Juan Forero and Kejal Vyas, WSJ
Energiesnet.com 02 12 2024
Venezuela is backing up its threats to annex part of Guyana and secure access to some of the world’s largest oil finds in more than a decade by moving light tanks, missile-equipped patrol boats and armored carriers to the two countries’ border in what is quickly turning into a new security challenge for the Biden administration.
The deployment, visible in satellite images made public Friday and in videos recently posted by Venezuela’s military on social media, is a significant escalation in Caracas’s attempts to obtain some leverage over its neighbor’s newfound energy reserves. It comes despite a written agreement reached in December between Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Guyanese President Irfaan Ali that denounced the use of force and called for a commission to address territorial disputes.
Since late last year, the Venezuelan government, which has an army of up to 150,000 active soldiers and modern armaments provided by its ally Russia, has ratcheted up claims to the Essequibo, a mostly jungle-covered region that makes up two-thirds of Guyana.
The deployment and increasingly bellicose language from Caracas has come as Guyana emerges as one of the world’s hottest energy frontiers following offshore oil discoveries by an Exxon Mobil -led consortium. The former British colony, population 800,000, has a defense force of only 3,000 service members, pushing the government to work more closely with the U.S. to enhance its defensive capabilities.
“We are not surprised by the bad faith of Venezuela,” Guyana’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement to The Wall Street Journal in response to questions about the military deployment. “We are disappointed, not surprised.”
Venezuela’s Information Ministry didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking comment. The country has said it is boosting its defenses in response to the U.S. military’s exercises in Guyana in December and the U.K.’s deployment of a small antinarcotics vessel, the HMS Trent, in Guyanese waters.
On Wednesday, Venezuela’s minister of defense, Vladímir Padrino, accused Exxon of relying on the American military for its security and using Guyana for its own benefit.
“They will receive a proportional, forceful response in the maritime area that rightfully belongs to Venezuela,” he wrote on X. “The Essequibo is ours!”
Maduro’s deployments, along with a referendum he held in December in which he asserted that millions of Venezuelans approved of plans to seize the Essequibo, has alarmed policymakers in the Biden administration, which is already stretched in fashioning a response to Venezuela’s alliances with Russia, Iran and China.
In recent months, U.S. officials from the Defense Department and White House have visited Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, for talks on increasing cooperation. President Ali said his government would soon purchase American helicopters, drones and other defense equipment.
“Supporting Guyana to strengthen its defensive capability as it continues to bring enormous oil windfall on the market is something we have a direct interest in,” Juan Gonzalez, a senior Biden adviser, told reporters in Colombia on Monday, a day after meeting Guyana’s president in Georgetown. “We certainly don’t want to escalate tensions, but we have our own strategic relationship with Guyana.”
The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, using satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies and shared exclusively with the Journal, found that in late 2023 and January Venezuela moved armored vehicles and what appear to be light tanks to Anacoco Island on the Cuyuni River just yards from Guyana. Construction work is also taking place, signaling the expansion of a base there.
In Venezuela’s Atlantic port of Güiria, the country deployed between Jan. 18 and Jan. 22 at least three Iranian-made Peykaap III antiship guided-missile patrol boats, as is visible in the satellite images used by CSIS, the Washington think tank. The regime’s military set up two Russian-built Buk M2E antiaircraft systems in Güiria on Jan. 31, almost 400 miles east of their usual position near Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. And a small coast-guard post in Punta Barima, 50 miles from Guyana-controlled Essequibo, is being revamped into a naval and air base.
Those deployments are within easy reach of the Stabroek oil block run by Exxon and its partners,
Chevron and China’s Cnooc, off the coast of Guyana, where production has soared to 645,000 barrels of crude a day, not far off what Venezuela produces.
The heightened tensions on the northern shoulder of South America prompted shipping-industry risk assessors at Lloyd’s Market Association in London to put Guyana on its global list of areas affected by war, piracy and terrorism. The designation raises insurance costs for operators and puts Guyanese waters on the same risk level as the Red Sea, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels have attacked ships, as well as the Black Sea routes imperiled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Exxon says it is undaunted. “We are not going anywhere—our focus remains on developing the resources efficiently and responsibly, per our agreement with the Guyanese government,” spokeswoman Michelle Gray said in a statement.
The images show that the movement of materiel and troops was occurring at the same time as the foreign ministers of Venezuela and Guyana were meeting in Brazil late last month under the auspices of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to create a commission to oversee disagreements.
“The Venezuelans are moving a bunch of stuff around and kind of making military noise, showing it all off on social media while they’re also trying to tell the Guyanese, ‘Well, let’s negotiate on friendly terms,’ ” said Christopher Hernandez-Roy, deputy director of the Americas Program at CSIS. “This is not being a good neighbor. They’re doing tank drills 140 yards from the Essequibo—yards.”
Videos posted on social media by Venezuela’s military highlight a concerted effort to upgrade a number of river patrol posts along the Essequibo and build a multifloored command center for troops specializing in jungle operations, said Andrei Serbin Pont, president of the Buenos Aires-based research group Cries, which closely tracks Venezuelan military maneuvers.
He sees a striking political parallel with Argentina’s failed 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands from the U.K., in which a desperate military junta sought to distract the public from domestic economic troubles. In Maduro’s nearly 11 years in power, Venezuela’s economy has contracted roughly 70% and 7.7 million people, a quarter of the population, have fled.
“If we put this in the Venezuelan context, the regime is setting the conditions to externalize their crisis through a historical land claim,” Serbin Pont said.
Former high-ranking Venezuelan military officers and analysts of the country’s army don’t think the regime plans to invade. Rather, they believe the regime, seeing how tiny Guyana has gone from a poor backwater to an important oil producer, wants to negotiate some kind of deal that could benefit Venezuela.
“What they’re trying to do is extort,” said Isidro Perez, a former Venezuelan army colonel who studies the regime’s use of the military against adversaries.
Maduro and other Venezuelan officials have frequently said they want Guyana to ditch the border-resolution case it filed at the United Nations’ International Court of Justice to put an end to Venezuela’s century-old claims and instead engage in direct negotiations. And they say they want Venezuela to benefit from energy and mining projects in the Essequibo.
“Guyana and Exxon Mobil will have to sit and negotiate with us,” Maduro wrote in December on X.
Venezuela’s buildup near Guyana has come after the U.S. relaxed some U.S. economic sanctions to nudge Maduro to hold fair elections and receive Venezuelan migrants deported from the U.S. Instead, rights groups say, Maduro has jailed dissidents and banned rivals from running against him in presidential elections that are supposed to take place later this year.
Venezuela’s threats have raised concerns among other neighbors, including Maduro’s close ally Brazil, which in recent days deployed dozens of armored vehicles and troops to beef up security at its borders with Venezuela and Guyana.
Venezuela in 2014 was accused of using naval vessels to threaten the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba to facilitate the release of a top regime official who had been detained on a U.S. drug warrant. In the past, Caracas has also sent gunboats to shoo away oil survey ships hired by Guyana in disputed waters.
Maduro has directed much of his ire toward Exxon, which abandoned its operations in Venezuela years ago in a falling out with the socialist government and has since shepherded Guyana’s transition into an energy powerhouse.
“The only winners are the people of Venezuela,” Maduro said in December after the referendum on annexing the Essequibo.
His government unveiled a new map at the time with an expanded border encompassing the Florida-size territory. “The only losers are the government of Guyana, Exxon Mobil and the U.S. empire,” he said.
Collin Eaton contributed to this article.
Appeared in the February 10, 2024, print edition as ‘Venezuela Boosts Military at Guyana Border’.