The tension between Venezuela and Guyana has surged in recent weeks over a long-running territorial dispute and was fueled after Caracas said it won massive support in a referendum to create a new state and the president Nicolas Maduro announced the exploration and production of oil in the area.
What is at stake is a territory of 160,000 square kilometers around the Essequibo River, which is mostly jungle, and a marine area where massive oil and gas discoveries have been made.
Both countries claim ownership of the territory, which is sparsely populated and whose hotly disputed border was agreed upon in a decision in 1899, when Guyana was still part of the British Empire.
What has triggered the tensions?
Venezuela reactivated its claim to the territory in recent years after the discovery of some 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil and gas off the coast of Guyana.
Caracas won support in a referendum last weekend to create a new state and President Nicolás Maduro promised oil and mining exploration in the claimed area.
Analysts and sources in Caracas have said that the referendum, in which voters also rejected the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the case, will not result in an actual invasion. It is, they say, an attempt by Maduro to show strength and gauge support for his government ahead of the 2024 presidential elections.
Why is territory important?
Although the Essequibo land area is largely undeveloped jungle, there have been significant offshore oil and gas discoveries in recent years, putting Guyana on the world map of oil producers.
A consortium formed by Exxon Mobil, China’s CNOOC and the United States’ Hess began oil production in Guyana in 2019.
Oil production currently stands at about 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil and gas and is expected to rise to over 1 million bpd by 2027. It has significantly boosted Guyana’s economy and promises huge revenues for the country in the next years.
Although Venezuela has the largest crude oil reserves in the world and also has huge deposits of natural gas on land and offshore, its production has fallen significantly in recent years due to US sanctions, alleged corruption and the deterioration of the infrastructure.
Maduro said Tuesday that he would authorize oil exploration in Essequibo, and that state companies, oil company PDVSA and iron and steel conglomerate CVG, would create divisions for the disputed region.
His office has said Guyana should not be allowed to grant concessions in areas “oceanic areas that will be demarcated.”
It is not entirely clear what offshore areas Maduro claims for Venezuela, but he has said that all companies already operating in offshore areas in Guyana have three months to leave. Exxon has said border disputes are the responsibility of countries and relevant international organizations.
What has the international court said about the dispute?
Guyana had asked the World Court, as the ICJ is also known, to ban the referendum.
The court did not go that far in a ruling last week, but prohibited Venezuela from taking any steps that would change the status quo in the oil-rich region.
Maduro has repeatedly said that the referendum is binding, although his government previously referred to the vote as “advisory”.
What is Guyana’s response?
Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali said Tuesday that the country will report Maduro’s comments on the oil development proposal to the United Nations and the ICJ and that he has spoken with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
His country’s armed forces are on high alert, Ali added, saying that Venezuela had declared itself a “outlaw nation” and blatantly disregarded the ICJ’s orders.
Ali also sought to reassure potential investors, saying that Guyana is assured of the support of its partners and the international community.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yván Gil said on social media Wednesday that he spoke with his Guyanese counterpart about what he called the “unappealable mandate” from Venezuela.
The Guyana government has questioned the turnout figures provided by the Maduro government for the referendum.
The electoral authorities spoke on Sunday of 10.5 million votes in the five questions of the referendum, but later they said that this number was of voters. Reuters witnesses saw several polling places with little attendance during the vote.
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