Venezuela’s upcoming parliamentary elections will be held on December 6 – and what could be a better distraction from the ruling regime’s horrendous economic track record than a noisy, flag-waving territorial dispute with a weak neighbor? For President Nicolas Maduro’s struggling administration in Caracas — battered by severe economic mismanagement and the drop in crude oil prices (Venezuela’s main source of revenue) — the intensifying dispute with neighboring Guyana could be a political godsend. And with the U.N. soon to mediate the dispute, the venue for political grandstanding will be that much more irresistible.
On Sunday, Venezuela’s Attorney General echoed Maduro’s July 6 call to resolve the dispute through international law, and take back the disputed territory of Esequibo peacefully. But both statements were toothless, because the chances of Guyana voluntarily giving Esequibo (which comprises two thirds of Guyana’s territory) to Venezuela are precisely zero. It was only following ExxonMobil’s discovery of oil in the waters off of Esequibo in early May that Venezuela suddenly dusted off its antiquated claim to the territory, which dates back to before an 1899 international arbitration ruling that Caracas has since claimed to be illegitimate.
Soon after Exxonmobil’s announcement, Venezuela published a revised map of what it claims are its maritime boundaries, extending far off of Guyana and leaving it de facto landlocked. Caracas demanded a halt to the oil prospecting, which Guyana flatly rejected, insisting on its sovereignty.
Trading barbs with Guyana’s new President David Granger (a retired general who took office in mid-May), Maduro withdrew his country’s ambassador from Guyana last week, and ordered Venezuela’s foreign ministry to conduct a full review of bilateral relations. And Venezuela also announced on Thursday that it will stop buying Guyanese rice, moving the dispute beyond rhetoric and diplomacy to real economic consequences. Previously, Caracas had purchased 40% of Guyana’s rice production, paying for it with oil that supplies half of Guyana’s needs. “It will be a significant blow to us,” said Peter DeGroot, president of Guyana’s Rice Millers Association. Guyana remains a member of Venezuela’s Petrocaribe association and will continue to buy oil from Caracas, but it will now have to spend much more to do so, in addition to finding other buyers for its rice.
Granger told Guyana’s parliament on Thursday that Guyana does not have the military capacity to challenge Venezuela, and that his government will seek an international judicial settlement over the border issue. Maduro has also publicly ruled out the possibility of armed conflict in this dispute, but his May 26 signing of Decree 1787, which created undefined “defense zones” that extend well beyond the country’s borders, raised alarms in Guyana, as well as in neighboring Colombia and other nearby Caribbean countries. However, despite Venezuela’s military superiority, war is unlikely (the country cannot afford to meet its population’s demand for toilet paper, let alone an armed conflict or hostile occupation). Both sides have called for international mediation, and on Friday U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered to help resolve the dispute.
Still, the upcoming Venezuelan elections are spurring a tougher irredentist stance by Caracas. Maduro called for a “grand national union for the rescue of Esequiba from Guyana,” and asked for the support of universities, schools, communities, and military headquarters. There is no guarantee that Caracas will accept another international ruling against its interests.