Latin America Advisor

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Will Venezuela’s Maduro Order an Invasion of Guyana?

Photo of Nicolás Maduro Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is asserting that the Essequibo region, which makes up two-thirds of Guyana and is adjacent to an oil-rich area, belongs to his country.

Venezuelan voters approved a government-supported referendum on Dec. 3 to back the country’s claim over Guyana’s Essequibo region, following ExxonMobil’s discovery of large quantities of oil in the area in 2015. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Venezuela’s government not to take action that would affect Guyana’s control over the territory, but Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has ordered state-owned companies to start exploration and exploitation of oil and gas deposits in the disputed area. What are Maduro’s main motivations for asserting control of the Essequibo? How should Guyana—and other international actors, including the United States—respond to the referendum and Venezuela’s moves to exploit resources there? Is Venezuela likely to invade Guyana, and how might the international community intervene if it does?

Riyad Insanally, fellow at the Caribbean Policy Consortium and former ambassador of Guyana to the United States and the Organization of American States: “Maduro’s bogus referendum, in defiance of the ICJ, has placed him beyond the pale of international law. By ordering the creation of a new state called ’Guayana Esequiba’ governed by a general and charging PDVSA with managing oil, gas and mining activities there, he has annexed sovereign Guyanese territory by decree. How he can enforce this without an invasion remains to be seen. Maduro may be trying to stir up nationalist sentiment to distract Venezuelans from their economic woes and to push back against U.S. pressure for free elections in 2024. He even peddles the ludicrous fiction that the United States and ExxonMobil are using Guyana to destabilize Venezuela. And he is accusing opposition politicians of treason for criticizing the referendum and his regime’s handling of the border controversy to prevent them from running for office. Caricom, the United States, Brazil, the OAS, the United Kingdom and others have stated support for Guyana’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the peaceful resolution of the controversy at the ICJ. Even as Prime Minister Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is facilitating dialogue between the Guyanese and Venezuelan Presidents on Thursday, Maduro, in a letter to Gonsalves continued to assert Venezuela’s ‘legitimate rights over Guayana Esequiba’ and notes ‘the arrogant and illegal attitude of the U.S. and ExxonMobil.’ Maduro presents a real threat to Guyana and to regional security. Worse, he does not have a stellar record as a good faith negotiator, and there is no suggestion that he will walk back any of his extremist declarations and actions. Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali has been measured in responding to Maduro’s provocations. He has correctly reaffirmed Guyana’s adherence to the international rule of law and the ICJ process as the only peaceful means to resolve the border controversy. He may wish to reconsider his decision to meet with Maduro whose outrageous bullying should not be countenanced. President Lula of Brazil has already pulled out of the meeting, but Brazil and the United States should lead the international community in robust condemnation of Maduro’s false narrative and dangerous actions.”

Gustavo Roosen, member of the Advisor board and president of IESA in Caracas: “The delimitation of Venezuela and Guyana originates in the Paris arbitration ruling of 1899 that awarded the Essequibo area to British Guiana. Venezuela questioned the validity of this arbitration decision, which eventually resulted in the Geneva Agreement of 1966, which coincided with the independence granted to Guyana by the British Empire. Thus, the delimitation of the Essequibo is not related to the presence of hydrocarbons offshore. Venezuela has the largest oil and gas reserves in the world. In 1998, it produced 3.2 million barrels per day, while today it produces only around 800,000 due to poor management and lack of investment. Venezuela also has very large reserves of iron ore and bauxite, the exploitation of which has been halted due to electrical energy insufficiency, lack of investments and management incompetence. Under the terms of the Geneva Agreement, neither party can alter the situation in the area of dispute. The agreement granted jurisdiction to the International Court of Justice before which Venezuela must present in April the historical facts that back his claim to the Essequibo region. Venezuela’s presidential election also should be held next year. The Barbados agreement between Maduro’s government and the opposition, which includes international surveillance, sets the conditions to conduct this process. Any deviation from all of the above is a political play.”

Julia Buxton, British Academy Global Professor at the University of Manchester: “The Maduro government has steamed ahead to formalize Venezuela’s territorial claim with an assumed popular mandate following the Dec. 3 referendum. Venezuela’s speedy maneuvers are audacious and multipurpose. Measures incorporating the Essequibo and its residents as Venezuelan and issuing extraction licenses in the contested territory plays well to some patriotic sentiment. Media attention has swerved away from opposition presidential candidate María Corina Machado and staunched any potential traction that the political right in Venezuela might have gained from Javier Milei’s presidential victory in Argentina. New laws, and the escalation of Venezuela’s frontier presence delivers a fait accompli to the International Court of Justice, whatever the outcome of the court’s ruling in the border dispute. The referendum has also highlighted popular grievance in Venezuela with contentiously early licensing approval process by Guyana. By pushing hard and fast, Venezuela can maximize concessions if the ICJ judgment supports Guyana and the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award. This strategy may also provide restitution for Venezuela in regional conflict reduction efforts, currently led by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. For the United States, the flaring up of the border dispute adds another item to a chaotic foreign and energy security agenda. This risks an overly hasty, militarized containment response that enables Maduro to leverage an anti-imperialist, anti-U.S. narrative at a time of major international concern over U.S. strategy in Gaza. A stepping back of the United States can facilitate de-escalation of a conflict risk that is unwelcome internationally and regionally.”

