Venezuela’s revolutionary socialist President Nicolás Maduro has ordered state companies to exploit oil deposits and mines in territory run by Guyana after boasting of an “overwhelming” people’s mandate to pursue a longstanding claim to two-thirds of its neighbour’s land.
Maduro’s bellicose speech on Tuesday night has increased fears in Guyana that Venezuela might use force to seize the remote territory of Essequibo, which controls access to a rich oilfield.
He ordered Venezuela’s state-owned companies to grant licences to explore and exploit oil deposits and mines in the sparsely populated Essequibo region, which is administered by Guyana but claimed by Venezuela. A special military unit would be created for the territory, based in a neighbouring Venezuelan state, said Maduro.
“I propose a special law to ban all companies that operate with Guyanese concessions from any transaction,” said Maduro on state television, adding that “they have three months to withdraw” after the law passes. He also ordered the publication of new maps of Venezuela showing Essequibo as part of its territory.
In response, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali said he would report the matter to the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice on Wednesday.
“The Guyana Defence Force is on high alert,” said Ali in a late-night televised address. “Venezuela has clearly declared itself an outlaw nation.”
Guyana’s vice-president Bharrat Jagdeo earlier said the South American nation had to be “very vigilant” and “prepared for any eventuality” after Venezuela’s referendum on the issue on Sunday.
“The Venezuelan leadership has shown itself to be very unpredictable,” he told local media.
Venezuelan officials claimed majorities of more than 95 per cent in favour of five questions on Essequibo, including the creation of a new Venezuelan state encompassing the remote territory, the granting of Venezuelan citizenship to Essequibo’s population of more than 100,000 and the rejection of the ICJ’s jurisdiction to hear the dispute.
“This referendum is binding and I accept the people’s mandate,” said Maduro after Sunday’s official results were declared.
Using Venezuela’s name for the territory, he added: “Now we really are going to recover Venezuela’s historic rights in Guayana Esequiba.”
A conflict between two oil-rich nations in the Americas would be a new crisis for US President Joe Biden’s administration, which has bet on a rapprochement with Maduro in the hope that relief from Donald Trump-era economic sanctions would encourage Venezuela’s leader to move towards free and fair elections and help improve global oil supplies.
The US state department initially gave a low-key response to Sunday’s vote, urging Venezuela and Guyana “to continue to seek a peaceful resolution of their dispute...This is not something that will be settled by a referendum.”
Experts said that Maduro’s principal motive for running a high-profile patriotic referendum campaign was to take voters’ minds off his own unpopularity and the increasing momentum behind the main opposition candidate in next year’s presidential election, María Corina Machado.
Venezuela has long disputed an international arbitration tribunal’s decision in 1899 to award the Essequibo region to what was then colonial British Guiana.
It had not pursued the claim of late, but this changed after US oil major ExxonMobil made what turned out to be one of the world’s biggest recent oil finds off the coast of Essequibo in 2015.
Despite Venezuela’s rejection of the ICJ’s jurisdiction, Exxon chief executive Darren Woods said on Wednesday that there was broad international support for the arbitration process, which he predicted would take time to play out.
“My expectation is [the dispute] will continue to work its way through that justice system, and we’ll get a result there,” he said. “I expect and certainly hope that both countries will respect the outcome of that arbitration — but that’s a couple of years probably into the future.”
Exxon is now building up production from the Stabroek offshore block, something Venezuela’s government has seized on to paint Guyana as a lackey of US imperialism.
Woods told Bloomberg after the referendum: “I’m not sure the press has captured the true intensity of the situation there, but we’re keeping an eye on it.” He did not elaborate.
Any military conflict in the mountainous and jungle-covered Essequibo region would heavily favour Venezuela, whose Russian-equipped armed forces far outnumber and outgun Guyana’s tiny defence force.
Written by: Joe Daniels in Bogotá and Michael Stott in London. Additional reporting by Myles McCormick
© Financial Times