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The Protocol of Port of Spain (1970)


By Odeen Ishmael
Guyana Journal, February 2008


Guyana constitutionally became a Republic on the 23 February 1970 and there was much pomp and ceremony to inaugurate and celebrate the occasion. However, the celebrations which commenced a few days before Republic Day were momentarily interrupted when the Venezuelan army attacked a Guyana military outpost at Eteringbang near to Ankoko Island on the 21 February.

Guyana protested very strongly to the Venezuelan attack and shortly after informed the UN Security Council about it.

But a new twist in the situation occurred on 25 February when the commanding officer of the Venezuelan detachment on Ankoko, Captain Luis Calatrava Sifontes, personally apologized to Lieutenant Keith Dyer, the officer-in-charge of the GDF troops at Eteringbang for the bombardment. Captain Sifontes said he was absent from Ankoko when his troops opened fire and immediately on his return he ordered all firing to cease. He claimed that the firing would not have taken place had he been present and expressed the hope that the incident could be forgotten.

Mixed Commission meetings

The Mixed Commission, meanwhile, had held a session in Buenos Aires, Argentina, during December 1969. It then held its final working session in Kingston, Jamaica, from the 13 to 16 February 1970. At this meeting it was agreed that the Commission would meet again to prepare its Final Report to be submitted to the Governments of Guyana, Venezuela and Great Britain. Two such meetings were held – one in April and the other in May. Finally on the 18 June 1970, the Final Report was signed and submitted to the respective Governments.

The Final Report admitted that the Mixed Commission had failed to find any satisfactory solutions for the practical settlement of the border issue. Venezuela’s position in the various meetings was that the issue of “nullity” was not an issue with which the Mixed Commission should concern itself, and was more interested to know how much land Guyana was prepared to cede. And when Guyana declined to proceed in that way, Venezuela then sought to circumvent argument about its contention of nullity by putting forward proposals for the “joint development” of the area it claimed. But these “joint development” proposals were unacceptable to Guyana.

Official meetings
After the Eteringbang incidents and the end of the Mixed Commission, it was clear that some form of dialogue was necessary between the Guyana and Venezuela to explore all possibilities in order to bring about better relations between the two countries, and to provide a basis for effecting a final solution to the controversy arising out of Venezuela's claim to Guyanese territory.

At the final working session of the Mixed Commission which was held in Jamaica in February 1970, it was agreed to postpone for three months, i.e., until May 16, 1970, the date on which the Final Report would be signed and submitted to the Governments of Guyana, Venezuela and Great Britain.

The rationale behind the postponement was to allow for a longer period of time during which an agreement could be reached as regards the method to be pursued for finding a solution to the problem in accordance with Article IV of the Geneva Agreement.

The members of the Mixed Commission accordingly met in Caracas on May 14, 1970 but agreement was not reached on the text of the Final Report. A draft text proposed by Guyana was rejected by Venezuela which, on the other hand, had not prepared its own draft for Guyana’s consideration.

With the aim of bringing about better relations between the two countries, and to provide a basis for effecting a final solution to the controversy, officials from both Governments met on a number of occasions between March and June 1970 to attempt to find a basis for settling within reasonable limits, all outstanding difficulties. Six official level meetings were held between the two Governments, with the final one convening in Georgetown on June 3, 1970.

New proposals for a solution

(a) Neutral observer presence – proposal by Guyana
At the official level meetings it was also decided to suspend the search for a solution under a moratorium arrangement during which programs of economic cooperation would be discussed and implemented where possible. The events at Eteringbang in February 1970 coupled with Guyana’s unabated fears of possible Venezuelan military intervention had moved the Government of Guyana to insist that Venezuela’s acceptance of a neutral observer presence was an essential condition to its acceptance of any proposals for economic cooperation. The Guyana officials were at pains to explain that Guyana’s proposal for a neutral observer presence did not necessarily mean the existence of a permanent physical presence on the border but rather that there should be agreement on the need for such team which would visit the border area at agreed intervals and which would be on call should any incidents occur along the border. The added advantage of having such a team would be that any hostility on the frontier would be immediately investigated, such investigation serving to localize the area of conflict and prevent its escalation to the point of frustrating the moratorium and the programs of economic cooperation.

Despite these assurances, Venezuela rejected this proposal for a neutral observer presence.

