Fear of a new war, this time in South America

THE HAGUE - Tensions between South American neighbors Venezuela and Guyana have escalated in recent days to the point where regional power Brazil has deployed its military to the border. 

The United Nations is set to discuss the conflict on Friday. The focal point of the tensions is a former Dutch colony: Essequibo. 

How far will Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro go in his obsession to annex the oil-rich region of Essequibo? This area, four times the size of the Netherlands, officially belongs to Guyana, a sparsely populated country with barely 800,000 inhabitants but rich in oil, gold, and minerals. It is precisely these coveted resources that are fueling the escalation of the 'neighborhood dispute.' 

This week, President Maduro introduced a bill to make Essequibo a Venezuelan province. He also instructed the state oil company to issue permits for crude oil extraction in the disputed area. Maduro further promised to distribute Venezuelan identity cards to the 125,000 residents of the region. On Facebook, the controversial president posted a message stating that Venezuela's map now looks different; the borders have expanded. On this map, Essequibo is no longer part of Guyana. "Our new map should hang in schools, universities, town halls, and other public locations or in people's homes," writes Maduro. 

Maduro's actions have caused significant tensions in Guyana, with the population fearing a Venezuelan military invasion and annexation. Irfaan Ali, President of Guyana, delivered a televised speech this week emphasizing that his government is doing everything to protect the country's current borders. "Venezuela's claim is illegitimate. The government there wants to seize two-thirds of our land, but the referendum held by Caracas among the population violates all international agreements and is invalid." 

A Threat to International Peace 

Ali has spoken with António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, among others, warning him about "these dangerous developments and the desperate actions of Maduro, which are in violation of international law and pose a serious threat to international peace and security." 

Last week, Guyana hoped to block a controversial non-binding referendum on the fate of Essequibo through the International Court of Justice in The Hague, but it failed. An overwhelming 95 percent of Venezuelans voted on Sunday in favor of annexing the territory. 

Guyana has now brought the issue before the UN Security Council, which met on Friday to discuss the conflict. The United States announced on Thursday that it would conduct joint air force exercises with Guyana in the South American country, stating that these were routine exercises. The U.S. has condemned the Venezuelan referendum. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, "The U.S. will steadfastly support the sovereignty of Guyana." Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva expresses serious concerns about the situation between Venezuela and Guyana and has directed additional troops toward the Guyanese border. However, Lula aims to prevent a war, stating, "We cannot afford a war in South America." He called on regional organizations to work towards a peaceful resolution. 

Venezuela appears to pay little attention to international warnings. Military training promotions are constantly aired on television, and news broadcasts are filled with reports of soldiers being sent to the border. Venezuela expert Eva van Roekel, affiliated with the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, notes that President Maduro is primarily seeking political gains. "In the second half of 2024, there are elections in Venezuela. If they are fair, the chances of Maduro winning are slim. I think only 10 percent of the population still supports him; he has economically brought the country to the brink during his rule. With his aggressive actions around Essequibo, he is trying to rally the population behind him and create a sense of unity." 

Economically Struggling 

According to Van Roekel, the only question is whether this attempt will succeed. "The political opposition in Venezuela is gaining strength. Maduro knows this well; a cornered cat can make strange jumps. However, I don't think this unpopular president will unleash a war against Guyana. With so much economic distress in his own country, it would be very unwise, at least. Venezuela was once a prosperous country due to its oil reserves, but little is left of that wealth. The oil industry is in shambles due to mismanagement and a shortage of technical personnel. Surviving, especially outside Caracas, is challenging. I was there just six months ago, and there is a shortage of everything: electricity, water, gasoline, seeds for crops. Maduro may be counting on the large oil field found off the coast of Essequibo in 2015, but it remains to be seen if he truly dares annexation. In that case, he can expect a reaction from Brazil. And, not insignificantly, the residents of this region consider themselves Guyanese, not Venezuelans." 

Border dispute in former Dutch colony 

The border dispute over Essequibo has been ongoing for almost 125 years. The region constitutes over two-thirds of Guyana, with a population of 125,000 people (a mix of indigenous inhabitants, descendants of Indian laborers, and African slaves). In 1899, the borders were determined between Venezuela and Guyana, which was then English, after being a Dutch colony for over two hundred years. Venezuela was already independent from Spain at that time and claimed that Essequibo belonged to them before then. An international commission ruled in favor of British Guyana. Both countries never resolved the issue themselves, but until now, escalation has been avoided. Tensions increased in 2015 when the American oil company ExxonMobil discovered a massive oil field off the coast. Since then, Guyana has become significantly more prosperous, in contrast to Venezuela.