The Forgotten Dispute that Could Ignite a War in South America
Here’s why Venezuelans just voted to annex most of Guyana.
Yesterday, Venezuelans voted in a non-binding referendum to annex the Essequibo territory, a stretch of jungle that makes up around two-thirds of the landmass of Venezuela’s eastern neighbor, tiny Guyana. Desperate for a win amid a newly united opposition and a chronically sick economy, the leftist dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro dusted off a musty old dispute to fan the nationalist flames.
As a matter of international law, Maduro has no leg to stand on. A military adventure into Essequibo is improbable—Venezuela’s military remains laser-focused on the one thing it does well, and that’s trafficking cocaine, not fighting wars. But dictatorships are inherently unpredictable, and the prospect of a military adventure is sending jitters around the region.
Let’s back up a minute. How did 95% of Venezuela’s voters get it into their heads that a jungle hinterland hardly any Venezuelans have ever lived in is properly theirs? Nationalist pandering and lousy '80s pop will do that, yes, but ignorance plays a part too. The history we Venezuelans have been taught for decades—a simple tale of theft—isn’t just wrong; it’s boring. The real story of this 400-year-old disputed border in an uninhabited, inaccessible bit of South America is way more interesting and almost totally forgotten.
During the colonial era, maps of the region were mostly guesswork and borders often hazy. Venezuela was part of the Spanish empire, which claimed territories as far east as the Essequibo River—comprising most of what is today the Essequibo territory—though there were no Spanish settlements anywhere near that body of water. On the basis of a map published in 1840, the British would claim a border 170 miles northwest of that. When Venezuela got its independence from Spain in the 1820s, the eastern border where the Essequibo jungle lies was basically a haze.
Now skip forward to the turn of the 20th century. The United States had emerged as a significant global force. Its relation to Britain was similar to China’s relation to the United States today: the rising power, threatening to throw the old hegemon off its perch. Britain, with its world-leading navy, still had strategic superiority over the United States, but everyone knew it could not hold its advantage for long.
There were only a few places where the British and American spheres of influence really came face-to-face. These were around two small British colonies: “British Honduras” (now Belize) and British Guiana. To be clear, the United States didn’t border the British empire in these places: Guatemala claimed what would become Belize, and Los Estados Unidos de Venezuela (the United States of Venezuela, as it was officially known) bordered British Guiana.
In 1895, Britain renewed a half-century old claim for control of the eastern shore where the mighty Orinoco river’s main navigable channel reaches the Atlantic—a point deep in the Essequibo territory. At a time when Venezuela had basically no working roads or railroads, the massive river was a crucial artery for internal commerce and travel. The British claim, if granted, would give Britain control of who could navigate the river, which would turn Venezuela into a de facto British colony, or at least a country not really sovereign in the usual sense of the word. With Orinoco shipping in British hands, Venezuela’s position would be like that of the princely states in India: formally independent, but not really.
At this the Americans took notice. The Monroe Doctrine, asserting America’s interest in preventing expansion of European colonial power in the hemisphere, was becoming an idée fixe of Washington’s foreign policy. But some uninhabited stretch of jungle was not worth fighting Britain over. What to do?
For the era, the idea of trying to settle territorial disputes over colonial or semi-colonial lands through legal means was pretty new. I think the American diplomats who thought to press U.S. interests through an arbitration panel, rather than with gun-boats, must have fancied themselves as rather progressive. Under the 1897 Treaty of Washington, a panel was convened consisting of two members appointed by Venezuela and two members on the side of the British, led by an impartial chair—Friedrich Martens, a Russian.
The twist is that the two Venezuelan appointees were both sitting justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, including its chief justice, Melville W. Fuller. Venezuela effectively subcontracted the representation of its interests to Washington. Considering how weak Venezuela was, enlisting America’s help against the Brits was pretty smart.
What happened next has been a subject of controversy in Venezuela ever since. On his way to the panel in 1897, Martens, the Russian president of the tribunal, stopped in England to visit his British counterparts, leading many to suspect a deal was cooked up in advance. The exact nature of the influence Britain used to obtain Martens’s support is a question that would obsess later generations of Venezuelan nationalists. What appears to be true is that by the time the panel was convened, its head had made up its mind: Britain would get most of the Essequibo territory, but not the strategic prize: the mouth of the Orinoco.
Martens offered the two American judges appointed by Venezuela on the panel a take-it-or-leave-it deal: if they refused to back this solution, he would give the Brits control of the Orinoco, too, by a 3-2 split decision (as the chair, Martens had a vote). Faced with this choice, the American judges decided to cut their losses and support the award, which is recorded as unanimous: 5 votes in favor.
In 1899, the Venezuelan government expressed disapproval of the panel’s decision—then promptly fell, overthrown by another in the long succession of caudillos who traded control of the capital over the 19th century. The dispute was more or less forgotten for sixty-odd years, during which time Venezuela printed official maps that showed the Essequibo territory as British.
Fast forward again to our time, and the world has been transformed beyond recognition. Britain was forced to dismantle its empire, giving its old South American colony independence in 1966. Suddenly, the Essequibo dispute isn’t over a microscopic portion of the British empire, but two-thirds of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana. And the virgin forest turns out to sit on a pool of very yummy crude oil—which ExxonMobil has started to extract.
Venezuela, for its part, has come full circle. After a brief flirtation with democracy and development in the second half of the 20th century, it has reverted to type and is once again one of the poorest and most politically backwards countries in the region. In Sunday’s referendum, the government found one issue Venezuelans generally agree on—we were robbed! It’s not true, but people love to hear it.
To the disquiet of many in the region, the Maduro regime has been talking in the way you imagine a country would talk right before embarking on some hare-brained military adventure. The final of the five questions on the referendum ballot was basically asking for a mandate to annex the region. And while it’s hard to imagine how Venezuela has the military capability to run a large operation in a stretch of unbroken jungle, when you’re a dictatorship, things don’t need to make sense in order to happen.
Francisco Toro is a contributing editor at Persuasion.
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