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A War between Guyana and Venezuela would be a Disaster for the World

Arnd Jurgensen teaches international relations at the University of Toronto and is director for the board of Science for Peace.

Contributed article for Working Group on Nuclear Weapons., CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Facing elections that he is likely to lose next year, Venezuela’s alleged “tyrant” Nicholas Maduro, is provoking a conflict with his small neighbor, Guyana.   He is claiming 60% of Guyana’s national territory, including its rich deposits of oil.   He even held a referendum, in which 80 % of Venezuelans voted in favour of declaring the Essequibo region part of the national territory, as if matters of territory like this were decided by popular opinion. 


Once again, an autocratic state is challenging the “rules based international order” and threatening the sovereignty of a neighboring state.  And once again it falls to the “indispensable nation” to protect not just Guyana but the international order itself.    The US has sent war ships to the region and promises to stand behind Guyana in protecting its internationally recognized borders.   Are we about to witness a war over territory in the Western Hemisphere?


What is the real story?   As most people are aware, the borders of states around the world were not written in stone and handed down by the all mighty but are entirely human creations.   Nowhere is this more the case than in the regions of the world colonized by European powers in what we now refer to as the “global south”, including Latin America.  Many borders were drawn with rulers on maps by people unfamiliar with the geography and cultures affected.   Most of the boundaries of states in Latin America are the result of administrative decisions by the Spanish altered somewhat by the uneven process of gaining independence from Spain in the 1820s.   The boundary between Venezuela and Guyana, by contrast was a matter between Venezuela and Britain which claimed what was till 1966 called British Guyana.    In the 19th Century both the British and Venezuela, then under the autocratic rule of Caudillos, claimed the Essequibo region until a negotiated settlement was reached in 1899 that gave it to the British.   The only problem with this is that Venezuela was not represented at the conference (or rather was represented by the ex U.S. President Harris).   The only Venezuelan official involved, a lawyer, later wrote a letter denouncing the outcome.   The letter was not made public till 1949.   None the less the settlement went unchallenged by Venezuela until 1962.  The then recently elected president Romulo Betancourt (AD) reignited the controversy by once again pushing the Venezuelan claim.   At that point democratic Venezuela was a close ally of the US while a left wing “radical” Cheddi Jagan, with suspected ties to Cuba, held the position of premier in British Guyana.  He also seemed likely to become its first leader as an independent state.    Not surprisingly the U.S backed Venezuela’s claim at the time but went further.   There were discussions of a CIA coup plan to keep Mr. Jagan out of power, in which he and his family would be captured and held in Venezuela.   As it turned out the CIA collaborated with British intelligence to sideline Jagan and usher in Forbes Burnham as the first president of an independent Guyana.[1]  (Ironically, once in office he drifted leftward and maintained himself in power till 1985 pursuing an authoritarian form of socialism).    This flare up of the issue ended in 1966 with an agreement by both sides to settle the issue peacefully and to refrain from any development/settlement of the region till its status was resolved.


In 1969 there was a brief reginal uprising, the “Rupunui Rebellion” in which Venezuela was accused of attempting to foment instability in Guyana.   The issue of Essequibo was raised again in the early 80’s by Luis Herrera Campins to revive his flagging presidency but what emerged was a renewal of the agreement that neither side would resort to force and neither side would seek to develop or exploit the regions natural resources.    The relationship between the two countries improved significantly under the presidency of Hugo Chavez who visited Guyana in 2003 and expanded trade and cooperation as part of his Petrocaribe initiative, in this case trading subsidized Venezuelan oil for Guyanese rice.    Chavez also underlined the U.S. role in reviving the conflict under Betancourt, arguing that it was motivated by their fear of Mr. Jagan’s potential rise to power.    He did not, however renounce Venezuela’s claim to the territory.


This ambiguity regarding a significant amount of territory was tolerated by both sides in large part because it affected a remote, largely unpopulated area of dense jungle with no known major deposits of natural resources.   This changed in 2015 when major deposits of oil were discovered off the coast of Essequibo.   The current tensions over the region began when the government of Guyana violated the status quo by selling off oil concessions to Exxon in the waters off the coast of Essequibo and began opening up bidding for exploration within the territory itself.

It should hardly be surprising to anyone that Venezuela’s government, regardless of ideological inclination, would object to this in the strongest of terms.   What electorate in any democratic country (and yes Venezuela is a democracy no more or less flawed than our own) would not support its government in maintaining its claim to a portion of its national territory and what elected leader would not feel enormously vulnerable to the wrath of the electorate if they willingly surrendered part of their territory?   In this regard the decisions of the government of Guyana and the executives of Exxon did present Mr. Maduro with an opportunity to wrap himself in the flag and claim to protect the sovereignty of the state.  We can hardly blame Mr. Maduro for making use of the issue to revive his political fortunes.


Despite the flare up and the attempts by mainstream media to portray it as a desperate act of aggression by a faltering authoritarian Venezuela, the representatives of both countries have met and reiterated their commitments to find a peaceful means of resolving this conflict.   Recently the Biden administration has also shown a willingness to cooperate and normalize relations with Venezuela, relaxing some of the sanctions and negotiating an exchange of prisoners that included the freeing of the illegally detained diplomat Alex Saab by the US.  We can only hope that they are successful in doing so. 


 What worries me is that elements of the opposition within Venezuela and the U.S. are still wedded to the regime change policies that were the bi-partisan consensus of the Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden administrations.   These groups see this conflict as a means to promote a military confrontation with Caracas.   It has long been evident that both the Venezuelan opposition and the U.S. government prefer regime change in Venezuela to an electoral victory.   To take power as a result of an electoral victory would force the new government to operate within the constraints of the institutions established under the constitutional reforms of the Chavez era.   Taking power after a regime change by contrast, would provide the new government with a blank slate.

Weather the Biden administration more flexible approach to Venezuela represents a real rethinking of U.S. foreign policy remains to be seen.   The rising tensions over the Essequibo and the U.S. reaction to it may signal a return to the policies of regime change and the “hybrid war” against Venezuela that Washington has been engaged in ever since the election of Hugo Chavez.   While this will once again be presented to the public as the U.S. standing up to autocrats in defense of a “rules based international order”, it should be clear to all that this has nothing to do with international law or the U.N. charter.   The rule being invoked once again is: what the U.S. and Exxon/Mobil say goes.


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