The Entirely Manufactured and Dangerous Crisis over the Essequibo

The authoritarian government of Venezuela held a referendum on December 3, 2023, concerning the Essequibo, a large region controlled by neighboring Guyana but claimed by both nations. Despite an anemic turnout, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has claimed that he now has a mandate to annex the region, significantly raising tensions with his smaller neighbor and putting the militaries of both countries on high alert. There is a small but real risk of military conflict between the two South American nations.

Q1: What’s going on in the Essequibo?

A1: The Essequibo is a 61,600-square-mile disputed territory (slightly larger than the U.S. state of Georgia) that is claimed by both Guyana and Venezuela but has been continuously administered and controlled by Guyana since an arbitral award given in Paris in 1899. The area comprises approximately three-quarters of Guyana’s claimed sovereign territory. In 1962, Venezuela repudiated the Paris award, indicating that there were irregularities in the way the award was determined. Because of this, Venezuela and the United Kingdom, in consultation with British Guyana, signed an agreement in Geneva in 1966 in which they agreed that they would seek a peaceful resolution to the territorial dispute. Article V(2) of the Geneva agreement stipulated that no acts or activities taking place while the agreement was in force could lend support or negatively impact the claims of the parties unless they were mutually agreed. It further stated that if the parties could not agree on a means of settlement under the UN Charter, they should refer the matter to “an appropriate international organ” or, if that was not possible, to the secretary general of the United Nations.

While he never renounced Venezuela’s claim to the Essequibo, the country’s former longtime president, Hugo Chavez, made a concerted effort to have good relations with Guyana. In 2005, the Guyanese ambassador to Venezuela said that there was a high level of respect between both sides, and that the days when Guyana feared some sort of intervention by Venezuela were “long gone.” Those were the days before huge oil fields were discovered off the coast of Guyana in 2015, and when the self-styled “anti-imperialist” President Chavez was actively building alliances and influence throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. However, after years of inconclusive negotiations facilitated by UN representatives, UN secretary general António Guterres decided in January 2018 to refer the territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which declared in December 2020 that it had jurisdiction to decide the matter, even after a challenge brought by Venezuela. Today, resolution of the dispute remains an active part of the ICJ’s docket.

Q2: What are the origins and initial impacts of the referendum on December 3?

A2: In clear violation of the Geneva agreement, the regime-controlled Venezuelan National Assembly convened a national referendum on September 21, 2023, ostensibly to strengthen its rights over the Essequibo. This was done apparently in reaction to statements by U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs Brian A. Nichols, who had expressed support for Guyana to exploit the natural resources of the Essequibo. The referendum, to be held on December 3, 2023, was to answer five questions approved by Venezuela’s electoral body dealing with the legal issues of the dispute. Most importantly, the last question asked if Venezuela should create its own state called Guayana Esequiba, grant citizenship and Venezuelan identity cards to the inhabitants, and incorporate the state into the map of Venezuelan territory.

Alarmed by Venezuela’s path, which echoes Russia’s illegal annexation by referendum of four partially occupied regions of Ukraine, Guyana petitioned the ICJ to intervene ahead of the vote and prevent Venezuela from holding the referendum or from taking any actions to try to exercise control over the disputed territory. While not explicitly barring the referendum, the court decided unanimously that, “pending a final decision in the case, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela shall refrain from taking any action which would modify the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute, whereby the Co-operative Republic of Guyana administers and exercises control over that area,” as well as that “Both Parties shall refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute before the Court or make it more difficult to resolve.”

President Maduro decided to hold the plebiscite despite the ICJ’s ruling. Having witnessed the highly successful opposition primaries on October 22, 2023, which mobilized nearly 2.5 million voters, Maduro sought a massive distraction. Since the Essequibo is perhaps the only issue that the opposition and the regime agree on, Maduro thought he could mobilize broad support in anticipation of presidential elections in 2024. The Maduro regime is practiced in these kind of mobilization exercises.

