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Escalations and Provocations in the Conflict Over the Essequibo

On February 9th the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) reported that satellite imagery showed an increased buildup of Venezuelan military forces in the disputed Essequibo territory. Though the oil-rich Essequibo is generally recognized as belonging to the neighbouring nation of Guyana, this recent escalation is just the latest provocation in the long standing territorial dispute.


The ongoing dispute began soon after Great Britain’s acquisition of the territory of British Guiana (now Guyana) through the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 with the Netherlands. The western border of the newly-acquired territory was not defined, so the British contracted a surveyor named Robert Schomburgk who drew a boundary which saw an additional 30,000 square miles claimed for British Guiana. Soon after in 1841, Venezuela disputed these boundaries, and instead asserted that their eastern border stretched to the Essequibo river, a territorial claim that encompassed the entire western portion of British Guiana’s land. Following the discovery of gold in the disputed region, the British claimed an additional 33,000 square miles west of Schomburgk’s line. Britain’s claim thus prompted a request by Venezuela for arbitration or support by United States, leading to the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award which almost entirely reestablished the borders set by Schomburgk’s line. Though this was deeply disappointing for Venezuela, the nation had, outside of a flare-up of tensions immediately prior to Guyana’s independence from Britain, begrudgingly abided by the 1899 ruling.


Nonetheless, in a situation which is perhaps startlingly reminiscent of the antagonism caused by the discovery of gold, the 2015 discovery of oil off of the coast of the Essequibo by oil and gas company ExxonMobil has fully reignited tensions. With the discovery of oil promising Guyana unprecedented economic growth, Venezuela began to reassert its claims. Only a week after ExxonMobil’s announcement, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro issued a decree claiming ownership of the waters. With growing friction between the two nations, Guyana soon initiated proceedings in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Venezuela, seeking a resolution to the border dispute and hoping the court would order the withdrawal of Venezuelan forces from territory within the Essequibo. While Maduro immediately denied the jurisdiction of the ICJ over the issue, in 2020 the court ruled that it did indeed have jurisdiction regarding the border. 


In October 2023, the Venezuelan Government announced plans to hold a referendum regarding support for the annexation of the Essequibo, which was to take place in early December. Two days prior to the referendum, the ICJ instituted emergency provisional measures, ruling that Venezuela “refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute”, and warning that existing circumstances created a “present a serious risk of Venezuela acquiring and exercising control and administration of the territory in dispute”.  


Nevertheless, the referendum went ahead, with Venezuelans expressing overwhelming support for the annexation of the Essequibo, as 10.5 million voters supposedly responded to the referendum, a figure that makes up over half the eligible voting population. Only a day later, in defiance of the ICJ ruling, Maduro announced the authorization of resource exploitation in the disputed region


Following increasing diplomatic and military pressure from Guyanese allies including the U.S., U.K., and Brazil, however, the president of Guyana, Irfaan Ali, met with Maduro in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines on December 14th in an attempt to subdue tensions. Both presidents signed the Argyle Declaration, which stipulated an end to military and rhetorical escalations, and promised a peaceful dialogue over the issue. hough diplomatic tensions appear to have eased in recent months, Venezuelan military escalation continues, with troops continuing to amass in border areas and in the Essequibo, raising the costs of Guyanese oil exports as well as fears of an imminent invasion. 


It is likely, however, that Venezuela’s military escalation is a tool of intimidation. The ICJ seems unlikely to rule in Venezuela’s favour, and beyond refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of the court over the border dispute, the Venezuelan government may be attempting to exert pressure on Guyana to enter bilateral negotiations, completely evading a settlement through the court. The Venezuelan armed forces far outnumber those of Guyana, allowing Venezuela a powerful means of pressure despite opposition from Guyana’s powerful allies. 


Despite the lack of a final judgement in the ICJ case on the dispute, recent Venezuelan actions clearly violate the binding provisional measures established in the court’s December ruling, as well as the country’s own Argyle Agreement. Military escalation certainly seems to constitute a worsening extension of the conflict, leaving Venezuela in clear defiance of international law. 


The prospect of this dispute escalating further into open conflict does not seem entirely unlikely. It seems that it may be quite some time before the ICJ offers a conclusive ruling, and although diplomatic rhetoric has softened, the conflict continues to escalate.

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