By Carlos Camacho
CARACAS – Embattled Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro has found a new target for his vitriolic attacks. It sits right next door and it has oodles of oil: Guyana.
On Tuesday night, Maduro said that “the Essequibo” – an area Venezuela and Guyana both claim – “belongs to Venezuela and that will be defended in any international instance,” during a speech before one of Venezuela’s National Assembly legislatives. (If this seems odd, consider that the country at one point in 2020 had THREE legislatives, the result of an ongoing Constitutional crisis.)
In 21 years of Chavist rule, the administrations of Chavez and Maduro have not taken any steps in solving the 122-year-old border dispute: until a few days ago, Maduro had never mentioned the issue and Chavez rarely did in his long (1999-2013) tenure. Venezuela is not even part of the International Court of Justice, the instance Guyana petitioned recently for a resolution.
However, Maduro did try to pin the whole Guyana brouhaha on an old enemy: Juan Guaidó, the President of Venezuela’s other National Assembly. Guaidó – according to Maduro – tried to hand the Essequibo to Guyana in exchange of “recognition” as “interim president.”
Guaidó’s former envoy to the United Kingdom, author and diplomat Vanessa Neuman, did not escape Maduro’s rage.
“His false ambassador lobbied for the United Kingdom to accelerate its intention to support Guyana in its attempts to take over Guayana Esequiba. The Essequibo belongs to Venezuela and that will be defended in any international instance,” Maduro emphasized.
These statements come in the midst of escalating tensions between the two countries after the International Court of Justice (ICJ), at Guyana’s unilateral request, declared itself “competent” to judge the territorial dispute between the two nations over Essequibo.
In dispute: The Essequibo, an immense area, more than 159,000 square kilometers in extension, that runs from the Essequibo River to Mount Roraima, rich with oil, gold, timber and other prizes.
Exxon and Guyana have been since 2015 developing off shore oil deposits, but at the time, and until 2018, the neighboring country was ruled by David Granger, a man perceived in Caracas as an ally of the Maduro regime.
The Essequibo is two thirds of Guyana, a country with less than half a million permanent inhabitants. Venezuela has a surface of almost one million square kilometers and a population that reached 32 million before the largest exodus in the history of the Western Hemisphere began in 2013 (the year Maduro took over) and one which has sent more than 5.5 million Venezuelans migrating abroad.
And even if Exxon has been doing earnest E&P in Guyanese waters since 2015, it was only on Jan. 8 when Maduro publicly requested UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, to intervene to “restart” with “urgency” direct conversations between Guyana and Venezuela to “advance towards a peaceful and beneficial understanding.”
Granger’s successor, Irfaan Ali, Guyana’s first Muslin President, embraced the oil deals with Exxon wholeheartedly and then some: he signed a maritime agreement with the US and on Monday hosted the US Southern Command’s boss, Admiral Craig Faller, a development Venezuela also denounced.
Now, Guyana and its relation with oil giant Exxon is fair target for the embattled Maduro regime. Maduro suddenly remembered a 122-year-old border dispute and is objecting to Guyana developing an oil industry in and near disputed areas, the same disputes the local opposition headed by Guaidó accused him of ignoring while Granger was President. Faller’s Monday visit follows that of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in September 2020, when the US and Guyana signed a maritime cooperation agreement.
The Maduro regime has said it only recognizes the Geneva Accords signed in the Swiss city 55 years ago during the Raul Leoni administration.
Since 1966, both countries have appealed to the United Nations to come up with a peaceful solution they can live with, but no to avail: the dispute continues, sometimes flaring up, sometimes dormant.