Venezuelan Embassy with slogans
like ``We ain't giving up -- Not even the mud!'' and ``No, No, No, to Venezuela!'' the
Caribbean News Agency reported.
Newspapers in Guyana have carried accounts of alleged violations
of airspace by
Venezuelan aircraft and unusual troop movements along the border.
Guyanese living in Essequibo County, the largest of Guyana's three
voice disbelief over Venezuela's claim.
``We want to live happy with our neighbors, man, but without Essequibo
would happen to Guyana?'' asked police Sgt. Terrence Semple in the hamlet of
Itiringbang, across the Cuyuni River from San Martin.
Even some Venezuelans living near the border say they don't understand
country is reviving territorial claims on Guyana.
``It's so small. Why bully a small country?'' asked Jerrick Andre,
who spent part of his life in Guyana and has relatives there.
Guyana is not the only neighbor peeved at Venezuela. So is Colombia.
Constitutional Assembly in Venezuela has proposed a new national charter that
establishes borders as they were under Spanish rule in 1810. The article gives
constitutional clout to Venezuela's territorial disputes with both Guyana and
The border friction with Guyana dates to an era when the United
States sought to
shut out European powers from any influence in Latin America.
When British Guiana, then a colony, and independent Venezuela
their common frontier, the United States demanded that Britain accept
international arbitration. Five international jurists -- two Britons, two U.S. citizens
and a Russian -- handed down their decision in Paris on Oct. 3, 1899. Both sides
accepted the ruling as a ``fair and final settlement.''
Venezuela now says that it has uncovered a lawyer's diary from
arbitration hinting that the Russian jurist helped defraud Venezuela.
``This is a historic, severe injustice,'' Rangel said.
The United Nations named a mediator to the dispute in 1983 in
an effort to reduce
the friction. Talks fell largely inactive until Hugo Chavez, a former military coup
leader, won the Venezuelan presidency this year.
A new U.N. mediator, Barbados diplomat Oliver Jackman, took over
Nov. 1 and
will collect proposals from both nations, offering a resolution to U.N. Secretary
General Kofi Annan at some future date.
Along the border, though, tensions are rising.
Villagers in San Martin say Guyanese soldiers recently raped a
woman, and two bullet-riddled bodies of Venezuelan teenagers turned up on the
Guyanese shore of the Cuyuni River last month.
In early October, Venezuela briefly deployed greater numbers of
troops along the
border, contending it was for drug raids.
``They had a buildup of troops, man. Normally they have 30 over
Semple, the Guyanese police sergeant. ``Then all of a sudden they had 300.''