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430. Information Memorandum From the Presidentʼs Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson 1


  • Guyanaʼs Border Dispute with Venezuela

During Prime Minister Burnhamʼs call he asked for our help in persuading Venezuela to be less “bellicose” about the border dispute. You asked for a memorandum.2

[Page 947]

The dispute, involving some 5/8 of Guyana (see attached map),3 goes back to colonial times. We became involved in the 1890s in an arbitration effort between the British and Venezuelans. The award generally corresponds to Guyanaʼs present boundaries. Venezuela has never accepted it.

Venezuela allowed the case to lie dormant until Guyana approached independence. Thinking that it could get more concessions out of a Britain anxious to get rid of a problem colony than an independent new nation, the Venezuelans began agitating their claim. They blocked Guyana from joining the OAS and becoming part of the Latin American Nuclear Free Zone.

In 1966 at Geneva the British and Venezuelan Governments agreed to establish a Mixed Guyana–Venezuela Commission to discuss the dispute. The agreement provides that if the dispute has not been resolved by 1970, the Commission will be dissolved and the problem taken to the United Nations.

The Commission has not made any progress toward resolving the boundary question but it has succeeded in draining off some of the political heat. Last year there was a small flareup when Venezuela occupied the border island of Ankoko, half of which is claimed by Guyana.

We have made it clear to both governments that they should use the Mixed Commission to work out their differences. We follow the controversy closely and counsel restraint when things get unsettled. After the Ankoko incident interrupted the dialogue, we encouraged President Leoni to receive an emissary from Guyana to resume bilateral talks. Venezuela eventually agreed to this, and offered to consider joint economic development projects in Guyana under the aegis of the Mixed Commission. Prime Minister Burnham accepted this suggestion in the understanding that the projects would not be limited just to the disputed territory.

The prospects for reaching a solution to the border controversy in the near future are not bright, unless there is a sharp change in attitude by the Venezuelans. For internal political reasons, they now find it convenient to agitate the issue from time to time. Our strategy is to use our influence to restrain the Venezuelans from further adventurism along the frontier and from too much politicking at home. We have repeatedly reminded the Venezuelans that if they undermine Burnham, they run the risk of getting a communist bridgehead at their back door under Cheddi Jagan.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Guyana (Brit. G.), Vol. I, Cables, Memos, and Misc., 5/66–11/68. Confidential.
  2. See Document 426.
  3. Attached but not reproduced.