Caracas, November 9, 2023 (venezuelanalysis.com) – The Venezuelan government has vehemently criticized an alleged joint announcement between Guyana and the United States to increase US military presence in the Essequibo Strip amidst an ongoing territorial dispute.
On Wednesday, Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Minister Yván Gil issued a communique stating that Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali refuses to engage in “direct dialogue” with Venezuela while associating with “the most aggressive military power in the history of mankind.”
The Venezuelan statement accused the Guyanese government of carrying out military operations in the Essequibo Strip alongside the US Southern Command to “protect US energy corporations” that are exploiting resources in the disputed area’s territorial waters. The move was classified by Caracas as a “threat to the stability of Latin America and the Caribbean.”
For his part, Guyana’s Foreign Affairs Minister Hugh Todd denied a military expansion in the 160,000 square kilometer Essequibo Strip and accused the Venezuelan side of spreading misinformation and fueling division in the region.
“[Guyana] flatly denies Venezuela’s claim that Guyana has granted permission to the United States to establish a military base in Essequibo,” rebuked Todd.
Venezuelanalysis was not able to find the US-Guyana joint military operations announcement. However, on Tuesday, US ambassador to Guyana, Nicole Theriot, called to enhance the bilateral defense relationship to “improve mutual security objectives.” In July, Guyana hosted the Southern Command Tradewinds multinational military exercise and welcomed US State Secretary Antony Blinken.
The two neighboring South American countries’ dispute over the Essequibo Strip dates back to the 19th century but flared up in 2015 after Georgetown opened up a bidding process for oil exploration in the region’s territorial waters. Since then, oil giant Exxon Mobil and other companies have been involved in major drilling projects in the area.
Guyana’s claim over the region is based on an arbitration award from 1899 that granted the territory to the United Kingdom, the country’s former colonial power. Venezuela has said the decision is illegitimate due to the absence of Venezuelan negotiators and defends the 1966 UN-brokered Geneva Agreement which called for a negotiated solution between the two countries following Guyana’s independence that same year.
In 2018, Georgetown requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to confirm the validity of the border drawn by the 1899 Paris tribunal, which Caracas protested stating that the Hague-based court has no jurisdiction over the matter. However, ICC struck down Venezuela’s objections and the Maduro government will have to present its “Counter-Memorial” to sustain its position.
On Monday, the Guyana Parliament likewise opposed the Maduro government’s call for a referendum scheduled on December 3 intended to weigh in on the country’s sovereignty struggle over the Essequibo Strip.
The consultation will ask Venezuelans whether they reject the 1899 arbitration, approve of the 1966 agreement as the only binding mechanism to resolve the issue, agree with not recognizing the ICJ’s jurisdiction and oppose Guyana’s unilateral appropriation of the Essequibo’s territorial waters for oil exploration.
A final question asks voters if they agree with establishing a new state, called Guayana Esequiba, in the disputed strip, while granting Venezuelan citizenship to its inhabitants and implementing social programs for the roughly 125,000 people living there, according to an old census. So far, Essequibans’ opinion has not been considered by either country.
The referendum will not be binding nor will it have an impact on the legal battle for the Essequibo Strip as the Venezuelan Constitution already establishes the obligation to defend the country’s “territorial integrity.” However, the Maduro administration might be looking to weigh popular support for a potential key campaign topic ahead of next year’s presidential elections.
In response to the upcoming referendum, Georgetown has requested the ICJ to take urgent measures arguing that its only purpose is for Caracas to obtain popular support to abandon the ICJ proceedings while calling for the annexation of the mineral and forest-rich strip. The court said it will celebrate public audiences regarding the issue.
On Wednesday, President Maduro launched a national campaign to promote the referendum and confirmed that it will continue to go forward for Venezuelans “to decide sovereignly and democratically their future.”
For her part, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez pointed the finger at Washington for “adding fuel to the fire” by supporting Guyana’s position in order to “damage” the Barbados agreements between the Venezuelan government and the US-backed opposition.