Near the end of 2023, on December 3rd, a special consultative referendum was held in Venezuela. The main proponent of the popular consultation was President Nicolas Maduro, who wanted to gather popular support over a historical question that has been haunting Venezuela for the last decades: “Should Venezuela claim its sovereignty over the Esequibo region?”
Esequibo is one of the six regions that form Guyana, a small state (formerly a Dutch and British colony) which borders with Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname.
The territorial, revanchist dilemma that Venezuelans had to deal with in the national referendum has its roots in the postcolonial geopolitical climate of South America and in controversial international agreements between Venezuela, Guyana and other influential third parties. At first sight, it could seem just an insignificant dispute, if compared to the magnitude of the massacres in Gaza or to the Ukraine War.
In effect, the Venezuela – Guyana crisis has not deflagrated yet in armed conflict, but the geopolitical repercussions it could have in the world, its economic and historical drivers and its relevance in the domestic scenario of Venezuela, a country currently facing a brutal economic, social and political crisis, are indeed an interesting matter of analysis.
As almost every international and territorial dispute, the Esequibo dispute, and the current related crisis, is a mixture of nationalistic stances, tactical manoeuvrers by an autocratic regime, unsettled contentious cases between countries and power games by great powers.
In order to trace back the origin of the current crisis we should look at the first altercation which occurred in 1824 between Gran Colombia (the postcolonial federation which comprised Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador, born after Venezuelan general Simon Bolivar had won the independence war against Spain) and Britain, who ruled over Guyana, one of its colonies. In 1824, the government of Gran Colombia started to claim sovereignty over Esequibo, a region which is located between the Esequibo River and
the eastern border of Venezuela. It was – and still is – a region rich of natural resources, with a low number of inhabitants and great biodiversity.
Britain obviously opposed any claim by Gran Colombia, and the situation remained stable even after Gran Colombia dissolution in 1831, with the newborn Venezuela State still vocally demanding its sovereignty over the territory in the West of the Esequibo river, motivated by the discovery of gold in the area.
In 1899, the Paris Arbitral Award issued that 90% of the contended region belonged to Britain.
Even after Guyana’s independence from UK in 1966, the dispute persisted, with Venezuela’s renewed desire to acquire the territory. The Geneva Agreement of 1966 legally obliged the two parties to engage in peaceful discussion in order to solve the confrontation. However, as in many territorial disputes, Venezuela hasn’t renounced to aspire to conquer the dreamt region. In 1958, just 8 years prior to the agreement, then dictator Jimenez had been planning a military intervention in the area, before being stopped by a coup d'etat.
Many Venezuelans believe that their nation has a right over Esequibo, and this view is transversally shared by the majority of the political spectrum of the country. Even Juan Guaido, ad interim President of Venezuela between 2019 and 2022 during the political clash between his government, recognised by the USA, UK and the EU, and the de facto dictatorial government of Nicolas Maduro, backed by Russia, China and Iran, was a supporter of Venezuela claims over the land at the western side of the Esequibo river during its tenure as member of Parliament in the opposition party Voluntad Popular.
On October 2023, Nicolas Maduro first expressed the necessity to contest 1899 ruling and to “explore” and “exploit” Esequibo resources, calling for a referendum on the matter and military actions to be taken in case of a majority in favour of the settlement of the issue through new means.
On December 3rd, 95% of the voters expressed their willingness to reject the Paris Arbitral Award. Some members of the opposition, such as Henrique Capriles – the historical challenger of Chavez and Maduro in 2012 and 2013 elections, now banned from holding political offices – denounced the irregularity of the vote, stating that it has been manipulated and that the official voter turnout was false.
After the vote, also due to Venezuela deployment of military troops and personnel near the border between Guyana and Esequibo, the international community has started to fear a military intervention in the area and the possibility of an armed conflict.
The current President of the Républica Bolivariana de Venezuela - this is the state’s official name since 1999, in honour to Bolivar, the freer of Venezuela, who is the subject of a national cult channelled by the Socialist Party, which rules the country – is quite a particular figure. An extravagant, astute and authoritative man, Nicolas Maduro is considered by many international institutions as a dictator.
After a career as a syndicalist, he rose to power in the Socialist Power, becoming Vice President of then President Hugo Chavez in 2012.
Hugo Chavez had been an authoritarian leader, who held anti-imperialist, populist, socialist and nationalist views. During Chavez regime (1999-2013), many democratic rights and institutions had already been upheld and oppressed.
When Maduro succeeded to Chavez after his death, in April 2013, he inherited a disastrous situation to handle. The macroeconomics parameters already indicated that Venezuela was suffering a financial and economic crisis, due to corruption, clientelism in the oil state companies, ineffective public spending and inability to diversify an economy which was – and still is – too reliant on oil trade, being subject to market oscillations.
