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Venezuela: Threat to Guyana

Volume 742: debated on Thursday 14 December 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office if he will make a statement on the urgent threat posed to Guyana by Venezuela and the Government’s response to it.

Mr Speaker, you of all people know the importance of the Commonwealth—[Interruption.] Sorry—late night.

I will not ask where either, Mr Speaker, but it is good to see my hon. Friend here right now.

We are deeply concerned about the recent steps taken by Venezuela with respect to the Essequibo region in Guyana. I know that will be a key concern to the shadow Foreign Secretary and Members across the House, and we share those concerns. We believe Venezuela’s actions are clearly unjustified and should cease. We are clear that the border was settled in 1899 through international arbitration. The Foreign Secretary has made that clear in a recent meeting and calls with President Ali of Guyana.

The UK, countries in the region and the international community have been swift to respond. I have been in close contact with partners in the region to urge de-escalation, and earlier this week the Minister of State for Development and Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), attended an emergency meeting of the Commonwealth ministerial group on Guyana, which issued a clear statement rejecting the use of threat of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Guyana.

Brazil and other countries in the region have expressed their deep concern at the situation and warned against unilateral actions that threaten the peace and stability of the region. The UN Security Council met in closed session last Friday, at Guyana’s request, to discuss the situation. We note that a meeting will take place later today between President Maduro and President Ali under the auspices of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, CELAC, and hope that that will reaffirm the importance of a peaceful resolution to this important matter.

We will continue to work with allies and partners in the region and through international bodies such as the UN Security Council, the Commonwealth and the Organisation of American States to ensure that the territorial integrity of Guyana is respected. I plan to visit Guyana in the coming days to further show our support for the Guyanese people on this vital issue. It is imperative that regional partners and friends across the House, in the region and around the world continue to press the Maduro regime to respect Guyana’s integrity and to avoid escalation.

I will try again, Mr Speaker.

I am delighted to hear that the Minister is going to Guyana, which is an important part of the family of the Commonwealth. I am also deeply pleased that the two Presidents are meeting today in St Vincent to try to hammer out the situation. It must be of worry to this Government and to this House that a Commonwealth country is being set upon by a failing state because it wants to grab land to do oil exploration and take oil. That is not an acceptable position to anybody in this House.

The other problem is that the Brazilians are moving troops to their border to ensure its integrity, and I am also told that American military advisers are going to Guyana to help with the situation. The Guyanese have armed forces of 4,000; the Venezuelans have 350,000. I urge this Government to stand solidly behind Guyana, not just as a Commonwealth country, but as a country in South America. I remember that the last time there was an issue in South America, in ’82, it did not end well, and we stood for the oppressed. I urge this Government not just to send the Minister to visit, but to make sure that there is tangible help for the people of Guyana to encourage them to stand up for their rights.

The Government completely agree that the current situation is not acceptable. We are deeply concerned by the unilateral move by Venezuela over this region. Our position is absolutely clear and has not changed: the border was settled in 1899 through international arbitration. Venezuela must desist from its action. It has deliberately and unacceptably escalated the situation, and the people of Guyana deserve to be free from the threats to their country.

We work closely with our friends in the region. My hon. Friend mentioned Brazil. Of course, we have been in conversations with Brazil, which has taken a robust stance. I know that my Opposition counterpart with responsibility for Latin American affairs feels the same way. We are, across the House, completely opposed to this sort of action. We want peace and stability in Latin America to continue for decades to come.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing the question on this important matter.

The actions of Venezuela over the past few weeks have been provocative and dangerous. President Maduro has shown a determination to stoke historical grievances, attack recognised international borders and seek aggressive confrontation instead of good neighbourly relations. All that sounds worryingly familiar, because it is the playbook of President Putin. We have challenged it in Ukraine, and we must do the same in Guyana. We often talk in abstract terms about the importance of a rules-based international order, but this is its essence: that disputes are settled peacefully through proper legal and diplomatic processes, not through threats or intimidation; that settled and recognised borders are not subject to change through threat or force; and that the big cannot bully the small. We must be resolute in standing up to those with imperialist ambitions.

