The Essequibo crisis is further evidence, if the world needed it, of why dethroning Nicolas Maduro is desirable
Is war about to erupt in South America? Last week, Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro took provocative steps toward forcibly annexing Essequibo, a region comprising almost three-quarters of neighbouring Guyana. “Experts” promptly downplayed the possibility of hostilities, but they may have spoken too soon.
Maduro’s pretext is a 19th-century dispute, once thought resolved, but periodically reopened by Venezuela. The real spark, however, is his regime’s ongoing collapse, financially crippled by decades of mismanaging Venezuela’s vast oil reserves; massive regime corruption; and repression of domestic political opposition. If Guyana’s huge offshore oil deposits, discovered in 2015, continue to be developed, Venezuela’s chance to rejuvenate its own oil industry drops to near-zero. Why deal with a failed state when Guyana, eager for foreign investment, offers a seemingly uncomplicated alternative?
Joe Biden’s 2024 electoral vulnerability is also key here. Just months ago, Maduro suckered Biden into lifting economic sanctions imposed after Maduro stole Venezuela’s 2018 presidential election. Desperate to lower US petrol prices, Biden effectively betrayed Venezuela’s democratic opposition. Maduro’s promise to hold free and fair elections lasted just weeks, disappearing once sanctions were removed, proving that only mad dogs and the Biden administration negotiate with him.
Biden’s fear that international crises will raise oil prices, and the perception that the Ukraine and Middle East wars are overwhelming Washington’s bandwidth, reinforce Maduro’s conclusion that now may be an ideal moment to strike. Inadequate US responses so far underscore the absence of a deterrent sufficient to dissuade even Venezuela’s dilapidated military from using force against much-smaller Guyana.
Ironically, Washington had a key role in the 1899 arbitration award Caracas now rejects. Faced with a boundary dispute between British Guyana and Venezuela, the US advocated arbitrating the competing claims.
Secretary of State Richard Olney cited the Monroe Doctrine, brushing back UK imperial ambitions: “Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” Although British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain bridled at the Monroe Doctrine’s invocation, he agreed to arbitrate, declaring Britain and America were “more closely aligned in sentiment and in interest than any other nations on the face of the earth.”
During the ensuing proceedings, two US Supreme Court justices served as arbitrators, in effect representing Venezuela’s claims. The 1899 award should have ended the controversy, but Caracas has repeatedly rejected it, not seeing the Monroe Doctrine so benignly later. The Organization of American States, however, supports the award to this day.
The current Essequibo crisis did not arise overnight. As the extent of Guyana’s offshore oil resources became apparent, Venezuela’s worries grew, and provocations began. In 2018, Venezuelan navy vessels sought to land a military helicopter on one of three Exxon-chartered oil-exploration ships, contending they were in Venezuelan waters. The vessels, in fact in Guyanese waters, moved away from the sea border, effectively ending the incident, but Venezuela’s hostile intent was clear.
To bolster his current threats, Maduro staged a December 3 “referendum”, which endorsed annexing Essequibo. This vote was as rigged, and the outcome as predetermined, as every Venezuelan election in the past 20-plus years.
Maduro ordered the arrest of opposition figures immediately thereafter, and took further steps to advance his territorial claims, such as mobilising the army. He does not need to conquer all of Essequibo to achieve his objectives. Simply seizing key coastal territories could buttress Caracas’s claims to the offshore oil deposits, while occupying inland areas could give it control of extensive deposits of gold, copper, other minerals and possibly hydrocarbons. In either case, military action would intensify the crisis, and enhance Maduro’s bargaining position.
But the Essequibo crisis also poses risks to Maduro, and further evidence, if the world needed it, of why dethroning him is desirable. His opponents should use Maduro’s belligerent behaviour to generate additional pressure on his government, domestically and internationally, thereby opening new possibilities for Venezuela’s citizens then to do the rest.
This article was first published in The Telegraph on December 13, 2023. Click Here to read the original article.