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Daniel Somart, Laura Arrijuria, Naomi Whipps, Tejas Vaidya, WATCH/GSOC

Elena Alice Rossetti, Editor; Jennifer Loy, Chief Editor

December 10, 2023

Disputed Territory in Guyana[1]


On December 3, Venezuelans approved a referendum to attest its sovereignty over a disputed Guyana territory, Essequibo, based on claimed historical ownership.[2] The Counterterrorism Group’s (CTG) WATCH/GSOC team assesses with high confidence there is a likely risk of potential conflict between Guyana and Venezuela over the territory. Venezuela has taken steps to establish control over the region. Venezuelan President Maduro announced on December 5 that he would, “grant operating licenses for the exploration and exploitation of oil, gas, and mines in the entire area of our Essequibo.”[3] After an appeal from Guyana, the UN International Court of Justice barred Venezuela from taking action to disrupt Guyanese control in Essequibo. Venezuela does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction over the conflict.[4] There is a roughly even chance that conflict will be avoided through the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the UN International Court of Justice-led diplomatic negotiations. If an agreement cannot be reached, the future conflict will likely threaten a major source of Guyana’s revenue and increase border incidents between Guyanese and Venezuelan forces.

Historical Overview

Guyana controls and administers the Essequibo region which encompasses more than two-thirds of the country. Guyana’s land boundaries are based on an international arbitration court's decision in 1899 during the British colonization of Guyana. The decision involved Venezuela and British-ruled Guyana. Venezuela initially recognized the decision, however, when Guyana gained independence in 1966, the country changed its position and started claiming Essequibo as its own.[5] In September 2023, Guyana started taking bids for the exploitation of oil block concessions in Essequibo’s maritime area. As a response, the Venezuelan government called the process “illegal,” claimed the blocks are in an “undelimited maritime zone,” and warned companies not to partake in the bid process.[6]

In 2018, Guyana appealed to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to address the border issue and the court announced in 2020 that it had jurisdiction to rule over the matter. In 2023, the court dismissed a Venezuelan preliminary argument regarding the implementation of the ICJ’s jurisdiction. A final ruling on the borders' limitation is still pending. As Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro decided to organize a referendum asking the population five questions on the territorial dispute, Guyana reached out to the ICJ to counter the occurrence of the vote. The ICJ told Maduro to refrain from implementing any initiatives where Guyana handles and exerts “control” to avoid destabilizing the current situation regarding Essequibo.[7] As Venezuela does not recognize the ICJ's jurisdiction, the referendum took place on December 3, and Venezuelans voted on five questions regarding the territorial dispute. They voted on whether the country should reject the 1899 border decision as well as the ICJ's jurisdiction, and if Venezuela should recognize the 1966 Geneva border agreement as the sole legal basis to reach a solution between the two countries. Venezuelans voted on whether they opposed Guyana’s control of “a sea yet to be delimited.”[8] Authorities asked Venezuelans to vote on the creation of “the Guayana Esequiba State,” as well as the granting of Venezuelan identity cards to Guyanese in the disputed territory.[9] 

Following the vote, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yvan Gil told his Guyanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Hugh Todd, that there was an “overwhelming participation” in the referendum,[10] however, the vote registered little participation at polls.[11] During a government meeting on December 5, Maduro announced a list of nine measures to enforce the referendum's results. He presented a revised map of Venezuela which includes Essequibo and ordered the dissemination of the map in all educational establishments of the country. Maduro demanded the creation of a High Commission for the Defense of Guayana Esequiba, which the Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez will oversee. He proposed a bill to establish a new province and implement the referendum’s results. Venezuela intends to conduct a census, start a social care plan, and issue identification cards for the population in the area. Maduro also declared the formation of a Comprehensive Defense Operational Zone or Zona Operativa de Defensa Integral (ZODI). Maduro provisionally appointed Major General Rodriguez Cabello as the “sole authority” of Guayana Esequiba.[12] Cabello will operate in Tumeremo, near Essequibo's limits. Maduro also requested the creation of local subsidiaries of Venezuelan companies and conglomerates. The Venezuelan President required the granting of licenses for oil, gas, and minerals exploitation. He called for the drafting of a rule to forbid the recruitment of oil companies that Guyana allowed to operate in Essequibo’s waters. Lastly, Maduro pushed for the creation of “environmental protection areas” and “national parks” in the Essequibo territory.[13] In a December 6 statement, Maduro stated that Guyanese President Mohamed Irfaan Ali is "acting irresponsibly” by implementing actions that are “aggravating” the territorial dispute.[14] Maduro alleges Ali is giving the US Southern Command free access to the Essequibo region.[15]


Maduro is likely using the Essequibo dispute to increase public support for future elections. US military and diplomatic support for Guyana[16] likely indicates willingness and preparedness for a regional response to potential Venezuelan aggression. Disruptions in Guyana’s oil production due to conflict will very likely negatively impact global energy markets and economic security in South America.[17] Annexing Essequibo for oil will very unlikely alleviate Venezuela's economy due to US sanctions, corruption, and poor infrastructure.[18] 

A potential annexation of oil-rich territories will most likely cause a significant reduction in Guyana's revenue, very likely hindering funding for critical projects in infrastructure, education, healthcare, and social welfare. A change in territorial control is very likely to lead to job losses for the local energy operations' workforce. The impact on the oil sector will almost certainly have downstream effects on supporting industries, including construction, trade, transportation, and manufacturing.