However, the referendum results manifested a regime in crisis. There were widespread reports of empty polling stations in Caracas on the day of the vote. The regime-controlled electoral council arbitrarily left polling stations open for an additional two hours to drive up vote numbers. When the polls closed, the electoral council announced that 10 million “votes” had been cast, eliding whether these were “votes” or “voters.” If the former is true, 10 million votes cast on a five-question referendum equates to roughly two million voters—paling in comparison to the nearly 2.5 million voters who cast ballots in the opposition’s independently organized primary. Of course, the regime stuck to its narrative conflating “votes” with “voters.” The referendum plainly illustrated a regime whose electoral apparatus is in shambles, as it presides over a criminal state responsible for grievous human rights abuses, is actively being investigated for crimes against humanity, and is responsible for an economic implosion with few precedents in world history.

Undeterred, two days after the referendum, Maduro ordered a series of actions that, according to Guyana’s president, is in “full defiance of international law” and is seen as extremely threatening. Maduro created a high commission for the defense of the “new state” of Guayana Esequiba, headed by Delcy Rodríguez, the vice president and a regime stalwart. Maduro ordered the National Assembly to create the state of Guayana Esequiba, established a military zone for the new state, and named General Rodríguez Cabello, previously commanding general of the army, as its sole authority. Further, Maduro ordered the state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), and the Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana (CVG) to create the PDVSA-Essequibo and CVG-Essequibo divisions, respectively, and to immediately begin granting operating licenses for the exploration of oil, gas, and mines in the new state. Lastly, Maduro ordered that a social care plan for the people living in the disputed territory be implemented, that a census be carried out, and that Venezuelan identity cards be handed out to the inhabitants, among other initiatives.

On December 7, Maduro’s minister of defense, General Vladímir Padrino López, said that he had appointed the generals that would be in charge of the new military zone covering the disputed territory, while the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, announced that U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) would conduct flight operations within Guyana in collaboration with the Guyana Defence Force. Guyana has placed its military on high alert (as have neighboring countries in South America such as Brazil) and is patrolling what it considers to be the border as established in the 1899 arbitral award.

Q3: What are the possible outcomes for the region?

A3: Parsing Maduro’s future actions is difficult, but there are several plausible routes of action that he could pursue against Guyana, most of them for entirely domestic reasons. While his manufactured crisis has failed to mobilize the Venezuelan electorate, he can continue beating the nationalist drum for months, sucking oxygen from the opposition’s successful primary campaign. Further, Maduro has announced “investigations” into the opposition’s finances, claiming spuriously that they are financed by ExxonMobil, which first discovered oil in Guyana and is a major operator in that country’s consortium of companies operating the oil blocs. In fact, Maduro announced arrest warrants of several individuals on this basis, including three members of leading opposition candidate María Corina Machado’s team. Not only does this violate the spirit and the letter of the agreements recently signed in Barbados aimed at encouraging freer and fairer elections in 2024, but it also works to tarnish opposition leaders as “traitors” who have “conspired” and cannot defend the “national interest” in the Essequibo because of purported financial improprieties.

Maduro’s failure to mobilize the Chavista base in the referendum was a wake-up call for the regime. He is in deep electoral trouble, despite the vast majority of Venezuelans agreeing on the issue. Maduro may seek to alter the domestic electoral conditions. In the most extreme scenario, he may seek to postpone or cancel the election entirely using the guise of a “national emergency” and citing the “international threat” posed by Guyana and a “looming war” provoked by its neighbor in partnership with the United States.

Maduro may also be seeking to leverage a strategy of compellence. According to Thomas Schelling, compellence involves the use of coercion that targets an actor, such as a state, and attempts to change its behavior through threats of force or the actual use of limited force. Compellence is often most successful when the state in question combines the threat of force with positive inducements to entice the target state into a negotiation or bargaining situation. In this case, Maduro may be seeking a share of the oil profits generated near or in the Essequibo’s waters, potential use of Guyana’s exclusive economic zone, or the ability to share territory in which Venezuelan companies can pursue commercial activity, operate, and generate profit for the regime.

The scenario is flush with opportunities for hybrid warfare or gray zone tactics. The Essequibo area is enormous (a third larger than the areas of Ukraine currently occupied by Russia), sparsely inhabited, and comprised of dense jungle. Maduro might seek to send a small contingency of Venezuelan soldiers into Guyana, plant a flag, and then claim that these forces are protecting the “newly created” state of Guayana Esequiba. How Guyana responds in that case would be critical, as well as how Maduro and the cabal of Chavista elites around him interpret that response. Would defense of the territory be interpreted by Maduro as the start of a conflict? These are tricky questions, echoing Russia’s decade-long destabilization campaign against Ukraine.

