Armed Conflict Between Venezuela and Guyana Will Involve US Forces
Wednesday, February 3, 2021
Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
A new focus of tensions is emerging in South America. Since the discovery of oil in Guyana, this country has been increasingly approaching Washington both as an economic partner and as a political ally. The Americans see the partnership with the Guyanese as an opportunity to fill the void left in the global oil market with the economic sanctions imposed on Venezuela. But, in addition to a mere economic alliance, the ties between both countries are also rising to the military sphere, which is generating concerns in Caracas.
On January 21, regional tensions reached their peak. Guyanese fishing boats Nady Nayera and Sea Wolf were intercepted by Venezuela after an illegal incursion into Venezuelan territory. Caracas, not having authorized the entry of the vessels, interpreted the maneuver as dangerous to national security and kept the boats under its control. However, this Venezuelan version of the facts was denied by Georgetown, which claimed that the ships were detained within Guyana’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
Some noteworthy factors preceded this escalation of tensions. On January 7, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro signed a decree that establishes the formation of a new maritime territory on the Atlantic coast. The decree includes part of the Essequibo region, in which there is a territorial dispute with Guyana. The so-called “Guyana Essequiba” refers to a territory currently under the rule of Guyana that previously belonged to Venezuela, having been transferred to Guyanese possession after an arbitrary sentence in an international court organized by the United Kingdom at the end of the 19th century.
Venezuela has since claimed sovereignty over Essequibo, but tensions have been mild most of the time. However, Guyana, since aligning with the US, has been adopting more aggressive measures in the region. The US armed forces recently began military exercises in Guyana and deployed several military ships along Essequibo’s 159,000 km². The territory is rich in oil and the American justification for the exercises is precisely to protect the oil extraction bases installed by the company ExxonMobil. In the midst of such circumstances, Venezuela has its national sovereignty violated and is therefore trying to establish minimum measures to guarantee its interests.
However, despite the rivalry having resumed an old territorial dispute, it is necessary to emphasize that there is an agreement in force on Essequibo that Guyana is directly violating it. In 1966, Guyana and Venezuela signed the Geneva Agreement, mediated by the United Nations, which determined which activities would be permitted in which area of Essequibo. In this document, oil exploration by foreign companies is not allowed. Since 2015, the Guyanese government has violated the pact, allowing multinationals to explore oil there. In 2018, Venezuela had already intercepted ExxonMobil vessels that invaded its territory to explore oil. Now, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has determined the creation of a Special Strategic Zone to increase security over Essequibo because the tendency is for territorial violations to increase further, considering that regional diplomacy is already broken, and that Guyana has become a satellite nation of Washington’s interests – which publicly plans to overthrow Maduro. The Venezuelan decision was condemned by the president of Guyana, Irfaan Ali, which prompted Caracas to issue a statement saying that such positions suggested preparation for an armed confrontation.
The Guyanese attitude has not changed over time. Now, once again, ships have entered Venezuelan territory, leading to their capture by the Bolivarian forces. If that situation continues, the Venezuelan response to foreign incursions may become increasingly rigid and the armed forces are likely to start taking down invasive vessels, which will lead to Washington’s severe responses. Currently, we can no longer regard the South American scenario as “unlikely” for a war to arise. The security crisis is widespread and with Biden in power many experts suggest that American foreign policy will become more aggressive and interventionist. Guyana has a much weaker military apparatus than the Venezuelan State and cannot face the neighboring country with its own forces. It remains to be seen what Washington’s willingness to invest in a conflict in South America will be.
More than ever, a new international agreement is needed to establish a new regulation for the region. The agreement, however, must be impartial and try to favor both nations. In an ideal scenario, the other South American nations, being co-participants in the disputes, should mediate such an agreement. But, today, the political structure of South America is absolutely broken, and no nation has sufficient diplomatic strength to resolve a demand of this nature.
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