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Venezuela-Guyana: 5 minutes to understand the tensions around the oil-rich Essequibo region

2023-12-04T13:46:56.474Z

Highlights: Venezuelan voters on Sunday voted to integrate the oil-rich Essequibo region into their country. The vote was organized by Caracas to legitimize its claims to the territory it disputes with Guyana. The referendum asked Venezuelans whether they agreed not to recognize the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice. Guyana appealed to the ICJ to halt the vote in the face of what it considers an "existential threat" to the region's oil reserves. The result will not have any concrete consequences in the short term: the territory is in Guyana and it is not a vote for self-determination.


95 percent of Venezuelan voters on Sunday voted to integrate the oil-rich province of Essequibo into their country


In the chancelleries, the hypothesis of a military invasion was taken very seriously. Venezuelan voters on Sunday voted to integrate the oil-rich Essequibo region into their country in a consultative referendum organized by Caracas to legitimize its claims to the territory it disputes with Guyana. The vote ended in a yes vote, with more than 95% of votes in favour of the five questions asked.

The referendum asked Venezuelans whether they agreed not to recognize the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ruled in favor of Guyana in 1899, and to integrate the territory into the Bolivarian Republic. Presented as a "landslide" victory by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro despite an attendance that seemed overestimated by the authorities, the vote raised concerns in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, and on the international stage.

Where does this historic dispute come from?

Venezuela has laid claim for decades to the 160,000-square-kilometer territory, sometimes called Guyana Esequiba, which makes up more than two-thirds of Guyana and is home to 125,000 people, one-fifth of its population. In the 1777th century, Venezuela accused the British colonizer of appropriating the region west of the Essequibo River, disregarding the colonial border set in <> at the time of the Spanish Empire. Caracas continues to assert that the river must be the natural boundary.

Guyana, which has some of the world's largest per capita oil reserves, maintains that the rightful border dates back to the British colonial era. This was ratified in 1899 by a Court of Arbitration. The country then appealed to the ICJ, the UN's highest judicial body, to have it successfully validated.

The membership of the Essequibo - a region "sparsely inhabited and characterized by dense vegetation" - to the Bolivarian Republic is "a relatively consensual question among the Venezuelan population," explains Thomas Posado, a lecturer in contemporary Latin American civilization at the University of Rouen. The specialist points out that Venezuelans are used to using maps of their country including the oil territory, as China does with Taiwan, for example.

Why the renewed tensions?

In 2015, Guyana announced that exploration by the American firm ExxonMobil revealed huge oil and natural gas reserves in the border region. Tensions have risen even higher in recent months, after oil tenders launched by Georgetown last August and a new discovery of black gold in October.

After Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced the referendum on 24 October, Guyana appealed to the ICJ to halt the vote in the face of what it considers an "existential threat". Last Friday, the court ordered Caracas to refrain from any action that would alter the status quo in the Essequibo.

How is this a domestic political issue?

"Calling a referendum on this consensual issue allows Maduro to regain control of the political agenda and to place himself on the international stage as a defender of the Venezuelan nation," Posado said. This is a crucial issue in the run-up to the next presidential election in 2024.

The promulgation of this vote also makes it possible to "divide the opponents", most of whom claim Essequibo. On Sunday, the latter were reserved, torn between their convictions and the desire not to support the government before the presidential election. Main opposition leader Maria Corina Machado called the referendum a "distraction" amid a crisis.

Should we fear annexation by force?

However, this result will not have any concrete consequences in the short term: the territory is in Guyana and it is not a vote for self-determination. Caracas has assured that it is not looking for a motive to invade the area, as Guyana fears in the long term, where thousands of people have formed human chains to show their attachment to the territory.

On Sunday, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali assured his compatriots that "there is nothing to fear in the hours, days and months ahead." "Our first line of defense is diplomacy and we are in a very, very strong position," he added, stressing that the country has broad international support and calling on Caracas to "maturity and responsibility."

The possibility of an annexation of Essequibo by force seems "unlikely" for Thomas Posado. "Venezuela, which is a state in crisis, does not have enough contacts within the international community to trigger a conflict of this type," he said. A militarization of the quarrel "does not seem to be the preferred option on either side," and the most likely scenario seems to be a "stalemate in the conflict."

Source: leparis

All news articles on 2023-12-04

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