As Guyana celebrates its 50th anniversary of political independence from Britain Thursday, the country is still plagued by the legacy of British colonialism in its ongoing territory dispute with Venezuela.
The disputed border between Venezuela and Guyana goes back to Venezuela's own independence battle, which was finally achieved in 1821. But after defeating the Spanish Empire, the newly independent nation found itself bordered by a territory controlled by the British Empire to the east.
The precise boundaries were disputed by newly independent Venezuela – which always regarded the entire area west of the Essequibo River as its territory – and the United Kingdom. This dispute was heightened in the 1850s by the discovery of vast gold reserves in the area.
Venezuela refused to accept the ruling of an 1899 United States-inspired Arbitral Tribunal, which backed Britain’s claims to the disputed territory. The South American republic, which was not given its own voice at the hearing but was instead represented by delegates appointed by the U.S., claimed Britain unduly influenced members of the tribunal.
WATCH: Venezuela Meets UN Mission for Guyana Talks
In 1966, Guyana finally won independence from Britain and a deal was reached over the border dispute, which was to be settled in accordance with the rules of international law and the United Nations' so-called Geneva Accords. But tensions have remained and the discovery of oil by Exxon Mobil last year saw a diplomatic spat between the neighboring countries.
The divide and conquer strategies perfected by the British Empire have also created sharp internal divisions within the country. Bitter internal divisions between the Afro-Guyanese community, which represent approximately 30 percent of the population, and the larger Indo-Guyanese community which comprises 43.4 percent, often turn violent.
But as Paul N. Tennassee argues, this was not always the case. In fact, Guyana has a long history of cross-group, anti-racist struggle, with Indigenous and Afro-Guyanese groups uniting and struggling against colonial hegemony. For example, organizations from the latter group long challenged British anti-education programs directed against the Afro-Guyanese community throughout the 19th century.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, anti-racist struggle managed to transcend Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese identity, culminating in the achievement of universal adult suffrage in 1953. Trade unions including both groups were formed and the anti-colonial, anti-racist People's Progressive Party, or PPP, was founded.
Considered a high-point in radical Guyanese politics, the PPP won its very first election, resulting in Britain occupying the country and suspending the constitution. This resulted in a split within the PPP along racial lines, with Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese following their respective "racial" leaders —Forbes Burnham and Dr. Cheddi B. Jagan respectively.
The consequences of the this split were felt in 1966 when Guyana achieved its independence, and they are still felt today.