Orin: Caricom’s stance on Guyana-Venezuela dispute is a study in spinelessness

The following guest column on the relationship between the governments of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana was submitted to Wired868 by Orin Gordon, a Guyana-born, T&T-based media consultant who publishes at oringordon.com:

The much bigger, stronger brother has the smaller one in a painful choke hold. Little brother can’t breathe. He’s wriggling beneath the bigger body, gasping for air and panicked.

Behave boys…

Mommy walks in on them. “Why don’t you two behave yourselves,” she says.

If little brother had been capable of talking while being choked half to death, he’d have told her that only one of them was misbehaving. He was trying not to die of asphyxiation.

This is the essence of pleas for maintaining a “zone of peace” by Caricom, as the government of Venezuela tramples all over international law in enforcement of its claim of Guyana’s Essequibo county—well over two-thirds of Guyana’s land area.

Here’s what Venezuela president Nicolas Maduro has done recently. A referendum: on tearing up the 1899 border settlement, annexing Essequibo, making it Venezuela’s 24th state and issuing ID cards to the area’s 125,000 residents.

Venezuela president Nicolas Maduro (left) greets Venezuelans on the day of their referendum over the Essequibo region.

This defied a ruling from the International Court of Justice that Venezuela shouldn’t “take any action which would modify” the situation of Guyanese sovereignty of Essequibo.

Maduro appointed a governor—an army general no less—for Essequibo. He directed Venezuelan state companies to begin processing mining licenses for that part of western Guyana.

He ordered petroleum companies that had agreements with Guyana to get out of the area. All official documents would have an expanded map of Venezuela that included Essequibo.

Venezuela president Nicholas Maduro has threatened to annex the Essequibo, which Venezuela refers to as the Guayana Esequiba.

Those were major, grave and alarming acts of lawlessness. Guyana, by contrast, has behaved properly throughout, moving through the diplomatic gears of the 1966 Geneva Agreement to the International Court of Justice. Caricom leaders had a virtual emergency meeting late on Friday, and issued a statement.

“Caricom firmly supports Guyana in its pursuance of the border controversy with Venezuela through the process of the ICJ…” So far so good.

However, after the formulaic “commitment to the Caribbean as a zone of peace and maintenance of international law”; it goes on to call for “de-escalation of the conflict”, and among other things, “the application and respect for international law”.

(From left to right) Regional prime ministers Dr Irfaan Ali, Dr Keith Rowley and Gaston Browne visit a market.
Photo: Caricom

The last part was puzzling. Venezuela had already broken international law in multiple ways. Caricom needed to call that out, however mildly. It read as if the leaders had stopped paying attention after 2 December.

Moreover, Caricom contrived to issue a weaker statement on the actuality of Venezuela’s belligerence than it had on the imminence of it. The leaders seemed cowed by Maduro’s apoplectic reaction to their 1 December statement. It was a study in spinelessness.

The “zone of peace” is a form of words meant to be inoffensive to Maduro. But like the poor lad in the choke hold, Guyanese find it irksome—notwithstanding the fact that their own president and a US State Department spokesman have deployed the phrase.

Venezuela president Nicolas Maduro.

There’s one aggressor in this, as clearer statements from the UK, the Commonwealth, the OAS and singular Caricom nations such as Belize and the Bahamas noted.

In a previous life, I was part of a team that taught crisis management to classes of global executives at London Business School.

We used a concept called the island of safety: a rhetorical place to which a beleaguered executive can retreat—temporarily, rhetorically until all of the facts are known and fully revealed—in the face of circumstances that can sink their company.

The zone of peace is the island of safety for Caricom and a number of its prime ministers.

The Essequibo River in Guyana.

The letter of the PM of St Vincent and Grenadines, Dr Ralph Gonsalves inviting the leaders of Guyana and Venezuela for talks on Thursday, added to the appearance of fecklessness. Gonzalves, in obsequious reference to Maduro in his letter, gave legitimacy to his lawless referendum.

I get it that Caricom leaders don’t want an armed invasion and potential war on their doorstep. They have their own tourism-dependent economies and potentially adverse travel advisories to worry about. That’d be hugely damaging for them. They have to protect cheap oil and gas deals to balance their budgets.

However, they need to read the play from Maduro. Everything he has done so far signals that he prefers an economic war to a military one. To scare investors away from Guyana and make the cost of doing business prohibitively high.

Guyana footballer Sidney Facey (right) shows off her national flag after their win over Turks & Caicos Islands in the 2022 Concacaf Women’s Under-17 Championship at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Photo: Concacaf/ Straffon Images/ Mariano Figueroa

The terrain on the Essequibo/Venezuela border would make a military invasion difficult and complex—rivers and dense forest in the north, dense forest and mountains in the centre. All of the south and the longer part of Essequibo’s border is friendlier topography, but that borders with Brazil.

Brazil doesn’t want that smoke on its northwestern frontier, and I suspect that Maduro doesn’t have an interest in the south of Essequibo. He’d likely settle for the north and its all-important coastal and maritime area.

It’s why he’s staking everything on the Geneva Agreement, except the part of it where the matter properly ends up at the ICJ.

Venezuelans lay claim to Essequibo.
Copyright Matias De La Croix

What Venezuela wants is a haggling match over real estate. Get north Essequibo at the bargaining table and claim you’re being reasonable in letting Guyana keep the rest.

Territorial negotiations are off the table in St Vincent, and that’s why the talks will go nowhere and devolve into a glorified photo op. The issue of whether the two leaders will shake hands would likely become a talking point.

I’d have preferred President Dr Irfaan Ali to decline the invitation, but he can say that he took the opportunity to lower the temperature.

Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (left) and Guyana President Irfaan Ali.
(Copyright Office of the President)

Still, territorial incursions are possible. Maduro can manufacture an incident involving Venezuelan nationals in Guyana and go “rescue” them.

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