Caribbean Matters: Understanding Venezuela’s efforts to seize two-thirds of Guyana

While most U.S. media has its international news attention trained on events taking place in the Middle East and Ukraine, President Mohamed Irfaan Ali of Guyana is making Caribbean and South American headlines. I doubt that most Americans would recognize him, much less follow happenings in Guyana—specifically the current tense situation created by neighboring Venezuela and President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro is threatening to seize approximately two-thirds of Guyana—namely the entire Essequibo region, which Venezuela insists is its own historic territory. However, the claims and threats began with a major oil discovery in Essequibo in 2015. The majority of inhabitants of the area are English and Guyanese Creole speakers of Indian, African, or mixed ancestry. 

Venezuela has a population of approximately 29 million people, while Guyana is home to about 816,000. The military imbalance between the two nations is igniting concerns across the region.

Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean. Read the link to Guyana.

President Ali posted a short video to X on Nov. 27. The compelling animation illustrates the area that Maduro wants to seize, and emphasizes an outlook of “One Guyana: All of it belongs to all of us.”

Ali also rallied the people of Guyana in a speech on Sunday, as Fareeza Haniff reported for Guyana’s Newsroom this week.

A message to Maduro from President Ali: ‘You will not disrupt our lives’

Thousands of Guyanese gathered at the National Stadium at Providence, East Bank Demerara on Sunday night to witness a ‘Night of Patriotic Reflection’. The event featured songs, dancing and poetry from talented Guyanese artistes as the nation banded together to rebuke Venezuela’s illegal attempts to seize two-thirds of the country’s territory.

[…]

Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, President Dr Irfaan Ali addressed the gathering and had a message for the people of Venezuela, their President, Nicolas Maduro and Vice President, Delcy Rodriguez.

He urged the Spanish leader to honour last Friday’s ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which stated that  the Essequibo region has been governed by Guyana for the past 124 years and Venezuela “shall” refrain from any action that would “modify” or change this.

“Today, you have a responsibility; you can honour the order of the ICJ, you can show that you care about this region, that you care about your people, that you care about peace, and that you are about peace, by honouring the orders of the ICJ.

“And those orders make it very clear – you can take no action that would change the status quo as it is today. And that status quo is that the Essequibo belongs to Guyana and Essequibo is administered by Guyana,” the Guyanese Head of State said to Maduro.

Watch Ali’s speech below:

Luke Taylor, writing for The Guardian on Dec. 1, covered the history of the current aggression from Maduro, with a particularly blunt headline: “‘Despotic’ Maduro accused of risking Venezuela-Guyana conflict over oil-rich region.”

In 2018, Guyana asked the international court of justice (ICJ) to finally settle the matter, but the decision remains years away and Venezuela contests the court’s authority. Instead, Maduro is asking his citizens to decide on Sunday whether the government should ignore the international arbitrators, grant Venezuelan citizenship to Essequibo’s English-speaking inhabitants and convert more than two-thirds of Guyana’s territory into a new Venezuelan state. “They are asking the people of Venezuela to vote to annex our Essequibo, which is clearly not only against international laws and norms, but goes against the grain of the region being a zone of peace,” Todd said.

On Friday the ICJ ordered Venezuela to “refrain from taking any action” that would alter Guyana’s control over Essequibo – although it did not forbid Sunday’s referendum. “The court observes that the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute is that Guyana administers and exercises control over that area,” said the presiding judge, Joan Donoghue.

Venezuela’s government, however, interpreted the ruling as a victory, saying in a statement that the court had “rejected” Guyana’s request for the vote to be stopped.

Past Venezuelan leaders have dredged up the dispute in times of domestic turmoil but perhaps none have campaigned as hard on the issue as Nicolás Maduro. The 61-year-old’s TikTok output has become increasingly prolific and his rhetoric more bellicose since 2015, when massive oil deposits were discovered in the contested region.

I’ll gift you a link to coverage of the Venezuelan referendum in The New York Times, written by Andes Bureau reporter Genevieve Glatsky.

Venezuelan Voters Back Maduro’s Claim to a Neighbor’s Territory

Preliminary reports on Sunday suggested that turnout for the Essequibo referendum was far lower than expected, even though public sector employees had been required to vote. New York Times observers saw voting centers that were essentially empty, and experts and social media users reported similar scenes.

“This is a huge failure for the government,” Benigno Alarcón, the director of a research center at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas that conducts voter surveys, said of the turnout. He added that it was likely that the government’s electoral council would falsely inflate voter turnout figures.

Mr. Gunson said the turnout was a setback for the ruling party and particularly for Mr. Maduro, even as they tried to present it as a triumph.

“It makes the chances of even a semi-free and fair election next year even more remote,” he said. “Since they can’t afford to go into one of those in this kind of state.”

As for where the U.S. stands on this? Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Guyana back in July, and newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Guyana Nicole Theriot made the administration’s stance clear in November.

Recently-appointed United States Ambassador to Guyana, Nicole Theriot has reaffirmed that the US would continue to stand in Guyana’s corner when it comes to threats to its territory and sovereignty, as she urged belligerent Venezuela to respect the International Court of Justice (ICJ) process.

[…]

In an interview on the sidelines of the event, Theriot had firm words when asked about US support for Guyana against Venezuela, making it clear that the US respected Guyana’s territory as she urged Venezuela to do the same.

“We support and respect the 1899 Arbitral Award, that established the current boundaries of Guyana. And we believe that those should be respected until they are determined to be different by an international body such as the ICJ… so we support the current territorial sovereignty of Guyana and we call on Venezuela to do the same,” Theriot said.

Here’s hoping that the sabre rattling from Maduro doesn’t escalate into a military invasion of Guyana. 

Join me in the comments for more on the situation in Guyana, and for the weekly Caribbean News Roundup.

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