Let's start with the basics: What's the Guyana Esequiba?
Wiki wrote:Guayana Esequiba (Spanish pronunciation: [ɡwaˈʝana eseˈkiβa] ⓘ), sometimes also called Esequibo or Essequibo, is a disputed territory of 159,500 km2 (61,600 sq mi) west of the Essequibo River that is administered and controlled by Guyana but claimed by Venezuela. The boundary dispute was inherited from the colonial powers (Spain in the case of Venezuela, and the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in the case of Guyana) and has been complicated by the independence of Guyana from the United Kingdom in 1966.
The status of the territory is subject to the Geneva Agreement, which was signed by the United Kingdom, Venezuela and British Guiana on 17 February 1966. This treaty stipulates that the parties will agree to find a practical, peaceful and satisfactory solution to the dispute. Should there be a stalemate, according to the treaty, the decision as to the means of settlement is to be referred to an "appropriate international organ" or, failing agreement on this point, to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The Secretary-General referred the entire matter to the International Court of Justice. On 18 December 2020, the ICJ accepted the case submitted by Guyana to settle the dispute.
Currently, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela claims all of the land west of the Essequibo river, which it refers to as Zona en Reclamación or Zone in Reclamation. Historically, this did not include the tributaries of the Amazon river and the Pirara area which were only ceded to British Guiana in 1904 during arbitration with Brazil. The Northwestern border of Guayana Esequiba follows the 1905 border as established by the British-Venezuelan Mixed Boundry Commission, in accordance with the Arbitral Award of 3 October 1899. However, Venezuela currently seeks to abrogate the legal borders and currently agrees only to the Essequibo river boundary. In 1966, five months after Guyana gained independence, the Venezuelan armed forces crossed the boundary on Ankoko Island and has occupied the Guyanese side of the island ever since, in violation of the peace treaty set forth by the Geneva Agreement.
The territory is divided by Guyana into six administrative regions: Barima-Waini, Cuyuni-Mazaruni, Pomeroon-Supenaam, Potaro-Siparuni, Upper Takutu-Upper Essequibo and Essequibo Islands-West Demerara. Venezuela often depicts it on the map as a striped region.
A relevant piece of information on why the Esequiba, possibly the oldest standing border dispute in South America if considering the colonial era, has become even more important in recent years:
Foreign Policy (Archived 03/02/2016) wrote:An Oil Strike in No Man’s Land
BY DANIEL LANSBERG-RODRÍGUEZJUNE 16, 2015 - 5:09 PM
At first glance, it looks like the miracle Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been holding out for has finally happened. Exxon Mobil recently announced a “significant” oil find, and the drilling of its first offshore well, in the Stabroek Block, just a few miles off the Venezuelan coast. While details remain murky, some estimates claim that this new cache of crude could approach 1.5 billion barrels. And that potentially constitutes a significant windfall for Caracas, especially since the national oil company, PDVSA, is struggling to cope with low crude prices and a sagging economy.
There’s just one snag: The Stabroek Block isn’t technically in Venezuela — at least not according to most non-Venezuelan maps. The disputed territory it’s in — Guayana Esequiba — actually constitutes around two thirds of the neighboring country of Guyana, population 800,000. (Guyana is perhaps best known to Americans for the 1978 Jonestown Massacre.) Originally a Dutch colony called Essequibo, Guyana was handed over to Britain as part of the 1814 Anglo-Dutch Treaty with no clear western boundary. True to form, the British defined their own, giving themselves an additional 30,000 square miles of territory. Venezuela was not amused.
Today, for many Venezuelans, the long-lost “Venezuela Esequibo” region remains an acutely felt historical grievance. It’s known as “the Territory To Be Reclaimed,” a lingering reminder of a time when humiliations were imposed upon weaker states by perfidious great powers, especially since a subsequent international arbitration awarded much of the territory to Britain in 1899 under shady circumstances.
