“The sun of Venezuela is born in Essequibo!” With this proclamation, the Venezuelan generals conclude their greeting when they stand before the president. A message that reflects the importance that the Guayana Esequiba region has for the South American country, over which it has had a dispute with neighboring Guyana for decades.
The dispute over sovereignty over this territory rich in oil and strategic minerals has its origins in the 19th century and has been the subject of a legal battle between the two states in the International Court of Justice since 2018, but has become more acrimonious in recent months. Especially after the regime Nicolas Maduro announce the holding of a consultative referendum among Venezuelans.
The referendum consists of five questions in which Venezuelans must decide today whether they support the creation of a department called Guayana Esequiba and a government plan to grant Venezuelan citizenship to its residents. The referendum will be advisory in nature but has raised alarm bells in Guyana as it sees it as a covert attempt to annex an area that has been under Guyana’s control for some time.
The Government of Guyana has asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to rule on the movements in Caracas and this Friday the court issued a ruling that, although it does not explicitly prohibit the holding of the vote called by Chavismo, orders both countries to hold the vote to carry out measures that exacerbate the conflict.
In Caracas, the government is trying to portray the referendum as a matter of national honor, and as usual, Maduro denounced an international conspiracy against Venezuela to prevent the referendum from taking place. In one of his regular appearances on state television, Maduro accused Guyana of sabotaging the referendum with US support. “They want to tarnish, damage, smear, prevent the referendum, but the path is set and blessed and we will have a great popular election festival of participation and decision on December 3rd,” he explained.
USA, with Guyana
The Guyanese President, Irfaan Ali, Maduro made his message clear during a recent visit to the territory over which Georgetown continues to effectively govern. He assured that his country would not give in “an inch” and warned: “No one should make a single mistake.” “The Essequibo is ours, every square inch.” Tensions between the two countries are increasing and, at least in words, neither party seems willing to agree be to give up their demands.
The issue of Guyana Esequiba is an old wound in Venezuela’s collective memory. It is about 160,000 square kilometers, most of it is inhospitable jungle that is home to large deposits of oil and gas. The Venezuelan regime began to attach increasing importance to it since the American oil company ExxonMobil discovered new crude oil deposits in 2015 and the Guyanese government signed contracts with it worth millions for exploitation.
Georgetown granted him concessions to exploit inland areas, which angered Caracas, which viewed them as under its sovereignty. Guyana, a country of less than a million people and for decades one of the poorest in South America, has experienced an economic boom in recent years, largely due to the discovery of oil and gas. The insights of the last few years have resulted in the country’s economy being one of the fastest growing in the world, with its gross domestic product increasing by a whopping 57.8% in 2022, largely thanks to the fact that its oil exports have increased tripled in just three years.
Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, has taken the opposite path in recent years. Oil production has plummeted due to years of massive government corruption and mismanagement Hugo Chavez and Maduro in the state oil company, and GDP has fallen by more than 50 percent since he took over the presidency. While Guyana is experiencing unprecedented expansion, Venezuela has suffered an economic catastrophe almost unprecedented in peacetime.
Most analysts believe Guyana’s position at the International Court of Justice is stronger than Venezuela’s. Georgetown also enjoys the support of the United States, but that has not stopped Maduro from activating the referendum option, an initiative that also gives him a reason to mobilize the Chavista bases hit by the coup after so many years of are quite disillusioned by the economic collapse.
Invoking Essequibo’s Venezuelan identity also means putting the opposition in the Caribbean country in an uncomfortable position. Venezuelan sovereignty over the territory is one of the few issues on which Chavismo and the democratic opposition agree, and the referendum has encouraged a kind of nationalist exaltation that has pushed previously priority issues such as Venezuela’s registration into the background Maria Corina Machado and other opposition candidates barred from next year’s presidential election. On Friday, the regime opened a narrow window of opportunity for Corina Machado to appeal her disqualification.