(b) Arbitration – proposal by Venezuela
In an attempt to break the ensued deadlock, the Government of Venezuela proposed that the issue of Venezuela’s claim to western Essequibo should be settled by arbitration under the principle of ex aequo et bono [according to what is right and good]. Under this proposal, the arbitrators would be given full scope to determine their own terms of reference as practiced under customary international law relating to arbitral proceedings. It was further contended that should the Government of Guyana agree to this proposal, Venezuela would regard the existence of the controversy with Guyana as having been settled and in this regard would formally undertake at the June 1970 meeting of OAS Foreign Ministers to propose and support the entry of Guyana into the hemispheric organization.

(c) Recourse to the ICJ – counter-proposal by Guyana
However, Guyana saw little merit in recourse to a second arbitral tribunal since Venezuela was discrediting the work of the previous arbitral tribunal of 1899. Guyana further indicated that the very objections which the Venezuela was raising with respect to the 1899 arbitral tribunal might conceivably be equally raised with respect to any subsequent arbitral tribunal. In such circumstances, Guyana counter-proposed that recourse to the International Court of Justice would be a more practical and definitive means of resolving the issue. A formal proposal for a reference to the International Court of Justice was therefore made by the Government of Guyana at a meeting of officials on May 10, 1970 in Georgetown on the basis that the Court should decide whether the existing boundary between Guyana and Venezuela as demarcated pursuant to the Arbitral Award of 1899 was binding on both parties.

The Government of Venezuela rejected this counter-proposal.

Mediation by Dr. Eric Williams
With no forward movement in the negotiation process clearly visible, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Eric Williams, became involved in the process by mediating with both parties towards reaching an agreement. Williams was encouraged to involve himself in this exercise by the United States government which wanted both Guyana and Venezuela, to which it was very close politically, to reach a mutual agreement on the border issue. Most likely, the US view on the border issue was made known to both countries by the Prime Minister.

Eventually, the deadlock was broken when Guyana declared that it was prepared to accept a straight moratorium arrangement without any program of economic cooperation and without a neutral observer presence. Guyana insisted, however, that the duration of such a moratorium must be long enough to allow for the creation of a climate of improved relations between the two countries.

The Government of Venezuela accepted this proposal, and the last three meetings at official level were concerned with hammering out the details of this agreed arrangement. These discussions although frank, open and free from bitterness and hostility, were characterized by a great deal of tough hard bargaining on both sides and the effort appears to be producing significant rewards.

Negotiations for a Protocol to the Geneva Agreement
By June 1970, provisional agreement was reached on the terms of a Protocol to the Geneva Agreement. This proposed Protocol provided for a moratorium of twelve (12) years, renewable for successive periods of twelve years or, by subsequent agreement of the Governments, for periods of not less than five (5) years. It provided for unilateral termination at the end of the initial period (or at the end of any of the subsequent renewal periods) but stipulated that such termination automatically revived the operation of Article IV of the Geneva Agreement. It was also agreed that termination for any cause whatsoever – and this referred to a premature termination of the moratorium as opposed to the end of any agreed period – would also revive Article IV of the Geneva Agreement.

The terms of the agreed Protocol spelled out the decision that no claims shall be made by either Government on the territorial sovereignty of the other and recognized that the promotion of a constructive climate of friendship and goodwill was essential to the success of the moratorium.

This draft Protocol was arrived at on the basis of a common understanding at official level as to the precise meaning of some of its more significant articles with respect to the further prosecution of the claim by Venezuela during the period of the moratorium. It was jointly understood for example that Venezuela would not attempt to discourage investment in the Essequibo Region nor will she continue to publish and issue maps designed to show territory in Guyana as being under claim by or as a part of Venezuela unless such maps bore a date prior to the date of the Protocol.

With regard to the maps and other documents published by Venezuela showing western Essequibo as Venezuelan territory, the officials on both sides actually drafted a joint agreement relating to this issue. The draft agreement stated:

Note of Understandings reached during negotiations on the Protocol of Port-of-Spain as recorded in identical form by each Government.

The Minister of External Relations of Venezuela, in the name of the President of the Republic, stated to the Minister of State for External Affairs of Guyana the intention of the Government of Venezuela not to proceed, during the remainder of the current constitutional period, with the publication of official maps dated after the date of the Protocol or with the publication of postage stamps or other representations or writings which have reference to the claim, by way of demonstration of its good will in the execution of the provisions of the Protocol.

The Government of Venezuela would value the word of the President of the Republic being considered sufficient by the Government of Guyana.

The Minister of State of Guyana accepted the undertaking given in the name of the President of the Republic of Venezuela and expressed the hope that, in conformity with the spirit of the Protocol, the undertaking would be continued beyond the end of the current constitutional period by the then appropriate authorities of Venezuela.

