- Norberto Paredes @norbertparedes
- BBC World News
Since Hugo Chávez assumed the presidency of Venezuela in 1999, relations between the US and the South American country have been tense.
But this was not always so. For much of the 20th century, Venezuela was one of America’s greatest allies in Latin America and that close relationship made, among other things, Caracas became the largest oil supplier of the world’s leading power for a short period of the 1990s.
It also helped Venezuelan companies like Citgo succeed in the US and US companies like ExxonMobil make a ton of money in Venezuela.
But exactly a century earlier, in 1895, the alliance between the two countries perhaps reached one of its highest points, when America faced the superpower of the time, United Kingdom, in favor of Venezuelan interests and in rejection of European imperialism.
Under the Monroe Doctrine, attributed to former US President James Monroe, who called for an “America for Americans”, the US intervened in the dispute over the border between British Guiana (now Guyana) and Venezuela.
It was one of the few times in history that the “special relationship” between the two Anglo-Saxon powers has been broken. And the reason was Venezuela.
The Apple of discord
With 159,500 square kilometers rich in natural resources, el Esequibo it has for centuries been the focus of a historic territorial dispute.
It was initially controlled by the Spanish and Dutch empires, which would later cede it to the British.
According to a document from the US State Department, the dispute between Caracas and London officially started in 1841, when the Venezuelan government denounced an alleged British incursion on Venezuelan soil.
In 1814, the United Kingdom had acquired British Guiana through a treaty with the Netherlands, but the pact did not define the western border of the territory and that is why the British appointed the explorer Robert Schomburgk in 1840 to draw the border.
Shortly after the call was released “Schomburgk Line“, a controversial layout that claimed almost 80,000 additional square kilometers.
At the same time, Venezuela – resorting to the limits established at the time of its independence – ensured that its border extended to the east of the Essequibo River, thus claiming two thirds of the then British colony.
The drop that filled the glass
But the border line did not stop there. Years later when it was discoveredion the existence of gold In the disputed area, Britain sought to extend the border even further, adding 85,000 square kilometers to its colony.
For Venezuela, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. His government then decided to break off relations with London and ask the US for help, asking it to implement the Monroe Doctrine, which from 1823 established that any European attempt to interfere with sovereign states in America would be seen as a sign of a “hostile disposition” towards Washington.
The United States responded by expressing concern, but initially did little to facilitate a solution.
But after Venezuelan insistence and pressure from then-US President Grover Cleveland and his former ambassador in Caracas, in January 1895 the United States House of Representatives proposed Resolution 252 to Congress that recommended that the dispute be resolved in a international arbitration.
Cleveland had previously stated in a controversial intervention that the border line on the Essequibo had been widened “in a mysterious way.”
The struggle for influence in Latin America
Beyond the Essequibo issue, the United States’ intervention took place in the context of a struggle between Washington and London to keep Latin America in their spheres of influence.
“A kind of gradual transition between British and American rule was already taking place. At that time, Britain was still much more influential than the US in Latin America “, Benjamin Coate, a history professor at Wake Forest University, in North Carolina, tells BBC Mundo.
“And so it was until at least the end of the First World War or even shortly after,” he continues.
At the end of the 19th century the Partition of Africa also took place and, according to Coate, the US feared that the European powers They will try to divide Latin America in the same way they did with the African continent.
The decision to defend Venezuela was also political. Between 1893 and 1897 the United States was going through a great economic depression and one of the criticisms of the opposition towards President Cleveland was that he did not make his country stand out as a power.
For Coate, the irony of the matter is that Cleveland was actually “one of the most anti-imperialist presidents ” that the US had
“He wasn’t necessarily trying to exert some kind of US imperial control over South America, but he wanted to prevent the British from expanding further.”
A Test for the Monroe Doctrine
Historian Matthew Pinsker of Dickinson College (Pennsylvania) explains that the Monroe Doctrine Since its founding and for more than 70 years, it was “honored more in its failure than in reality”.
But the dispute over the Essequibo changed the dynamic.
“Part of the reason the United States got involved was because a former US ambassador to Venezuela was exerting pressure on behalf of Venezuelans. 30 years had passed since the end of the civil war and the country was stronger and more determined. to project power. There was already talk of a channel and there was hope that the US would become a power world, “he tells BBC Mundo.
Indeed, the writer, lawyer, and former US ambassador to Venezuela William Scruggs played a pivotal role in the campaign to help Venezuela by publishing a controversial pamphlet titled British aggressions in Venezuela; or The Monroe doctrine on trial(“British aggressions in Venezuela; or the Monroe doctrine put to the test”).
Winds of war
Although upset by the US intervention, the UK was too distracted for various conflicts he faced around the world, especially in South Africa, to focus on this issue.
However, former British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury responded to US pressure by claiming that the Monroe Doctrine had no validity as international law.
But Cleveland did not give his arm to twist and that answer enraged him.
On December 17, 1895, in an extraordinary session in the United States Congress, the president requested that a commission be created that would have the task of investigating exhaustively the limits of the nations in dispute and proposed that the conclusions of said commission be enforced ” by all means”.
The proposal was approved unanimously and rumors of war with the United Kingdom began to circulate in the American press.
London knew that could not afford to enter a new war with the North American giant and ended up accepting the intervention of his former colony.
This is how the United States, representing Venezuela, and the United Kingdom signed on February 2, 1897 a treaty in Washington to submit the dispute to international arbitration.
Venezuela was convinced that justice would be on its side, but the commission ended up failing on October 3, 1899 in favor of the United Kingdom, establishing the “Schomburgk Line” as the border between both territories.
An unresolved dispute
The controversial ruling is known today as the Paris Arbitration Award.
“The American-dominated arbitration panel eventually ceded most of the disputed territory to the British. The mediation showed the strength of the United States in Latin America and was also a turning point for British-American relations on the way to ‘Special relationship’, “explains history teacher Matthew Pinsker.
Historian Benjamin Coate believes that Venezuela succeeded in getting the US to step in and help them, but regrets that once Washington got into the issue “completely ignored Venezuelan interests. ”
Much later, in the 1950s, some evidence emerged that spoke of complicity between the British delegates and the Russian judge of that court in Paris, whose vote was decisive for the ruling against Venezuela.
In response to those revelations, in 1962 Venezuela denounced the award as “null and void” and reactivated the claim of the territory before the United Nations (UN).
Following the Venezuelan complaint, the Geneva Agreement, according to which the area is controlled by Guyana although its sovereignty is claimed by Venezuela.
The agreement, which was of a temporary nature, established a period of 4 years to resolve the dispute.
But their guidelines still apply and the dispute over Guayana Esequiba continues, but Venezuela no longer has Washington’s support and its dreams of controlling a region rich in natural resources seem to have vanished, for now.
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