Guyana-Venezuela Sea Limit Dispute Follows Historical Land Dispute

On Monday the Venezuelan government released a statement saying that it will defend its interests and respect the friendship and solidarity it maintains with all Latin American and Caribbean nations, in the face of a petition that the Republic of Guyana recently presented to extend its maritime borders.

By Tamara Pearson -


Venezuela, Guyana, and the “Reclamation Zone, striped (archive)
Venezuela, Guyana, and the “Reclamation Zone, striped (archive)
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Mérida, September 27, 2011 ( – On Monday the Venezuelan government released a statement saying that it will defend its interests and respect the friendship and solidarity it maintains with all Latin American and Caribbean nations, in the face of a petition that the Republic of Guyana recently presented to extend its maritime borders.

The Venezuelan government said it is evaluating the document, which Guyana presented to the Continental Platform Limits Commission of the United Nations earlier this month.

The extended exclusive economic zone would increase Guyana’s gas and petroleum reserves and also have an impact on Venezuelan fishing.

The two countries’ sea borders are unresolved, and depend on their land borders, which are still under dispute. The land dispute dates back to the British occupation of the Guyana area in 1840 and its claim of settler colonies as part of its territory. Venezuela claims almost 60% of Guyanese administered territory, an area referred to as a “zone in reclamation” by Venezuela, or the Essequibo region.

In yesterday’s statement the Venezuelan government expressed its concern that the Guyanese government hadn’t previously advised it of the action, and President Hugo Chavez stated that Venezuela would “give priority to national interest, within a peaceful framework”.

“We have to, [working] within the constitution, maintain peace and fraternity when fixing any controversy,” Chavez said.

He said it was a “sensitive topic” and it will be “responsibly” managed by Venezuela’s foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro.

“I authorise the foreign minister to hand over a message to the Guyanese government stating our position, [and] our disagreement with some decisions they made regarding the law of the sea,” Chavez said.

The UN will begin its study of Guyana’s petition in April next year, and it could take years for it to announce a decision.

History of the Venezuela-Guayana border dispute

When Venezuela and Guyana were colonies of Spain and the Netherlands respectively, the Essequibo river marked the border between the two. It now currently marks the border between the zone in reclamation and Guyana.

In 1814 the Dutch territory was signed over to Britain, which merged the various colonies into one country in 1831. However, in 1819, Jose Revenga, following Simon Bolivar’s instructions, noted the number of British settlers living on the other side of the river and asked that they either cross over into Guyana, or live according Venezuelan law, but the British continued to promote colonisation of the area.

In 1840 Britain published Guyana’s boundaries, including the “Schomburgk Line”, which went well beyond the original Dutch occupation, and gave the UK control of the mouth of the Orinoco River, but Venezuela claims all of the area originally belonging to the Spanish colony.

Venezuela severed relations with Britain in 1887, and in 1895, following Venezuela’s request, the U.S. intervened in the issue, and an international arbitration tribunal ruled largely in favour of the British in 1899.  It accepted the Shomburgk Line, slightly modified, as the border. The modifications gave Venezuela control of the Orinoco River, but most of the territory and all of the gold mines to Britain.

In 1949 information about back room deals during the 1899 rulings was uncovered and Venezuela revived its claim to the disputed territory, then raised the issue again in 1962, and in a meeting in Geneva in 1966 (when Guyana became independent) Britain and Venezuela agreed to receive recommendations from a representative of the UN Secretary General on ways to settle the dispute peacefully.

The signed treaty established steps to resolve the dispute, but as Guyana obtained independence a few weeks later, it accepted Venezuela’s contention, but the territory is under Guyanese authority until something is resolved by a mixed commission, as outlined in the 1966 treaty.

Mediation over the issue has been going on for decades, and both countries seem relatively happy to leave the area disputed.

More recent events between Guyana and Venezuela

The current Venezuelan government sees the dispute as something “inherited from the colonial period”,

In 2005 Mr. Odeen Ishmael, the Ambassador of Guyana to Venezuela told Venezuelanalysis,  “The relationship [between Venezuela and Guyana] 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...Many people in Guyana regard the border issue to be an issue for the politicians, not for the common people. [In practice] 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”.

“When Chavez visited Georgetown in February 2004, there was a large turnout of people. A lot of our people were impressed by Chavez, when he came to some public forums, where he took time to answer a lot of questions from the public,” Ishmael said.

Last year the two presidents met again, in Caracas, and they signed four cooperation agreements which involved exchanging paddy rice for processed rice, and Venezuela supplying Guyana with urea and jet fuel.

In May this year Maduro met with UN representative Norman Paul Girvan, to try to advance the negotiations over the disputed territory. It was agreed that UN, Venezuelan, and Guayanese representatives would meet regularly.