A long standing border dispute between Colombia and Venezuela over the area known as the Gulf of Venezuela, or Gulf of Coquibacoa, resurfaced when the recent decree of President Nicolás Maduro established this area as an “operating maritime and insular zone of integral defense.” On May 26, after the Guyanese government contracted ExxonMobil to look for offshore oil in an area that Caracas claims as its own, Maduro took measures to establish Venezuela’s sovereignty over several areas, including the aforementioned, through Decree 1.787. As a result, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia, María Ángela Holguin, delivered a note of protest to the Venezuelan government regarding the decree’s implicit claim over the area, in dispute for at least 200 years.
A historical review of the dispute helps to put the current situation in context. Ever since Gran Colombia, the post-colonial state that encompassed Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama, dissolved in 1831, both Venezuela and Colombia have failed to agree on the limits of their territorial waters over the Gulf, specifically Los Monjes islets. The countries have referred to different historical documents and theses to justify their claims to this area. While Colombia insists Los Monjes is within its territorial waters, Venezuela claims it as an extension of its own continental shelf.
Territorial waters, as defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, are the belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles (22.2 km; 13.8 mi) from the baseline of a coastal state. Likewise, the convention defined continental shield extensions as the portion of the continental shelf beyond the 200 nautical mile limit. Consequently, both countries claim different rights over the area: Colombia argues that the islets, located at 20 nautical miles from the Colombian shores, cannot be considered as part of the continental shelf. Thus, the Colombian thesis establishes a boundary using the middle-line principle between the mainland territories of the two countries, thus recognizing Los Monjes as an enclave within the Colombian territorial sea. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s thesis is that the islets are an extension of its border thus applying the middle-line principle between the La Guajira peninsula (Colombian territory) and Los Monjes.
In 1952, during the interim government of Roberto Urdaneta Arbeláez, Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs Juan Uribe Holguín acknowledged the sovereignty of Venezuela over Los Monjes islets, through a diplomatic note that was not authorized by the government. Nevertheless, the Colombian Congress did not endorse this statement since decisions over limits and borders are under the jurisdiction of Congress. Then in 1958, during the first United Nations summit on international sea regulation, the middle-line principle was established in order to demarcate shared waters, and seeing that this benefitted Colombia, Venezuela refused to recognize the agreement. Despite extensive negotiations, the two countries were unable to reach agreement on the matter.
The dispute has continued since then. In 1969, the first attempt at negotiation took place in Paipa, Boyacá in Colombia, where Presidents Carlos Lleras Restrepo of Colombia and Rafael Caldera of Venezuela signed the Declaration of Sochagota. The talks began in 1970 and ended in Rome in 1973 without reaching any point of settlement. Then, in 1975, Colombian President Alfonso López Michelsen and Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez handed a proposal to the Colombian and Venezuelan congresses. This proposal became known as the López-Pérez hypothesis and referred to the delimitation of marine areas and the joint exploitation of the submarine areas. The project lacked support in the Venezuelan Congress, however, and was denied.
The Military Crisis: The Caldas Corvettes
The dispute’s most important episode took place in 1987 during the government of President Virgilio Barco, when the National Army of Colombia positioned two corvettes on the disputed waters. Venezuelan President Jaime Lusinchi reacted immediately by sending troops and F-16 airplanes to the area. This situation, known as “the Caldas Corvettes Crisis,” put both countries on the verge of an unprecedented military conflict According to a report from the Armed Forces of Venezuela, “The Caldas corvettes were placed in an arbitrary way… violating our sovereignty. The Caldas illuminated our patrol in a hostile manner; therefore, the order was given immediately to pointing our guns defensively.”
Although the Venezuelan president had ordered this unprecedented military movement, striking the corvettes and starting a regional war was never contemplated. At the time, Venezuela was considered a role model in the region, as it had not been involved in any war during the 20th century. Diplomatic actions were soon carried out to avoid a military conflict and, nine days later, the Caldas corvettes returned to Colombia.
Things began to turn around between 1989 and 1990 when the two governments managed to implement the Declarations of San Pedro Alejandrino and Ureña, which created the negotiating committee and the neighborhood commission for Border Integration. According to the two governments, “The topic of dispute over marine and submarine waters in the Gulf of Venezuela was incorporated into the process without giving the priority that could undermine the importance of other topics on the bilateral issues.” In 1995, the negotiation committee managed a successful integration process that increased trade and direct investment between Colombia and Venezuela in the amount of $200,000 million USD.
The Military Decree
Negotiations on the disputed waters have been blocked since 2009, however, when the government of Hugo Chávez dissolved the negotiation commission. On May 26, Nicolás Maduro’s government approved and published executive order 1787 creating four Zodimain (operating maritime and insular zones of integral defense) in order to strengthen the country’s security and defense system. Since the decree establishes boundaries affecting the waters in dispute with Colombia, and it is legally supported by the Bolivarian National Armed Forces Law passed in November 2014, the decree could be considered as a military approach to the dispute between these countries. According to this law, the integral defense of maritime and insular areas is “a territorial grouping of forces and means in a geographical area . . . where the operations will be conducted for defense purposes.” Thus, the decree could be considered as a means to define areas of legitimate military presence.
