Resistance from Essequibo: ‘We will defend ourselves if Venezuela dares to invade us’

Residents of the jungle region of Guyana, rich in oil and gold mines, respond to the threats being made by President Nicolás Maduro: ‘I don’t want to be Venezuelan, no way’

A market in Charity, a port town in Essequibo.Juan Diego Quesada
Juan Diego Quesada

Alvin Hilliman’s skin is crisped by the sun. He has dreadlocked hair and a thick gold watch on his left wrist. He spends his free time at a friend’s liquor shop. The patriotic fervor that has been generated in the Essequibo region of Guyana as a result of Venezuela’s claim to this jungle region, which is rich in minerals and oil, hasn’t affected him one bit. He’s not impressed by the flags or the big signs in the middle of the road that read: “Essequibo belongs to Guyana.”

At the age of 50, he says, no government has ever given him anything… not even a bag of rice. When he’s not at his friend’s store, he works in construction, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., earning only a handful of dollars. He never knew his father; his mother has recently died. He feels like he’s alone in this world full of traps.

If they fight and Venezuela wins, I’ll go with Venezuela. If [Guyana wins], I’ll do the opposite. This land belongs to Blacks and whites, to everyone. I don’t care who wins. I don’t care about any president, screw them all,” he shrugs.

Behind the corner where Hilliman sits, watching life go by, stands the old police station of Charity. This is a port city, north of the Essequibo River, with barely 1,500 inhabitants. No one seems to have painted the building since British colonial times. A patrol arrives with a somber-looking guy in the back. An arrested thief, perhaps? No, it’s actually a friend of the cops: they’ve giving him a ride.

Hanging from the walls of the station are portraits of the president, the prime minister and the chief of police. Officer R. Ramnarine has a perfectly pressed uniform, polished shoes and a freshly shaven face that a barber only dreams of. This afternoon, he’s fixing the front door.

“I will defend my country if Venezuela dares to invade us,” Ramnarine vows, with a screwdriver in his hand. There’s no reason not to take him seriously.

The government of President Nicolás Maduro held a referendum last week, in which it asked Venezuelans if they wanted to annex Essequibo — a region of 62,000 square miles, about the same size as the U.S. state of Georgia — that now belongs to the small country of Guyana. Guyana only has a population of about 800,000, while Venezuela has more than 28 million inhabitants.

More than 95% voted yes, as expected. Maduro assured the media that this has given him a popular mandate to occupy these lands. The Venezuelan threat comes after a consortium — led by ExxonMobil — made a series of offshore oil discoveries. Guyana’s president, Mohamed Irfaan Ali, has pushed for more hydrocarbon exploration in areas that Venezuela claims as its own.

Overnight, Guyana — a low-income country — has seen that vast wealth is at its fingertips. This year will close with a 25% increase in GDP. The capital, Georgetown, has lately been filled with oil executives. This has distorted the market. Today, the cheapest hotel runs at $200 a night, while cabs won’t make a trip for less than $30. Restaurant menus are barely any different from the United States. Trucks and construction cranes are everywhere. It can be said that Guyana is on the move. However, the Guyanese feel that all this prosperity is about to be taken away. President Ali — the only Muslim head of state in the West — has already said that he will not succumb to Maduro’s tricks and that the Guyanese will defend their country by any means. Recently, the president went to the border with Venezuela dressed in military slacks. He climbed a rock and raised Guyana’s flag, in the style of the movie Flags Of Our Fathers (2006).

An attempted occupation, however, seems remote. The United States, Brazil and China have agreed that the status quo on the border must continue, unless international courts rule otherwise. But Venezuela doesn’t seem to have taken notice: the Maduro administration has enacted a law to convert Essequibo into one of its states and give citizenship to the 125,000 inhabitants of that region, where illegal gold mines and indiscriminate logging are rife.

“I don’t want to be Venezuelan, no way,” Adrian responds. He’s a 30-year-old hairdresser from Charity, who has spent the morning with his arms crossed. “I’m super Guyanese. I’ve never left [the country, even though] I have an uncle in Queens.” Sita Singha, a clothing saleswoman who works a few shops away, is afraid: “I’m scared. They want to come and harm this country. When you think about it, it’s absurd. No, I don’t want to be Venezuelan.”

