544. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Venezuela1

202053. Following is uncleared memcon:

Under Secretary Katzenbach called in Venezuelan Ambassador Tejera Paris to discuss July 9 Venezuelan decree asserting sovereignty over territorial seas from 3 to 12 miles off of part of Guyana claimed by Venezuela. In cordial but serious discussion, Under Secretary made following points:

Meaning of decree was unclear to us and we would appreciate explanation, as it was potentially serious both from point of view international law and point of view internal Guyanese politics.
If intent decree were merely to put world on notice that when and if Venezuela attained sovereignty over territory it claimed, Venezuelan law with respect territorial waters would obtain, we would have no problem with it although it was difficult to see what advantage there was to Venezuela in issuing it at this time.
If, however, as accompanying explanatory note seemed to suggest, Venezuela intended immediately to exercise rights of sovereignty in 3–12 mile zone we would take “most serious” view of situation. As international lawyer, he himself could not see how such claim could be asserted and doubted that Ambassador Tejera would, in his capacity as lawyer, defend it. International law was clear that maritime rights and rights to continental shelf (which Guyana always claimed) attached to coastal state and at present Guyana was clearly the coastal state. The U.S., therefore, did not accept decree’s validity if it implied actual exercise of sovereignty and, if matter came up in international forum, we could not support Venezuela. While we would not make public statement unless we had to, we would have to advise U.S. shipping and other private interests if they asked that we did not accept validity of decree.
We also viewed decree as serious in terms Guyanese electoral situation. It was, we thought, of more immediate interest to Venezuela than to us and hemisphere that Burnham win elections which would probably take place in December and that Jagan be excluded. Moves such as this claim were not helpful as they eroded Burnham electoral strength in difficult elections and diverted his attention during critical remaining six month campaign period. It also made it difficult for us to counsel Burnham to use moderation as he felt obligated to defend his position.
We viewed explanatory note, with allusions such as “physical act of possession”, as more disturbing than decree itself and wondered what intent of Venezuela was in light of assurances President of Venezuela and country’s highest officials had given that Venezuela would not resort to force. Under Secretary again emphasized seriousness of our concern if Venezuela intended exercise sovereignty.

Tejera replied that he knew nothing of decree and explanatory note, having only received their text, but he would immediately report to Caracas and ask for instructions. Speaking personally, he at first attributed decree to Guyanese intransigence in Mixed commission and especially their refusal to accept Venezuelan proposals for joint development. He recited history of Venezuela’s frustrations in attempt to get Guyana to discuss settlement of issue in Mixed Commission and claimed Venezuela, which desired settlement by peaceful means had used great restraint in contrast to Burnham’s inflammatory actions such as his recent speech in Birmingham, U.K. with regard to claim [Page 1136] to territorial sea, he was certain that disputed territory would someday return to Venezuela and it was only natural and right Venezuela should have territorial waters which she would have under her Constitution and which are not claimed by party which wrongfully occupied disputed territory through inheritance from U.K. He would, however, query Caracas and let Under Secretary know as soon as he received reply.

For Caracas: You should convey above to President Leoni as soon as possible after clearance of memcon, hopefully early Monday.2

For London: You should convey substance to FonOff.

For Georgetown: You may convey general line of conversation to Burnham in strictest confidence but should avoid giving him any encouragement to take matter to international organizations.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–4 VEN. Confidential; Immediate. Drafted and approved by Hill. Also sent to Georgetown and London and repeated to USUN, USCINCSO, Recife, and Sao Paulo for Oliver.
  2. July 15. In telegram 6896 from Caracas, July 16, the Embassy reported that Venezuelan officials were “piqued over US position on decree as stated Saturday by Katzenbach.” In a meeting with Bernbaum on July 16, Iribarren declared that Venezuela’s “territorial claims must take precedence over any consideration their effect on Guyana’s domestic political situation.” The same day Minister of Interior Leandro Mora told an Embassy officer that the Department did not appreciate “Venezuela’s ‘feelings’ on this matter.” (Telegram 6898 from Caracas, July 16; ibid.)