Maduro has governed since 2013, and under his rule Venezuela experienced a worsening as concerns all the parameters that can be used as criteria to determine the effects of a certain government action. Freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary system, the right to protest, opposition party rights were oppressed by means of authoritarian decrees and laws. Maduro, thanks to a constitutional reform, can govern by decree.
Inflation, political crises and macroeconomic crises
Since 2013, Venezuela has experienced a brutal inflation, which produced shortages and led prices to skyrocket. While the economic crisis is certainly worsened by the sanctions imposed by the US, the crisis had already began before the sanctions imposed in 2019.
In 2019 a political opposition leader, Juan Guaido, tried to fight from the inside against Maduro’s government, after 2018 contested general elections (considered illegitimate by the UN), deemed to be irregular. Guaido, the President of the National Assembly, tried to appeal to a Constitutional law the would have granted him the role of ad interim President. Guaido called for mass strikes and protests, which were repressed by the use of force by the National Guard, who has been accused of killing about 300 people among the protesters. While the EU, UK and the USA recognised Guaido’s government, calling for new general elections (it’s interesting to notice how then US President Trump, usually disinterested in “human rights” and in favour of a pragmatical, realpolitik foreign policy that made him adopt a conciliatory stances towards North Korea and Russia, in almost all his speeches in support of Guaido and of sanctions against Venezuela, referred to the necessity to defend “human rights”), Russia, Iran and China did not. The inability to gain international support, plus the more contingent incapacity to gain the military’s support, due to the historic bond between the army and the Socialist Party, led to the defeat of Guaido and guaranteed Maduro a stable and secure position as leader of the country.
From 2019, sanctions by UK and USA started to hit Venezuela, crippling its economy but paradoxically strengthening Maduro’s firm rule over the nation, due to his rhetoric use of the conspiracy theory according to which foreign, evil enemies want to destroy Venezuela. It’s a theme that still recurs in his discourse during Venezuela – Guyana crisis.
However, even after economic crises, the Covid Pandemic, political upheavals and a few attempted coup d’etat, Maduro managed to consolidate his power through pragmatic moves and a quick exploitation of the geopolitical atmosphere of the period. For example, in 2023 he started negotiations with opposition party leaders, in appearance to begin a democratisation process that would culminate in free elections. This apparent compromise, helped by precedent deals with the USA as regarded oil concessions after the energy crisis derived from the conflict in Ukraine, helped Maduro get a lift of the sanctions imposed by the United States. Of course, this position of temporary alleviation of the burden sustained by the country and the apparent facade of moderation made him consider the moment as ideal for the reprise of claims over Esequibo.
It is also possible that the referendum was a distraction weapon to hide to the population, in the short run, the economic disaster the country is still experiencing, in light of 2024 Presidential Election.
After a general fear of military escalation, Maduro and Guyana President Alì met for negotiations and agreed to solve the Esequibo region dispute through peaceful means. However, instability persists and the dispute still keeps to be unsolved.
Maduro has talked, during the most tense part of the dispute, about a conspiracy by the USA, Exxon and Guyana to extract oil in the Esequibo region, in order to damage Venezuela. Aside from this rhetoric tool, it would be naif to believe that Maduro’s claims over that territory are motivated by the desire to acquire land rich of oil. From a cost-benefit analysis, it would be totally inefficient, as Venezuela is nowadays the country which has the most oil scores in the whole world.
The main reasons for the claims, so, must be of nationalistic and political nature. Did Maduro really consider armed action as a possible measure? It is difficult to tell. From a mere power analysis it is clear that Venezuela would have easily took control of the land if it had to confront just with Guyana’s armed forces (3000 soldiers in a country with 800 thousand inhabitants, vs Venezuela, a country with over 30 million inhabitants)
Nonetheless, the fact that the US immediately decided to back Guyana and to deploy troops in its territory as a preventive measure obviously served as an efficient dissuasion measure. Brazil, too, deployed troops near the border, implicitly expressing the readiness to protect Guyana. Brazil’s President, Lula, is a socialist and a supporter and a friend of Chavez and Maduro, from a merely ideological standpoint. Brazil stance on this matter, then, testifies the supremacy of strategic and realist approach over political adherence in security matters.
However, the USA obligation to intervene in South America (a direct heritage of the Monroe Doctrine) would have represented quite of a headache for the hegemon power of the Euro Atlantic alliance. USA is now pressed due to the possible escalation of the conflict over Taiwan, has a great fatigue after two years of support to Ukraine and also has to focus its energies in the Middle East, where the conflict in Gaza and the repercussions for global trade and USA’s strategic interests are vacillating, especially with Houthi’s piracy action. A fourth conflict, in the American Continent, would be very distracting and damaging for US interests, especially in this phase of international instability and insecurity.
We cannot do anything but wait and see what happens in the region. It is possible that this territorial dispute returns to its original form of a controversy that doesn’t involve military actions, but as the last two years have reminded us, irrationality, breach of legal obligations and threats to international security and peace are always ready to emerge.