December 14, 2023 Venezuelanalysis.com
The two leaders gathered following a letter by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines calling to defuse rising tensions.
MEXICO CITY, Mexico – Venezuela and Guyana agreed Thursday to an ongoing direct dialogue between the two countries following a first meeting between their respective leaders in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his Guyanese counterpart Irfaan Ali met at the airport in Kingstown alongside representatives from CARICOM, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Brazil, Colombia, and the United Nations.
The two leaders gathered following a letter by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines calling on the leaders to diffuse rising tensions between Venezuela and Guyana.
Following the two-hour meeting in Kingstown, the Venezuelan government said in a video posted to social media that both parties had agreed to continue with direct talks.
On Thursday evening, both nations published the “Joint Declaration of Argyle for Peace Between Guyana and Venezuela.” The eleven-point document establishes that neither nation will threaten the use of force against the other, that both committed to “resolving controversies in accordance with international law” and to “refrain[ing] from escalating any conflict.”
Furthermore, the declaration states that the two foreign ministries will establish a joint commission to “address matters as mutually agreed.” A second meeting between Ali and Maduro will take place in Brazil within the next three months, also with CELAC and CARICOM mediation.
Upon returning to Venezuela, Maduro called the meeting “productive.” “This is the path forward, where we listen to and respect each other,” he told reporters.
The longstanding territorial dispute over the Essequibo region flared up in 2015 following the discovery of massive offshore oil deposits. Since then Guyanese governments have proceeded with bidding processes for oil exploration in Essequibo’s undefined territorial waters, which Caracas argues violate the unresolved legal battle.
Earlier this month, Venezuelans overwhelmingly voted to support the country’s sovereignty claim over the Essequibo Strip in a referendum
The start of Thursday’s meeting was reportedly tense, with Ali not shaking the Venezuelan leader’s hand until Maduro commented on the fact. Celso Amorim, Brazilian President Lula da Silva’s envoy, admitted there was tension at first, however the intervention of the mediators helped defuse the situation.
The first block of talks included the participation of CARICOM, the regional body of Caribbean states that includes and backs Guyana’s position that would have the International Court of Justice (ICJ) settle the territorial dispute over the Essequibo region. Venezuela holds “observer” status in CARICOM.
Caracas, on the other hand, views the 1966 Geneva Agreement, which commits the countries to work out a mutually satisfactory solution, as the only binding instrument to solve the border issue.
Following the first round of talks at the table, Ali told the media that Guyana views the Essequibo region as part of its sovereign territory and will defend the recent licenses granted to transnational oil companies in the disputed waters.
“I made it clear that the controversy must be resolved at the ICJ and we are unwavering and resolute in ensuring that Guyana’s case is presented and defended and that the ICJ will issue its decision on the merits of the case which of course is binding on all the parties,” said Ali.
The Maduro government has repeatedly accused Guyana of serving the interests of oil giant ExxonMobil, the main oil producer working in the disputed waters. Venezuela has also argued that the ICJ has no jurisdiction over the matter.
The Guyanese president added that he viewed the intervention of the ICJ as “part of the Geneva agreement” since the case was taken to the World Court following a referral by the United Nations secretary general.
Until Thursday’s meeting, Georgetown had refused direct meetings, with Caracas viewing the high-level encounter as a diplomatic victory. Upon his arrival in Kingstown, Maduro praised the work by CELAC and CARICOM to facilitate the dialogue with his Guyanese counterpart.
While the meeting did not produce immediate changes to both leaders’ positions, the direct engagement was well received in the region. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel “saluted” the talks and offered his country’s contributions to solve conflicts in the region.
The Venezuela-Guyana tensions have been worsened by prospects of US military intervention. Last week, the US Southern Command conducted joint military drills with the Guyanese Defense Forces, while US Department of Defense officials visited Guyana in November. Recent statements by Ali that his country had “engaged its military counterparts” raised fears of an armed conflict.
On Thursday, Ali said “both parties committed to ensuring the region remains a zone of peace” but nonetheless reiterated that his government “reserves the right to work with all our partners to ensure the defense of our country.”
-Edited by Ricardo Vaz in Caracas.