This is not the least of territorial disputes. Caracas has claimed for more than a century the Essequibo, an area of 160,000 km2 of its neighbor Guyana, which corresponds to twice the size of French Guiana or almost a third of mainland France.
For Guyana, a former British and Dutch colony and a country covered by a dense tropical forest, the Essequibo represents more than two thirds of its territory where around a fifth of its population lives, or some 125,000 people. It is also a real oil El Dorado (the small state will extract nearly 1% of global demand in 2025). And Venezuela is organizing this Sunday, December 3, a referendum supposed to focus on the rejection of a court decision dating back to 1899 which fixes the country's border with Guyana.
This Venezuelan claim became even more burning when ExxonMobil, an American oil company, discovered deposits in the west of the country in 2015. A new discovery of black gold took place again last month in Essequibo, adding to Guyana's already colossal reserves of at least ten billion barrels, more than those of Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates.
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Venezuelans are to be asked on Sunday whether they reject the 1899 agreement allegedly “fraudulently imposed” on them and on the creation of the “State of Guyana Essequiba”. The consultation is also expected to focus on whether Venezuela should continue to reject any ICJ jurisdiction over the dispute and whether the country should give residents of the territory Venezuelan citizenship.
Guyana logically protested against this referendum which it described as an “existential threat”. The country asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN's highest court, to force Venezuela to “urgently” stop the referendum “in its current form” and to refrain from any action aiming to take control of the territory.
The ICJ, which rules on disputes between states but which does not have the power to apply its decisions which can be legally binding, must rule this Friday. Guyana's government in Georgetown fears a "unilateral and illegal" annexation and has even accused its neighbor of having launched military preparations, which Caracas denies. “Venezuela reaffirms its categorical rejection of Guyana’s bold action to interfere in its internal affairs,” Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez declared before the ICJ in mid-November. She also took care to emphasize that her presence did not mean that her country recognized the jurisdiction of the court in this matter.
If there were to be a possible military confrontation, the Brazilian army, which has already supported Guyana, could provide aid to its neighbor, and prevail "qualitatively and quantitatively with the upper hand", he said. analyzed on X Joseph Henrotin specialist in questions of military strategy.
First, the Brazilian navy outclasses the Venezuelan navy, says the researcher who recalls the improbable episode in 2020 during which a Venezuelan patrol boat sank after attempting an improbable and surprising operation to board a cruise ship coming from Buenos Aires, as reported in particular by Mer et Marine.
Then, “the jungle is, with the high mountains and urban spaces, one of the most ‘solid’ spaces there is”, in other words it gives a formidable defensive advantage to Guyana. Finally, and according to the Brazilian press, the army has already urgently deployed armored vehicles and units in the region. The Brazilian Ministry of Defense also announced on Wednesday that it had “intensified its defensive actions in the northern border region and increased its military presence.”
According to observers, the Venezuelan government, in addition to oil interests, could count on this quarrel to revive patriotic feeling, while the popularity of the regime, described as a dictatorship by many Western countries, is at its lowest (85% of Venezuelans want a change of power, according to a Delphos survey, indicates Courrier international).
The Venezuelan head of state Nicolas Maduro could therefore “attempt a headlong flight”, according to the Caracas correspondent of El País America, as also noted by Courrier international. “It is very difficult not to give an electoral interpretation of this process,” he also analyzes, while the opposition primaries in October met with significant success.
The winner of these primaries, Maria Corina Machado, also described the referendum as a “distraction” before the 2024 presidential election. “She managed to capture the attention of Venezuelans, which greatly worries the Chavista camp,” explained recently in Figaro a political scientist. The Supreme Court of Justice, in the pay of those in power, even announced the cancellation of the primary.