Venezuela threatens to annex more than half of Guyana’s territory

An international ruling determined the oil-rich Essequibo region belonged to Guyana more than a century ago, but Venezuela has never agreed with that decision. 

By Rhonda Fanning & Glorie G. MartinezDecember 11, 2023 4:29 pm,

A long-standing territorial dispute between two neighboring South American countries reignited over the weekend, with the Venezuelan government moving to claim more than half of Guyana’s territory as its own. An international tribunal ruled that the oil rich Essequibo region belonged to Guyana more than a century ago, but Venezuela has consistently contested that decision. 

Last week, a nationwide referendum saw Venezuelans voting to reclaim the Essequibo territory. Now, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is capitalizing on the issue to drum up support in the lead up to his country’s upcoming presidential election. 

Kurt Weyland is professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, where he specializes in democratization and authoritarian rule in Latin America. He joined the Standard to tell us more about the developing conflict. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What role does the discovery of oil in the Essequibo region play in this dispute? 

Kurt Weyland: This was the specific trigger that inflamed the situation, because large oil deposits were discovered off the coast of Guyana and in front of this key border region. The longstanding dispute was inflamed for that reason – because resources are owed. Maduro has ruined the Venezuelan oil industry, and wouldn’t mind having more oil deposits. 

In the run up of the current election, he’s using this nationalist issue as a diversionary tactic to wrong foot the opposition and improve his chances in the presidential election, given that he has had a terrible performance and has essentially ruined his country’s economy. He wants to draw attention away from that by inflaming nationalism. 

Is he using this as a distraction for Venezuelans, or as an excuse to delay an election if the conflict escalated? Or is it yet to be seen? 

I haven’t heard the idea that he would want to delay the election. More likely the case is that he will want to whip up nationalist support. People long for the opposition, because when you’re in opposition and there’s a national issue at hand, you cannot easily disagree with the government. So, you have to fall in line behind the government. 

If everyone’s saying ‘yes, we all want Essequibo,’ then what opposition do they have? And the specific trigger is the following. The Venezuelan opposition facing this brutal dictatorship has for a long time been divided and hasn’t posed a very credible challenge. But an opposition leader has emerged – María Corina Machado, who won the opposition primary with 92% of the opposition vote. 

I think that is the specific context that he will be compelled to hold the election under international scrutiny. But Maduro wants to manipulate things as much as possible. At this point, Machado is still officially disqualified because the government uses all kinds of tricks to hinder opposition campaigning. There’s international pressure for her to be qualified to run. So, Maduro is in a very difficult position. 

The U.S. has come out in support of Guyana. What has the reaction from the international community been thus far? 

The international community was concerned because they don’t want to have a war. That would be the third war after Ukraine and after Gaza. That’s one reason why Maduro thinks he can do a little bit of saber rattling – the international community clearly wants to forestall another armed conflict. 

A country that is very concerned about this is Brazil, because Brazil has long seen itself as the rising leader of South America with certain hegemonic aspirations. But Lula da Silva, the recently-reelected president, does not want that conflict to escalate in a way that would really draw in the United States as protector of Guyana. That’s why Brazil is especially worried about this whole conflict. 

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