At the beginning of the 19th century, the American foreign policy known as the Monroe Doctrine proved to be an elixir for the sovereign ambitions of newly-found countries in South America which were previously under colonial administrations of European empires.
James Monroe, only the fifth president of the United States, theorized that manifestations of imperial European control in the backyard of his country were a threat to the nascent U.S.A. Europe’s sphere of influence was to be confined to what the Americans called the Old World while the New World would presumably be grounds for young countries to self-determine.
Monroe, and indeed, at least five presidents after him, were speaking to the likes of Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, France, and the Netherlands which held colonies in south, north, and central America. Sixth American president John Quincy Adams would write in the codification of the doctrine 1823:
“The occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.”
Initially, the warning was not taken seriously by the warned, simply because the Americans lacked the military wherewithal to punish any European power. Britain for instance claimed the Falkland Islands in 1833. But this imbalance of power was no more the case by the time of what has come to be known as the Venezuela Crisis of 1895.
Seventy or so years before this time, Venezuela had attained independence from Spain. The country immediately found itself locked in a border controversy with Britain, which owned Guyana, a former Dutch slave trade post acquired by the Brits after the Napoleonic Wars.
Venezuela and Britain were at loggerheads over Guyana Esequiba, a territory of more than 60,000 square miles lying west of the Essequibo River. Venezuela’s case was ultimately based on a map drawn three decades after it had attained independence from Spain, with the map apportioning Esequiba to Venezuela. Effectively, the Venezuelans laid claim to all of the lands they believed Spain controlled during colonization – which included land from the Orinoco River to the Amazon River on present Venezuela’s southeastern border with Brazil.
Britain’s differed, pointing out the the lands under dispute were not controlled by Spain owing to they being remote from Spanish Venezuela. Britain also added that the natives of this land were not friendly to the Spanish but to the Dutch, who formerly owned Guyana.
It is essential to place this episode within the context of global history. This was the dawn of the 20th century – the period of Pax Britannica, essentially a period when Britain was not involved in major geopolitical wars because it was largely unchallenged. It was also the beginning of America’s assertion as a power of significant magnitude. Britain did want to trigger the wrath of the Americans by flouting the Monroe Doctrine.
But Britain flouting the Monroe Doctrine was exactly what the Venezuelans accused in 1897. Venezuela hired William Scruggs, a respected American diplomat as a lobbyist in Washington to force the Americans to intercede in the dispute with Britain. In 1898, Britain had to acquiesce to a five-person international tribunal arbitration in France.
The tribunal ruled in favor of Britain in 1899. For the last 121 years, Esequiba, a territory boasting offshore oil fields as well as gold mines, has been under Guyanese control. Venezuela has found various fora, including the United Nations, to re-adjudicate ownership of the territory but this has come to naught. The matter is currently before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Guyana inherited the dispute from colonizers Britain in 1966 when the country gained independence. The country has since gone on to make multiple oil discoveries in that region of the Essequibo.
Today, Guyana’s population of just a little under 800,000 – one out of three of African descent – lives in fear of not only bigger neighbor Venezuela but also of the climate of insecurity surrounding the Essequibo. According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), river transport on the Essequibo is managed by everyone from criminal gangs to guerillas from Colombia’s National Liberation Army to Venezuelan soldiers.
Guyana may take solace in the fact that these days, the Americans are not enthused about Venezuela. At the beginning of 2021, US and Guyanese naval officers held joint exercises in the disputed territory, causing Venezuela to voice concern.
Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela, has vowed to “reconquer” the territory. In a tweet last week, Maduro said “[T]hat territory belongs to the Venezuelan men and women and we are going to reconquer it.” Guyana has so far expressed concern about the language of the Venezuelan leader, with President Irfaan Ali calling it “deeply disturbing”.
Meanwhile, CARICOM, the Caribbean community of independent states issued a statement saying it was “deeply disappointed and concerned at the decree and subsequent statements by Venezuela with respect to that country’s border controversy with Guyana.”