Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, on Thursday, urged Guyana and Venezuela to keep talking amidst rising tensions relating to Caracas’ claim of two thirds of Guyana’s landmass.
Gonsalves said he has asked for a meeting on Friday of heads of government of CARICOM, the 15-member regional bloc of which Guyana and St. Vincent and the Grenadines are members
“I’m in touch on an ongoing basis with both the Venezuela and the Guyanese government,” said Gonsalves, who travelled to Caracas last month, as Venezuela was preparing for a referendum on the Essequibo, which it held on Sunday.
“There are some things which are happening behind the scenes which I can’t talk about but St. Vincent and Grenadines, rather than gallerying, some people would like me to gallery but I’m not going to gallery. I have a mature and wise approach,” Gonsalves said.
He told the media in Kingstown as he reported on his attendance at the global climate talks in Dubai.
That his position is without prejudice to CARICOM’s historic commitment to Guyana and supporting its borders as being inviolable.
The Vincentian leader said that while he does not walk to talk about what is taking place behind the scenes, “from what I’ve said, you can conclude that I take this matter very, very seriously…
“And I feel that I have a very special obligation to keep conversations going,” Gonsalves said, adding that he was in touch “with both governments” while he was in Dubai.
Gonsalves, the longest-serving current head of government in CARICOM, is a close ally of the Nicolas Maduro government in Caracas as well as the Cuban government.
Havana and Cuba have a pact and the United States could emerge as a staunch defender of Guyana, in light of US Investments in the oil-rich Essequibo region.
Tensions are ratcheting up at a time when Kingstown is pro-tempore president of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, of which SVG, Guyana, Venezuela and Cuba are members.
Gonsalves said there was a meeting on the border conflict on the side lines of the climate talks in Dubai and he was “in touch with persons from both the government of Guyana and also Venezuela” while transiting in London on his trip back to SVG.
“I’m not going to call names. I’m just going to put them as persons from the governments, the respective governments.
“And I’m going to continue to do that. Because if we have conversations going, we are unlikely to see, well — let me not say unlikely; there is less chance of having threats of violence or actual violence being used,” Gonsalves said.
“And if any agent provocateur behaves in a particular way, and you’re having conversation, you would know that you can build the trust to know that this is not something official, this is a provocateur behaving in a particular manner.”
The prime minister said history clearly shows that “mature and wise leadership, patience and a calm could help in averting worst case scenarios.
“The problems are not easy to solve,” he said, even as he noted that the Guyanese parliament has voted unanimously to block the government from discussing the border dispute with Caracas, while it awaits a ruling from the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Venezuela has rejected the ICJ as an adjudicator of the conflict.
Gonsalves restated his position that Venezuela and Guyana can talk about many things besides the border dispute.
“There are many, many things for neighbours to talk about. Mature wise leaders, in my humble opinion, ought to be doing that, which is what President Lula (Da Silva) is advising from Brazil. This is what I know that the Cuban president is advising. This is what I know. Other leaders across the region and the world are advising.”
He said the Cuban government has been seeking to facilitate a meeting, preferably at the level of the presidents.
Gonsalves said this is one of the reasons he sent his Minister of Finance, Camillo Gonsalves, who is also his son, to Havana a few weeks ago.
“And they were urging that I, for several reasons, including the status of the leadership of St. Vincent and Grenadines in the region and my close friendship with the president in Guyana and the president in in Venezuela to see if we can have a conversation because if people are talking, you’re unlikely to fight even though you have differences on the issues.”
Gonsalves traced the history of the conflict, including the 1899 arbitral award which defined the boundaries of Guyana and Venezuela, when Guyana was still a British colony known as British Guiana.
“… and Guyana has been in administrative control of that particular part of the country, the Essequibo,” Gonsalves said, referring to the disputed area, which he noted is almost two-thirds of Guyana and which the constitutions of both Guyana and Venezuela include as part of their territory.
He also referred to the 1966 agreement originally signed by the UK and Venezuela governments and to which Guyana became a party after attaining its independence.
The agreement establishes a mixed commission with the task of seeking satisfactory solutions for the settlement of the border controversy, and outlines procedures in case the commission should not arrive at a full agreement.
The good offices of the United Nations Secretary General were used for 28 years, until UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres referred it to the ICJ.
Guyana applied to the ICJ asking if the international tribunal had jurisdiction and the court said that was the case, but Venezuela rejected this.
Georgetown has put in the relevant documentation, even as Caracas still does not accept the jurisdiction of the ICJ in relation to the matter, even as the ICJ is expected to have hearings in the matter early next year.
On Sunday, Venezuela voted by a wide margin in a referendum to create a Venezuelan state in the Essequibo region, provide its population with Venezuelan citizenship and “incorporating that state into the map of Venezuelan territory”.
On Tuesday, Maduro announced the appointment of a governor of Guyana’s Essequibo region — “Guayana Esequiba” in Spanish — gave mining and oil companies in Essequibo three months to leave and instructed Venezuela’s state company to immediately start granting concessions for oil, gas and minerals.
“… things have gotten to a stage where it’s potentially very dangerous,” Gonsalves said. “And Guyana has made it plain that they’re having discussions with several countries, including the United States of America, to help with the defence of their country and their territory as they see it. And they’re going to the ICJ for affirmation.
“So, you can see the potential danger in all of this,” the prime minister said, adding that he always worries that while neither Guyana nor Venezuela would do anything to initiate fighting, “… there could be agent provocateurs or some entity may do something which is not authorised and matters get out of hand.
“And with the politics involved, the anti-imperialism of Venezuela and the problems which they have already with the United States, Venezuela has a pact with Cuba though Cuba is seeking to facilitate a discussion so that people can talk and don’t fight.”
Gonsalves spoke of the practical outcome of the result of the referendum or a Guyanese victory at the ICJ
“The question is, ‘What next?’” Gonsalves said, adding that there is still the issue of the marine delimitation.
“But just talk. Because if you talk, you’re not likely to fight and,” Gonsalves said.
“… let’s be practical, Guyana military is no match for that of Venezuela. So, Guyana is going to seek help elsewhere. And assuming they get help elsewhere, this thing could be a situation where a lot of people would lose their lives, a lot of setbacks for development, refugees out of countries which are in conflict. And where the refugees are gonna come? They’re gonna come up the islands. So, we need to encourage conversation on whatever subjects they agree upon to talk,” Gonsalves said.
He said there are “only two sets of forces you can be sure will benefit” from the conflict: “imperialism and big oil companies.
“They will switch sides from one to the next as the circumstances and their interests dictate. That has been the history,” Gonsalves said.
“So, I’m not going to express hope over experience. And I’m not going to take a theological position on this. I’m taking a calm and a rational and mature perspective. So, there we are. And that search continues and I say there are many things which are currently taking place in the pipeline but I’m not going to talk about.”