Guyana’s Minister of State for External Affairs Shridath Ramphal was a strong advocate of the proposed Protocol which he felt was being arranged to last at least for 12 years but at the same time designed to encourage its perpetual renewal.

The Protocol of Port of Spain
The work of the officials, who had meetings in Tobago, Georgetown and Caracas, prepared the ground for discussions between Ramphal and the Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr. Aristides Calvani, on the 16-18 June 1970 in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. Eric Williams, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, played an important role in arranging this meeting and in getting both Venezuela and Guyana to reach agreement on the final text of the Protocol. The proposed agreement relating to the publication of maps and postage stamps by Venezuela was never signed. At the end of the meeting, after the submission of the Final Report of the Mixed Commission, the protocol, known as the Protocol of Port of Spain, was signed by Ramphal and Calvani on the morning of 18 June 1970. Sir Roland Hunte, the British High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago, also signed the Protocol on behalf of his government.

The Protocol provided for a minimum period during which Venezuela undertook not to assert any claim to sovereignty over the Essequibo region of Guyana, and for Guyana to assert no claim to Venezuelan territory. The initial period of the protocol was for twelve years and was automatically renewable. However, it could be terminated by either side at certain stated intervals, but it had a guaranteed minimum life of twelve years.

The Protocol did not replace the Geneva Agreement of 1966, but merely suspended it. But if either side, after a minimum period of twelve years should withdraw from the agreement, the Geneva Agreement would be automatically revived and all the procedures provided in that agreement would be available again to both countries.

Later that afternoon in Georgetown, Guyana's Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham explained the terms of the protocol to the National Assembly. He declared: “The Protocol, of course, will not transform our relations overnight. Much patient effort will be needed to overtake five years of strained relations and to secure that harmony which the Protocol now makes possible. . . . The conclusion of the Protocol and the arrangements associated with it represent a new period of mutual respect accompanied by a patient search for understanding. These principles must guide us in the years ahead. If they do, the Protocol thus will have served well, not only Guyana and Venezuela, but the Hemisphere itself – and there can be no reason why the regime of peace which the Protocol establishes should ever end.”

On the other hand, the opposition PPP was not so optimistic. Two days after the Protocol of Port of Spain was signed, the party, in condemning the government for signing the Protocol, stated that the agreement would permit the continued Venezuelan occupation of the Guyanese part of Ankoko Island. The party added that the Guyana government acted in a cowardly manner by refusing to bring Venezuela's aggression to the UN Security Council despite the bold statements to cede of "not an inch of territory" and "not a blade of grass". The PPP also called on the government “to pursue the steps outlined in the Geneva Agreement to settle the issue once and for all, and put an end to this period of marking time”.

Ratification of the Protocol by Guyana
Despite these sharp criticisms, a motion to ratify the Protocol was presented to the Guyanese National Assembly by the Guyana Government on the 22 June 1970. The main spokesman for the Government was the Minister of State Shridath Ramphal who, in the course of his speech, outlined the main positive goal of the agreement Protocol as providing a guaranteed period of twelve years during which Venezuela “may not assert a claim to Guyana's territory”.

Strong criticisms came from the PPP members who voted against the motion which was carried by the PNC majority.

Nevertheless, the PPP continued to express its opposition to the Protocol. The party made further criticisms at its sixteenth congress held at Anna Regina, Essequibo, on 5-6 September 1970. In its General Council report presented by Dr. Cheddi Jagan, the party stated:

The Venezuelan border claim and the way it has been handled by the Guyana government once again puts the stamp of national betrayal on the PNC leaders. The Protocol of Port of Spain which merely shelved the matter for twelve years was dictated by the US government to its puppets in both Guyana and Venezuela. The Guyana government meekly and speedily bowed to this dictation without consulting the Opposition or the Guyanese people as a whole. The Venezuelan claim is held as a threat to any progressive, national democratic government that attempts to break with imperialism. The PPP repudiates the Port of Spain Protocol and condemns the PNC government for its betrayal of the nation.

Despite the speedy ratification of the Protocol by Guyana, this was not the case in Venezuela where it was never presented to the Venezuelan Congress. There existed some speculation that certain sections of both the Venezuelan government (the COPEI coalition) and the main opposition force, the Accion Democratica (AD) had some reservations about the Protocol, and these differences of opinions prevented the then COPEI Government from presenting it to the Congress for final ratification.

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