What Does the Latest ICJ Ruling on the Esequibo Mean for Venezuelans?

Years ago, Venezuela was cheated out of a big chunk of its territory. This is the latest chapter in the age-old dispute between Venezuela and Guyana

Over the past 20 years, Venezuela hasn’t had a single issue that could unite the whole country besides the sporadic Vinotinto victories. The only exception, perhaps, is found in Venezuela’s longest-standing border dispute: the Esequibo region, which today constitutes two thirds of Guyana, an independent parliamentary democracy. Almost every Venezuelan, both Chavistas and opposition, share the vision that the distant region of Guayana Esequiba should be ours.

Territorial disputes—including this one—have a particularly uniting effect in the population. Just look at Pakistan and India’s dispute over the Kashmir territory which only represents a small fraction of their territories. Yet, both countries are pointing nuclear weapons at each other. A 2013 Pew Research poll shows that only 19% of Indians have a favorable view towards Pakistan.

Although without a nuclear component, the Esequibo issue drives a similar passion over all Venezuelans: most would shed a patriotic tear if they were told the Esequibo was lost forever. It was the first agreement reached by chavismo and opposition in their 2021 negotiations, but perhaps the most illustrative example of its unifying power is a heartwarming Empresas Polar TV ad from the 1980s, showing Venezuela’s beloved Tío Simón singing a reivindicative contrapunteo with a kid (Chusmita). Clearly, it is a question of feelings: Venezuela’s silhouette on a map would feel incomplete without the Esequibo region to the east.

Are We Losing The Esequibo?

Long story short, in 1899, an Arbitral Tribunal awarded, in very shady terms, the Esequibo region to the United Kingdom. Basically, one of the five members of the Arbitral Tribunal—a Russian named Fiodor Martens—played the other four arbitrators (two British and two Americans) into voting for his award proposal, threatening them that if they didn’t, he would vote with the other two and would reach a less favorable solution. The result of this shenanigan was an award tailor-made by the Russian, which awarded more than 95% of the land to the British.

We may ask ourselves: what were Fiodor Martens’ motives? To answer that, we have to look over to the geopolitical scenario of 19th century Central Asia. The Russian empire was advancing southbound, conquering the Khanate of Kokland (now Uzbekistan) in 1875. Similarly, the British were moving northbound, from India, managing to establish a puppet regime in Afghanistan in 1879. This meant that Russians and British were on each other’s doorsteps. 

Martens, who was an international law professor at Imperial University of St. Petersburg –specialized in Central Asia–, was terrified of an Anglo-Russian war in Central Asia, and wrote extensive literature about how the two empires were destined to collaborate closely in their god-given civilizing duties. So the motive for Martens might have been a collaboration (a concession, if we may) for the British. 

At that moment, Venezuela couldn’t do much and was forced to accept the result of the Award. On January 10th 1905, an Anglo-Venezuelan Commission identified, demarcated and fixed the limits established in the 1899 Award.

Two things happened that supported Venezuela’s argument that the Award was null and void. 50 years after the Award, in 1949, one of Venezuela’s American lawyers died and left a memorandum, confirming the situation regarding the Russian arbitrator. Then, in 1979, a letter written by one of the English Arbitrators, dated from 1899, was found in the archives of  Lord Salisbury, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in 1899: it confirmed the 1949 memorandum’s content.

With Guyana’s independence from the United Kingdom around the corner, Venezuela and the United Kingdom signed the Geneva Agreement in 1966 to find a practical solution to the border dispute, given the fact that Venezuela considered the 1899 award to be “null and void.”

The Geneva Agreement established a series of mechanisms to find a solution. Ultimately, if all those mechanisms failed to deliver a solution, the Secretary-General  of the United Nations in the 1980s was tasked to propose a definitive method: In 2018, secretary-general António Guterres chose the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as the venue to settle the matter.

That same year, Guyana petitioned the ICJ to declare the validity of the 1899 Arbitral Award. Venezuela’s strategy has consisted in denying the jurisdiction of the ICJ, even though they have not played an absent role. Recently, the Court issued a provisional ruling stating that the United Kingdom did not have to be a part of the proceeding (one of Venezuela’s arguments), and therefore, everything could move on.

What Can Venezuelans Expect from the ICJ Ruling?

The ICJ will decide whether the 1899 Arbitral Award that granted the territory’s sovereignty to the United Kingdom (currently Guyana) is valid or if it is null and void. The ICJ will not decide over the sovereignty of the Esequibo.

In theory, Venezuela has the possibility to win the trial. But even a favorable decision would not change anything, because the territory would still be disputed by both countries. Guyana and Venezuela would still have to find a way to put a definitive end to the issue.

But regardless of the ICJ’s final decision, and putting aside the legal perspective, Venezuela will not gain control over the Esequibo in the medium-to-long term. If we make a dispassionate analysis of the situation, it becomes clear that the Esequibo will remain in Guyana’s hands, as it has ever since the Award was granted more than 120 years ago and throughout Guyana’s 70 years of independence.

It’s important to remember several issues:

An International Court of Justice ruling would have little-to-no effect. Although binding on paper, ICJ rulings are frequently ignored. At most, it would provide the winner with another item to include in their rhetoric. Examples of countries ignoring ICJ rulings are many. Myanmar, for example, rejected an ICJ ruling ordering it to take measures to prevent the genocide of Rohingya Muslims. Most recently, Russia ignored an International Court ruling halting the Ukraine invasion.

The size of the disputed land is huge and it accounts for two thirds of the whole territory of Guyana. It is not conceivable that any independent country would simply cede more than half of the land they have owned since said country’s birth. Guyana also has another border dispute to the east, with Suriname. 

It is less conceivable that the Guyanese people or government will tolerate any form of association, annexation, incorporation, or other form of control from Venezuela’s autocratic regime: especially if it means human-rights violators meddling in their homeland. Guyana, even though a mid-tier player in the democracy and human rights world rankings, is doing far better than Venezuela, who sits at the very bottom of the table.

More importantly, in 2015 an oil consortium led by Exxon Mobile stumbled upon the equivalent of 11 billion barrels of offshore oil and gas: most of it in Guayana Esequiba’s maritime territory. Since the oil extraction began in 2019, Guyana’s GDP became one of the world’s fastest growing: nearing 60% in 2022 alone and projected to grow at an average pace of 30% until 2026. Guyana’s “Venezuela Saudita” moment depends on holding on to the Esequibo.  

Breaking the status quo seems nearly impossible. The tides are just not in our favor. That doesn’t mean that Venezuela did not get cheated on (because we did): it means that the world does not operate on fairness. It’s not that we shouldn’t gain control over the Esequibo, it’s that we won’t.

Marc Suñer

Marc Suñer is a Venezuelan lawyer studying a masters in Tax Consulting in the IE Business School in Madrid. His research on the 1899 Arbitral Award won the XII Young Researchers Award of the Autonomous University of Madrid’s legal journal.