I welcome that there will be talks between the leaders of Guyana and Venezuela in St Vincent. I put on record my thanks to Brazil for its leadership on this matter, including the deployment of troops along its border. Those talks should be a mechanism to reduce the tensions brought about by Venezuela’s actions, not a discussion about settled borders or a reward for threats. The Essequibo border was settled more than 100 years ago in 1899. Has the Minister spoken directly to Brazilian or American counterparts, or to key regional bodies such as CARICOM—the Caribbean Community—and the Organisation of American States, about responding to Maduro’s actions?

Guyana is a diverse, beautiful and proud country with close ties of history, friendship and family with the UK. As the child of parents who came from Guyana as part of the Windrush generation, I am living proof of our shared history. For my relatives, and for all the people of Guyana, this is a deeply troubling time. I am grateful that the Minister has indicated that he will go to Guyana shortly, and that the UK’s support for Guyana’s sovereignty is unwavering. What specific actions are the Government taking to ensure that, if the threat is followed through, Guyana’s sovereignty is protected?

It is good to see strong cross-party support on this vital issue. I certainly recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s interest in this matter from his personal perspective and from a geopolitical perspective. He is absolutely right: this is from the playbook of Putin and other dictators around the world, and it needs to be called out and stopped. We are grateful for the work that Ralph Gonsalves, the Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, is doing to facilitate those conversations. They need to be about de-escalation; the border is a settled issue as far as we are concerned.

The right hon. Gentleman asks what action we are taking. I can assure him that there have been multiple conversations. The Foreign Secretary is absolutely concerned about this. I have held conversations with interlocutors in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and many other places. I was in Argentina for the inauguration at the weekend, and I met many interlocutors there who all share the concern. We will work with CARICOM, the OAS, the UN, and, of course, the Commonwealth, which is vital, to call this out and take whatever steps are required.

I am glad to follow the Opposition foreign and Commonwealth affairs spokesman in reminding the House and the Minister that when the United States persuaded the United Kingdom to go to international arbitration, the determination in 1899 was to leave that region as part of what is now Guyana, which became independent in 1966. The dispute with Suriname was settled some time ago by agreement. This should be as well, and Venezuela should go back to solving its own problems and exploiting its own hydrocarbons, if it chooses to do so, as it moves towards a more eco-friendly economy and preferably a better kind of politics as well.

The Father of the House makes a very important point. This is a settled matter, and Venezuela needs to sort out its own issues. There have been steps taken by partners in the region to try to help open the door to Maduro, and he has responded in this way. It is unacceptable.

I thank the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing this urgent question. It is indeed ironic that the day after the excitement of COP, here we are discussing the potential annexation of one country by its larger and more powerful neighbour because of the discovery of a huge oilfield containing 11 billion barrels of light crude. It matters not that the 1899 border issue remains controversial for Venezuela, because it has to respect international law.

I am pleased that the International Court of Justice has warned Maduro not to take any action that could alter the status quo, but can the Minister tell me what discussions the UK Government have had with representatives of the ICJ? Have discussions been had directly with the Venezuelans on behalf of the UK Government? To what extent does he share my concern that our previously weak response to states using dubious referendums, followed by the use of military force, to annex parts of a neighbouring country, as Russia did to Crimea in 2014, has emboldened people like Maduro to believe that should he take military action, the consequence for him would be extremely limited?

Again, it is good to see support for Guyana across the House. Whether this is because of Venezuela’s aspirations about oil or some other matter, whatever that might be, its actions are completely unjustified. As the hon. Member indicated, we need to call it out. The 1899 border issue is settled. We support Guyana in its efforts to resolve this matter in whichever way it wants to through the ICJ, but it needs to be done peacefully.

The hon. Gentleman also makes an important point about Russia. These actions are opportunistic. There are huge issues geopolitically, and dictators or other Heads of Government should not seek to exploit these moments when there are far bigger issues at stake elsewhere in the world, so we need to call it out. As I said earlier, we are keeping this under very close scrutiny and will take whatever actions we think are appropriate, along with our regional partners.

