Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-GUYANA/VENEZUELA: Rocket Site Feeds Border Dispute

Luis Córdova

CARACAS, May 30 2000 (IPS) - A US company has identified a scarcely populated region in northeast South America as a good place for launching rockets into space, but the launch site construction project is likely to deepen antagonisms between Guyana and Venezuela.

The Foreign Ministry in each of the two countries released statements this week that are the newest phase of a hundred-year- old dispute over boundaries inherited from the colonial era, and revealed the neighbours’ divergent views for the best use of this Guyanese territory claimed by Caracas.

It all began May 19 when the US-based Beal Aerospace Technologies Inc. signed a contract with the Guyana government to build a launch site for its BA-2 rockets in an area between the Waini River and the Atlantic coast.

The location is in the middle of the Essequibo territory, as the area claimed by Venezuela is known. The contract prompted two consecutive communiques from Caracas, which evolved from “deploring” the agreement last week to “a firm protest and rejection of this unfriendly act” Monday.

The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry believes its commitment to the border negotiations, facilitated by the office of United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, is not shared by Guyana, and lamented the “participation of third parties” in activities that affect the dispute.

According to Venezuelan Foreign Minister José Vicente Rangel, the concession granted for the rocket launch site obstructs the search for a resolution to the border problem and runs counter to the spirit of the agreement signed in Geneva in 1966, in which the two countries committed to seeking a political answer to the dispute.

Rangel invited his Guyanese counterpart Clament Rohee to meet soon to discuss the issue.

Guyana, meanwhile, rejected Venezuela’s “interference in the internal issues of this country” and denied that the Geneva accord prohibited or banned action by the Georgetown government in the Essequibo region, “an integral part of our national territory.”

The Guyanese government’s communique, published Tuesday on the Georgetown Chronicle website, stresses the its interest in reducing poverty and unemployment, and improving living standards, arguing that direct foreign investment is necessary to achieve these goals.

The tensions generated by the launch site concession come just when the two countries had renewed measures related to the Essequibo dispute, following the designation of a Personal Representative of the UN secretary-general, Barbados diplomat Oliver Jackman, to serve as mediator in the talks.

After visiting the two governments, Jackman met with representatives from both countries May 12 in New York. The diplomat said he hopes to develop a forward-looking process, but acknowledged big doses of realism are necessary given the complexity of the case.

The legal origin of the dispute was an arbitration decision signed in Paris in 1899 that granted Great Britain, the colonising power in Guyana at the time, sovereignty over the Essequibo. Venezuela now says the document is “invalid and void,” arguing that there was wilful misrepresentation in the negotiations 100 years ago.

One of the difficulties in this process lies in the fact that the territory in question covers approximately two-thirds of Guyana, which inherited the dispute after it obtained independence in 1966. Venezuela has reiterated its intention to seek “practical” solutions to the problem.

After a long hiatus, the Essequibo returned to the neighbours’ political agenda in 1999. President Hugo Chávez took office in February and commented that he wanted “to put this issue on the negotiating table” on the hundredth anniversary of the controversial Paris decision.

The trouble that could arise once rocket launchings begin is a question for the future, but it seems unlikely that Guyana will back down from its contract with Beal Aerospace and reconsider its concession policies in Essequibo, as the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry has suggested it should.

An editorial in the Guyana daily Mirror described the signing of the accord as “a great business deal” for a country in economic crisis because it will provide employment opportunities, accelerate tourism development and project an image of a country open to advanced technology investment.

Consultant Cristopher Nascimento, hired by the Guyanese government to promote the launch site project, stressed in an interview with the Caribbean CANA News agency that “without a doubt this agreement is very convenient for Guyana.”

Beal Aerospace’s total investment for the project is estimated to be at least 100 million dollars, in addition to paying to lease the land, plus 100,000 dollars annually for customs expenses and 25,000 to 100,000 dollars for every successful launch.

Beal plans to launch its first rockets from the Guyana site in 2002, with sights set on becoming a major world firm in the new “space economy,” fed by numerous projects that focus on business opportunities outside the earth’s atmosphere.

One such business is satellites to establish connections networks for an expanding Internet. The largest project in this sector is Teledesic, which counts Microsoft’s Bill Gates among its major shareholders, and expects to launch nearly 300 satellites over the next few years.

The Beal Aerospace website indicates projects to launch more than 1,300 satellites in coming years. Its BA-2 rocket has been designed to carry its cargo to medium and high orbits around the earth.

The firm states that they will be the largest rockets launched since the 1960s, with liquid engines propelled by hydrogen peroxide.

The Texas-based company has plans to launch rockets from sites in Florida, Guyana, Anguila and the West Indies.

In the case of Guyana, signing the contract is just the first step towards building the rocket launch site. Beal Aerospace must still obtain environmental permits in Guyana and authorisation from the US government to export missile technology.

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