The last scenario, a full-blown invasion, is unlikely. The Venezuelan armed forces are better understood as a drug-trafficking organization rather than a proper fighting force. Their last experience with kinetic action, trying to rid Venezuela’s border region with Colombia of guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), ended in failure and embarrassment. However, if nothing else, the lesson of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is that analysts, the international community, and U.S. government officials should never discount scenarios that do not appear “rational”—especially in a dictatorship such as Maduro’s, where these types of contingencies can take on their own logic. Dictators do not always choose the “rational” option.

Q4: How have Guyana and the international community responded?

A4: Guyana’s president, Mohamed Irfaan Ali, has called on Venezuela to respect the process before the ICJ and has reiterated that he wants to see a peaceful resolution to the dispute. He has indicated that Guyana’s first line of defense is diplomacy, but that the country is “preparing for the worst-case scenario . . . with our allies, with our friends, to ensure we are in a position to defend what is ours in the Essequibo.” Ali has also stated that his government has reached out to allies and regional partners, with some of which Guyana has defense agreements. At the request of Guyana, the UN Security Council will meet behind closed doors on December 8 to discuss the situation. If the crisis continues into the new year, Guyana will be able to take advantage of a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which it is set to take up on January 1, 2024.

A spokesperson at the United Nations said on December 6 that Secretary General Guterres strongly supports the use of solely peaceful means to settle international disputes and recalled the ICJ’s unanimous decision to issue precautionary measures aimed at Venezuela’s actions. The secretary general of the OAS, Luis Almagro, also stood firmly behind the ICJ’s precautionary measures, adding that it considers the decision “fundamental in requesting Venezuela to refrain from all provocative, warmongering, and illegal actions that encroach on the established boundaries of Guyana’s territory.”

The Caribbean Community, CARICOM, will hold an emergency session of heads of government to discuss the matter on the same date as the UN Security Council. The foreign minister of Trinidad and Tobago stated that CARICOM speaks with one voice on the issue and that it continues to clearly call for “respect for international law and the jurisdiction of the ICJ, for peace to be maintained and preserved, and for full respect for the territorial integrity of Guyana and all Member States.”

Celso Amorim, foreign policy adviser to President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of Brazil, said that the regional heavyweight rejected any use of force to occupy the Essequibo. At the same time, the country significantly strengthened its military assets in Boa Vista, which sits near the borders of both Venezuela and Guyana.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken called President Ali on December 6, 2023, and reaffirmed the United States’ “unwavering support for Guyana’s sovereignty,” adding that all parties should respect the 1899 arbitral award “unless, or until, the parties reach a new agreement, or a competent legal body decides otherwise.” In January 2021, the United States and Guyana signed an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement to facilitate logistics in combined military exercises, deployment, training, and other cooperation efforts. Just before the December 3 referendum, the leadership of the U.S. Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade was in Guyana to conduct strategic planning sessions to enhance both countries’ capabilities and military readiness to respond to security threats. As mentioned already, SOUTHCOM is now conducting flight operations within Guyana in collaboration with the Guyana Defence Force.

Finally, part of Maduro’s strategy may involve opening pathways for his authoritarian patrons in Beijing and Moscow to meddle in the issue. A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry recently urged “calm” and said that China supported a “negotiated solution.” Notably absent from the statement was any discussion of the ICJ’s jurisdiction in this case, a choice which plays in favor of the Venezuelan position. Maduro may also seek to array a group of countries in an “anti-imperialist” coalition against U.S. “interventionism” in an effort to forestall U.S. defense assistance to Guyana. No doubt Russian president Vladimir Putin also sees this as an opportunity to deepen Russia’s involvement in Latin America. As luck would have it, Maduro is due in Moscow later this month. It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov will announce Russia’s support for the defense of Venezuela’s “territorial integrity” in the Essequibo.

The situation on the ground is fluid and dynamic. Having failed to mobilize the Venezuelan people in the December 3 referendum, Maduro must now decide how he wants to proceed in this manufactured crisis, as well as what role it can play in his overall efforts to remain entrenched in power. He could further inflame border tensions, engage in hybrid warfare, seek to coerce Guyana, or move on to another issue in his desperate bid to shift the narrative in Caracas.

Ryan C. Berg is director of the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Christopher Hernandez-Roy is the deputy director and a senior fellow with the Americas Program at CSIS.