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Guyana region on edge over annexation threat


Dariana Williams, a student and sales clerk from Bartica, a small town on the western banks of the Essequibo river in Guyana, seldom gave much thought to the fact Venezuelan children were taught that her region was part of their country. 

But if Caracas makes good on its recent threat to enforce the outcome of a divisive referendum, Bartica and the expanse of land that makes up 60 per cent of Guyana could be annexed by its neighbour and Williams would become a Venezuelan citizen.

“Obviously I’m scared, I don’t want to be in a war and I don’t want to be Venezuelan,” said Williams, 22. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

Guyana’s long-simmering border dispute with Venezuela became an international crisis when the latter held a referendum on December 3. Voters approved five questions — including whether they believe that “Guyana Esequiba” should become a Venezuelan state — with at least 95 per cent support, though the government’s claim that more than 10mn people voted is widely contested.

In the mineral-rich Essequibo region and across Guyana, the threat of annexation by Venezuela, where a cratering economy and increased political repression under revolutionary socialist president Nicolás Maduro have led 7mn people to leave since 2015, is stirring up both fear and nationalist sentiment.

Signs and bumper stickers in Guyanese creole read “Essequibo ah we own”, or “Essequibo belongs to us”, while the country’s flags line streets throughout the small South American nation.

Cuyuni-Mazaruni, a province of Guyana’s Essequibo region
Guyana’s Essequibo region is rich in gold, diamonds and bauxite, while immense deposits of oil sit beneath the ocean floor off its coast © Roberto Cisneros/AFP/Getty Images

On packed boats that zip up and down the river, travellers trade rumours on whether Caracas will invade and what the US — Guyana’s main security partner — might do in response. The Guyanese Defence Force, with only 4,070 active personnel and reserves, pales in comparison with Venezuela’s 351,000-strong armed forces.

“We’re a tiny country,” said Wousini Khan, who often travels to a family home upriver from Bartica to escape the capital, Georgetown. “If Maduro decides he wants the Essequibo, what can we do?”

Essequibo is home to around 125,000 people, according to Guyana’s foreign ministry, around 15 per cent of the country’s population of 800,000. Many live in small settlements of a few wooden houses on stilts lining the waterfront, with dense forests stretching beyond. English, creole and indigenous languages are widely spoken, with Spanish rarely heard outside communities of Venezuelan refugees. 

The region’s jungles, hills and mangroves are rich in gold, diamonds and bauxite, while immense deposits of oil sit beneath the ocean floor off its coast, discovered by US oil group ExxonMobil in 2015.

Production began in 2019, and the crude flows from the Stabroek block — containing at least 11bn barrels of oil equivalent — are remaking Guyana. A few years ago it was one of the poorest countries in the Americas. Now the IMF estimates that gross domestic product expanded by 63 per cent last year and is projected to grow a further 38 per cent in 2023.

The oil wealth was a driving factor behind Maduro’s referendum, analysts said, as Venezuela’s ability to tap its own proven reserves — the world’s largest — has been increasingly throttled by corruption, mismanagement and US-led sanctions. Days after the vote Maduro ordered state-owned companies to grant licences for exploration and production in Essequibo, prompting Guyanese President Irfaan Ali to call Venezuela “an outlaw nation”.

Map showing Stabroek oil concession off the coast of Guyana, with territorial waters of Guyan and Venezuela

The two leaders are expected to meet on Thursday in St Vincent and the Grenadines, in dialogue mediated by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) and the Caribbean Community regional blocs. Ali’s office said he would attend to promote peace but “Guyana’s land boundary is not up for discussion”.

The dispute stems from international arbitration in 1899 that defined the boundaries of what was then British Guiana. In 1962, four years before Guyana achieved independence from Britain, Venezuela said it did not consider the matter settled. Caracas maintains that the Essequibo river is its natural boundary, as it was under Spanish rule.

The International Court of Justice in April ruled that it had the jurisdiction to settle the case, though a final decision is years away. Maduro’s plebiscite included a question on disregarding the authority of the ICJ on the issue.

“Venezuela is laying claim to a place that it has never governed,” Carl Greenidge, Guyana’s lead lawyer at the ICJ and a former foreign minister, told the Financial Times, adding that Venezuela “sees itself as the inheritor of the Spanish monarchy”.

“Venezuela is disrupting the court’s jurisdiction and for that reason we cannot depend on the court alone,” Greenidge added.

As fears rose of the first interstate war in South America since the Falklands conflict in 1982, the US last Thursday announced joint military flights with the GDF over Guyanese territory.

Maduro’s regional sabre-rattling is viewed by analysts as an attempt to drum up support ahead of elections in the second half of 2024. He has yet to announce his candidacy but is expected to run despite low approval ratings amid the country’s humanitarian and economic crisis. Inflation, for a brief while tamed by a relaxation of currency controls, is running at 182 per cent in the year to the end of November, according to the central bank.

In a push for a “free and fair” vote next year, the US in October relaxed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil, gas and gold sectors and secondary financial markets for six months. Officials in Washington have said the sanctions will be reinstated if political prisoners are not released and bans on opposition candidates are not lifted.

Luis Vicente León, who runs Caracas-based researcher Datanalisis, said an invasion was unlikely as the armed forces, whose allegiance is central to Maduro’s grip on power, were unlikely to permit such risky adventurism. “But of course, when you play with fire you can get burnt,” he added.

Maduro’s rhetoric is hurting commerce in the Essequibo. At a resort hotel a short speedboat ride upriver from Bartica, bookings are half what they were last year. Its owner Chunilall Baboolall attributes the decline to the border crisis.

“We are worried, and every day is a new challenge,” Baboolall said. “This is the most serious the Essequibo situation has been in my life.”

Ingrid Martínez, who fled Venezuela’s economic crisis nine years ago and works in the hotel, said Maduro was making life worse for the estimated 29,000 refugees who now face discrimination and suspicion in Guyana.

“He doesn’t understand that he’s hurting his own people abroad,” she said, between serving dishes of curried labba — a rodent similar to the capybara popular with locals. 

“It’s obvious that the Essequibo belongs to Guyana, it has been that way for centuries and no Venezuelan president has been able to take it, let alone a man that has caused so much misery for his people,” she said.

Hotelier Chunilall Baboolall
Hotelier Chunilall Baboolall: ‘This is the most serious the Essequibo situation has been in my life’

Not everyone in Bartica is afraid. Bridget Tobin, a 65-year-old security guard, said Venezuela “has been threatening to take Essequibo my whole life, and I’m still waiting for it”. Pastor Orin Griffith believed Maduro would have no choice but to respect the ICJ’s outcome.

However, Guyanese officials are not downplaying the possibility of a Venezuelan incursion.

“We are a small country on the cusp of great financial rewards but if Venezuela attempts to annex us, it would set us back 100 years or more,” said Kenneth Williams, governor of Cuyuni-Mazaruni province, which includes Bartica.

“It is that dire. It is a threat that represents the total destruction of Guyana.”



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