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Could this be Britain's new role in the Caribbean?

GLOBAL INFLUENCE: Frederick Hamley Case along with Britain’s envoy in Guyana Greg Quinn

IN DECEMBER 2018, the UK Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, declared – in a bizarre yet brazen speech about post-Brexit Britain’s foreign policy – a future in which the UK will increase its global influence and military presence across the world.

He said: “This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can actually play a role on the world stage that the world expects us to play.”

Going further, he added: “Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Caribbean countries and also nations right across Africa will look to us to provide the moral leadership, the military leadership and the global leadership.”

Since Williamson’s comments, Prime Minister Theresa May has generally distanced herself from the jingoistic, imperial nostalgia and militaristic rhetoric of the Secretary of State for Defence that threatens post-Brexit relations with the rest of the world.

PICTURED: UK Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson

However, despite this, there might be one country that seeks closer relations with post-Brexit Britain on a commercial basis and could possibly welcome further cooperation with the UK.

Guyana and the discovery of oil:
In recent years, Guyana has expressed an interest in increased UK/Guyanese relations and could use Brexit as an opportunity to leverage British influence for its own objectives.

In 2015, ExxonMobil and its international partners discovered huge reserves of oil off the coast of Guyana.

According to deep water surveys, Guyana’s oil reserves could hold up to five billion barrels, far surpassing the oil reserves held by the Caribbean’s biggest oil producer Trinidad and Tobago, which has an estimated 243 million barrels of oil, according to estimates.

In November 2018, Guyana’s ambassador to the UK, Frederick Hamley Case, along with Britain’s envoy in Guyana, Greg Quinn, went to Aberdeen in Scotland for a five-day trade mission to build relationships to support Guyana’s developing oil and gas sector.


UK businesses are becoming increasingly present in the growing oil rush that Guyana is experiencing.

Guyana’s energy department head, Dr Mark Bynoe, has declared that Guyana “is open for business” and the country could potentially become one of the top 10 oil producers in the world.

PICTURED: Guyana’s energy department head, Dr Mark Bynoe

Beyond the business side of things, both Bynoe and Quinn stated that no formal request for a military presence has been made by the UK.

Despite this, there are stirrings both within and outside Guyanese politics that there is a need to protect the oil reserves that have been discovered.

In 2016, Britain’s Royal Navy provided training to Guyanese personnel on how to protect the territory that contained the oil field along the exclusive economic zone.

Additionally, sources have stated that one of the places that Williamson had in mind to establish a military base was Guyana in an effort to counteract its neighbour Venezuela, a country that Guyana has had a border dispute with for more than 124 years.

The Guyana/Venezuela border dispute
Venezuela and Guyana have a border dispute that goes back to 1895, when Venezuela claimed the Essequibo region of Guyana when it was the British colony of British Guiana.

This led to a diplomatic crisis between Venezuela and the UK that led the United States to intervene and arbitrate – that resulted in the bulk of the disputed territory being awarded to the British, thus forging a significant portion of the modern borders of Guyana.

However, in 1962, Venezuela declared that it would not abide by the arbitration decision made previously and resumed its claim to the region.

This would eventually lead to the signing of a bilateral treaty between Venezuela and a now independent Guyana in 1966, in what was known as the Geneva Agreement, that set out the terms for resolving the border problem. In 1990, the United Nations implemented the “good offices process” to mediate between the two countries. However, in 2015 this process became complicated with Guyana’s recent discovery of oil and the discovery of oil deposits in the Stabroek Block in the disputed region.

In March 2017, the Energy and Petroleum Commission of the Venezuelan National Assembly criticised the oil exploration and extraction practices that were being carried out by the Guyanese government.

They argued that the oil exploration violated the Geneva Agreements, while the government of Guyana has maintained that its activities have been entirely lawful.

At the end of 2017, the “good offices process” expired and the United Nations transferred the border dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for resolution.

The Guyanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed this decision since it expects the court to rule in its favour, while the Venezuelan government argues that bilateral negotiations are the best course of action to resolve this issue.

However, even though the ICJ is required to give an opinion on the matter, a final decision is only possible when both countries have agreed to go to court and at present, Venezuela believes that a bilateral agreement with Guyana is the best way forward, thus, it has refused to go to court and the border dispute will continue for the foreseeable future.

Increasing tensions:
At present, UK/Venezuelan relations are at a low point. Recently, the UK government criticised the current government of Nicolás Maduro, contending that the 2018 presidential elections were neither free nor fair.

In addition to this, Theresa May’s government fully supports and recognises the National Assembly with Juan Guaidó as the president of Venezuela.

SUPPORT: Theresa May’s government recognises the National Assembly with Juan Guaidó as the president of Venezuela

This is a decision that runs in direct opposition to the Maduro government. There is an increased urgency to protect the borders of Venezuela, which could come at the expense of Guyana.

Reports have indicated that the Venezuelan government gave Russia permission to deploy strategic bombers on a Venezuelan island for 10 years.

If this is the case, then this act could be a strong motivating factor as to why the UK might look at Guyana as a potential spot to establish a military base.

Venezuela is currently in an economic crisis that stems from falling oil prices, a recession, US sanctions and poor economic management that has resulted in food shortages, high unemployment and a collapse in the provision of services in parts of the country.

Most recently, a refugee crisis is increasingly affecting Caribbean countries, as many Latin American countries are starting to become more restrictive towards the migration along their borders.

Unsurprisingly, as the crisis intensifies, the importance of land and resources increases and the territory dispute along the Venezuela/Guyana border becomes an important point of contention between Venezuela – a country that wants to alleviate its own crisis – and Guyana – a country that is seeking an opportunity to transform its own economy.

In December 2018, Venezuela’s Navy stopped a ship representing ExxonMobil exploring for oil, in what Guyana’s Foreign Secretary stated was Guyanese waters.

The Venezuelan government claims that this incident occurred within its own territory. Guyana’s Foreign Ministry responded by stating that the move “demonstrates the real threat to

Guyana’s economic development by its Western neighbour” and that this “violates the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country”.

The Guyanese Foreign Ministry has since reported the incident to the United Nations and formal communication has been sent to the government of Venezuela.

At present, ExxonMobil’s seismic explorations in the western part of Guyana’s Stabroek Block have been delayed until exploration can be safely resumed.

Is a British presence in the Caribbean needed?
With everything considered, it is worth questioning the need for a British presence in the Caribbean.

Looking ahead towards Britain’s eventual departure from the EU, a secure relationship with an oil-producing country such as Guyana could provide some degree of energy security.

On Guyana’s part, a closer alignment with the UK could potentially provide the country with a significant degree of security for its borders.


However, it could be argued that Guyana’s and Venezuela’s dispute doesn’t need any external actors beyond the United Nations or the ICJ.

For much of the 20th Century, despite the border dispute, Venezuelan/Guyanese relations have remained tense but peaceful. With the involvement of foreign powers in the region, such as Russia or the UK, the potential for this tense peace to escalate into something more is a long-term possibility in the 21st century.

The stakes are even higher with the inclusion of natural resources.

The reality is, that neither Venezuela or Guyana can afford to have their border dispute hijacked by the geopolitical agendas of external powers.

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