The dispute between Venezuela and Guyana over the Essequibo region has been long under dispute until, in 2023, Venezuela announced that their own referendum, claiming to have overwhelming support for the annexation of the Essequibo region, sparked fears of a Venezuelan invasion, leading to the Guyana-Venezuela Crisis. The US, UK and Brazil, fearing an invasion, deployed troops into Guyana, which also led to the ICJ demanding Venezuela not to take any military action due to a trial to be heard in early 2024 in the form of a high-level meeting. In this article, Thomas Martin talks about the Venezuelan-Guyana crisis and the context behind it, including the events and reactions from the International community, International organisations and the timeline of events surrounding the crisis itself.
Since the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, global security has taken a downward turn, with democratic nation-states increasingly under threat. As of writing (January 2024), the Geneva Academy has estimated the total number of ‘armed conflicts’ per region, with 45+ armed conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, 35+ in the rest of Africa, 21 in Asia, 7 in Europe, and 6 in Latin America. The Ukraine-Russia and Gaza-Israel situations get disproportionate mainstream media coverage, but, unfortunately, there is an upcoming war that could become an even more significant catalyst in drawing a multitude of countries into a multinational war, and needs adequate attention. Taking the Latin America tally to 7, this would involve Venezuela invading Guyana. Why? In layman’s terms, dwindling finite resources are creating desperation, and, in this case, oil is the spark that triggers destruction. Why could this likely happen? Will this become a common circumstance unless action is taken? And what is being done about it?
When picturing the continent of South America, the lush Amazon rainforest stretching across Brazil likely comes to mind. What is less likely to materialise, however, are the continent’s 3 northeasternmost countries of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guinea. Bordering Venezuela, Guyana has been the victim of a territorial dispute over the ‘Essequibo’ region of its nation since the 23rd of October 2023, and has, so far, without any militaristic operations commencing, seen 5 killed and a non-combat helicopter destroyed. This dispute has historical roots but was significantly activated by contemporary politicians in May 2015 when abundant – 11 billion barrels – of oil were discovered off Guyana’s coast by Exxon Mobile, as well as in October 2023 when another ‘significant discovery’ was uncovered.
Troops from the National Bolivian Armed Forces of Venezuela, specifically 150 from the Strategic Region of Integral Maritime and Insular Defence (REDIMAIN), have been amassing around the border for months. The response from Venezuela is to prevent illegal mining in that area, which is the basis for troop coalescence. It is likely that Guyana granting further drilling licenses in these waters to offshore companies in September 2023 triggered the December 2023 consultative referendum in Venezuela, asking the people where the Essequibo region should be absorbed into Venezuela’s borders.
In the event of a military invasion, Guyana and the Guyana Defence Force have tremendous numbers of allies. The United States (through the United States Department of Defence), the United Kingdom (through the Ministry of Defence), and strategically vital Brazil (through the Brazilian Armed Forces) have explicitly expressed their support, as well as from international organisations, such as from the Organisation of American States (OAS), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). A specific example of support at this stage is shown on December 24th, Christmas Eve, when the Royal Navy dispatched HMS Trent to take part in joint military exercises with the Guyana Defence Force, or the 30th of November when the Brazilian Armed Forces dispatched 60 troops to Pacaraima, which is the only border crossing between Venezuela and Guyana.
Despite all of these mitigation, mediation, and mellowing attempts, Brazilian intelligence has suggested a move by the Venezuelan army is ‘imminent’. Indeed, with all the support against them, Venezuela’s dictatorship would not gamble on such a humanitarian and economy-wrecking invasion. This rational thinking was employed by many commentators pre-Russia invasion of Ukraine, and after a year, Russia has not been defeated.
It is clear the current stage of this conflict sees tension rising, but there is hope that international law will prevail. The ICJ ruled on the legality of the current border situation, specifically on the 1899 Arbitral Tribunal Award decision that initially set the map boundaries. On December 1st, 2023, it unanimously ruled the current situation should remain and declared Venezuela ‘shall refrain from taking any action which would modify the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute’ (page 12). On December 14th, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) regional bloc held a meeting, where both parties issued a joint statement promising to abide by international law, despite Venezuela adding they do not recognise the ICJ jurisdiction.
Despite everything mentioned above, it is likely the war has already unofficially started. Three days after the ruling, the Brazilian defence portal ‘Defesa Net’ published an article citing an anonymous Guyanese officer, who claims around 200 Venezuelan special forces have likely already entered Guyana disguised as civilians.
The nature of these conflicts becomes increasingly muddied and complex, with historical claims and sentiment thrown into the mix, which makes it difficult for a non-partisan commentator to outright declare any actor involved as the villain. However, despite not being mentioned in Venezuelan literature on the Essequibo region, it is clear the oil tranches have spurred on their claim, and as time progresses, even greater numbers of organisations and countries will become drawn in and entangled in this crisis.
The discussion above has taken a birds-eye view, focusing on the broader picture, from the eyes of countries, organisations, and military forces. However, undoubtedly, it is the citizenry of both Venezuela and Guyana who will suffer should hostilities commence. That said, the birds-eye view from the aforementioned actors will likely only have eyes for oil. Regardless, due to the geographical positioning, and combined political and legal support Guyana enjoys, we should remain optimistic that, whether hostilities occur or not, the situation could be quickly resolved.
However, with both the US, UK, and many other countries entering General Elections in 2024, once again, the geopolitical climate of our planet may shift, and any bold assumption can easily shatter. Will liberal democracies prevail? Currently, we are not. Hopefully, in 2024, this trend can change, including Guyana.
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