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GUYANA-VENEZUELA BORDER DISPUTE

Benedetta Piva, Lachlan Kerr, Reetinder Kaur Chowdhary, SOUTHCOM

Week of Monday, May 10, 2021


The disputed region of Essequibo[1]


The region of Essequibo (or as it is known in Spanish, Esequibo) is a disputed territory controlled by Guyana but claimed by Venezuela. The dispute between the two countries over Essequibo is decades old, for it is a direct legacy of the colonial powers that ruled over the two nations - Spain in Venezuela and the United Kingdom in Guyana. However, the conflict has recently come to a head. Especially after the discovery of oil and gas offshore, Venezuela’s actions against Guyana’s sovereignty have increased. Indeed, expanding the country’s continental platform and sea borders would benefit the nation from both a geographical and economic standpoint. In this context, Venezuela’s claims are likely to affect regional peace and security. If a diplomatic solution is not found, tensions could escalate, resulting in maritime skirmishes and stand offs. Thus, the governments of both countries should pay close attention to resolving the matter swiftly.


Because this region is bordered on the east by the Essequibo River, it is referred to as Essequibo. The origins of the Essequibo dispute go back to 1814, when the British acquired what is now Guyana from the Dutch.[2] There was no defined border with Venezuela at the time and remained that way until 1835, when the British government commissioned Robert Schomburgk to survey the border region and draw a boundary. He drew the Schomburgk Line, which corresponds to the current western border of Guyana. Venezuela quickly responded by claiming their right to control everything east of the Essequibo River, which runs down the center of Guyana.


Following the discovery of gold fields just west of the Schomburgk line, the British government expanded its claim to include gold-bearing regions, which Venezuela opposed because it wanted to keep this region for itself. In 1876, Venezuela petitioned the United States under the Monroe Doctrine and proposed they arbitrate the dispute.[3] Only in 1895 did the United States agree to take up the issue, and within a year the British government had agreed to abide by whatever decision the United States made. Shockingly, the arbitration board decided in favor of the 1835 British claims and dismissed both the Venezuelan claims as well as the additional claims made by the British for access to goldfields.[4] This was an important decision, because it effectively cut off Venezuelan access to the resources of Essequibo. Almost immediately, the Venezuelan government expressed its disapproval with the results and maintained its claim on Essequibo. These instances have remained in place despite a succession of different regimes with varying ideologies. Given the legacy of colonialism linked to the dispute, it may be the case that President Maduro will strategically encourage the inhabitants of both Venezuela and Guyana to be aware of the West’s position in the conflict. By doing so, he could portray Western countries as a common enemy, hoping to gain territorial concessions from Guyana to show that the West cannot foster hatred between the two countries.


Venezuela currently claims approximately 70% of the area of Guyana as its own territory. The country launched several peaceful attempts to convince Britain to hand over the region, including bringing the question before the United Nations, but it never became hostile with the much larger British Empire. In the 1960s, Venezuela attempted to force the UN to prohibit Britain granting Guyana independence but failed.[5] In 1966, the Geneva Agreement was signed, creating a mixed commission to arbitrate the dispute, but this commission failed to ever produce a lasting solution.[6] Showing the ineffectuality of the treaty, just months after the Geneva Agreement was signed, Venezuelan military forces occupied Ankoko Island on Guyana’s side of the Schomburgk Line.[7] While the Geneva Agreement had a lofty goal, it proved useless as none of the parties involved took any further steps to resolve the dispute and the underlying confrontation has continued.


Most recently, the prosecution of the crew of an oil exploration vessel mapping the seafloor on behalf of the Guyanese government in 2013 and the Venezuelan government’s decision to expand its navy into the disputed waters in 2015 soured tensions. In this context, President Maduro reaffirmed Venezuela’s claim and denounced Guyana’s possession of Essequibo as an “Atlantic facade.” His decree has been followed up by the detaining of several Guyanese-flagged fishing boats and the intentional overflight of Venezuelan planes in Essequibo.[8] This is not the first time in the dispute that tensions have increased, but given the current state of Venezuela, there is potential for greater escalation than before. In 2018, after mediation efforts failed, the United Nations referred the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).[9] However, the Venezuelan government refused to recognize the ICJ’s jurisdiction over the matter and did not take part in the subsequent proceedings. This suggests that Venezuela is not keen on giving up its claim to Essequibo and sees the region as a valuable economic resource. Because of the difficulties that Venezuela is facing due to its fragmented economy and the rise of an anti-Maduro opposition, reasserting Venezuela’s claims on Essequibo is both a propaganda win and could be a pragmatic gesture intended to gain control of the region’s resources.


