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436. Circular Telegram From the Department of State to All American Republic Posts 1

204263. Subject: Guyana–Venezuela Border Dispute.

Following is summary developments Guyana–Venezuela border dispute that can be drawn on as appropriate.

Background: Dispute originates in 1899 Arbitral Award of territory west of Essequibo River (about five-eighths of what is now Guyana) to Great Britain. GOV has since 1962 maintained officially that arbitral award was result “fraudulent deal” between British and Russian members tribunal and therefore award is null and void. In period immediately prior to British granting independence to Guyana, Venezuela pressed for reopening question of where boundary should lie in belief that Venezuela could more easily twist tail of British lion than of small newly sovereign neighbor. In February 1966 at Geneva UK, British Guiana and Venezuela Governments signed agreement establishing Mixed Commission to discuss dispute arising out of Venezuelan claim. Since Guyanaʼs independence May 1966, Mixed Commission has met 9 times and has generally served as useful channel for diversion political heat generated in both countries.
Mixed Commission meetings have been frustrating to GOV, however, since it apparently saw purpose Mixed Commission to redraw boundary, whereas Guyana saw it as forum to examine validity Venezuelan allegations concerning Arbitral Award. In effort break impasse GOV offered contribute to joint economic development of disputed territory. GOG expressed willingness discuss Venezuelan economic assistance but broke down when it became clear to GOG that GOV wanted exercise more authority over project than normal for economic assistance donors.
Last year Venezuela occupied tiny border island Ankoko, half which claimed by Guyana. As dispute boiled over “Ankoko Affair” early summer 1967 we encouraged President Leoni receive Guyana emissary. Talks resulted in easing of tensions and assuring GOG that Venezuela did not intend to use force in dispute and that matter would be played in low key during pre-electoral period in Guyana.
In May 1968 Venezuela reiterated a 1965 warning that any commercial concessions GOG might grant to foreign firms in disputed territory would not be recognized by GOV. (GOV has policy not to grant new concessions for mineral exploration in territory it controls.) This brought angry charges from Guyana Government that Venezuela violating Geneva Agreement by publicizing its claim outside Mixed Commission and commiting “economic aggression” against Guyana. In late June GOV withdrew from sub-commission for economic development following refusal GOG entertain joint development of disputed territory.
On July 9 Venezuelan President issued decree claiming 9 miles of territorial sea beyond 3 miles claimed by Guyana off coast of disputed territory. “Explanatory note” published with degree pointed out Venezuela claims 12 mile territorial sea off its own coast and wished put on record its claim to similar area off disputed territory. However since Guyana does not claim zone from 3 to 12 miles Venezuela feels free claim zone and, “explanatory note” implies, exercise immediate sovereignty over it by some unstated “physical act of possession” or “concrete act of dominion.” GOV member Mixed Commission told press foreign merchant ships would have right innocent passage through zone (which includes major shipping lanes) but no fishing rights. Naval vessels could pass with GOV permission. GOV FonMin told US Ambassador privately he “assumed” GOV will institute naval patrols of zone.
On July 13, Under Secretary asked explanation decreeʼs meaning from Venezuelan Ambassador in Washington stating that if Venezuela intended exercise rights of sovereignty in 3 to 12 miles zone off Guyana US would take “most serious” view situation. Under Secretary pointed out:
In addition to fact USG does not recognize 12 mile territorial seas, US does not accept decreeʼs validity if it implies actual exercise sovereignty and if matter came up in international forum we could not support Venezuela.2
We viewed decreeʼs explanatory note with allusions such as “physical act of possession” as more disturbing than decree itself and wondered about GOV intentions in view earlier assurances from Venezuelan President that GOV would not resort to force.3
We concerned that GOV actions might erode Burnham electoral strength and divert his attention from campaign prior to crucial electoral confrontation with Jagan 4 which will possibly take place in December this year.
US has consistently maintained neutral stance on merits of dispute itself and has so informed GOV and GOG. We may, however, be compelled make our position public at future date on legal aspects recent decree and its implications for peace in area. We will attempt to avoid making public our legal position until GOV responds to Under Secretaryʼs inquiry.
GOG has undertaken at UN present case to regional groups and particularly seek support from LA countries. Burnham also contemplating bringing matter to UNSC.
Press reports implying US favors GOV inaccurate and to date press reports of GOV military or naval movements also appear inaccurate.
Foregoing can be used as background in discussion with government officials provided such action would not be interpreted as lobbying for interests of either government.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 32–1 GUYANA–VEN. Confidential. Drafted by Luers and George F. Jones, cleared by Hill and Richard A. Frank (L/E), and approved by Sayre. Repeated to London, USUN, USCINCSO, and Montevideo for Assistant Secretary Oliver.
  2. Telegram 206210 to Georgetown, July 20, reported that Under Secretary Katzenbach met with Prime Minister Burnham earlier in the day and assured him “that U.S. viewed decree as invalid under international law and had so informed GOV firmly.” (Ibid., ORG 7 ARA)
  3. Telegram 206216 to Georgetown and Caracas, July 20, reported that President Leoni of Venezuela, in the presence of Foreign Minister Iribarren, gave Ambassador Bernbaum assurances that “no incidents would occur and that the right of innocent passage would be honored.” The telegram reported that these assurances were conveyed to Burnham following his meeting with Katzenbach. (Ibid., POL 7 GUYANA)
  4. Telegram 7021 from Caracas, July 20, reported that after Bernbaumʼs conversation with Leoni and Iribarren (see footnote 3 above) Foreign Office Director of Political Affairs Herrera Marcano met with Carlson who outlined the effect GOVʼs actions were having on Guyanaʼs domestic political situation stressing how they were helping Jagan and hurting Burnham. Carlson pointed out that Jaganʼs position had been on ebb, but that Burnham had felt compelled to bring him in to consult on Guyanaʼs position in order to present a united front, thus lending Jagan some new respectability. Carlson also said that “recent Government of Venezuela ‘provocations’ distracted Burnham” and that they could have a significant effect on Burnhamʼs campaign effort. (Ibid., POL 32–1 GUYANA–VEN)