Following protests from Guyana that the socialist Venezuelan government is attempting to usurp international waters for itself, the Colombian government issued a statement this weekend rejecting a Venezuelan decree claiming waters off the coast of Colombia for itself.
Venezuela passed Decree 1787 in May, which converted international waters into “Operating Zones of Integral Maritime and Insular Defense.” The national government claims the operating zones, which intrude upon Colombian and Guyanese waters, are necessary for national security. The move recalls China’s self-proclaimed “Air Defense Identification Zones” issued over Japanese waters in November 2013. Much like those Japanese waters are technically part of the East China Sea, so too are Colombia’s threatened waters in the Gulf of Venezuela.
Unlike those waters, however, the Gulf of Venezuela remains disputed, and Colombia is not fully claiming them for itself. Colombia’s Foreign Ministry instead noted that the maritime territories are still disputed, and thus neither Venezuela nor Colombia have the ability to declare those waters part of their nation at the expense of the other. In an official complaint issued by the Colombian Foreign Ministry by hand to Caracas, Colombia warned Venezuela to “avoid unilateral measures and avow itself of common sense regarding issues as delicate as sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction.”
Decree 1787 does note that the waters are disputed, and proceeds to declare them Venezuelan anyway, despite the complex history of borders in the region. The Venezuelan state, it reads, “recognizes the existence of maritime areas whose border delimitations are pending,” and which “require that the Venezuelan state tend to them until definitive borders are marked amicably.”
What the Colombian Ministry of the Interior has warned Venezuela may be a belligerent action, conservatives in the legislature are calling an outright invasion. Senator Jimmy Chamorro, an opposition member in the legislature, described the decree as “arbitrary, irresponsible, and completely populist.”
Senator Álvaro Uribe, who served as President of Colombia between 2002-2010, declared that the “invasive decree in Colombia’s waters is being used as a smokescreen for Venezuela’s crisis.” Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Uribe claimed, was “attempting to stoke anti-Colombian sentiment in an election season to disorient Colombians and Venezuelans.”
Venezuela’s economy, experts contend, is near full free-fall. Observers estimate the national inflation rate as the highest in the world, well into the triple digits. Products such as soap, vegetable oil, and toilet paper are subject to strict rations and price controls that make it near impossible for the average Venezuelan to procure them without resorting to the black market. Amid the economic turmoil, Maduro continues to crack down on political dissidents, the most prominent of which are currently engaging in a widely-publicized hunger strike in prison.
Even before the collapse of Venezuela’s economy under Maduro, however, Venezuela’s socialist Chavista government had triggered territorial disputes with Colombia. During Uribe’s presidential tenure, late dictator Hugo Chávez broke ties with Colombia after Uribe accused Chávez of providing Marxist FARC terrorists safe haven in Venezuelan territory during a cooperative campaign against the terrorist group with the American government.
While the rivalry with Colombia is long-standing and wide-ranging for Venezuela, it is also facing opposition on the new territorial decree from Guyana. The nation declared Venezuela a “regional threat” following the decree, which also absorbs Guyanese waters into Venezuela. Unlike the Colombian claims, which that nation acknowledges is disputed, Venezuela had already acknowledged the waters near Guyana to be Guyanese territory in an 1899 international court decision.