“Relations between Guyana and Venezuela have improved tremendously under Chávez”

Despite a border dispute dating back to the 19th Century, relations between Venezuela and neighboring Guyana have improved significantly over the past 6 years. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez visited the country in 2004, and Venezuela came to Guyana's aid during heavy flooding that effected both countries in early 2005.

Although Guyana is one of the three countries that Venezuela shares a land border with, this huge country is almost completely unknown to most Venezuelans. This is all the more fascinating since Venezuela claims almost 60 percent of Guyanese territory. On each official Venezuelan map, one sees a “zone in reclamation” on the eastern side of Venezuela, often referred to as the Essequibo region. The history of the border dispute between the two countries is very long and complicated and has its roots in colonial times.

Life is different in Guyana. As a former British colony, it has much more in common with the Caribbean than with its South American neighbors.  Cars drive on the left and people listen to reggae and Jamaican dub music. The people are blacker, many of them are descendants of slaves or come from the Indian subcontinent. This is not Latin America, this is the Caribbean. One can even notice this in sports: although part of the South American continent, the national soccer team plays in the CONCACAF group with mainly Caribbean competitors, not against South American teams. Cricket is the most popular sport here, not baseball or soccer.

Are there any developments towards a solution of the border dispute with Venezuela?  What other relationships exist between the two South American countries? Venezuelanalysis.com asks Mr. Odeen Ishmael, the Ambassador of Guyana to Venezuela.

Jeroen Kuiper: Mr. Ambassador, since when have you been based in Venezuela?

Mr. Ishmael Odeen: `I`ve been here since November 2003. I do not know how long I will stay. Usually, we`re supposed to stay for two years, but on my last stop before I came to Caracas, which was Washington, in the end I stayed eleven years.

How would you describe the relationships between Guyana and Venezuela?

The relationship has improved tremendously over the last three to four years. There is a high respect from both sides for the other. I think this has a lot to do with the personal friendship between the two Presidents of our countries. Mr Hugo Chávez and Bharrat Jagdeo are on a first-name-basis. There`s also a longstanding friendship between the people of the two countries, despite the border problem. There have been close interchanges for decades. Many people in Guyana regard the border issue to be an issue for the politicians, not for the common people. The issue is now dealt with by the United Nations, and people are happy about that.

Despite the more than 500 kilometres of shared border between the two countries, there are no official border crossings?

As far as I know, you are right, although I was told that people can cross the border near Eteringbang, on the junction of the Cuyuni-river. The Venezuelan Guardia Nacional partly allows the free movement of people over the border. There is a lot of movement in the region. About 40.000 Guyanese live in Venezuela; according to Venezuela there are even about 70.000 Guyanese living here. Actually, the border between the two countries is a sort of free border, especially for the Amerindians, the native inhabitants of our country. Historically, they do not really recognise `lines on the ground` anyway.

Are there any plans for an official border crossing?

Yes, there are. Such a border crossing is part of the IIRSA, the South American Initiative for Regional Infrastructural Integration. A road is being planned from Ciudad Bolivar, across the Guyanese Northwestern Territory towards Bartica. From there, it should be connected to Linden in Guyana and from there it should move on to Surinam. The Andean Bank has made funds available for the feasibility study of such a road. The study should be under way now. The road would be very important, not only for improving transport between the two countries and for developing the western regions of Guyana, which are full of natural resources, but also for increased cooperation in the field of energy between our two countries. After all, such a road would pass closely by the Guri Dam, where an enormous amount of hydro-electric power is produced by Venezuela. And we really need economic energy supplies.

Apart from not being able to cross the border between the two countries, one cannot even fly directly between Venezuela and Guyana. Do you expect any changes in that area?

Yes, we have seen better days there. In the sixties, when I frequently travelled to Venezuela it was easier. In those days there were direct PanAm flights. A few years ago another company, I think it was Aserca, tried the connection for some months again, but they stopped. There are however a few companies negotiating to start the Caracas – Georgetown flights again, with onward connections to Paramaribo in Surinam. Maybe we will have flights from Puerto Ordaz to Georgetown shortly as well.

You said that the borders between the two countries are more or less open. Doesn`t this create problems?

Yes, it does. One of the most serious problems is of course drugs trafficking. Our President announced just two days ago that he will increase the number of police patrolling the border, although such a large border in mountainous areas is difficult to control. But we will work, on the basis of information of our intelligence services. The drug issue is not only an issue for the USA[1], but it is an issue for Colombia, Venezuela and Guyana as well, because drugs create crime and corruption in our countries.

Another problem caused by the open borders is the illegal gold mining. There are Venezuelans working in Guyanese illegal gold mines and Guyanese working in illegal Venezuelan gold mines. Illegal logging is less of a problem, since we have so few roads in our western region. It is thus very difficult to get your wood transported out of the region.