The dispute would seem a natural fit for the late Hugo Chávez’s unique brand of anti-imperialist demagoguery — and, for a time, it was. But when the price of oil spiked in the early 2000s, Chávez’s ambitions became more global. Rather than risk alienating his smaller Caribbean neighbors, which he was attempting to woo through generous supplies of cheap oil, Chávez shrugged off the matter despite considerable domestic pushback. In 2004, he even publicly stated that Venezuela would not interfere should Guyana decide to grant infrastructure and exploratory concessions to multinational oil companies in the contested region — a departure from Venezuelan policy since Guyanese independence in the 1960s. While Chavez’s assurance wasn’t legally binding, the Guyanese government has since relied heavily upon such magnanimous statements by the late “eternal Comandante” to justify new development projects in the territory.
All of this places Maduro in a somewhat tricky situation: Should he continue his mentor’s conciliatory approach and make good on his promise, or try to capitalize on the stored reservoir of aggrieved emotion to stabilize his floundering government?
After all, generations of Venezuelans have been raised on tales of the historic territorial trespass committed against their homeland by foreign powers; Chávez’s policy of Guyanese rapprochement was controversial even for him. With popularity levels hovering at a record low of 28 percent, Maduro can ill afford to be seen as the president who definitively surrendered the territory and the oil windfall — especially not while Venezuelans suffer from acute shortages and triple-digit inflation. While it’s highly unlikely that Caracas will ever be in a position to profit from the new find, an escalating dispute could serve as a valuable smokescreen to cover up the country’s domestic miseries, and any resultant surge in nationalistic sentiment might even help salvage Maduro’s legislative majority in the looming December elections.
Like any postcolonial patchwork, Latin America has its fair share of simmering territorial disputes and historical grievances. Bolivia blames Chile for its lack of access to the sea, Guatemala claims either half or all of Belize (depending on who’s in charge), and, best known of all, there’s the Argentine dispute with Britain over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands. Throughout the region, such issues are often invoked as nationalistic rallying points, since escalation can boost sagging approval ratings and distract from other problems. Doing so, however, is not without risk. In 1981, Argentine military dictator Leopoldo Galtieri was facing many of the same problems currently assailing Maduro, including hyperinflation and international censure for human rights abuses. By escalating the Malvinas dispute, Galtieri briefly spurred a flood of nationalist enthusiasm that made him wildly popular for a time — but eventually led to a disastrous war with Britain that precipitated his eventual downfall and imprisonment.
Venezuela, which hasn’t warred with a neighbor since its independence, won’t do so over the Esequibo, but escalation can take other forms. When the issue of Exxon oil drilling in Guyana first reemerged earlier this year, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez sent a note to Exxon asking them to discontinue their activities. There was no reply, save for a request from the Guyanese government to kindly desist meddling. Venezuela subsequently upped the ante, publishing an ominous warning to the Guyanese public in a local newspaper “deploring” Guyana’s unilateral acts and asserting that Caracas “reserves the right to execute all actions in the diplomatic field and in accordance with international law” to preserve its sovereignty in relation to the “Esequibo Reclamation Zone.” When this, too, failed to produce the desired response, Maduro pushed further, publishing an official decree on May 26 asserting Venezuelan military control over Venezuelan coastal waters as far east as Suriname — thereby landlocking Guyana, on paper at least, for its impertinence.
Stern words but no dice. Guyana called the bluff and pushed forward, decrying Venezuelan attempts at “annexation,” canceling local flights to Caracas, and requesting U.N. intervention to force a definitive judicial solution. Maduro has since backed down a bit, sneaking a new paragraph into his decree on June 8 clarifying that Guyana won’t really be landlocked, since “some maritime area” will be allowed them once an eventual negotiated settlement is found.
Too strong an escalation risks making Venezuela look like a bully. In a much-publicized 2013 incident, Guyana claimed that the “Bolivarian Armada” had evicted a Texas-based oil exploration ship from disputed waters, resulting in considerable international condemnation. As small Caribbean countries in the vicinity instinctively rally to the defense of one of their own, Maduro risks undoing what remains of the regional goodwill Chávez had built up over the years. Even Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally, opposes harsh measures towards Guyana. Furthermore, while much-maligned Exxon — which Maduro claims is manufacturing the current crisis to undermine Venezuela’s socialist revolution — may have the biggest stake in the Stabroek project, a 25 percent minority stake is currently held by a subsidiary of China National Offshore Oil Corporation: And the Maduro regime’s survival is heavily dependent on Bejing’s goodwill (and regular loans).
