By Mary Anastasia O’Grady
Sunday’s referendum in Venezuela asked the electorate if it agrees that two-thirds of Guyana actually belongs to Venezuela. The dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro sought a “yes” vote and thought it had a lay-up.
Guyana was a British colony in 1899 when a Paris tribunal ratified its dominion over the Essequibo region. Caracas has long disputed the ruling. From early childhood Venezuelans marinate in the doctrine that the land was stolen from them. So approval on all five referendum questions—including one that proposed the creation of a new Venezuelan state—was the heavy favorite.
Late Sunday morning, the regime claimed robust turnout; by afternoon, the opposition posted photos of empty polling stations and reported high abstention. As we went to press, official results weren’t in. But it almost doesn’t matter. The failing Mr. Maduro seems intent on picking a fight with a neighbor. The only questions are how far he will go and what it will cost him.
The referendum was a call to Venezuelans to rally ’round the flag, which is the oldest trick in the tyrant’s manual for what to do when things are going badly. And they are.
The economy has collapsed since Mr. Maduro took office in 2013. Venezuelan living standards, once the envy of South America, are in the tank. Some 7.5 million people, or a quarter of the population, have emigrated, tearing families apart. Pressure is increasing on the dictatorship to lift the ban on the 2024 presidential candidacy of popular opposition leader Maria Corina Machado.
The other reason Mr. Maduro held the referendum is that the disputed Guyanese land corresponds to what is believed to be enormous oil reserves off its coast. Venezuela’s incompetence and corruption mean it can’t even extract the oil it has within its own borders. But Mr. Maduro sees the nation next door getting rich and reflexively needs to object. Envy, after all, is the mother of communism.
In 2015 made the first crude discovery in the Stabroek Block in Guyanese waters. The “gross recoverable resource,” according to the company, “is now estimated to be more than eight billion oil equivalent barrels” from more than a dozen successful wells. In all there are an estimated 11 billion oil equivalent barrels in Guyanese waters, and at least five other international oil companies are working in the area.
In September Guyana received bids for exploration and exploitation of eight new blocks. But unlike the existing wells, where Exxon, its partners, and some competitors are already bringing up crude, the oil resources in the recently auctioned blocks are off the coast of the Essequibo region. Mr. Maduro wants them.
In 1966 Venezuela and Guyana agreed to disagree about the territory in the Geneva Agreement. In March 2018 the United Nations used the authority provided by that accord to assign the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which is expected to rule on the matter early next year.
Sunday’s referendum suggests that Venezuela, which more than once has asserted that the court has no jurisdiction to rule on the dispute, doesn’t like its odds and is prepared to take matters into its own hands. Last week a token number of Venezuelan military were rumored to have moved close to the border. Brazil put its military on high alert in the region. U.S. Army special forces leadership met with its Guyanese counterparts last week, but U.S. Southern Command declined to comment on Friday. The State Department didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The invasion of the Falkland Islands might have bought unpopular Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri some support in 1982—if British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher hadn’t been so determined to wave the Union Jack.
Perhaps Mr. Maduro has that Galtieri adventure in mind since there is no Thatcher equivalent these days. Deterrence, particularly from the U.S., seems to be lacking.
Military aggression against a smaller sovereign nation won’t go over well, even among the usual Maduro allies. Brazil’s President Luiz Inacío “Lula” da Silva is a supporter of both the Cuban and Venezuelan military dictatorships. But he’s also an advocate of the peaceful resolution of cross-border disputes using international courts.
Nor can Mr. Maduro count on Havana to back him. Cuba has long leaned on the English-speaking Caribbean for support at the U.N. and in other international forums. Their first allegiance is to Guyana. Even China, which is making oil investments in Guyanese waters, doesn’t want an invasion.
Finally, one of the most important tests of jurisdiction is the self-determination of the local population. It’s unlikely that the Guyanese living in the Essequibo want to become Venezuelans.
Yet despite widespread disapproval of what the world seems to have already judged as a provocation against a peaceful neighbor, it would be unwise to underestimate the desperation building up in Caracas. If Mr. Maduro finds he has painted himself into a corner, desperate measures won’t be out of the question. Cuba, Brazil and China are unlikely to stand on principle.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.
Mary Anastasia O’Grady is an Opinion Columnist, writes «The Americas,» a weekly column on politics, economics and business in Latin America and Canada that appears every Monday in the Journal. Ms. O’Grady joined the paper in August 1995 and became a senior editorial page writer in December 1999. She was appointed an editorial board member in November 2005. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Indianapolis-based Liberty Fund. Energiesnet.com does not necessarily share these views.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), on December 03, 2023. All comments posted and published on Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of Petroleumworld.
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EnergiesNet.com 12 04 2023
Appeared in the December 4, 2023, print edition as ‘Venezuela Covets Guyana’s Oil Fields’.