It is an age-old feud that dates back to the 1800s when British possession of the Guianas began. The present-day iteration of the Venezuela/Guyana border dispute, however, has higher stakes, thanks to ExxonMobil's 2016 discovery of oil and natural gas reserves in Guyana.
Thanks to that find, much of which is located in the Essequibo province — the area of contention that Venezuela refers to as “Guayana Esequiba” or the “zona en reclamación” — the 83,000 square mile, English-speaking country that was once one of the poorest on the South American mainland is now on the brink of economic prosperity. Venezuela, meanwhile, once oil-rich, has been plagued by political and socioeconomic instability, exacerbated by intermittent US sanctions.
Venezuela's border row originated with British Guiana, which existed from 1831–1966, when modern-day Guyana got its independence. The contention grew when Britain refused to include in the proposed international arbitration over the Essequibo province, the area east of what came to be known as the “Schomburgk Line,” named after the German explorer who had drawn the boundary.
Intermittent attempts to resolve the dispute over the years have proved unsuccessful. The area in dispute has always been rich in diamonds, precious metals and timber. Episode 6 of the podcast “Growing Up Woodbrook” noted that circa 1896, the price of sugar plummeted “because of a foreign policy disagreement between the United States and Britain” over gold that had been discovered “near the western boundary of British Guiana” — the same area in contention today. By 1895, the US was pressuring Britain to submit to international arbitration in the matter, which the former colonial power refused to do. In response, the US imposed heavy duties on British West Indian sugar, causing the price decline.
Back in 2021, President Nicolás Maduro claimed that Venezuela would “reconquer” the province, situated to the west of Guyana's Essequibo River. Venezuela's focus was offshore, in ExxonMobil's Liza oil field, which it estimates will produce about 120,000 barrels of oil per day. At the time, Guyana's president Irfaan Ali called Maduro's claim “a legal nullity.” Most recently, Guyana's representative at the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly dubbed it “grotesque.”
In June 2020, the matter was brought before the International Court of Justice, the judicial organ of the United Nations (also called the World Court), but Venezuela has refused to take part in the proceedings, pushing instead for bilateral negotiations and promising Guyanese residents of the Essequibo Venezuelan nationality.
On December 3, Venezuela will hold a referendum to determine whether there is public support for the annexation of the Essequibo region, which comprises about two-thirds of Guyana. Guyana has petitioned the ICJ to stop the referendum, alleging that there has been an increased Venezuelan military presence along the disputed border area, including the clearing of land to create an airstrip.
Should the referendum be successful, Venezuela will likely attempt to get the region back under its control. In the lead-up to the vote, there have been whisperings that Brazil has been increasing its armed presence along certain parts of its border in support of Guyana. For his part, Guyana's vice president Bharrat Jagdeo warned President Maduro about the dangers of underestimating his country's response to a possible invasion, adding that US defence personnel were due to arrive in Guyana from November 26:
In continuing the strong U.S. military and GDF partnership, the leadership team of the U.S. Army 1st SFAB arrived in Guyana this week to work alongside the GDF Guyana to provide training to increase military readiness in response to security threats. https://t.co/UhpfuvYfkz pic.twitter.com/qfHj1fWNPi
— U.S. Embassy Guyana (@EmbassyGuyana) November 28, 2023
At this point, Venezuela is hoping to have its intentions supported by its citizens, while Guyana is relying on the ICJ to deliver a binding settlement that reaffirms the 1899 Arbitral Award designating the Essequibo region as its own. The court will deliver its decision on December 1:
#CARIBBEAN: The International Court of Justice (ICJ) will on Friday deliver its Order on #Guyana’s request for “the indication of provisional measures” aimed at preventing #Venezuela from holding a referendum over the ownership of the mineral and forest-rich county of Essequibo. pic.twitter.com/gAzh3LcpMX
— CaribbeanNewsNetwork (@caribbeannewsuk) November 29, 2023
Regardless of the outcome, however, Venezuela intends to proceed with the vote.
The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), of which Guyana is a member — indeed, the regional group is headquartered in Georgetown — has consistently come out in support of the country, even though many regional territories — including Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago — also have friendly relations and economic ties with Venezuela. Despite CARICOM stressing respect for international law and upholding the region as a “zone of peace,” Venezuela insisted it has “historical rights over the Essequibo” and wanted the issue to be resolved amicably.
An October 25 CARICOM statement on the matter expressed concern over the language used in “two of the questions […] to be posed in the Referendum [which], if answered in the affirmative, would authorise the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to embark on the annexation of territory, which constitutes part of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, and to create a state within Venezuela known as Guyana Essequibo.”
Venezuela has long held that Guyana's claim to the Essequibo is a violation of the 1966 Geneva Agreement, which established a mechanism to resolve the border dispute. The country places much more faith in this approach than in any decision of the ICJ, which it says “will never reach an equitable solution.”
Guyanese commentator Kit Nascimento predicted that Venezuela's “land grab” will fail, saying, “The world knows [that] on October 3, 1899, the International Tribunal of Arbitration presented its Award. In fact, the Award, [which was] exceedingly generous to Venezuela. It gave Venezuela the Orinoco and control of the Orinoco Basin, which, at the time, was Venezuela’s principal objective. What was left has become, since Independence, the country of Guyana.”
His countrymen seemed to echo this sentiment via a song entitled, “Not A Blade Of Grass,” which directly addresses the border dispute. Dave Martins, the leader of the band Tradewinds, who composed and performed the song, wrote about its genesis in the Stabroek News: “I was thinking about the border issue and its impact on Guyana, and for some odd reason my mind ran to a famous speech by one of the Indian chiefs resisting the white man’s invasion of the American west.
“The Indian spoke about his people’s love for their land; that they would not give up one river, not one buffalo, not one valley, not even one blade of grass. In a flash, it hit me; that was the way to write the border song — it should talk about Guyanese love for Guyana and not mention Venezuela at all.”
Venezuela, however, remains very much a part of the sheet music of the Essequibo region, and the world is waiting to see how it will play out.