Published On: Tue, Mar 3rd, 2015

Guyana oil exploration revives Venezuela border dispute

deepwater_championGEORGETOWN, Guyana -- The recent announcement that Exxon/Mobil’s Deepwater Champion oil exploration rig has departed from Louisiana to the Stabroek Block offshore Guyana, where it is expected to commence drilling in mid-March, has prompted an objection to the deployment from Venezuela.

The government of Guyana has in turn issued a warning to Venezuela to refrain from interfering in its offshore oil exploration efforts.

"The ministry of foreign affairs has requested that the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela desist from taking any actions that could only result in the stymieing of the development of Guyana and its people and that would be in contravention of international law," the Guyana government said in a statement on Sunday.

Exxon Mobil plans to invest $200 million in exploratory drilling off Guyana in the Liza field, which is part of the Stabroek Block.

The Deep Water Champion platform has already left the United States for Guyana, where it is expected to begin work in mid-March.

Guyana said it has informed the 15-nation Caribbean Community, the Union of South American Nations, the Organization of American States, the Commonwealth and the United Nations "about this recent action by Venezuela."

The latest spat over the oil rig is part of the century-old quarrel over Essequibo, a resource-rich area of 167,839 sq. kilometers (64,800 sq. miles) administered by Guyana but claimed by Venezuela.

In October 2013, Venezuela seized an oil-exploration vessel operating in Essequibo coastal waters under a concession from Guyana.

The two South American nations have squabbled over the area, which is the size of the US state of Georgia, for much of the 20th century. Venezuela calls it a "reclamation zone," but in practice it functions as Guyanese territory.

In 1899, an Arbitral Panel of judges reached a "full, perfect and final settlement” of the border dispute. The issue was re-opened in 1962 by then Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt for reasons unrelated to legality.

According to declassified US State Department documents, Betancourt professed “to be greatly concerned about an independent British Guiana with Cheddi Jagan as Prime Minister” who he suspected “is already too committed to communism”. Betancourt was reported in the documents covering the period 1962 to 1965, as being “convinced that the area contiguous to the present boundary abounds in natural resources”.

He proposed to both the British and the Americans that they agree to zone “under Venezuelan sovereignty”. This, he said, would stop “the danger of infiltration of Venezuela from British Guiana if a Castro-type government ever were established”.

This was the real basis for the Venezuelan claim even though Betancourt’s government’s position in the international community was that the decision of the Arbitration was fraudulent. The declassified documents reveal that neither the British nor the Americans gave him any encouragement or support. Nonetheless, he pursued it. And, over the years, nationalist hostility toward Guyana has been generated and enflamed in Venezuela on the assertion that the 1899 award was a fraud, despite the fact that it was accepted at the time and not challenged for 63 years.

Since then, every Venezuelan government has promoted that claim with varying degrees of vigour.

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