Similarly in Guyana, support for keeping the Essequibo region is fairly uniform. Despite a series of authoritarian and democratic leaders from the competing Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese ethnic groups, the people and country remain largely in favor of defending their claim, a loss of which would be economically devastating and a major hit to national pride.The much smaller Guyana has vociferously defended its sovereignty over Essequibo and, in response to Venezuela’s ‘bullying’, has started public awareness campaigns in order to gain more civic support.[10] The government has also incorporated the territorial dispute in its school curriculum.[11] This suggests that Guyana too is unwilling to give up its territory and it has the full support of its citizens.


Caracas has been laying claims to Guyana’s Essequibo region for decades, pointing out that an international boundary treaty dating back to 1899 had robbed it of its rightful land.[12] Because of this, recently, Venezuela has been carrying out diverse actions that are considered a violation of Guyana’s sovereignty. For instance, the country has witnessed several Venezuelan military overflights over its western border settlements. Similarly, Venezuelan gunboats have arrested and seized Guyanese fishing vessels, detaining the crew for weeks even if they were operating in undisputed Guyanese waters. These actions are likely to result from the fact that President Maduro wants the “zona en reclamación” to come under Venezuela’s territory.[13] However, while the argument is typically analyzed from a historical perspective, it seems necessary to consider the broader picture. If the Essequibo came under Venezuelan control, the country could boost its electric generation because of the various basins and rivers characterizing the region. Also, it could expand its sea limits, providing the country with more fishing zones. It is very probable that having new ocean waters will also benefit military drills, tourist traffic, customs taxes by maritime transit, as well as economic interactions with both Africa and Europe.[14] Therefore, an extension of Venezuelan continental platform and sea boundaries will positively affect the country from both a geopolitical and economic perspective. As a consequence, the resolution of the dispute is expected to highly impact both parties’ interests.


Above all, it is highly likely that Venezuela’s claim over the Essequibo region results from the discovery of world class deposits of oil and gas offshore by ExxonMobil. These reserves have the potential to transform Guyana into one of the region’s wealthiest nations. As a consequence, Venezuela has become increasingly assertive in its territorial demands since mid-2015, when the reserves themselves were discovered. In this context, President Maduro passed a decree (Presidential Decree 1.787) establishing a maritime territory that includes both the Essequibo region and Guyana’s EEZ. This is because, according to projections, oil production in the area will be around 700,000 to 1,000,000 barrels by the middle of the decade.[15] It is highly probable that Venezuela, the nation with the most proven oil deposits in the world, now looks enviously at Guyana. This is even more true considering how the oil price crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected the country’s economy. Venezuela has plunged into economic and political chaos under President Maduro, with once-significant oil outflows now considerably decreasing, and the pandemic has exacerbated an already dire situation. Years of falling supply, ineffective strategies for the oil industry, and international sanctions have posed tremendous challenges for the country. It seems to be the case that the spread of COVID-19 has aggravated the scenario, negatively impacting on the already poor management of operation facilities. In this context, Venezuela’s economic recovery will be dependent on the oil and gas sector, and the reserves discovered in the Essequibo region are supposed to strongly benefit the country.


Guyana’s Caribbean neighboring countries are paying close attention to the sharp escalation in tensions between Guyana and Venezuela. This is because Caracas’ claims will likely affect regional peace and security. For instance, Trinidad and Tobago is greatly concerned, as it shares a maritime border with Venezuela. In this context, it is highly likely that the members of CARICOM will be involved in the confrontation, because of their legal responsibility to support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their fellow nation.[16] However, the position of these countries is difficult, considering that Venezuela supplies some of them with oil through the PetroCaribe oil program.[17] For this reason, it seems more probable that CARICOM countries will push for a diplomatic solution rather than a more aggressive confrontation. Therefore, it seems to be the case that these countries will continue to emphasize the importance of peace and stability as the foundation for strengthening the growth of, and cooperation between, the two countries.


In January 2021, President Maduro issued another decree, reasserting his country’s claim to the Essequibo region. He also announced that he wanted UN Secretary General António Guterres to arbitrate the conflict, rather than the ICJ.[18] Maduro’s decrees and aggressions can be seen as a way to earn the citizens’ favor by arousing pro-Venezuelan sentiments. In a country marred by the economic fallout from the pandemic and suffering from one of the world’s worst refugee crises, Maduro might be hoping that this unites Venezuelans. The United States has condemned Maduro’s decisions and has conducted naval exercises with Guyana. This too might have angered Maduro and provoked him to be aggressive in his approach to the issue. This might mean that Maduro could be less conciliatory and refuse to settle for anything less than a complete control over the region of Essequibo.


