How Chávez Softened Down on the Esequibo

While Hugo Chávez never formally ceded or resigned the claim over the Esequibo region, his government toned down Venezuela’s position in order to win regional influence and leverage to face the United States. And Guyana saw an opportunity

The Esequibo sits at the core of Venezuela’s foreign policy issues. Since its beginning –the placement of Schomburgk’s posts in 1841– the country has adopted a position of outright defense in every instance.

Not only the placement of Schomburgk’s posts were protested by the Venezuelan government; the infamous 1899 Paris Award was also met with outrage (even though its result was accepted). This position has been maintained throughout the years. The best example of this is the 1966 Geneva Agreement, in which Venezuela’s stance (that the 1899 Paris Award is null and void) is incorporated in the first article. Although it may seem inconsequential, having the almighty United Kingdom recognize such an inconvenient stance in an international treaty is a clear foreign policy victory.

As a matter of fact, right after the placement of Schomburg’s posts, the United Kingdom offered a deal to Venezuela, which was rejected because it was considered insufficient. It only ceded some coastal parts and implied that Venezuela had to recognize British sovereignty over the territory. As we can see, It is clear that for Venezuela, the Esequibo has always been all or nothing.

Some opposition pundits have repeatedly claimed that Hugo Chávez conceded or resigned over the sovereignty of the Esequibo region. While no formal renouncement or concession actually happened, Chávez did lead a shift in Venezuela’s foreign policy regarding the issue: prioritizing amicable ties with Guyana to earn its support in the region and excerpt its influence when opposing the United States, the Venezuelan claim over the Esequibo was noticeable toned down and even reframed as a supposed tool of American imperialist influence over South America. 

Reframing an old story

Firstly, in the early 2000s, Chávez did frontally claim the whole Esequibo region as Venezuelan and actually proclaimed it as the easternmost border of Gran Colombia. But soon, he inserted the Esequibo dispute around his idea of South American independence from the influence of the United States. Anti-americanism was key in his foreign policy regarding Guayana Esequiba. In a rally held on February 29th 2004, Chávez said that “we are obliged to be united with the Guyanese, the Colombians, the Caribbeans, the Argentinians, the Brazilians, the Chileans, the Peruvians, the Bolivians and everybody, so that Latin and Caribbean America can be truly free and independent from the empires that continue to threaten it”.

But clearly, Venezuela could not count on the Anglo-Caribbean bloc’s political support if there was beef with its big cheese: Guyana. Something had to be done regarding the Esequibo dispute.

So Chávez met with Guyanese president Bharrat Jagdeo several times in 2004 and 2005. After those meetings, Chávez’s speech regarding Guayana turned way softer. In the press conference of a meeting held in Georgetown on February 19th 2004, Chávez took an unprecedented turn and downplayed the importance of Esequibo regarding Venezuela’s relationship with Guyana. “The Venezuelan government won’t be an obstacle to any project happening in the Esequibo that will benefit the inhabitants of the area”, he said, proposing joint management of more complex projects. 

Chávez, resorting to his anti-American discourse, also pointed out that the whole dispute was the imperialistic work of the United States, which wanted to promote a war between Venezuela and Guyana to oust Guyana’s left-wing president Forbes Burnham (1980-1985). “The same thing that happened in the Middle East, with Iran, Iraq and Saddam Hussein”, explained Chavez. “They told us that Guyana was becoming another Cuba, that we had to invade them (…) They had us plan a whole invasion of Georgetown, studying the maps and everything”. 

“Cuba reiterated its support to Guyana in its border dispute with Venezuela” (1981)

Now, there is a phrase that has catched everyone’s attention. Unfortunately, there are no video transcripts of the moment so we must rely on written reports. According to TalCual, the phrase reads: “the Esequibo issue will be eliminated from the framework of the social, political and economic relations of the two countries.” Meanwhile, La Razón reports the supposed full transcript of the press release, where the phrase reads: “the strategy could be similar to that of the Esequibo issue, placing it outside the framework of economic, political and social relations and dealing with this issue with a different profile, with mutual respect and above all in the context where it is, in the United Nations.”

