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Is Venezuela about to seize part of Guyana?

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is organising a referendum on Sunday to decide whether to create a new state in the Essequibo territory, an area currently under the control of neighbouring Guyana. Does Caracas have the means for its territorial ambitions, or is it just political grandstanding?

On December 3, Venezuelans vote for or against the creation of a new Venezuelan state in the Essequibo region. In the eyes of Venezuelan authorities, it is a “consultative” referendum designed to put an end to over 200 years of territorial conflict. 

However, there is one big problem: the land Venezuela wants to potentially extend control over is recognised by the international community as a part of neighbouring Guyana – a sparsely populated country with some 800,000 inhabitants.

The issue has become an obsession for populist President Nicolas Maduro, who often repeats the phrase “El Essequibo es Nuestro” [The Essequibo is ours] in his speeches.

Among four other questions, the referendum asks citizens whether they favour “the creation of the Essequibo state and the development of an accelerated plan for comprehensive care for the current and future population of that territory”.

The outcome of the vote is hardly in doubt according to French daily Le Monde, which reported Thursday that the referendum “will take place without observers” and that no one dared to campaign for the “no” vote.

This situation is causing concern for Guyana’s leaders. Caracas is threatening to deprive its eastern neighbour of more than half of its territory and to make the approximately 200,000 inhabitants of Essequibo Venezuelan citizens.

“The long-term consequences of this referendum could be Venezuela’s de facto annexation of a region which covers 160,000 square kilometers, a significant portion of Guyana [215,000 km²],” says Annette Idler, associate professor at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford and a specialist in international security.

On top of significant gold, diamond, and aluminium deposits, the Essequibo has become an offshore paradise for oil and gas interests. Since Exxon discovered hydrocarbon deposits off the coast, black gold has given an unprecedented boost to the economy, raising Guyana’s GDP by no less than 62 percent in 2022.

Disputed territory between Venezuela and Guyana
© Guillermo Rivas Pachecor, Paz Pizarro, Jean-Michel Corbu, Patricio Arana, AFP

Writing in 2015, an American specialist in Latin America, Jose de Arimateia da Cruz, argued the discovery of these underwater oil reserves “strengthened Venezuela’s determination to support its territorial claims on this region”.

The Venezuelan government has been particularly angered by Exxon’s choice to negotiate exclusively with the Guyanese government, suggesting that the US oil giant recognised Guyana’s sovereignty over these waters and the Essequibo region.

A territorial dispute dating back to 1811

The territorial dispute over Essequibo dates back to the colonial era. In 1811, when Venezuela proclaimed its independence, it believed the region was part of its territory. Despite the claims, the United Kingdom, which occupied the territory of present-day Guyana, placed the region under the authority of the British crown. In 1899, an arbitration court ruled in favour of the UK, even though the United States had supported Caracas.

The dispute resurfaced in 1966 when Guyana gained independence. The Geneva Agreement, signed by the UK, Venezuela, and British Guiana, urged countries to agree to a peaceful resolution through dialogue, but Guyana has since sought a resolution through the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – a procedure which Venezuela rejects. 

If the Venezuelan government is pushing for a referendum now, it is partly “because the International Court of Justice declared itself competent in April to settle the dispute”, says Idler.

Maduro does not want to recognise the ruling of the ICJ – a branch of the UN with nonbinding legal authority. He even called on United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to mediate between Venezuela and Guyana.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro casts his vote during a consultative referendum on Venezuelan sovereignty over the Esquiba region controlled by neighbouring Guyana, in Caracas on December 3, 2023
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro casts his vote during a consultative referendum on Venezuelan sovereignty over the Essequibo region, controlled by neighbouring Guyana, in Caracas on December 3, 2023. © Venezuelan Presidency via AFP

There is also – perhaps most importantly – a domestic political element to the referendum. “We must not forget that the presidential election takes place in a year, and Nicolas Maduro is trying to rally support around him by playing to the national sentiment of voters,” explains Idler.

By presenting himself as the champion of nationalism, “he puts the opposition in a delicate position”, she adds. What’s more, “some observers believe he could escalate the situation with Guyana to declare a state of emergency and cancel the presidential election if necessary”.

Faced with the Venezuelan threat, Guyana is relying heavily on international law. A case was referred to the ICJ on October 3 to prevent Caracas from proceeding with its referendum. 

On Friday, the ICJ called on Caracas to take no action that would modify the disputed lands – but it did not mention the referendum.

Is Maduro bluffing?

The risk is that Venezuela may want to take advantage of international attention being focused on two major conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. Venezuelan troops are already on the border with Guyana “carrying out anti-illegal mining activities”, reports the Financial Times.

If Venezuela were to genuinely attempt to annex Essequibo, “it could destabilise the entire region”, says Idler. Countries like Brazil or Uruguay could be forced to choose sides in this territorial conflict.

But the annexation threat could also be a bluff. Venezuela may not have the means to seize the territory, says Idler. “The authorities exercise limited control over the border regions from where Caracas would need to launch troops to take possession of this region.”

Venezuela’s president knows that such a move would prompt the United States to reimpose the sanctions that Washington has just lifted on oil exports, says Idler. Economically very fragile, Venezuela may think twice before taking such a risk.

Regardless of how the roughly 20 million eligible Venezuelans vote, little will change in the short term – the people of Essequibo are not voting, and the referendum is nonbinding.

Either way, says Idler, Maduro can hardly afford to act on his nationalist impulse.

“He will then have to choose between discrediting himself in the eyes of voters and facing new American sanctions.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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