Why Does Britain Want to Build a Military Base in the Caribbean?
And does it have anything to do with oil?
Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Defence, poses in front of an RAF aircraft (Guy Bell / Alamy Stock Photo)
"We have got to be so much more optimistic about our future as we exit the European Union," said Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson optimistically, in an extraordinary interview in the Sunday Telegraph over Christmas. "This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way; we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play."
The interview was complete with a picture of the minister posing with a Union Jack, a globe and a picture of Winston Churchill. Williamson predicted that the "political focus will shift quite dramatically" after Brexit, which is probably true, but not in the way he thinks, which is that: "Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Caribbean countries, but also nations right across Africa" will "look to us to provide the moral leadership, the military leadership and the global leadership". Sure they will, Gavin.
But this was more than just gassed-up fantasy. Putting flesh on the bones of his musings, he said: "I am also very much looking at how can we get as much of our resources forward based, actually creating a deterrent but also taking a British presence. We are looking at those opportunities not just in the Far East but also in the Caribbean as well."
To be fair, at least one Caribbean nation is interested in developing its relationship with the UK. In November of last year, Guyana's ambassador Frederick Hamley Case left his comfortable embassy in London's Notting Hill and travelled north to Aberdeen for a five-day trade mission. Case was joined in Scotland by another diplomat, Greg Quinn, who is normally Britain’s envoy in Guyana.
There are reportedly plans for Guyana's capital, Georgetown, to twin with Aberdeen. The reason for the country's interest in the Scottish city is simple: Aberdeen is the hub of Scotland’s North Sea oil and gas industry, and Guyana wants to emulate its success. In 2015, US energy giant ExxonMobil discovered a major oil field thousands of feet below the surface of Guyana’s sea.
An Exxon executive called it a "fairy tale" discovery, and the prospect of black gold has gripped Guyana since, with many hoping it will lift the country out of poverty. The Guyanese trade mission to Aberdeen was aimed at "building relationships to support the country’s fledgling oil and gas sector". They toured Scottish energy firms and visited local universities.
Some British businesses are already in prime positions to cash in on the potential gold rush. Aberdeen-based Stena Drilling is doing work for ExxonMobil in Guyana, and London-based Tullow Oil is also exploring Guyana's sea-bed.
Greg Quinn, Britain's ambassador, is spending a significant amount of time helping British businesses get a foothold in Guyana. "A lot of the work that I do is to support the UK companies who are looking to come out [to Guyana]," he told Energy Voice, an industry media website. Quinn said the number of British firms arriving in Guyana has "skyrocketed" since 2015.
For Quinn, it is only natural that the Foreign Office should help with this process: "The bottom line is if there is a company here in Aberdeen that is looking for an opportunity to get into business in Guyana, we should be their first port of call."
The trouble is, not everyone thinks the oil belongs to Guyana. The country neighbours socialist Venezuela, and the pair have a long-running dispute over their maritime border. The dispute was fairly academic until Exxon discovered oil in a part of the sea bed near the disputed border.
The issue boiled over a few days before Christmas, when the Venezuelan Navy said it came across a survey ship hired by Exxon in an area under "undoubtedly Venezuelan sovereignty". The Navy allegedly tried to land a helicopter on the oil research ship, which turned away from Venezuela to defuse the incident.
Guyana's foreign ministry immediately reported the "illegal, aggressive and hostile act" to the UN. Britain's envoy, Quinn, rushed to Guyana’s side, saying that "those who have the legitimate permissions to operate and undertake their activities must be allowed the do so".
An Exxon spokesperson said that operations "have been paused until they can be safely continued", and that the vessel was operating in Guyana’s exclusive economic zone.
It was a week after this stand-off that Gavin Williamson gave his Telegraph interview, saying he wanted to open a new British military base in the Caribbean after Brexit.
Although Williamson declined to identify precise locations, a source close to him told the same paper that Guyana was one of the most likely locations. Guyana’s foreign ministry has been oddly silent about this announcement, but Venezuelan solidarity campaigners said they were "extremely concerned" that this would only "add to the existing tensions".
The tensions are very real. Shortly before the Naval incident, Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro reportedly gave Russia permission to deploy strategic bombers on a Venezuelan island for the next ten years. It will be Russia’s first military base in the Caribbean. Coupled with the oil prospects, perhaps this is why Britain’s military is suddenly looking to build its own base next door?
As early as July of 2016, a year after oil was discovered, Britain’s Royal Navy gave four Guyanese personnel training a one-week crash course in how to protect their Exclusive Economic Zone – the stretch of water 200 nautical miles from Guyana’s shoreline, which contains the oil field.
Guyana’s parliament is certainly concerned about the implications of the oil rush. The country’s ruling coalition crumbled over Christmas, and the government lost a crucial no-confidence vote. Among many grievances, the opposition leader specifically cited alleged corruption on the ExxonMobil oil deal – an $18 million signing bonus from the oil giant that was allegedly stashed away in a separate account. Fresh elections will now have to be held by March of this year.
Whoever wins, it remains to be seen how much of the oil wealth will reach the ordinary Guyanese people. Guyana’s government signed a deal with Exxon to share the profits 50-50, but there will be zero tax on Exxon’s activities and just a 2 percent royalty payment.
Guyana is no stranger to foreign intervention in its affairs. One of its most famous citizens is Professor Walter Rodney, an anti-imperialist intellectual who wrote classics such as How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
Guyana was a British sugar colony (home to the brown Demerara variety) and was only granted self-government in the early 1950s. Britain's intelligence agency, MI5, constantly snooped on the country’s newly elected leader, Cheddi Jagan, for any subversive tendencies. Although MI5 concluded that Jagan’s party was "not receiving any financial support from any communist organisation outside the country", Britain’s then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill was paranoid that Jagan would move the country closer to the Soviet Union.
In 1953, Churchill unleashed Operation Windsor, sending a Royal Navy warship to deploy hundreds of troops to Guyana. The Constitution was suspended and Jagan arrested. Churchill overthrew a democratically elected leader, yet Britain’s current defence secretary still thought it sensible to pose in front of his picture claiming that the world wants Britain's "leadership".