There is concern over the possibility of a military conflict between Venezuela and Guyana over Essequibo

(CNN) — Venezuelans will vote on Sunday in a referendum to decide whether the country should create its own state within the vast territory of oil-rich neighbor Guyana. A military conflict between two South American countries.

The area in question, the densely forested Essequibo region, is equivalent to two-thirds of Guyana’s national landmass and is roughly the size of Florida. Venezuela has long claimed territory that was part of its territory during the Spanish colonial period. Venezuela rejects an 1899 decision by international arbitrators that established the current borders when Guyana was a British colony. The recent discovery of vast offshore oil fields in the region has raised the stakes in the dispute.

In a series of patriotic messages at campaign rallies and social media, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro framed the referendum on anti-imperialist sentiment, arguing that Venezuela’s historic rights to the region had been unfairly denied.

Guyana says annexation threatens “Existentialism“.

Among the questions put to voters on Sunday were the following: Do you agree to create a new state in the Essequibo region, grant its people Venezuelan citizenship, and annex “the state stated in the map of Venezuelan territory”?

According to analysts, the practical implications of the vote, which is expected to be positive for the government’s position, are minimal, and the formation of a Venezuelan state in Essequibo is a remote possibility. It is unclear what steps the Venezuelan government will take to enforce the decision, and any attempt to press the request will undoubtedly face international opposition.

However, rhetorical escalation has encouraged troop movements in the region and fighting in both countries, leading Guyanese leaders to compare it to a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many people mostly live in tribal areas They seem nervous.

Venezuelans take part in a rally at the end of the campaign for the Essequibo referendum on December 1. (Credit: Miguel Gutierrez/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

“The long-standing border dispute between Guyana and Venezuela has reached an unprecedented level of tension in relations between our countries.” Wrote on Wednesday Guyana’s Foreign Minister Robert Persaud in the American Quarterly.

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The International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled on Friday that “Venezuela must refrain from taking any measures that would alter the current situation in the disputed territory,” following Guyana’s request to halt the referendum, which it argued was annexation. would be illegal. But Venezuelan officials have said the referendum will be held regardless of the court’s ruling.

The International Court of Justice has been reviewing the territorial dispute since 2018 and will hold a hearing in the spring after decades of failed negotiations between the two countries through the UN. Guyana maintains that the court is the proper venue to resolve the dispute, while Venezuela does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction over the issue.

A controversy since colonial times

Essequibo’s current boundaries date back to an 1899 ruling by an international court in Paris that awarded most of the territory between the Orinoco and Essequibo rivers to then-British Guiana.

It wasn’t until 1962 that Venezuela respected the ruling and the British colony moved toward independence, accusing the court of fraud. The 1966 agreement, signed shortly before Guyana’s independence, led to negotiations between the countries over the disputed territory and the intervention of the International Court of Justice.

Since ExxonMobil discovered oil off the coast of the Essequibo region in 2015, Guyana, a sparsely populated country of 800,000 people, has undergone a rapid transformation. They promoted massive infrastructure projects. The country is on the verge of surpassing the oil production of Venezuela, which has long relied on its own reserves, and is on track to become the world’s largest per capita oil producer.

The Essequibo River flows through the Kurupukari Crossing in Guyana, photographed on April 10. (Credit: Matias Delacroix/AP)

Venezuela claims that Guyana has no right to grant concessions to drill in offshore reserves and that Guyana is a tool of ExxonMobil. “ExxonMobil is owned by the government of Guyana. It is owned by the Congress of Guyana,” Maduro told supporters last week.

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Even without forming a government within the disputed territory, which would require further constitutional measures and use force, Maduro could make political gains from the vote amid a challenging re-election campaign. In October, Venezuela’s opposition showed rare momentum after uniting around María Corina Machado — a former center-right lawmaker who attacked Maduro over rising inflation and food shortages — in the country’s first primary elections in 11 years.

“An authoritarian government facing a difficult political situation will always want to rally support by wrapping a patriotic theme in the flag, and I think that’s what Maduro is doing,” said Caracas-based analyst Bill Gunson. International Crisis Group.

Ahead of the vote, both Venezuela and Guyana have raised fears of armed conflict over the region: last week, Guyana’s President Irfan Ali visited troops in the Essequibo region and dramatically raised a flag on the dominant mountain. border with Venezuela. Venezuela’s defense minister responded, “This is no longer an armed conflict. The Venezuelan military has also said the country is progressing with the construction of a landing zone that will serve as a “logistical support point for the extensive development of Essequibo.”

On Wednesday, Brazil declared It increased its military presence along its northern border with Venezuela and Guyana with “defensive operations”.

In a foreign policy essay last year, before the referendum was announced, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Paul J. Angelou and Wasim Moula, co-director of the Caribbean Initiative at the Atlantic’s Adrian Orsht Center for the Latin American Council, called the border dispute “Flammable material“, arguing that President Vladimir Putin’s “violation of international norms” with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could “give new wings to Maduro’s regional ambitions”.

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“I don’t know if they’re miscalculating based on what happened in Crimea and elsewhere, but that would be a serious miscalculation on their part,” Jagdeo said.

“We simply cannot think about this internal politics (in Venezuela) without taking all measures to protect our country, including working with others,” he said, citing a trip last week by U.S. military officials to discuss military exercises. ongoing

A ship creates an artificial island by extracting sea sand to create a coastal port for offshore oil production at the mouth of the Demerara River in Georgetown, Guyana on April 11, 2023. the world (Credit: Matias Delacroix/AP)

Ganson of the International Crisis Group believes that without the support of its allies, Venezuela has no intention of invading Essequibo. But domestic pressure on Maduro to act on the referendum results could increase, especially ahead of next year’s presidential election, where Maduro could be tempted to stoke clashes along the border, he said.

“There is a battlefield on both sides of the border, and since neither side can retreat, you can enter a slightly dangerous area of ​​military conflict,” Gunson said.

Esmond Harmon

"Entrepreneur. Social media advocate. Amateur travel guru. Freelance introvert. Thinker."

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