In any case, it is clear that, for Chávez, Venezuela’s sovereignty over the Esequibo was an obstacle for his political objectives. Soon thereafter, Chávez started an international campaign that pivoted around Venezuela giving away subsidized oil to many Latin American and Caribbean nations in exchange for political support. And the campaign was, clearly, a complete success. In 2005, Chávez created Petrocaribe which sold Venezuelan oils at preferential prices to 17 countries – including Guyana. 

But this was not the only time the Venezuelan president downplayed the importance of the issue in front of an international audience to secure the region’s support. In the 20th Summit of the Rio Group in 2008, Chávez doubled down on his anti-American strategy and stated “back in the day, when Guyana was governed by this left-wing guy, Forbes Burnham, there was almost a war between Venezuela and Guyana, for an old territorial dispute, that almost no one remembers, because it has been sitting there since time immemorial (…) American officials came, I remember, to warmonger against Guyana (..) they wanted us to invade Guyana, using the territorial dispute as an excuse, to oust the left-wing government of Forbes Burnham.”

Throughout his time in power, Chávez repeated these ideas multiple times and sought appeasement. Venezuela was no longer a “sub-empire against the Caribbean countries and Guyana” distrusted by Caricom, he affirmed in 2011. Throughout that year and 2012, Chávez insisted peace was the priority, relations were improving, and the Esequibo couldn’t turn Venezuela and Guyana into enemies.

Whenever he was criticized for his stance on the Esequibo issue, he would reply with something along the lines of blaming “far right-wingers in Venezuela” of pushing for a war with Guyana that he wouldn’t allow because the issue was being dealt “with responsibility and through diplomatic channels”. Meanwhile, he accused critics and the United States of promoting war to break down regional integration. Nevertheless, the government occasionally did recognize the Venezuelan claim in public speeches and its compromise with the Geneva Agreement. 

How luck changed hands

In the meantime, in the face of Venezuela’s inaction and amicable tone, Guyana –like any rational international actor would do– advanced its interests. In 2012 and 2013, they granted US oil company Anadarko two oil concessions in the Atlantic ocean.

But this time, they had gone a little too far and granted a concession inside Venezuelan territorial waters, located right in front of Delta Amacuro shore. This had the consequence of cutting off the country’s access to the Atlantic Ocean. The area had never been part of the dispute, and has been heavily patrolled by the Venezuelan Navy. But, as usual, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs remained passive. 

In 2013, Chávez died while in charge. That year, new president Nicolás Maduro visited Guyana and didn’t mention the dispute. In Georgetown, Maduro even affirmed that the Geneva Agreement was signed by “an old Acción Democrática government and the old British Empire” as part of a “psyop, through contempt and racism, to invade Guyana.”

But, in 2014, tensions with Venezuela started to heighten again, after Guyana handed new oil concessions to Exxonmobil –whose assets Chávez expropriated in Venezuela seven years before– and decided to put an end to the endless battle over the Esequibo by announcing that it was studying the possibility of involving the International Court of Justice. That same year, Venezuela’s dilapidated oil industry entered freefall and Guyana started its skyrocketing economic rise, eventually becoming the world’s fastest growing economy. In 2018, Guyana fulfilled its promise and initiated an arbitration proceeding against Venezuela to decide the validity of the 1899 Paris Award. The honeymoon was over. 

Did Chávez’s policy towards Guyana contribute to the current state of affairs? It is possible that Guyana saw an opportunity in Venezuela’s foreign policy shift and used it to advance its interests. Clearly, Chávez never advanced the country’s interests regarding a territory it considers its own.

Was it a determining fact? We’re not so sure. The Geneva Agreement was a ticking bomb, in the sense that although it provided for a series of opportunities for a negotiated agreement, the end of the road was always arbitration. In the end, neither country recognizes each other’s sovereignty over the Esequibo, and it is unlikely a hawkish Venezuelan foreign policy could have changed anything.

What is clear is that Chavismo ignored the Esequibo when it didn’t suit its political objectives. This goes against the nature of a rational foreign policy: its core objectives should never change. But now, given its massive unpopularity and facing the overwhelming victory of María Corina Machado in the opposition primaries, Chavismo has decided to organize a referendum –full of paraphernalia, car stickers and even a music festival– in which their candidate is not a person, but a piece of land: the beloved Esequibo.

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.