A centuries-old cold war between the South American countries of Guyana and Venezuela is heating up and taking new shape and form. Since the mid-1700’s, then British Guiana and its western neighbor, Venezuela, have traded a war of words, legal battles, and sometimes even a gunshot or two, over the Essequibo county of Guyana. In 1899, the Paris Award settled the dispute in favor of the British Empire, giving the Essequibo, the region west of the Essequibo river up to the mouth of the Orinoco River, to Guyana. Official borders, which consists of the Schomburgk line between Guyana and Venezuela, were drawn up and boundary markers were placed at the border line between the two countries.
For over 40 years, the monster slept. In 1944, Venezuelan officials started to discredit the integrity of the 1899 Paris Award, effectively arguing that it was fraudulently done. In 1966, yielding to constant pressure and bombardment from Venezuela, representatives of the United Kingdom, Guyana, and Venezuela signed the Geneva Agreement of 1966. At this time, Guyana had gained independence from Britain and was no longer under British rule or protection.
The Geneva Agreement reopened a once closed border dispute. Current President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, insists that the International Court of Justice does not have jurisdiction over the border controversy and that the matter can only be settled by dialogue between leaders of Guyana and Venezuela. However, Guyana, unwilling to meet Venezuela’s demand that it surrender a huge chunk of its most resource-rich territory, has submitted its case to the ICJ which is currently being heard.
Maintaining that it will not heed the ruling of the ICJ, Venezuela is marching full board ahead to annex the Essequibo county. Venezuela has already called an initiative referendum which will be voted on this December, 3, 2023 by the people of Venezuela. If the government wins the referendum, and by all indications it most likely will, it will enable the Maduro regime to annex the Essequibo and redraw its official map – virtually declaring war on Guyana.
In the face of this new wave of Venezuelan aggression, the Guyana Government is scrambling to seek help through various diplomatic channels. On 1st of November, 2023, the Guyana Government chartered a plane for Prime Minister Mark Phillips to meet with top members of the Organization of American States and other leaders in Washington DC, United States of America. In what was referred to as an “extraordinary meeting,” the sole purpose was to alert the OAS of the impending threat of a Venezuelan incursion and seek help in preventing it. But all that the Secretary General of the OAS said after the meeting was that it condemns Venezuela’s action which it deems illegal, and urges Venezuela to respect international laws and await the ruling of the ICJ.
On the 9th of November, 2023, President Ali called a virtual meeting with Brazilian President Lula Da Silva in which he discussed defense and military cooperation; respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; respect for the rule of international law; the Venezuela border controversy; and infrastructure and economic cooperation, among other issues. However, this meeting did not yield any immediate results in deterring Venezuelan aggression. President Lula did not issue any statement on the border controversy, nor did he issue a warning to Nicolas Maduro.
The Guyana Government has also moved to the International Court of Justice to block Venezuela’s December 3 referendum which has as its objective the annexing of the Essequibo county. Venezuela has, surprisingly, submitted a defense which will be heard on the 15th of November, 2023.
It is extremely likely that the ICJ will rule in favor of Guyana in all arguments. However, the question is whether Venezuela will respect that ruling. In the past, the Maduro Regime, and opposition, has said they will not.
Today, 14th of November, 2023, Nicolas Maduro, holding up a copy of the historical map of the Captaincy General of Venezuela, which shows the Essequibo as part of Venezuela, said that “nothing will stop us” from annexing the Essequibo.
Meanwhile, Guyanese are hopeful that the USA will protect Guyana on account of the US transnational company, Exxon Mobil, operating in Guyana. However, to date, the US President has not issued any warnings to Venezuela; neither has the US military, to the best of public knowledge, shown any tangible support for Guyana.
If Guyana had any friends and allies, the time to act would be now. If the USA wanted to take out Maduro, they never had a more perfect justification. Maduro has already crossed the line. On December, 3, 2023, after the vote of the referendum, Venezuelan law will make it legal for Venezuelans to come over to the Essequibo, backed by the state security apparatus, and enact laws, extract resources, deport citizens, set up military outposts, secure their new borders, and do all acts and things which a country has right to do in its sovereign territory.
If the conflict is allowed to escalate to that stage, even if the USA or any other world power wanted to intervene at that time, how will they fight a war with Venezuelan soldiers and Guyanese citizens intertwined? Will the USA be willing to make such a huge sacrifice in fighting a long, drawn out guerilla war against the Venezuelan military inside Guyana, when, so far, it has signaled no intention of military involvement?
We all know that war brings only destruction and death, and it would be in the interest of the Guyana Government and people to avoid a war with Venezuela at all costs. It would be in the best interest of the Guyana Government to strike a deal with a country capable of deterring Venezuela aggression, and fast. Failing that, the President of Guyana would be well advised to meet with Nicolas Maduro and beat out a middle path for settling the border dispute once and for all.
If diplomacy and peace talks fail, and Venezuela forges ahead with annexing the Essequibo, we might see an effortless takeover by Venezuela with not a shot fired from Guyana – reminiscent of the 1966 seizing of the Ankoko Island by Venezuela, while Guyanese redundantly chorus the national song, “Not a blade of grass.”