Venezuela and Guyana agree to avoid military action in dispute over oil-rich territory

Dec 16, 2023 | 0 comments

The presidents of Venezuela and Guyana pledged after direct talks on Thursday not to resort to force to settle a long-simmering — and recently reheated — territorial dispute over the oil-rich Essequibo region, a joint statement said. Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Guyana’s Irfaan Ali shook hands after a two-hour meeting on the Caribbean island nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Guyana President Irfaan Ali

The two sides agreed that they “will not threaten or use force against one another in any circumstances,” the statement said. Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of Saint Vincent read the three-page statement, which included concrete measures to ensure tensions on the ground do not escalate suddenly.

But neither Venezuela nor Guyana agreed on the proper global jurisdiction to settle the territorial dispute over Essequibo, which makes up about two-thirds of Guyana’s territory.

Maduro, who has sought to rally support in his nation with the territorial claims, cast the summit as a triumph. “Excellent day of dialogue!” Maduro posted on X, formerly Twitter. “We did it!”

The two sides pledged to resolve the dispute “in accordance with international law” but noted that while Guyana believes the International Court of Justice is the proper jurisdiction for the matter, Venezuela has rejected the body’s recognition over the issue.

Gonsalves said the both Georgetown and Caracas “committed to the pursuance of good neighborliness, peaceful coexistence and the unity of Latin America and the Caribbean.” The statement noted that the two leaders agreed to meet again within three months in Brazil, whose leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was tapped as an interlocutor in the dispute.

Guyana’s president left the summit declaring that his nation will not cede its sovereignty over the region’s oil fields. “Guyana has all the right… to facilitate any investment, any partnership… the issuing of any license and the granting of any concession in our sovereign space,” Ali said.

Though Caracas has long claimed Essequibo, it ratcheted up its rhetoric after Guyana, which has governed the area for more than 100 years, started issuing licenses for oil companies to operate there.

The meeting took place after months of escalating discord that has raised fears in the region of a potential conflict over the remote area of 160,000 square kilometers (62,000 square miles).

Maduro’s government held a controversial referendum on December 3 in which 95 percent of voters, according to officials in the hard-line leftist government, supported declaring Venezuela the rightful owner of Essequibo. He has since started legal maneuvers to create a Venezuelan province in Essequibo and ordered the state oil company to issue licenses for extracting crude in the region — moves Ali branded as a “grave threat to international peace and security.”

Guyana has taken the case to the UN Security Council and approached military “partners,” including the United States, which has carried out joint military exercises in Essequibo. “The land boundary between Venezuela and Guyana should be respected unless — or until — the parties reach a new agreement — or a competent legal body decides otherwise,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Brazil’s Lula, according to a State Department summary of a call between the two Thursday.

Lula has backed a peaceful solution and warned Maduro against “unilateral measures that could escalate the situation. Brazil, which borders both countries, has also reinforced its troops around the area.

The decades-old dispute intensified after ExxonMobil discovered oil in Essequibo in 2015, helping give Guyana — which has a population of 800,000 — the world’s biggest crude reserves per capita. The Venezuelan government’s anti-imperialist rhetoric has seen it accuse Ali of being “a slave” of ExxonMobil.

On Monday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yvan Gil told reporters there could be talk of “cooperation in oil and gas matters.” Gil cited the Petrocaribe agreements, under which Venezuela supplies crude oil at preferential prices to Caribbean countries, and gas deals with Trinidad and Tobago.

He said these were “concrete examples” that “could serve as a basis for future agreements with the Cooperative Republic of Guyana.”

The dispute has put other South American nations on edge. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay issued a joint declaration calling for “both parties to negotiate to seek a peaceful solution.”

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