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Venezuela-Guyana: Tensions Rise Over Disputed Oil-Rich Essequibo Region

Updated: May 23

On 3 December 2023, a referendum orchestrated by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was approved by Venezuelan voters to claim sovereignty over a large portion (roughly two-thirds of Guyana's national territory) of the long-disputed and oil-rich Essequibo region in neighbouring Guyana, violating an International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling. The region is rich in both oil and minerals. It would, in theory, give Venezuela access to the Stabroek Block, a massive oil field estimated to contain more than eight billion barrels, discovered by ExxonMobil in 2015, which sits almost entirely in Guyana's territorial waters. Approved by 95% of voters, the referendum drew a chorus of criticism from an international community fearful President Maduro could cite the referendum as a pretext for ultimately annexing the region entirely. 

The Venezuelan government argues that Guyana's Essequibo region was stolen from it when the border was drawn over a century ago. Immediately following the referendum, President Maduro ordered state oil companies to issue extraction licenses and publicly debuted a new map of Venezuela that included the disputed region renamed Guayana Esequiba. It should be noted, however, that turnout was minimal in the vote intended as a rubber stamp on Venezuela's claim to the Essequibo region. President Maduro had hoped to leverage his country's century-long claim to the disputed Essequibo region to mobilize public support, but polling stations across the country were largely quiet on voting day as most shunned the issue. The turnout was indeed so underwhelming as to lay bare the evident falsification of results: more than 10.5 million people purportedly voted in the referendum, an improbable figure which would be higher than the vote to re-elect Maduro's popular predecessor, Hugo Chávez, in 2012.

A Brief History of the Dispute

Venezuela has long sought control over the region and has laid claim to the oil-rich Essequibo region ever since it gained independence from Spain in 1811, alleging that its borders were drawn up unfairly in an act of international collusion. More concretely, the dispute stretches back to 1841, when the Venezuelan government alleged that the British had encroached on Venezuelan territory in its acquisition of British Guiana (now Guyana) from the Netherlands. In 1899, the border was decided by an international Tribunal of Arbitration, and the region has remained under the control of British Guiana and now Guyana for over a century. 

In 2015, the discovery of oil off Essequibo's coast revived the territorial dispute over the 160,000 square km region. For Venezuela, which has faced hyperinflation, international sanctions, and associated economic crises in recent years, a revival of the country's oil industry—coupled with a recent ease in U.S. sanctions—could help stabilize the economy.

What Happens Next? 

President Maduro's bellicose rhetoric and the rubber-stamp referendum have been widely seen as a nationalist attempt to galvanize voters for the coming 2024 presidential election, which President Maduro is expected to lose. The centre-right opposition candidate, María Corina Machado, is widely predicted to defeat Maduro if the election is a free contest, and the U.S. is threatening to snap back recent sanctions relief if the dictator does not permit a fair election. The Essequibo is one of the few issues that unites Venezuelans across the political spectrum, but the referendum vote suggests people care more about issues such as the economic collapse, which has driven more than 7 million people to flee.

The referendum, clearly a step towards annexation of Essequibo, has been widely compared to Russia's use of a similar tactic in Ukraine, where it rigged a referendum on sovereignty over four regions it partially holds in an attempt to legitimize the land grab. Guyana's President Irfaan Ali has since sought to rally international support for his nation's sovereignty in an attempt to build international pressure against Venezuela, courting the U.S., India, Cuba, and the U.N. Security Council and stressing a diplomatic resolution. Within a few days of the referendum, U.S.-Guyana military drills took place under the direction of the U.S. South Command (SOUTHCOM). Both Guyana and Venezuela have increased military activity on their borders in recent weeks as tensions between the bickering nations have reached unprecedented heights. Brazil also sent troops to its northern border as fears grew that the vote could spark military action.

Going forward, it is still unclear what steps the Venezuelan government would take to follow through on the result, and any attempt to assert a claim would certainly continue to be met with international condemnation. On 14 December 2023, there were some signs of de-escalation, as the presidents of Venezuela and Guyana said that they would not use force against each other and agreed to create a joint commission to address the territorial dispute after a tense meeting on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The joint commission will include each country's foreign minister and technical staff "to address matters as mutually agreed" and should issue an update within three months, the declaration said. Both countries also agreed to meet again in Brazil during the coming months.

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