From Dispute to Dialogue: Can Venezuela and Guyana Build a Collaborative Future?

On December 3, Venezuela held a referendum to decide whether they should establish a state in Essequibo, which is a disputed territory that currently belongs to Guyana. The referendum proposed granting citizenship to current and future residents of the area and rejecting the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice to settle the dispute. According to reports, not many voters were seen at the polling centres. However, the Venezuelan government stated that 10.5 million of the 20.7 million registered voters took part in the referendum, with 95% voting in the affirmative. Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s President, hailed the referendum as a success for the country and its democracy.

The dispute dates are long-standing, but the demarcation of the border was undertaken via a tribunal in 1899. Since then, the Venezuelan state has maintained the whole process has been rigged. Venezuela has argued that the territory was disputed. In 1966, Venezuela, the United Kingdom (UK) and British Guiana signed an agreement in Geneva (known as the Geneva Agreement) that the signatories would look for a practical, peaceful, and satisfactory solution to the dispute.

Coming back to the present day, just two days after the referendum, Maduro showed legislators a new map of Venezuela. The said map included the disputed region as a part of Venezuela. A High Commission for the Defence of Guyana Esequiba has also been formed by a presidential decree, and Maduro has instructed the state-owned oil company PDVSA to create a special department, “PDVSA-Esequibo,” to manage oil, gas and mineral mining exploration in the disputed territory.

The two leaders were unable to solve the border dispute in the meeting, but they did form a joint commission, which comprises the foreign ministers of both states and other officials, and it has three months to report back.

Venezuela has, for some time, been deploying troops and resources to support them at the border with Guyana. They have also stated that they intend to build an airstrip in the border area to help provide logistical support to the Essequibo region. The troop deployment by Venezuela was noticed by not only Guyana but Brazil as well. Brazil had already been increasing “defence operations” in its northern border region, according to the country’s defence ministry. The calls by Maduro following the referendum to take over the Essequibo region led the Brazilian military to deploy more troops and armoured vehicles to its northern border region. This may be because it is said to be easier for Venezuelan troops to use Brazilian territory to enter Essequibo, as the terrain via Brazil is easier to cross.

Maduro also told all foreign companies undertaking oil exploration in the region to leave within three months, which Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali stated was a direct threat to his country. Around the same time, a helicopter of the Guyanese military also went missing in the border area with seven people on board. Of the seven people on board, five were senior military officials who were in the region to oversee the readiness of troops deployed near the border. The US also undertook flight drills with the Guyanese military and called them routine military engagements. However, it is evident that the drills were conducted to deter any inclination toward invasion by Venezuela.

On December 9, the Guyanese President, Irfaan Ali, agreed to meet with Venezuela’s Maduro on December 14 to discuss the future of the Essequibo region. This meeting was finalised after Brazil and a trading bloc of Caribbean states pressured the Guyanese government. President Ali, while speaking on national television, stated that his country’s position regarding the border is non-negotiable. Just a day before the meeting, Ali called Maduro an outlaw and said that he was acting recklessly to take the oil-rich Essequibo region from Guyana.

The meeting took place on the island of St. Vincent, in which the two presidents agreed not to resort to threatening each other or undertaking the use of force against each other. They also decided to try not to escalate any conflict by using words or launching any other actions. The two leaders were unable to solve the border dispute in the meeting, but they did form a joint commission, which comprises the foreign ministers of both states and other officials, and it has three months to report back. During a break in the talks, President Ali told the media that all of the region belongs to Guyana and that no amount of propaganda would change that. He also noted that his country was not the aggressor and that they were not seeking a war. Before the meeting, Maduro had stated that leaving the dispute up to international courts was not an option for Venezuela and would lead to the deterioration of the situation. In contrast, Guyana’s government stated that The Hague was the only proper forum to solve the dispute.

Then, on December 24, the British Ministry of Defence announced that they would deploy a patrol ship to Guyana in an attempt to show support for the Commonwealth country. The ship will also take part in exercises with the Guyanese military. Although it is not scheduled to dock at the country’s capital, the action of sending the ship is an attempt to offer support to the former colony and was preceded by the visit of a Minister to Guyana. During his visit, the Minister for the Americas and Caribbean, David Rutley, stated that he was there to offer Britain’s unequivocal support to Guyana.

Venezuela’s main ally, Russia, has called for it to settle its territorial dispute via political and diplomatic means; this was said by none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin during a call with President Maduro on December 21.

With the two states currently agreeing to use diplomatic means to solve their border dispute and vowing to refrain from the use of force, it is yet to be seen whether they will be able to settle this matter amicably or if they will revert to escalations along their borders after the commission hands in its report after three months.

Syed Zulfiqar Ali

Syed Zulfiqar Ali has completed his Masters in Defence & Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University, and is currently serving as a Research Associate at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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