This Sunday (3), Venezuelans participate in a referendum to decide whether the country should create its own state in a large area of its oil-rich neighbor, Guyana. The move, denounced as a step toward annexation, raised concerns about a possible military conflict between the two South American nations.
The area in question, the heavily forested Essequibo region, accounts for about two-thirds of Guyana’s national territory and is approximately the size of Florida.
Venezuela has long claimed the region, which it argues was within its borders during the Spanish colonial period.
Caracas rejects an 1899 ruling by international arbitrators that established current borders when Guyana was still a British colony. The recent discovery of vast offshore oil fields in the region has increased the stakes of the dispute.
At campaign rallies and in a series of patriotic social media posts, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro launched the referendum in anti-imperialist sentiment, arguing that Venezuela’s historic rights to the region were unfairly rejected.
Guyana has said the threat of annexation is “existential”.
Among the questions asked to voters this Sunday is:
- Do you agree with the creation of a new state in the Essequibo region, providing its population with Venezuelan citizenship and incorporating this state into the map of Venezuelan territory?
The practical implications of the vote – which is expected to be in favor of the government’s position – are, however, minimal, analysts say, with the creation of a Venezuelan state within the Essequibo a remote possibility.
It is unclear what steps the Venezuelan government would take to achieve the outcome, and any attempt to assert a claim would certainly meet international resistance.
Still, the escalation of rhetoric has provoked troop movements in the region and threats in both countries, drawing comparisons from Guyanese leaders to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many residents of the predominantly indigenous region are nervous.
“The long-standing dispute over the border between Guyana and Venezuela has reached an unprecedented level of tension in relations between our countries,” Guyana’s Foreign Minister Robert Persaud wrote on Wednesday (29), in Americas Quarterly.
The International Court of Justice, based in The Hague, Netherlands, ruled on Friday (1st) that “Venezuela will refrain from taking any action that would modify the situation that currently prevails in the disputed territory” following a request to suspend the vote in Guyana, which argued that annexation would be illegal.
But Venezuelan authorities have said the referendum will take place regardless of the court’s decision.
The international court has been analyzing the territorial dispute since 2018 and will hold a judgment after decades of failed negotiations between the two countries through the United Nations.
Guyana maintains that the court is the correct place to resolve the dispute, while Venezuela does not recognize the Court’s jurisdiction over the matter.
A colonial-era dispute
The permanent borders of the Essequibo date back to an 1899 decision by an international tribune in Paris, which granted what was then known as British Guiana most of the land between the Orinoco and Essequibo rivers.
Venezuela respected the decision until 1962, when the British colony was moving towards independence, alleging fraud within the court.
A 1966 agreement, signed shortly before Guyana’s independence, paved the way for talks between countries over the disputed zone and for the eventual involvement of the International Court of Justice, which has been slow.
Guyana, a sparsely populated country with around 800,000 people and high poverty rates, has seen a rapid transformation since ExxonMobil’s discovery of oil off the coast of the Essequibo region in 2015, worth more than US$1 billion (around R$5 billion) in annual government oil revenues fueling huge infrastructure projects.
The country is expected to surpass the oil production of Venezuela, long dependent on its own oil reserves, and is on track to become the world’s largest per capita oil producer.
Venezuela claims that Guyana does not have the right to grant concessions for drilling in offshore reserves and has called Guyana a tool of ExxonMobil.
“ExxonMobil is owned by the government of Guyana. He owns the Guyanese congress,” Maduro told his supporters last week.
Even without creating a state within the disputed territory, which would require new constitutional measures and the likely use of force, Maduro stands to gain politically from the referendum in the midst of a challenging re-election campaign.
In October, the Venezuelan opposition showed rare momentum after rallying around Maria Corina Machado, a former center-right lawmaker who attacked Maduro for overseeing rising inflation and food shortages, in the country’s first primaries in 11 years.
“An authoritarian government facing a difficult political situation is always tempted to look for a patriotic issue so it can wrap itself in the flag and rally support, and I think that’s a big part of what Maduro is doing,” said Phil Gunson, an analyst. from the Caracas-based International Crisis Group.
Before the vote, both Venezuela and Guyana raised the specter of armed conflict in the region: last week, Guyana’s president, Irfaan Ali, visited troops in the Essequibo region and dramatically raised a flag on a mountain overlooking the border with Venezuela.
“This is not an armed war, for now,” replied the Venezuelan Defense Minister. The Venezuelan military also stated that the country is preparing to build an airstrip that will serve as a “logistical support point for the integral development of Essequibo”.
On Wednesday, Brazil announced it was increasing its military presence with “defensive actions” along its northern border with Venezuela and Guyana.
Writing in the US magazine Foreign Policy last year, before the referendum was announced, Paul J. Angelo of the Council on Foreign Relations and Wazim Mowla, assistant director of the Caribbean Initiative at the Adrienne Arsht Center for Latin America, Atlantic Council, called the border dispute a “powder keg,” arguing that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “challenge to international norms” by invading Ukraine “could give new wings to Maduro’s territorial ambitions.”
Guyana’s vice president, Bharrat Jagdeo, repeated the comparison at a conference last week.
“I don’t know if they are miscalculating based on what happened in Crimea and elsewhere, but it would be a serious miscalculation on their part,” Jagdeo said.
“We can’t just think that this is internal politics [na Venezuela] without taking all possible steps to protect our country, including working with others,” he added, citing a visit last week by U.S. military officials to discuss ongoing joint training exercises.
Gunson, of the International Crisis Group, said he believes that without the support of any of its allies, Venezuela has no intention of invading Essequibo.
But as domestic pressure is likely to increase on Maduro to act on the referendum results, especially in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections, Maduro may be tempted to provoke small battles along the border, he said.
“The belligerence is on both sides of the border, and since neither can afford to back down, this is where you enter the slightly dangerous territory of potential military confrontations.”
Source: CNN Brasil
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