July 12, 2020

The Essequibo, the oil jewel in dispute between Venezuela and Guyana

“The Venezuelan sun is born in the Essequibo”. Almost like a mantra, the Venezuelan military repeats that greeting that reminds them of the urgency of claiming a region in the hands of Guyana and whose dispute arrives this Tuesday at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), when the promise of being the new great oil niche.

Called Guayana Esequiba in Venezuela and divided into several regions in the Republic of Guyana, it is a territory of almost 160,000 square km west of the Essequibo River, which represents almost two thirds of the former British colony.

In all the Venezuelan maps, the region appears as one more part of the Bolivarian country, although sometimes it is striped as a claim territory. The same thing happens in the geographical planes studied in the Guyanese schools, but in reverse: in Guyana, they do not hesitate. The Essequibo is his, without distinction of any kind.

These are some keys to the litigation.


2020 was going to be Guyana’s year. According to the forecasts of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the economy of the small and jungle republic was going to grow 86% thanks to the discovery of oil reserves in the sea that depends on the Essequiba region.

Different sources were clear that the country, with about 800,000 inhabitants, should start producing in 2020, thanks essentially to ExxonMobil with several coalition companies, about 120,000 barrels of oil a day.

Of course, the forecasts consider that this production would grow to an arc of between 700,000 and one million barrels per day in the middle of the decade.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy has limited these possibilities for growth. In April, the IMF revised its forecasts and estimated that the expansion of the Guyanese economy in 2020 will be 52.8% amid the great planetary recession.

The paradox is that its Venezuelan neighbor, immersed in a long socio-economic crisis, produced around 700,000 barrels per day at the beginning of the year, a figure that has not been reviewed during the price crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and of which no updated official data exists today.

Venezuela, the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, now looks with suspicion and envy at its little neighbor to the south.


The British colony of Guyana is relatively late. Formally, the United Kingdom took possession of different settlements in 1814 and was consolidated as one in 1831, that is, when Venezuela was already an independent republic.

However, the territory that corresponds to Guayana Esequiba was, de jure, a Spanish province dependent on the Captaincy General of Venezuela but very little colonized by what, to a large extent, was “terra ignota”.

Faced with a newborn republic immersed in civil wars and eternal economic crises, the United Kingdom took advantage of its status as the largest colonial empire of the 19th century to push the borders of its American territory beyond those initially drawn.

In 1835, the British government commissioned naturalist Robert Hermann Schomburgk to demarcate the western boundary of British Guiana. With the British ambition to reach the mouths of the Orinoco River, the explorer put territories beyond the Essequibo River on the maps of the United Kingdom.

The two parties agreed in 1850 not to enter a territory that they considered to be in dispute but did not clearly show on the maps what extent that territory covered.


With the discovery of gold mines in the area, the British Empire continues to push its borders, which is why Venezuela asked the United States for arbitration based on the Monroe Doctrine, which is abhorred by the current Venezuelan Government.

After several discussions, the parties agreed in Washington to form an impartial arbitration tribunal that would determine the borders with an agreed legal framework.

The court met in Paris and was made up of five people: two British, two Americans as representatives of Venezuela and a Russian who had to act as a tiebreaker vote so the Caribbean country was, in practice, absent.

As expected, the five members of the tribunal voted in 1899 in favor of the greatest colonial power of the moment and stripped Venezuela of the almost 160,000 square kilometers that continue to appear on their maps.


Interestingly, Venezuela’s claim is based on the legal principle of “Uti possidetis iuris”, used in public international law under the premise that “as you possess according to law, you will possess so”. As Simón Bolívar has already proposed, it requires that the borders of the new republics be heirs to the old colonies.

In other words, Venezuela supported its claim in the fact that the Spanish province of Guayana was part of the Captaincy General of Venezuela.

Such is the importance that Venezuela gives to this territory that, under the mandate of Hugo Chávez, an eighth star was introduced in the country’s flag that represents the role of Guayana Esequiba, along with seven others, as one of the regions that they fought for the country’s independence.


Venezuela rejected the award but could not ignore the sentence before the powerful British Army. In the 1960s, Caracas revived the claim when Guyana was close to independence.

As a result, in 1966 the United Kingdom and Venezuela signed the Geneva Agreement to resolve the border dispute. The Republic of Guyana became independent months later and inherited that agreement.

That is where the main dispute arises, for Venezuela that agreement annuls the Paris award, for Guyana it is just a framework in which to reach an agreement, “an agreement to reach an agreement.” In any case, the previous “status quo” is maintained.

After prolonging the Geneva Agreement without reaching a definitive pact, in 1987 the two parties decided to go to the UN, which in 1989 agreed to mediate.

On January 30, 2018, the UN considered its management exhausted and its Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, proposed to take the case to the ICJ, where he is now.


After that decision, the Republic of Guyana goes to the ICJ, a court that Venezuela does not recognize jurisdiction to settle the case and appeals to the Geneva Agreement, which, for Caracas, annuls the Paris award.

Under that premise, this Tuesday the ICJ has summoned by videoconference the parties to which, presumably, the Venezuelan government will not respond.

In the event that it does not do so, Guyana may appeal, as it has done before, to Article 53 of the ICJ, which states that “when one of the parties does not appear in court, or refrains from defending his case, the other party may ask the court to decide in your favor. ”

It then remains to be seen what decision Venezuela takes and whether, with it, it paves the way for Guyanese.

Gonzalo Domínguez Loeda


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