It is clear that measures need to be taken to prevent further escalation of hostilities. The international community led by the United States can put pressure on the Venezuelan authorities to discourage active conflict. This pressure can be in the form of economic sanctions. As Venezuela already faces heavy sanctions by the United States, which have crippled its oil-based economy, the threat of further sanctions might dissuade President Maduro to pursue hostility with Guyana. Even if President Maduro defies international pressure and tries to take the region by force in hopes of securing the oil fields, he will have to contend with the fact that not many countries would be willing to purchase Venezuelan oil for fear of reprisal from the United States.


Venezuela has been opposed to the intervention of the ICJ from the beginning. This suggests perhaps a mistrust of the international organization which President Maduro might believe is partisan to the United States and thus to Guyana. There is a need for an independent, bipartisan regional dispute resolution mechanism which will be able to adjudicate on matters pertaining to territorial conflicts. It is imperative that this redressal mechanism be free from US influence to be seen as trustworthy by Venezuela. This would allow for a diplomatic solution to the problem. It must be recognized that such a solution is long term and is unlikely to help solve the current crisis.


It is unlikely that Venezuela and Guyana will fight a full-blown war over the region of Essequibo. Guyana enjoys full support of the CARICOM countries and although not a US-ally, it nevertheless has been conducting training exercises with the country. This should deter war between the two countries. However, there exists the possibility that minor skirmishes might escalate into bigger issues. For example, if Venezuela decides to detain any vessel that undertakes research on behalf of the Guyanese government, Guyana might deploy its naval vessels to come to the rescue of the detained one, resulting in a standoff. Such conflicts will become common if this issue is not resolved soon.


The SOUTHCOM team at the Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will continue to be observant and monitor the situation between Venezuela and Guyana. CTG will track the events and local news reports relating to this issue. Continuous monitoring of this situation is important in order to gain a better understanding of the current border dispute and how it impacts the region both specifically and generally. By doing this, CTG can offer recommendations to AOCs and other international leaders as to how to mitigate the issue. ________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Guyana Essequibo region” by Kmusser, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

[2] Venezuela Boundary Dispute, 1895-1899”, State Department, N.d., https://history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/venezuela

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] “The Guyana-Venezuela Border Dispute: An Analysis Of The Reasons Behind Venezuela's Continuing Demands For Abrogation Of The 1899 Anglo-Venezuelan Arbitral Treaty”, August 1992, https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a254962.pdf

[6] Ibid

[7] Venezuela reanuda su reclamación sobre Esequibo, El País, June 1982, https://elpais.com/diario/1982/06/16/internacional/393026407_850215.html

[8] Venezuela’s border dispute with Guyana just got even testier, Miami Herald, January 2021, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/article248798040.html

[9] ICJ rules it has jurisdiction to intervene in historic boundary dispute between Venezuela and Guyana, Jurist, December 2020, https://www.jurist.org/news/2020/12/icj-rules-it-has-jurisdiction-to-intervene-in-historic-boundary-dispute-between-venezuela-and-guyana/

[10] Govt undertaking public awareness campaign on Guyana/Venezuela territorial controversy, DPI, February 2018, https://dpi.gov.gy/govt-undertaking-public-awareness-campaign-on-guyana-venezuela-territorial-controversy/

[11] Guyana-Venezuela controversy to be part of schools’ curriculum, Guyana Chronicle, March 2017, https://guyanachronicle.com/2017/03/02/guyana-venezuela-controversy-to-be-part-of-schools-curriculum/

[12] World court to intervene in Guyana - Venezuela border dispute, ABC News, December 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Business/wireStory/world-court-intervene-guyana-venezuela-border-dispute-74801774

[13] Why Venezuela Wants a Piece of Guyana, Caracas Chronicles, February 2021, https://www.caracaschronicles.com/2021/02/25/why-venezuela-wants-a-piece-of-guyana/

[14] Ibid

[15] The Esequibo, the oil jewel in dispute between Venezuela and Guyana, Atalayar, July 2020, https://atalayar.com/en/content/esequibo-oil-jewel-dispute-between-venezuela-and-guyana

[16] GUYANA/VENEZUELA CONTROVERSY, CARICOM Caribbean Community, October 2015, https://caricom.org/guyana-venezuela-controversy/

[17] Venezuela’s border dispute with Guyana just got even testier, Miami Herald, January 2021, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/article248798040.html

[18] Ibid

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