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By Paul J. Angelo & Wazim Mowla – If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has taught us anything, it’s that authoritarian leaders consider themselves above the law—unrestrained by the sovereignty declarations, human rights protections, and international institutions established after World War II to prevent future conflict. For Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ilk, the rules of the international order were made to be broken. And his latest exploits show that, without a credible deterrent, territorial conquest is on the table.
A powder keg much closer to the United States could be one of the world’s next tests: the Guyana-Venezuela border, where the two countries have been embroiled in a bitter fight over a contested region known as the Essequibo.
The origins of the dispute date to 1831, the year after Venezuela became a sovereign state. At the time, the British Empire was consolidating its territories along the northern coast of South America, which it had purchased from the Netherlands in 1814. The area to the west of the Essequibo River was among them and became part of British Guiana.
Spain had previously claimed some of this land, yet Madrid’s preoccupation with independence movements across Latin America prevented Spanish authorities from contesting British occupation of the region. But following Venezuela’s independence, and then the discovery of gold in the Essequibo in the 1850s, Venezuelan authorities asserted their inherited claim, going as far as breaking diplomatic ties with the United Kingdom in 1887 until the countries could reach a compromise over the border.
In 1897, both Venezuela and British Guiana ceded jurisdiction of the Essequibo dispute to an international tribunal in Paris, composed of jurists from the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia. An 1899 ruling allowed Venezuela to retain the Orinoco River basin, while British Guiana was awarded more than 90 percent of the densely forested land between the Orinoco and Essequibo rivers. Today, that area represents some two-thirds of Guyana’s national territory.
For six decades, Venezuela accepted and respected its borders with British Guiana, including during the negotiation of a 1932 tripartite agreement also involving Brazil that confirmed the countries’ territorial boundaries. But in 1962, just after the United Kingdom entertained the first serious deliberations over Guyanese independence, Venezuelan officials declared the 1899 ruling “null and void” over possible procedural errors that surfaced decades later, including an accusation of collusion between the British and Russian jurists.
Venezuela’s militarisation of the border region ensued, especially following Guyana’s independence in 1966. Facing overwhelming diplomatic pressure to resolve the matter peacefully, the new Guyanese government and officials in Caracas eventually signed the Port of Spain Protocol in 1970, placing a moratorium on the dispute that lasted until 1982.
To avoid escalation following the protocol’s expiration, the United Nations began brokering diplomatic exchanges between Venezuela and Guyana. In 1990, the U.N. created the Good Offices Process to mediate the dispute. But with the two countries unable to reach an agreement after nearly three decades, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres referred the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2018, where it sits today. Although the case has stalled, the ICJ confirmed in a 2020 hearing that the body has authority to hear the suit.
Nevertheless, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro considers the ICJ’s jurisdiction to be invalid, so his country has not participated in the case. Maduro, who himself faces an International Criminal Court probe into crimes against humanity committed during Venezuela’s ongoing domestic political crisis, seeks to avoid any international arbitration of Venezuelan affairs. The United States’ support for the ICJ’s involvement, as relations between Washington and Caracas remain hostile, casts further suspicion on the process, especially since the U.S. government has repeatedly withdrawn its own participation in ICJ arbitration.
Now, the Essequibo region’s oil fields, discovered in 2015 by ExxonMobil, have catapulted Guyana, one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest countries, to join the ranks of the world’s top energy markets. As rising fuel prices due to Russia’s war in Ukraine pinch consumer pockets around the globe, Guyana’s export potential is quickly coming into focus. The country’s light sweet crude has drawn investors from near and far, including the U.S. oil company Hess Corp. and the China National Offshore Oil Corp. At projected rates of extraction, Guyana stands to become the highest per capita oil producer in the world by 2035—possibly the “next United Arab Emirates,” according to some.
Maduro has vowed to “reconquer” the Essequibo
This is a destiny Maduro seems intent on preventing—either directly or indirectly, with Russian support. Putin has long extended a lifeline to the beleaguered authoritarian government in Caracas, helping one of Latin America’s largest energy producers to offload sanctioned oil, providing personal protection for Maduro against assassination or usurpation, and sending the country tens of billions of dollars in military hardware.
Putin in the past deployed Russian nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela and floated the idea of sending Russian troops to the country, supposedly to shore up its sovereignty. In February, Moscow had to clarify that its military aid to Venezuela would not be used against neighboring Colombia following Maduro’s militarization of the western border. But Putin’s backing as well as his defiance of international norms could give new wings to Maduro’s territorial ambitions to the east. Venezuelan intimidation—particularly against Guyana—was already on the rise prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
In 2013, Venezuela’s navy intercepted a Panamanian-flagged research vessel off the Guyanese coast. In 2018, Maduro sent his navy to interrupt an ExxonMobil exploration operation in Guyanese waters. And last year, the Venezuelan military detained two Guyanese fishing boats for weeks while sending fighter jets to buzz Guyanese towns along the border.
