The Venezuela-Guyana Conflict: Historical Irony & Historical Precedent


That the latest American effort to destabilize Venezuela is being carried out by stabilizing Guyana is sickeningly loaded in irony. To destabilize Venezuela’s experiment in socialism and nationalism, America is using Guyana, whose experiment in socialism and nationalism they destabilized half a century ago.

The latest opportunity to destabilize Venezuela raised its head earlier this year. But it had been sleeping for almost two hundred years.

In 1835, the British government eased over the western borders of the Guyanese colony it had inherited from the Dutch and usurped a large portion of land from Venezuela.

In 1899, the matter of the disputed territory came up before an international tribunal. The tribunal ruled in favour of Britain and granted British Guyana control over the disputed territory. The Venezuelans were bitterly disappointed. They had hoped that the dispute would be mediated by a more impartial tribunal consisting of Latin American countries. Instead, the dispute was considered by an international body dominated by the United States and—of all countries—Britain. Britain was hardly a disinterested party. What’s worse, there was no Venezuelan delegate to the tribunal! The Venezuelans were represented by former U.S. President Benjamin Harris.

“Needless to say,” declares Venezuela expert and Professor of Latin American history, Miguel Tinker Salas, [Venezuela’s] prospects of prevailing in a tribunal dominated by foreign powers appeared slim.” And slim it was. The tribunal, which was dominated by Britain and excluded Venezuela, ruled in favour of Britain over Venezuela. The tribunal issued its decision without any supporting rationale. The ruling gave Britain possession of over 90% of the disputed territory it had stolen from Venezuela sixty-four years earlier.

But the tribunal was not only stacked: it was fixed. The official secretary of the American represented Venezuelan delegation to the international tribunal, Severo Mallet-Prevost, confirmed Venezuela’s allegation when he revealed in a posthumously published letter that the governments of Britain and Russia influenced the president of the tribunal to exert pressure on the arbitrators to rule in Britain’s favour.

The letter was not published until 1949. Seventeen years later, in 1966, citing the corruption that usurped its territory, Venezuela claimed the territory at the United Nations. At that time, Venezuela, Guyana and Britain signed the Treaty of Geneva, agreeing to resolve the dispute and that neither Venezuela nor Guyana would do anything on the disputed territory until a border settlement had been arrived at that was acceptable to all.

Despite that agreement, Guyana has begun extracting oil in the disputed territory. Earlier in 2015, the titanic U.S. oil company ExxonMobil made a significant oil discovery in the disputed territory. In order to get around laws enacted by former President Hugo Chavez that nationalized the oil and natural gas industries of Venezuela that had previously been controlled mostly by American oil interests, Exxon and Guyana simply asserted that the oil was in Guyanese territory. This claim was made in utter defiance of the Treaty of Geneva, which stipulated that neither country could act in that territory until the border had been resolved. The Americans now presumably hope to paint Venezuela as the wealthy, large aggressor who is attempting to steal oil rich land from its impoverished and threatened little neighbour.

There is irony in America using Guyana as an instrument to destabilize the Venezuelan government, because Guyana just got over the effects of having its government destabilized by America. America removed one government just to then hypocritically pretend to stabilize that government in order to attempt to remove another.

Chedi Jagan was the popularly elected Prime Minister of British Guyana. He had been elected by a large majority in 1953 and re-elected in 1957 and 1961. By then, the Americans had had enough, and in February of 1962, the CIA undertook to organize and finance anti-Jagan protests. President Kennedy would use the CIA to remove Jagan in a coup. To achieve that goal, he would unleash a two million dollar full spectrum political action to remove the democratically elected Jagan from power.

Jagan was a nationalist politician who considered himself a socialist. A 1962 National Intelligence Analysis admitted that Jagan was not a communist and that his posture would probably be one of nonalignment. Nonetheless, the CIA feared that Jagan demonstrated susceptibility to being receptive of advice from communists. The NSA said he could become one.

In an attempt to change the course of Guyanese domestic affairs, the CIA boosted Jagan’s opponents, engaged in propaganda, pushed against his popularity and tried to discredit him. The focus of the political action was the so called “General Strike” that began in April of 1963. The CIA advised union leaders on how to organize and sustain the strike. They provided strike pay for workers and food and funds to keep the strike going. They also provided money for propaganda on behalf of the strike.

The CIA also created new parties that were positioned to siphon off Jagan supporters. They provided those parties with advisors and support. According to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy’s assistant, Gordon Chase, the CIA “in a deniable and discreet way” had begun financing party workers.

The coup de grâce of the coup was getting the British to amend the Guyanese constitution to transform the Guyanese political system into one of proportional representation. That change, it was expected, would work to gain opponents seats sufficient to deny Jagan another majority government.

Simultaneously with all of these political maneuvers, the States was crippling Guyana’s economy by closing markets to its exports, imposing an embargo and refusing to provide oil. The deprivation would force Jagan to turn increasingly to Cuba and the U.S.S.R, and old trick to allow the States to declare an opponent a communist.

Despite all of these actions, Jagan won the most votes (47%) and a plurality of the seats (24 out of 53). But the CIA’s political action succeeded in denying him of his majority, and the British governor simply refused to allow Jagan his opportunity to put together a government and called on the second place finisher, CIA supported Forbes Burnham, to form the government. Burnham would go on to rule Guyana as a dictator until his death, ending democracy in Guyana until 1992, when in its first free election since the coup, the Guyanese elected . . . Chedi Jagan.

Jagan would say that “ . . . the United States will only support a democratic government if it favours a classic private enterprise system” (New York Times, August 11, 1963).

In 1990, Kennedy advisor Arthur Schlesinger publically apologized to Chedi Jagan and admitted that it was his recommendation that got the British to make the constitutional change to proportional representation that cost Jagan his government (The Nation June 4, 1990).

In 1994, the thirty year rule on classified documents expired, but the CIA and the State Department refused to declassify the documents on British Guyana. The New York Times reported on October 30, 1994 that “Still-classified documents depict in unusual detail a direct order from the President to unseat Dr. Jagan, say Government officials familiar with the secret papers. . . . The Jagan papers are . . . a clear written record . . . of a President’s command to depose a Prime Minister.”

The Venezuela-Guyana affair is not only not without irony, it is also not without precedent. Excising territory from a sovereign country so you can exploit that land in ways that go against the country’s desires and policies is a very old U.S. strategy: it was just about the first strategy employed by the newly expansionist United States over a hundred years ago.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, President Roosevelt faced a serious problem with his Panama Canal Project. The problem with the Panama Canal was that there was no Panama. Panama was a province of Columbia, and Columbia was hesitant to cede sovereignty of the proposed zone for the canal.

So, if the canal doesn’t fit Columbia’s policy, then change the fit so the canal isn’t in Columbia. In November 1903, America became a geographical tailor and changed the fit. A small group of Panamanians declared independence from Columbia followed by immediate recognition of the new state by America. The Americans then used military force to prevent the Columbian army from retaking its territory. The American gunboat Nashville prevented their access while the warship The Dixie made a deposit of five hundred marines on the newly minted Panamanian shore. On November 6, the U.S. formally recognized the new Republic of Panama.

So, the idea of cutting off territory from a nationalistic government who has the crazy idea of using its own resources for its own people, as the American oil giant ExxonMobil is now doing in the disputed territory between Venezuela and Guyana, is as old as American expansionism and American opposition to Latin American countries using their own resources for their own people.

 Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.

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