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Venezuela Ramps Up Threat to Annex Part of Guyana – WSJ

New official Venezuelan map. Maduro mobilizes the Army and announces annexation of the Essequibo by law (Gov.Venezuela)
New official Venezuelan map. On Tuesday night Maduro announces the mobilization of the Army and the annexation of the Essequibo by law. Caracas says referendum gives public approval for taking over much of the oil-rich neighbor (Gov.Venezuela)

Kejal Vyas, WSJ

TUSCHEN, Guyana
EnergiesNet.com 11 06 2023

Venezuela is ratcheting up its claims to a swath of Guyana, its oil-rich neighbor, which has recently become one of the world’s hottest energy frontiers.

The growing dispute between Venezuela’s authoritarian regime and Guyana involves a vast area facing Tuschen village called Essequibo, and comes as an

Exxon Mobil-led consortium has made a series of offshore oil discoveries and Guyana pushes for more hydrocarbons exploration in areas that Venezuela claims as its own.

On Sunday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro staged a referendum on Guyana, which he said gives him public approval to annex much of the country. The Guyanese deny that any part of their country belongs to Venezuela, and say their neighbor’s claim has been a constant impediment to their economy and has stymied foreign investment.

“We’re not going to succumb to Venezuela’s bullyism,” Guyana Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo said at a recent news conference. “We’re not a belligerent country…but we will defend our country by any means whatsoever.”

Jagdeo said Guyana, which has no navy, is working on increasing its defense cooperation with a number of allies, including the U.S., because of Maduro’s threats. Two delegations from the U.S. Defense Department are expected to visit Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, in the coming days, he said.

Essequibo, a sparsely populated and mostly jungle-covered terrain that makes up two-thirds of Guyana, is pockmarked by informal gold and diamond mining as well as logging operations. Venezuela has claimed it for more than a century, and Maduro said his country will now take back the land robbed from Venezuela by colonial powers.

“We’ve taken a new step toward a new stage of history,” Maduro said on Sunday in a speech outside the Miraflores presidential palace in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, as he and his aides hailed victory in the referendum, but didn’t explain how they planned to retake the land. “How much they’ve underestimated us. How much they’ve underestimated me.”

Sadio Garavini, a former Venezuelan ambassador to Guyana, said the referendum was largely a wag-the-dog moment for Maduro as he tries to rally support ahead of presidential elections that he is supposed to hold next year as part of a tentative arrangement his government recently reached with the Biden administration. The U.S. in October eased economic sanctions in exchange for democratic reforms, which Caracas has yet to make.

“It’s largely an internal political maneuver to distract public attention from the enormous social disaster we’re living,” said Garavini, referring to Venezuela’s economic crisis during Maduro’s 10-year rule. His tenure has been marked by the exodus of nearly eight million people, or about a quarter of the population.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro greeted supporters in Caracas, Venezuela, following Sunday’s referendum on Guyana. Photo: pedro rances mattey/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro greeted supporters in Caracas, Venezuela, following Sunday’s referendum on Guyana. (Pedro Rances Mattey/AFP)

Reclaiming the Essequibo is one of the few issues that the Venezuelan regime and its opposition agree on. But voting stations were largely empty around the country Sunday, with critics calling it a desperate attempt by the embattled leader to strum up nationalist fervor.

Venezuelan electoral authorities said about 10.4 million voters participated, just under half of eligible voters. Opposition politicians, pollsters and electoral analysts cast doubts on the veracity of the results. The government has been accused of widespread fraud in past elections.

The dispute has raised concerns from neighboring Brazil to the U.S. to the United Nations. Guyana has filed suit at the U.N.’s International Court of Justice seeking to reaffirm its borders and lay rest to Venezuela’s claims once and for all after refusing Maduro’s efforts to settle the dispute through bilateral negotiations. The case is likely to drag on for years.

In recent months, Venezuelan military officials have posted videos on social media purporting to show army personnel patrolling along the Essequibo, while pro-government activists replaced Guyanese flags with Venezuelan ones. Meanwhile, Maduro has publicly railed against his Guyanese counterparts, accusing them of selling out to U.S. imperialism and claiming, without evidence, that the U.S. is setting up a military base in the disputed land.

The border controversy is the byproduct of the territory being passed from one colonial ruler to the next, from the Spanish to the Dutch to the British, who took over in 1831.

 (Pedro Rances Mattey/AFP)
A man in Caracas, Venezuela, voted in Sunday’s referendum on the Essequibo region in Guyana. (Pedro Rances Mattey/AFP)

British Guyana gobbled up much of the Essequibo through expansions of gold-mining settlements and deceitful map drawings, according to Rafael Badell, a professor at the Academy of Political and Social Sciences in Caracas. Under British rule, Guyana saw its land area nearly quintuple.

Badell said there is little doubt Venezuela was cheated. But much depends on Maduro’s government sticking to the U.N. court and presenting evidence. “It’s our last opportunity and we’re hoping they do it.”

Tuschen, a small village on the Essequibo River at the edge of the disputed territory, comes from a Dutch colonial phrase and means, paradoxically, “between friends.”

For residents, who live in modest homes built around a defunct sugar estate, Caracas’s claim is particularly ironic because their village has been the entry point for scores of Venezuelan migrants fleeing hardship in their country.

In September, Guyanese police detained about 80 Venezuelans after they landed in Tuschen in boats stocked with chickens and fighting cocks. Guyana Foreign Secretary Robert Persaud said at least 25,000 people from Venezuela have migrated to Guyana, an influx for a country with a population of less than 800,000, where poverty had long pushed its own citizens to leave.

The Essequibo River flows through Guyana’s Kurupukari crossing. Photo: Matias Delacroix/Associated Press
The Essequibo River flows through Guyana’s Kurupukari crossing. (Matias Delacroix/Associated Press)

Others say that the simmering border dispute has kept the region poor. 

“They’ve never allowed us to develop,” said Tuschen schoolteacher Amanda Nedd, who has worked around the Essequibo for much of her life. “The land is ours. That’s the lesson we’ve been taught since nursery school.”

At her school, Nedd said two maps hang on the wall: one showing Guyana’s borders before it achieved independence from the British crown in 1966 and another with the current boundaries, which are accepted by most countries around the world. 

Children in Venezuela, by contrast, are taught to draw national maps that include what it called “Guayana Esequiba” highlighted as the “Zone in Reclamation.” 

Maduro’s border rhetoric is a break from his mentor and predecessor, the late socialist President Hugo Chávez, who had swept the border controversy under the rug. In 2005, the Chávez government began trading refined oil products for Guyanese rice as part of a political and economic alliance with more than a dozen Caribbean countries called Petrocaribe.

The alliance was dissolved under Maduro as oil production in Venezuela collapsed.

On a recent day, Guyanese taxi driver Waqar Famaroo lamented the border row because rice exports to Venezuela had once provided an economic boost to his farming community near the river port of Charity in the northern Essequibo.

“If the Venezuelans come and invade, they’re going to be ruining their own bread basket,” said Famaroo. “I hope they remember that.”

Write to Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com

Copyright ©2023 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in the December 6, 2023, print edition as ‘Venezuela Ramps Up Threat to Guyana’.

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