Maduro has vowed to “reconquer” the Essequibo, issuing decrees in 2015 and 2021 to establish Venezuelan maritime boundaries that encompass Guyana’s exclusive economic zone and repeatedly deploying military reinforcements to the disputed border since 2015. In 2021, a joint statement about Venezuela’s eastward claims released by Maduro and his own opposition represented a rare point of agreement between the dueling political forces in the country. Conveniently, Venezuela’s plans for the Essequibo focus the electorate’s nationalism at a time when Venezuela’s dire economic, humanitarian, and security crises worsen.
Furthermore, tepid condemnations of the Russian invasion of Ukraine from some Latin American leaders—including the presidents of the region’s biggest economies, Brazil and Mexico—leave the door open for Maduro to pursue Venezuela’s Essequibo claims aggressively.
And despite increasing U.S. security cooperation with Guyana, U.S. rhetoric and training have hardly strengthened that country’s posture. Unlike the well-armed Ukrainian military, Guyana’s defense forces are outnumbered more than 100 to 1 against Venezuela’s sprawling security apparatus and have only a handful of patrol craft to defend the country’s waters. Nor is Guyana a signatory to the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, meaning that other countries in South America are unlikely to defend Guyana militarily even if they reject Maduro’s belligerence.
But cross-border aggression in the Caribbean Basin is not a foregone conclusion. Rising oil prices could help Maduro find new customers willing to subvert U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry, replenishing governmental coffers. In turn, Maduro may feel less pressure to rally the country if he is able to meet popular demands. The Venezuelan leader has also increasingly relied on his armed forces to administer public services and provide internal security, weakening the military’s tactical footing and hindering Maduro’s ability to mobilize troops abroad.
Preventing conflict over the Essequibo in the long run requires ramping up disincentives for Venezuelan cross-border aggression today. Diplomatic support for the ICJ process from multilateral organisations and their member states is a good place to start. The Caribbean Community’s commitment to the preservation of Guyana’s territorial integrity and the ICJ process is unwavering, but a divided Organisation of American States (OAS)—which includes representatives of what the OAS recognises as a Venezuelan interim government led by opposition leader Juan Guaidó—has prevented a consensus declaration in that forum.
Caribbean countries with their own offshore oil interests—including Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and Barbados—would do well to file their objections to Maduro’s saber-rattling, reminding him that their votes or abstentions in international organizations in his favor have long reinforced his administration’s international legitimacy but that such support isn’t a blank check.
Additionally, Guyana’s security cooperation with other South American and Caribbean governments should focus on acquiring defensive weapons, surveillance technology, and patrol craft. In particular, Guyana would benefit from deeper collaboration with Colombia, with its riverine expertise and experience de-escalating in the face of routine Venezuelan provocation.
Moreover, China’s investments in Guyana’s oil industry should make Maduro think twice about escalating his aggression toward Guyana lest he endanger his relationship with China, Venezuela’s other top benefactor. To this end, China could use its considerable clout in both countries to advance a diplomatic settlement over the Essequibo.
For its part, the United States should explore capitalizing on Russia’s growing international isolation to entice Maduro into new diplomatic and economic arrangements. A recent White House delegation to Caracas prompted Maduro to release two American political prisoners and resume dialogue aimed at resolving Venezuela’s political stalemate. However, additional concessions from Maduro are needed before the United States takes steps to retool sanctions on the Venezuelan oil industry.
Any such reconfiguration should prioritise alleviating the country’s long-running humanitarian crisis and be conditioned on progress toward restoring Venezuela’s democracy. Yet the country’s measured reintegration into global markets could generate newfound leverage for the United States and its partners to dissuade Caracas’s warmongering in the Essequibo while also creating fissures between Moscow and its closest Latin American ally. After all, international economic pressure has proved the West’s most effective tool against Putin in recent weeks.
The madman theory of international relations holds that a national leader’s perceived irrationality and unpredictability can improve a country’s bargaining position in foreign relations, as other countries fear antagonizing an unstable and potentially dangerous head of state. But, as Gideon Rachman notes, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a stark reminder that “the line between acting like a madman and being a madman is disconcertingly thin.” Maduro has pursued volatility as a matter of policy. We should take his threats toward Guyana over the Essequibo at face value. To do otherwise would betray our current reality and the interests of peace and stability in the Americas. (Foreign Policy)
About the authors
Paul J. Angelo is the fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Wazim Mowla, the assistant director for the Caribbean Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Centre and Wazim Mowla, is the assistant director for the Caribbean Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Centre