The roots of this dispute date back to the 19th century. The territory passed from one colonizer to another, from the Spanish to the Dutch and from the Dutch to the British, who took over in 1831. At that time, the territory’s surface area increased fivefold after swallowing part of the Essequibo region, through settlements around the gold mines. Venezuelan historians suspect that the British used misleading maps to do this. Given the controversy at the time, London asked explorer Robert Schomburgk to define the border. The adventurer drew a line that claimed nearly 31,000 additional square miles. Venezuela protested and a new version of the Schomburgk line was published which — far from paying attention to the Venezuelans — expanded the territory even further. In 1899, following an arbitration ruling made in Paris — a ruling favorable to the United Kingdom — the territory was officially placed under British rule. Venezuela felt deceived and the conflict continues to this day. The politicians surrounding Maduro have accused the British, who have come out to defend Guyana, of continuing to practice piracy.

Most of the Essequibo region is made up of impenetrable jungle. There are companies that offer tourists the opportunity to be set loose in the middle of nowhere with a machete, a compass and a canteen. Inhabitants travel in boats that cross raging rivers, or putter along in cars on one-way roads. There are shoe repair stands, colonial-looking houses, abandoned cemeteries, Methodist churches and Exxon advertisements. Guyanese flags fly everywhere, a sign of the new patriotic fervor. Bollywood songs play on the radio. 44% of the population is of Indian origin, 30% is of African origin, while the rest is divided between those of Chinese and Indigenous descent, along with other minorities. The official language is English — almost a dialect, peppered with slang — although many Guyanese speak Hindi and Urdu. The politicians of Indian origin and those of African origin take turns in power, a sign of good democratic health (although this doesn’t mean that they’re exempt from corruption).

Those most affected by the tension between the two countries are the Venezuelans who live in Guyana. It’s estimated that there are about 25,000 Venezuelan residents in Guyana, which isn’t an inconsiderable number in a country with such a small population. In September, the police arrested 70 Venezuelans who landed in Tuschen, on the border with Essequibo, in boats carrying gear and roosters. Venezuelans have earned a reputation here as hustlers; as people who know how to do everything. But this hasn’t been enough to avoid racism, which is prevalent and fierce.

Ferney has been selling fruit in Georgetown for a year. He arrived from the Venezuelan state of Carabobo. He has to be careful. “If somebody asks me [where I’m from], I say that I’m from Cuba. This shit makes me tired.”

The annexation of Essequibo unites the opposition and the government in Venezuela. However, there are those who think that the Chavista regime has, once again, resorted to another one of its tricks to stay in power. First under Hugo Chávez and now under Maduro, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela has governed uninterruptedly for 24 years. Maduro has to hold presidential elections in 2024, as he has made an agreement with the United States to permit the democratic process in exchange for reducing sanctions on oil and gold, something key to the economic survival of Caracas. However, the opposition has a very strong candidate — former legislator María Corina Machado — who polls well above Maduro in every survey. If tensions with Guyana were to rise, Maduro could declare internal unrest and postpone the elections indefinitely.

In Charity, life thrives around the small port, where boats full of exotic goods and passengers arrive. Michael Persiud, 53, worked in the Netherlands 20 years ago. He remembers having to explain to everyone where Guyana was. One day, he had had enough and decided to go to his fish vendor’s stall with a map in his pocket. Whenever a client questioned him, he would take it out and point his finger at this Latin American country, bathed by the Atlantic, which borders Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname. “Now that we’ve discovered oil, we’re in fashion: everyone wants to get involved here,” Persiud complains. He has suddenly understood the advantages of remaining anonymous.

There are huge rice fields in the surrounding area. Chávez, Maduro’s mentor, put aside the territorial controversy and created a program to exchange Venezuelan crude for Guyanese rice. That caused an economic boom in Charity, allowing its inhabitants to afford certain luxuries. However, Chávez passed away in 2013. The alliance subsequently evaporated during the Maduro government, when Venezuela’s oil production collapsed. Charity returned to a period of scarcity. The bonanza had been a mirage.

“We could be brothers and [both countries could benefit], but the dispute is killing us. Nobody has wanted to invest heavily here because they feel that, at any moment, things can change. We should forget about [bickering] and look for what’s best for both of us,” reflects Ron, 51, a cab driver who dodges goats, tractors and stray dogs that attack the wheels of his Japanese-made car. In a custom inherited from the British, the Guyanese, who gained independence in 1966, drive on the right-hand side of the road.

Elizabeth Sam wears black glasses and a peaked hat that gives her a very distinguished appearance. She’s loaded down with shopping bags. She spent five years in Caracas as a domestic worker, a long time ago, when Chávez was alive. She knows how to say some words in Spanish: hello, thank you, how are you, you are very kind, you are very beautiful. She refuses to reveal her age.

Elizabeth feels that these could be good times in Essequibo; that, with the oil boom, many people could emerge from poverty. The local government hopes to increase the average annual income from $14,000 to $30,000 in just a couple of years. Still, the Venezuelan threat hangs over their heads. “Would they really come here and kill us? For the love of God.”

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