Michael Shifter, senior fellow and former president, and Andrea Colombo, former intern, both at the Inter-American Dialogue: “With his back against the wall, Maduro is seeking to galvanize Venezuelans and whip up nationalist sentiment around the country’s long dormant territorial dispute with neighboring Guyana. Drawing on historic claims that date back to the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award that defined the current borders, Maduro called a referendum on Dec. 3 to ask Venezuelans to approve the de-facto annexation of Guyana’s Essequibo region. Though the regime claimed a record turnout and a favorable vote of 95 percent, polling stations were reportedly empty, according to several independent sources. Maduro’s irresponsible and dangerous gambit clearly reflects the regime’s frustration in successfully countering opposition leader María Corina Machado’s overwhelming victory in the October primary vote. That the U.S. company ExxonMobil is deeply involved in the oil-rich region further fuels Maduro’s anti-imperialist narrative. Maduro’s threats to invade Guyana are also aimed at distracting from his myriad domestic woes. Fortunately, his bellicose rhetoric has drawn criticism from an array of governments and regional organizations that have defended Guyana’s sovereignty. Indeed, no regional leader or government has supported Maduro. There have been joint military flight drills between the United States and Guyana to ‘enhance security partnership’ between both countries. Thanks to the intervention of prominent leaders, particularly U.N. Secretary General Guterres and Brazilian President Lula, talks have been scheduled between Maduro and Guyanese President Ali for Thursday. Although the meeting will not resolve the longstanding dispute, it could help lower the temperature for now. Still, the referendum’s result will incentivize Maduro to rekindle the conflict during the 2024 electoral campaign, even if a full-scale invasion is unlikely.”

Patrick Duddy, senior advisor for global affairs at Duke University and former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela: “The current Venezuela-Guyana imbroglio is a manufactured crisis but still a serious one. On Dec. 3, Venezuela’s authoritarian regime, led by Nicolás Maduro, held a referendum on the question of whether Venezuela should aggressively pursue its claim of ownership over the oil- and mineral-rich territory of Guyana known as the Essequibo despite an order from the International Court of Justice not to do so. The Venezuelan public had not been militating for action on Venezuela’s long-standing claim, much less unilateral action. The key questions considered in the referendum were approved, but turnout for it was very low. Nevertheless, the Venezuelan regime claimed it received a mandate for annexation of the province and has, in recent days, begun to put the architecture into place to establish Essequibo as a Venezuelan state. Venezuela has also ordered troops to the border. The Organization of American States, Caricom, the United States and others all counseled Venezuela and Guyana to hash out their differences peacefully and in fact Guyana has agreed to meet with Venezuela, albeit while insisting that Guyana will not cede territory. Venezuela’s motivation for precipitating this crisis seems to have two main elements. First, since oil was discovered off the coast of Guyana, oil production has skyrocketed, and Guyana’s economy has improved proportionately. Last year, Guyana’s GDP increased by more than 25 percent. Maduro and company covet that oil and the income it represents. The second, more urgent and egregious motivation for their actions in relation to Guyana, may be to distract Venezuelans from the regime’s progressive abrogation of the agreement it signed with the opposition in Barbados on Oct. 17 and the real possibility that the sanctions relief that the United States granted on Oct. 18 will be reversed as a consequence of the regime’s bad faith. Most recently, the regime has accused opposition members who objected to the referendum of treason and ordered the arrest of several. This latest step has clearly been taken to spike any possibility of an effective opposition challenge in the presidential election theoretically scheduled to take place in 2024.”

Barry R. McCaffrey, president of BR McCaffrey Associates, retired four-star U.S. Army general and former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy: “The poor Venezuelan people. One quarter of the population (eight million people) have fled the poverty and injustice of the Caracas regime. The economy has plunged by 75 percent. The oil industry has collapsed. The armed forces are broken. Maduro stays in power by sharing corruption with his 2,000+ generals and admirals and Cuban intelligence operatives. Maduro wants to forcibly annex two-thirds of Guyana and 125,000 of its 800,000 English-speaking people. The border was fixed in 1899. Independence from 200 years as part of the British Empire happened in 1966. The dispute is now in front of the ICJ in The Hague. However, Maduro plunges ahead with a bogus domestic referendum authorizing annexation. It would be a mistake to view all this as comical. Massive oil discoveries offshore Guyana took place in 2015. The Brazilians demand peace but see an actual military threat. The Russians, Chinese and Iranians back Maduro. The United States warns of deterrence with U.S. Air Force flight operations in Guyana on Dec. 7. A military attack by Venezuela across the shared 500-mile border could be an embarrassing disaster for Maduro. No roads, no naval power. U.S. military air and sea intervention is possible. Guyana wants to avoid combat, employing its tiny 7,000+ member armed forces. Hopefully, we will see effective peace initiatives by the OAS and Caricom. No one should want war in the trackless forests and swamps of Guyana’s Essequibo region.”

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