Although the decree “recognizes pending delimit areas that require further negotiations towards definite demarcation,” on June 17, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia delivered a note of protest to the Venezuelan government arguing that Caracas was unilaterally establishing boundaries on these waters. Colombia has had experience with similar conflicts: The country recently faced a lawsuit regarding maritime boundaries with Nicaragua. In November 2012, the International Court of Justice decided that Bogotá had sovereignty over the islands of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, yet gave Managua at least 75,000 km2 of the disputed territory. Nowadays, President of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Colombian Congress Jimmy Chamorro and Minister of Foreign Affairs María Ángela Holguín requested that the diplomatic channels be exhausted in order to solve the boundaries dispute with Venezuela and avoid international mediation.
On June 23, the Venezuelan Ministry for Popular Power of Foreign Affairs responded, “The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela draws attention to the tenor of the statement of the government of Colombia, in which it exaggerates blackmail and media manipulation instead of diplomatic channels and dialogue between good neighbors.” Also, through a press release, Maduro offered to create, first, a joint commission with Colombia to start negotiations on this subject and, second, a presidential commission to define current border affairs between Venezuela and its Latin American and the Caribbean neighbors. However, this response was not enough for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who claimed, “The Venezuelan’s statement is not an answer to our note of protest.” Santos added, “In order to convene this joint commission, Colombia requires a formal answer to our note of protest. Therefore, I hope this happens within the next hours.” María Ángela Holguín stated, “The joint commission already exists, but it has not met since 2009 . . . We hope opening the negotiation on delimitation again, and his [Maduro] allocution shows an opportunity to do it.” The Colombian members of the joint commission are Angelino Garzón, Fernando Cepeda, Pedro Gómez, and Alberto Casas.
The Civil Decree
After the abovementioned diplomatic incident between Colombian and Venezuela, Maduro issued executive order 1859, replacing the previous decree 1787. On July 6, Maduro announced that the decree contains “all the constitutional, legal, and doctrinaire elements to create the maritime defense zones across Venezuelan maritime territory.” The new decree is exhaustive in explaining that geographical descriptions used to create such zones of defense “do not constitute any decision on territories, marine, and submarine areas of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela for which definition is outstanding.” Also, in Article 20, it establishes that “this decree is to set no boundaries, establish delimitation, nor any demarcation process in any sense.” In addition, the new decree does not contain descriptions of the established zones and coordinates, which were some of the details, contained in the Colombian government’s note of protest against the first decree.
In the allocution, Maduro stated that the Supreme Tribunal of Justice of Venezuela was consulted on the matter of replacing the first decree. According to Leandro Area, former member of the joint commission for negotiation and integration between Colombia and Venezuela, “This situation represents the government need for decreasing the military tone of the first decree… the influence of the Venezuelan Armed Forces in that decree is reflected in coordinates as a reaction to every movement of Guyana in international waters. The decree shows strength to Guyana, not to affect Colombia.” Leandro Area continued, “The only paragraph introduced in the new decree shows now a civil language, rather than a military matter. Maduro says he consulted the Supreme Court to ensure that the new decree is represented throughout the Republic, not just part of it.”
In response to the new decree, President Santos expressed his pleasure toward the diplomatic attitude of the Venezuelan government, which allowed both countries to reach a favorable conclusion to this situation. Santos said, “This misunderstanding with the decree issued is resolved. It shows to us that problems are best solved through dialogue, not through confrontation nor insults.” Also, María Ángela Holguín considered “the new decree as a response to our note of protest, since our primary request was to avoid including coordinates in it.” Also, she establishes that “the government of Colombia is satisfied…we render thanks to the Venezuelan government for having heard our request.”
The Diplomatic Resolution
The resolution of territorial disputes within the international community is often contentious. In these situations, the countries usually invoke patriotism instead of turning to the legal bases related to conflict resolution. In this regard, although Colombia and Venezuela have ignored some diplomatic principles, they have reached a favorable conclusion and avoided a regional conflict. First, after Maduro released decree 1787, Colombia took 20 days to submit a note of protest. Then, Venezuela’s response through a press release or allocution was not considered as formal and was instead labeled as disrespectful and not worthy of a response. According to the principles of international law, the 20-day period of silence on Colombia’s part could be considered as acquiescence toward Venezuelan pretention, whereas the Venezuelan subsequent lack of response indicates that there is acknowledgement of any rights on Colombia’s part. In regard to maritime jurisdiction, no Colombian vessel has returned to those waters since the corvette Caldas incident 28 years ago, implying an acceptation of the Venezuelan thesis. The acceptation is due not only to the absence of Colombian armed forces but also because of the lack of statements by eight different Colombian administrations on the issue.
However, the diplomatic channels and political dialogue between Colombia and Venezuela have always been open. Despite the aforementioned circumstances and the current boundary dispute with Guyana, both countries established the basis for a specific agreement on the decree issue. Neither the repeal of decree 1787 nor the enactment of 1859 imply that Venezuela has conceded a single centimeter of it claim to Los Monjes islets. The border dispute between Colombia and Venezuela continues therefore, and there is an urgent need to reactivate mechanisms of international negotiation.
By: Daniel A. Tovar, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, article first appeared at Coha.org