Essequibo Escalation: From Historical Dispute to Modern-day Tensions and the Specter of Military Action

Martino Fabris

In recent months, a territorial dispute between Venezuela and its neighbor Guyana, which has never been fully resolved, has regained momentum. Despite several attempts at arbitration and bilateral agreements, Venezuela continues to assert sovereignty over the Essequibo region of Guyana, an area of 159,500 km2 that constitutes two-thirds of the entire anglophone country. The controversy, previously of relatively little interest for decades, escalated in May 2015 when the U.S. oil company ExxonMobil discovered significant oil reserves off the coast of Guyana. Seizing the opportunity, Nicolás Maduro the Venezuelan president issued a decree claiming sovereignty over the territorial waters of Guyana, particularly in the Essequibo region. Today, eight years later and with oil agreements already established by Guyana, Nicolás Maduro has intensified his rhetoric on Essequibo by organizing a consultative referendum. This referendum asked voters to support his position on the dispute, reflecting the heightened tension surrounding the longstanding territorial disagreement.

Historical Background of the Essequibo Dispute

The dispute over the Essequibo region officially traces back to the second half of the 19th century, specifically to the year 1841. In that year, the newly independent Venezuelan government contested the territorial boundary delineated by the German geographer and naturalist Robert Hermann Schomburgk. Schomburgk was commissioned by Britain in 1835 to lead an expedition to define the western border of British Guiana, as the treaty through which Britain acquired British Guiana in 1814 did not establish this border. Subsequently, in 1897, through the Washington Arbitration Treaty, the parties agreed to establish an arbitration tribunal composed of American, British, and Russian representatives. The arbitral award issued in 1899 by this tribunal effectively validated the Schomburgk Line, extending British control over Essequibo. However, just over sixty years later, in 1962, Venezuela revisited the issue, making a declaration before the Fourth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. Venezuela specifically declared its non-recognition of the provisions issued by the 1899 arbitral award, alleging collusion between British delegates and the Russian judge who rendered the verdict.

This led to an agreement signed in Geneva in 1966 between Venezuela and the United Kingdom, establishing a mechanism for peacefully resolving the dispute. Twelve years later, when the predetermined period for a definitive solution expired, Venezuela refused an extension, triggering a renewed dispute over the Essequibo region. In 1987, Venezuela and the newly formed Co-operative Republic of Guyana attempted to resolve the issue through the United Nations’ good offices mechanism, but concrete results were never achieved.

Following the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and the rise to power of the revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez in 1999, Venezuela’s stance on Essequibo underwent substantial moderation. This position characterized Chávez’s entire presidential term until his death in 2013. While never formally renouncing claims to Essequibo, Chávez prioritized strengthening ties with regional countries to gain regional influence and counter the United States. It was in this context that relations with Guyana significantly improved, culminating in Chávez’s visit to Georgetown in 2004, where he expressed the desire to initiate a new era in relations between the two Caribbean nations.

Building Tensions: Maduro’s Actions Before and After ExxonMobil’s 2015 Oil Discovery

Source: El Sol

The discovery of significant oil reserves in 2015 undeniably marked a turning point in the bilateral relations between Venezuela and Guyana. However, as early as 2013, with Nicolás Maduro’s rise to power in Venezuela, tensions were already on the horizon. Friction between the two countries substantially increased following Guyana’s initial concessions to various oil companies for offshore exploration. Illustrating the strained relations, in October of the same year, the Venezuelan navy intercepted and escorted an oil vessel operated by a U.S. company towards Venezuelan shores, asserting that the ship was operating illegally in its territorial waters. As mentioned, tensions escalated to a new level in May 2015. Shortly after ExxonMobil announced a “significant oil discovery,” Maduro issued a presidential decree asserting sovereignty over the disputed waters. This prompted the then-Guyanese President David Granger to denounce the matter before the United Nations General Assembly and accuse his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolas Maduro, of intimidating Guyana. Tensions have certainly not subsided in the subsequent years; on the contrary. Ongoing incidents of Venezuelan interceptions of oil company vessels operating in the contested zone, as well as deployments of Venezuelan military near the border, have further exacerbated the situation.

Latest Developments: Controversial Referendum and Military Escalation

Source: Schronicles

The events of the past months represent a dangerous escalation in the long-standing dispute over the control of Essequibo. In particular, the controversial decision by Caracas to organize a consultative referendum on December 3rd, aimed at gauging the sentiments of Venezuelans on key issues related to the territorial dispute, has been highly contentious. According to data provided by Venezuelan authorities, the referendum was more of a plebiscite in favor of annexation (90%). Shortly after the referendum, Maduro appeared on Venezuelan television to present a new official map of Venezuela that incorporates the Essequibo region. Tensions and nationalist rhetoric in both Caribbean countries have sharply increased following the consultative referendum. Not even the CARICOM-facilitated formal meeting on December 14th in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines between Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and Guyanese President Irfaan Ali managed to ease tensions; on the contrary. As a demonstration of this, less than two weeks later, Venezuela ordered over 5,600 military personnel to participate in “defensive” exercises in response to the arrival of the British warship HMS Trent off the coast of Guyana as part of a series of engagements in the region.

The Unlikely Path to Military Action

The prospect of a Venezuelan military action in Guyana would, according to many analysts, constitute a serious mistake for the Maduro government. It could highlight the weaknesses of the Venezuelan military and provoke global opposition to its territorial claims. This opposition includes not only the international community but also numerous allies of Venezuela, including Brazil, Colombia, and even Cuba. The recent decision by the International Court of Justice in favor of Guyana and the warning not to alter the status quo further consolidate the international stance against any aggressive actions by Venezuela. Additionally, China, with substantial investments in the Essequibo region, is motivated to reject any military actions that might affect its economic interests. Economic challenges are equally relevant, as Venezuela is just beginning to recover economically with the lifting of sectoral sanctions by the United States. Globally condemned military action would lead to broader sanctions, undermining recovery efforts, especially in the upcoming electoral period.

In conclusion, although the possibility of military action cannot be entirely ruled out, the evident challenges and severe consequences make it unlikely for Maduro to commit such a strategic mistake, especially considering his resilience through various difficult moments in recent years. Therefore, despite potential tensions and troop movements, it appears that any actual deployment is more of an attempt to gain domestic advantages than a genuine military threat.

  • Given the international community’s response and the decision by the International Court of Justice in favor of Guyana, what potential diplomatic avenues could be explored to de-escalate tensions and find a lasting solution to the Essequibo territorial conflict?
  • How do recent developments, including the consultative referendum and military exercises, impact the prospects for regional stability and cooperation among neighboring countries in the context of the Essequibo dispute?
  • What role should CARICOM play, and are additional international partnerships necessary, in securing a lasting resolution to the Essequibo dispute?

Suggested readings:

“The Real Impact of Maduro’s Guyana Referendum”. Americas Quarterly, December 5, 2023

“The Entirely Manufactured and Dangerous Crisis over the Essequibo”. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), December 8, 2023

“How Chávez Softened Down on the Esequibo”. Caracas Chronicles, December 1, 2023

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Essequibo Escalation: Fro…

by Martino Fabris time to read: 5 min