Faced with this conundrum, Maduro will likely revert to what he does best: waiting it out and hoping for a miracle. Perhaps Guyana will change its mind and request to be annexed by the glorious Bolivarian revolution. A contrite Exxon might unexpectedly decide to throw the odd billion his way, if only to atone for the sins of its capitalist past. Or Venezuela might have the luck to find the fabled golden city of El Dorado, long rumored to be hidden somewhere in the eastern Venezuelan jungles. Now that would really solve all of Maduro’s problems — provided, of course, it isn’t on the Guyanese side.
I find the bolded parts interesting, but that was the assessment back in 2016. Now, in late 2023, Venezuela will hold a referendum on the Esequiba. What will they ask?
The 2023 Venezuelan consultative referendum is a ballot measure supported by the government of Nicolás Maduro in support of Venezuela's claim to the Guayana Esequiba region, which lies entirely in the territory of neighboring Guyana. The referendum is scheduled to be held on 3 December 2023.
The following questions were approved by the National Electoral Council on 23 October 2023 and approved by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Justice Court on 1 November 2023:
1. "Do you agree to reject by all means in accordance with the law, the line fraudulently interposed by the 1899 Paris Arbitration Award, which seeks to deprive us of our Guayana Esequiba?"
2. "Do you support the 1966 Geneva Agreement as the only valid legal instrument to reach a practical and satisfactory solution for Venezuela and Guyana regarding the controversy over the territory of Guayana Esequiba?"
3. "Do you agree with Venezuela's historical position of not recognizing the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice to resolve the territorial controversy over Guayana Esequiba?"
4. "Do you agree to oppose, by all legal means, Guyana's claim to unilaterally dispose of a sea pending delimitation, illegally and in violation of international law?"
5. "Do you agree with the creation of the Guayana Esequiba state and the development of an accelerated plan for comprehensive care for the current and future population of that territory, which includes, among others, the granting of citizenship and identity card? Venezuela, in accordance with the Geneva Agreement and International Law, consequently incorporating said state on the map of Venezuelan territory?"
Question 5, bolded, is the important one. Guyana quite evidently did not like it and is asking the ICJ to stop the referendum, yet Venezuela said it will hold it regardless. It should be noted the ICJ is in fact working on this dispute as it was referred to it by the UN Secretary General in 2018 because, in his view, there is no other way to resolve it since negotiations have failed to do so.
What will the vote be? Or more precisely, what does the Venezuelan government want it to be?
As anyone can tell, there are quite a few active flare-ups that had been dormant until last year (the war between Russia and Ukraine, the war between Israel and Hamas, the Sudanese civil war to name some) on top of the longer standing ones in places like Syria, Yemen and many parts of Asia and Africa, all of which have diverted the attention of the Biden administration from the whole China-Taiwan issue and the broader South China Sea dispute. Furthermore, the Biden administration is also trying to improve its relations with Venezuela so it can increase its oil production and relieve the upward pressure on oil prices that began with the sanctions on Russia over the still ongoing war with Ukraine. These would all be good reasons for believing the US would not move to save Guyana if the vote was favorable to all those questions and Venezuela decided to invade.
On the other hand, if Venezuela did in fact invade the Guyana over a favorable vote, what kind of precedent would that set? Can the various South American countries live with it and can the US just let this slide? If not, would this deter Venezuela from launching an invasion?
As for the Venezuelan domestic political situation, it seems that if the election was free and fair all 5 questions would be answered in the affirmative - even the opposition agrees with their historical demands on the Esequiba. So if it's just about domestic politics, it doesn't seem Maduro's government would face too much internal resistance to do as it wishes regarding the Guyana Esequiba.