Two days after the referendum on Essequibo, a territory disputed between Venezuela and Guyana, the government of Nicolás Maduro is moving forward to try to enforce what was approved Sunday in a vote that registered almost no participation in the streets but which Chavismo hailed as a victory with 10.4 million voters, reawakening a crisis of credibility in the country’s electoral authorities. In a television appearance Tuesday, Maduro presented a new official map of Venezuela with Essequibo incorporated, without the disputed delimitation, during a Council of State in which he announced a series of measures and upcoming legislation to cement Caracas’ possession of the territory and its resources. Earlier, Maduro had sent a military contingent to Puerto Barima on the Venezuelan Atlantic border, close to the limits of the area under claim.
The war of narratives has begun. A few weeks ago, Guyana raised a flag on a small hill in Essequibo. On the day of the referendum, the Venezuelan Ministry of Communication released a video in which Indigenous people lowered the Guyanese flag and raised the Venezuelan flag. Maduro is now counterattacking with everything at his disposal. Via a special law announced Tuesday, he will create a new province or state in the territory, having already appointed a single provisional authority: Major-General Alexis Rodríguez Cabello, a deputy for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), who will operate from the mining community of Tumeremo in Bolívar state, barely 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the town of San Martín de Turumbang in the disputed area.
“We want the peaceful rescue of the Guayana Esequiba,” said Maduro. “Our Guayana Esequiba has been de facto occupied by the British Empire and its heirs and they have destroyed the area,” he added in reference to the agreements made during Hugo Chávez’s presidency, which created PetroCaribe. At the time, Venezuela offered discounted oil to the Caricom countries in exchange for diplomatic support for its Bolivarian revolution. However, in this historical dispute over Essequibo, those countries have traditionally supported Guyana.
Maduro has instructed the state oil company PDVSA to draw up a map of exploration and exploitation of the resources in Essequibo and ordered the National Assembly to draft a law prohibiting oil concessions granted by Guyana in the territorial sea to be delimited. The U.S. company Exxon Mobile has a maritime platform in the area. “We are giving three months to the companies that are exploiting resources there without Venezuelan permission to comply with the law,” he said. The Venezuelan president also asked the National Assembly to create environmental protection areas and national parks in the territory.
The dispute dates back to 1777, when the Captaincy General of Venezuela included the 159,500-square-kilometer (61,600-square-mile) region into a map of the country despite the territory not having been occupied by Venezuela either when it was part of the Spanish empire or after independence. In 1899, British Guiana managed to set limits in the Paris Arbitral Tribunal in a process that has been described as rigged. Two centuries later, the head of the Strategic Operational Command of the National Armed Forces, Domingo Hernández Lárez, posted images on social media of Venezuelan soldiers providing health care to the Indigenous communities living in the area. In one of the messages, he posted photos of trucks with construction materials and the message “Towards the Guyana Shield in support of the integral development of the nation.”
Guyana and its allies
“We are very concerned that President Maduro and the government of Venezuela can use their own internal scenario and internal politics to create an instability within our region, to create fear and terror within the hearts and minds of their neighbors,” said Guyanese President Mohamed Irfaan Ali Tuesday in an interview with France 24. Ali pointed out that both countries are bound to the process of the International Court of Justice, which resulted in the Geneva Agreement of 1966 by decision of the Secretary-General of the United Nations after decades of unsuccessful negotiations and despite the fact that Venezuela has insisted that the instance does not have jurisdiction to settle the dispute.
“The international community has a great responsibility to ensure that peace prevails. Many countries are supporting Guyana in a peaceful resolution that must come out of the ICJ process,” the Guyanese president said. “We are working with our partners in the U.S. Departments of State and Defense to ensure that Guyana is not caught off guard and is prepared, and also to act as a country that respects the rule of law and international order.”
Brazil, which shares a border with both Venezuela and Guyana, has also expressed concern over the escalation of the territorial dispute. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva spoke with both Maduro and Ali and reinforced the military deployment on the border. The Ministry of Defense increased the contingent of the Boa Vista detachment in the state of Roraima from 70 to 130 uniformed personnel. Its mission is to “guard and protect the national territory,” according to a statement from the ministry. After the Venezuelan referendum, Lula also decided to send around 20 armored vehicles to the triple border.
“We are following the situation with concern, but I don’t think it’s going to come to that [an armed confrontation],” Ambassador Gisela Padovan, secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Reuters Tuesday, adding that she trusted Brazilian diplomacy and that of the rest of the neighboring countries will manage to “deflate the process.”
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