You were talking about the need for cheap energy supplies for Guyana. How important is the Caracas Energy Accord in that sense?

The Caracas Energy Accord (CEA) was signed two years ago, but there is a problem: we are constrained in our acting by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Under the CEA, Guyana would get oil deliverances under favourable terms, which we would partly have to pay through new loans. But, since we are a HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Country), we have to get permission from the World Bank and the IMF in order to take further loans. By now, we have gotten the permission, but it is up to Venezuela now whether it will accept the terms of the loans. So far, they haven’t. We really hope it will work out, though, since about a quarter of our GDP is spent on the acquisition of fuel.

What other forms of cooperation exist between the two countries?

Well, we have a bilateral Commission; the next meeting is due in Georgetown, in August/September of this year. The commission focuses on all different sorts of issues, such as political relationships, infrastructure, fisheries, drugs prevention, sports, culture, education and health. Sometimes, on specific topics, we set up special commissions. Usually our Ministers of Foreign Affairs meet at the same time.

In the past, there used to be various disputes over fishing rights. Why?

The main problem is the question of the international maritime border between the two countries. Guyana sticks to the International Maritime Treaty. Venezuela however is not a Signatory to this Treaty. Venezuela does not really conform to our maritime border. So, what happens every now and then is that our security forces arrest Venezuelan fishermen, or the Venezuelans arrest Guyanese fishermen, who are then detained for several months. This causes a lot of disturbances for the families involved. We proposed to Venezuela that we solve this situation by releasing such detainees to the consular officials in each country, so that they can await trial in their own country. We are now waiting for a response to our proposal from Venezuela.

What is the current status of the border dispute?

In the beginning of the eighties, both sides agreed that the matter should be solved by the United Nations. The issue is now in the hands of the Secretary General, who has the task to find a solution. He has been working on it since 1982. He meets with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs from our two countries once a year. Apart from that, the Secretary General appointed a so-called Good Officer of the UN, who is reporting on the progress between the two countries. The Good Officer is Mr. Jackman from Barbados. He should regularly visit both countries, although he hasn’t been here during the last two years. One could say that the border issue is sleeping in the bed of the Secretary General, and both sides are sort of satisfied with the process. 

Isn’t the process going very slow?

It might be going very slow, but at least there is progress. Academics might want the process to move forward faster, but diplomatic processes like this one do need a lot of time. In the end, there has to be a solution, although I do not want to say when that will be. And one should remember that according to us, the solution of course already exists. According to us, the solution was decided upon after the Arbitration on the issue in 1899.

Personally, I think that we should focus on reaching an agreement on the maritime issue. I think that would lead to more progress in the border issue. I recently made a proposal on that, while I was speaking to the Venezuelan Foreign Service School. I think it is important to throw out different proposals. Both sides will have to make concessions, both sides will have to take giant steps, but of course not in the direction of confrontation.

Venezuela used to object investments in the Essequibo region. Is this still the case?

Nowadays, Venezuela has no objections against investments in the western part of Guyana. I think the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Venezuela does however still want to be informed about investments that might be regarded as security issues. We will deliver such information, we are an open and transparent society. 

What is the opinion of the Guyanese population about Chávez?

In general, people see Chávez in a good light. Of course, I have also read some comments in some of our newspapers that tend to follow the line of the opposition papers in Venezuela, but in general people are positive. When Chávez visited Georgetown in February 2004, there was a large turnout of people. A lot of our people were impressed by Chávez, when he came to some public forums, where he took time to answer a lot of questions from the public.

We were also very grateful for the reaction of Venezuela after the floods of February 2005. They also happened in Guyana, where about a third of the population was affected. Venezuela was one of the first countries that sent help to us, without being asked for it. Such a thing only happens with friends. Also a lot of individual Venezuelans made donations. There was much more response from Venezuela than we expected.

How do you regard the relationships between the USA and Venezuela?

We are watching the exchange between these two countries very closely. We want to see a more healthy relationship between these two countries, based on respect and understanding. We think the USA should become more proactive in the western hemisphere in promoting closer relationships between the countries here. In the past, US Presidents and Ministers visited our countries on a regular basis, but we do not see much of that now.

Could you imagine that Venezuela would intervene in Guyana?

No, I have no fear of that, those days are long gone. The way forward for us is through the South American integration process. We have to live with each other.

Is there still something else you would like to say?

We need cooperation. Venezuela is a country with many resources. It could assist us with the exploration of oil, we just started looking for it in the east of our country. We can cooperate in this field within Petrocaribe. Venezuela has experts in the field of agricultural technology and Venezuela could help with agreements in the field of energy supplies. We have to look at the long term. We are neighbours, we cannot exchange ourselves.

[1] US authorities have recently been putting a lot of pressure on Guyana, after various large amounts of drugs were captured from passengers coming off Georgetown – USA flights.

See Also:  Stories from the East: Guyana, Venezuela’s Unknown Neighbor