The creation of the ZODI by Venezuela in the disputed area will very likely prompt both Venezuela and Guyana to increase their military presence in the Essequibo territory. This escalation in military activity will very likely heighten the risk of confrontations and conflicts between the security forces of both nations. The heightened military presence is likely to lead to border incidents, such as skirmishes or unauthorized military movements, and human rights violations in the disputed territory. Such incidents are likely to escalate to unintended conflicts, further exacerbating diplomatic tensions. The militarization of the disputed zone will almost certainly strain diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Guyana, very likely reducing the effectiveness of diplomatic channels in resolving the conflict.

The militarization and potential of conflict will very likely prompt internal migration, as the disputed Essequibo territory’s residents will almost certainly seek refuge in safer areas. The military operations to secure territory will likely lead to human rights violations and disrupt civilian’s access to essential services such as food, water, and healthcare, very likely resulting in a humanitarian crisis. Conflict and militarization will very likely restrict humanitarian organizations from reaching affected populations, very likely hindering the timely provision of aid and support.

Guyana's appeal to the ICJ[19] is likely to assist in adjudicating the territorial dispute based on established international laws and norms. The UNSC will very likely order the demilitarization of the disputed zone, urging both Venezuela and Guyana to withdraw military forces. The UNSC is very likely to establish mechanisms for ongoing monitoring and conflict prevention, such as conducting regular assessments of the situation, implementing early warning systems, and engaging in preventive diplomacy to address emerging issues. The UNSC's intervention is very likely to facilitate the negotiation of bilateral agreements between Venezuela and Guyana. These agreements will very likely address issues such as border demarcation, resource sharing, and cooperation on regional security.

Future Implications

It is very likely that the referendum results are inflated and do not democratically represent the wishes of the Venezuelan people. The deployment of military resources by Venezuela and Guyana is likely to increase the risk of border incidents, conflicts, and human rights violations in the disputed zone. This will very likely strain conflict resolution through diplomatic channels, including the UNSC. Maduro will very likely not abide by future rulings adjudicated by the ICJ as shown through the proceeding of the referendum. This will very likely negatively impact the ICJ’s reputation as an organ for international arbitration, further questioning the effectiveness of international law. American and Brazilian support for Guyana will likely deter Venezuela. A potential conflict will almost certainly leave Venezuela internationally isolated and will very likely create a humanitarian crisis, including forced displacement and the loss of indigenous cultural identities. Bilateral and multilateral dialogue between Venezuela, Guyana, Brazil, the US, and other regional actors will likely ease tensions.

An unlikely annexation of the oil-rich Essequibo region by Venezuela is likely to cause reduced revenue for Guyana. This will likely cause a global disruption of energy markets and hinder economic security in South America. Oil companies such as Exxon Mobile will almost certainly ignore calls from Maduro to cease operations in Guyana. The Esequibo issue very likely allows Maduro to base his future campaign on economic improvement. A war will likely allow Maduro to postpone elections to keep himself in power. The US will very likely face difficulties such as war fatigue regarding the allocation of military supplies to a conflict in South America while the invasion of Ukraine and the Hamas-Israel war continue.


[2] Venezuelans approve a referendum to claim sovereignty over a swathe of neighboring Guyana, AP, December 2023, 

[3] Maduro orders the ‘immediate’ exploitation of oil, gas and mines in Guyana’s Essequibo, AP, December 2023, 

[4] UN court bars Venezuela from altering Guyana’s control over disputed territory, AP, December 2023, 

[5] President Ali’s statement on the April 6, 2023 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Office of the President, April 2023,

[6] Venezuela deplores statements by the president of Guyana about illegal bidding for oil and gas blocks, Ministry of Popular Power for Foreign Affairs, September 2023, (translated by Google)

[7] Summary of the Order of 1 December 2023, International Court of Justice, December 2023,

[8] Summary of the Order of 1 December 2023, International Court of Justice, December 2023,

[9] Ibid

[10] December 6, 2023 - Foreign Ministers of Venezuela and Guyana hold telephone conversation to discuss territorial controversy after consultative referendum, Ministry of Popular Power for Foreign Affairs, December 2023, (translated by Google)

[11] Venezuela-Guyana dispute: Maduro mobilizes the army and announces annexation of Essequibo, El Pais, December 2023,

[12]  December 5, 2023 - Announcements for the protection and defense of Guayana Esequiba, Ministry of Popular Power for Foreign Affairs, December 2023, (translated by Google)

[13] Ibid

[14]  Venezuela denounces that Guyana authorizes presence of the US Southern Command in Guayana Esequiba, Ministry of Popular Power for Foreign Affairs, December 2023, (translated by Google)

[15] Ibid

[16] Secretary Blinken’s Call with Guyanese President Ali, U.S. Department of State, December 2023, 

[17] Crude oil production by ExxonMobil in Guyana between 2021 and 2026, Statista, April 2021,

[18] Explainer: What is the border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana?, Reuters, December 2023,

[19]Guyana’s position on border controversy remains non-negotiable – President Ali, Department of Public Information, Guyana, December 2023,



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