I thank the Minister for his response to the urgent question, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing it. I also thank the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), for his response. I do not often find myself in agreement with him, but, on this, I could not fault him on a single word. Both have raised the key strategic role that Brazil plays in the region. We are about to sign a defence partnership agreement with Brazil—in the not too distant future—so it plays a key strategic role. What further can the Minister do, particularly when he visits Guyana, to have enhanced conversations with Brazil to see what role it can play in making sure that we keep peace in the region?

That is a very good question from my hon. Friend. He knows more about Brazil than most people in the House, and I respect him for that knowledge and for the points he has made. Of course, we are working closely with Brazil. It has expressed its concern and warned against unilateral action. It has said that there is no way that Venezuela’s military forces would be able to access Guyana through Brazil, and we will continue to work with it very closely. As he says, we have a strong relationship not just defence-wise, but as we look to its G20 presidency and its hosting of COP30.

What we are seeing is a shameful and cynical move by Venezuela’s President Maduro to threaten and bully a smaller neighbour. We in the UK must make it clear that we cannot allow such threatening behaviour to continue, so what steps is the Minister taking, along with international allies, to affirm the UK’s unwavering support for Guyana’s sovereignty?

As I said in my statement, we have worked with the Commonwealth ministerial group to call out this action in joint harmony with our other relevant Commonwealth partners. We continue to work with other international bodies to call it out, and obviously, we will be in a position to form a view—along with others in this House—later today, after the meeting that is taking place in St Vincent and the Grenadines.

I thank the Minister for confirming that the UK Government are standing with Guyana against Venezuelan aggression, sham referendums and the threat of annexation. Can the Minister confirm whether he has had discussions with the Commonwealth secretary-general about this situation to establish how the whole of the Commonwealth family can support Guyana at this worrying time?

That is an excellent question. I can confirm to the House that I have had conversations with Baroness Scotland. As secretary-general, she has taken a very strong lead: she has issued two statements and called the emergency session of the council of Ministers, which as I said, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Development and Africa attended. We will continue to work with the Commonwealth, which is a vitally important organisation in this context.

Does the Minister agree that whenever a country’s borders are threatened, they must be secured, or it risks undermining that country’s sovereignty, social cohesion and national identity?

I could not agree more—that is absolutely vital, particularly in this case. Latin America has been a region of peace for many, many years, and it needs to stay that way.

It is great to see the House speak with one voice in support of our Commonwealth friend and partner, Guyana. The Minister is right: these borders were settled in 1899. They are the borders that were transferred to the independent Guyana in 1966, and they are the borders that are internationally recognised. As the Minister also knows, President Maduro has said that he will immediately issue licences for gas, oil and mineral exploitation, in direct contravention—as we heard from the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara)—of the ICJ ruling. What more is the United Kingdom doing to take this case up on the international stage with Guyana to make sure that ICJ rulings are adhered to?

We have already highlighted the work we are doing with the Commonwealth. We have talked about the international engagement, and obviously, the situation was also discussed by the UN Security Council last Friday. We are taking it at every single level, and it helps if, in this place, we condemn with one voice the actions that have been taken by Venezuela. That will be noted in each of those forums, so I commend the hon. Member for his very important words.

I thank the Minister very much for his response, and I am pleased to know that he will be in Guyana shortly—his presence will send a message. Guyana has an army of some 4,000 and a population of 800,000; Venezuela has an army of 125,000, plus tanks and aircraft, so it is very much the aggressor and the stronger of the two countries. When it comes to the potential annexation of a democratic country by somebody who many of us feel is a demagogue, part of the axis of evil—that is North Korea, Iran and Russia, and now we can add Venezuela to that list—it is very important that we take a stand. As a country, as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, could we not send a Royal Navy ship to Guyana? That is the sort of strong action we need to see.

It is good to get the last word from the hon. Gentleman—that is often his role. We are working hard through diplomatic channels to urge partners in the region to use bilateral contacts and regional groups to advise and mediate, in order to de-escalate the situation. I also bring to the House’s attention the fact that HMS Trent is heading towards the region to support action against narcotics trafficking.