The Essequibo Pressure Cooker: Runaway Nationalism and Maduro’s Compellence Strategy

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As domestic challenges to Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela have mounted, he has doubled down on a compellence strategy against Guyana that is full of escalation risks and potential for miscalculation. Since February 9, when CSIS last reported on Venezuela’s military activities near the Essequibo, Maduro has ordered the Venezuelan military to deploy weapons and equipment and increase its state of readiness on Guyana’s doorstep. Most recently, Venezuelan lawmakers approved the creation of a new state, “Guayana Esequiba,” despite ongoing tensions with Guyana and an open case before the International Court of Justice.

Since February, Maduro has successfully repressed the opposition at home and abroad by arbitrarily detaining civil society and NGO leaders and directing criminal groups loosely affiliated with the regime to conduct extraterritorial assassinations. Most importantly, for months, the international community awaited Maduro’s next move as he sought to block opposition leader María Corina Machado from running for office. Even as he faced international opprobrium, Maduro has had one key internal ally: the armed forces. Without the military’s backing, Maduro’s regime would not survive.

While Maduro has kept Machado and her chosen substitute, Corina Yoris, out of the presidential race, he still faces internal pressure from Machado and Edmundo Gonzalez Urrutia, her replacement candidate; between now and July 28, Maduro desperately needs Chavistas, the party base, and most importantly, the armed forces, to rally around him and come out to vote. Even then, he is highly unlikely to win in a fair race. Examples are legion of the “rally around the flag” effect during international crises, even if only in the short term. While the recent escalation over the Essequibo region has not reached the level of kinetic action, the Maduro regime’s rhetoric, which, in part, aims to provide the armed forces a raison d’être, has likely unleashed a genie that will be difficult to put back in the bottle.

Maduro and the armed forces have rhetorically committed to defending the newly created region, and the establishment of “Guayana Esequiba” opens the door to potential illegal settlements, encroachments, or border skirmishes. To be sure, Maduro is unlikely to initiate a full-blown conflict with neighbor Guyana, but his escalatory rhetoric tethers his political reputation and legitimacy to his willingness to back his words with force. While the period between now and July 28 is a risky time for Maduro, there is also a risk he may seek to manufacture a crisis after the election, too.

Military Buildup and Readiness

Since early February, the National Bolivarian Armed Forces of Venezuela (FANB) have moved substantial quantities of personnel and equipment to sites near the disputed border. In particular, the military base at Anacoco Island, as well as the airport and coast guard station at Guiria, have seen considerable activity based on social media and satellite imagery analysis.

Construction and expansion of the military base on Anacoco Island has proceeded at a sustained pace. Social media and satellite imagery both show progress in the construction of the bridge over the Cuyuni River to the island, and new pathways now connect the island to the ferry landing. As recently as May 8, video can be seen of a Bailey bridge extending some distance over the river, likely a temporary connection while a more permanent connection is established. A narrow-gauge railroad, no trace of which existed in February, is now being constructed from the ferry crossing toward the airfield, and once completed it would presumably bring supplies from the airfield to the base and nearby towns.

Base enlargement and buildup of materials at river crossing and military base

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Jennifer Jun
Project Manager and Research Associate (Imagery Analysis), iDeas Lab and Korea Chair
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The airfield has been expanded and improved with markings and a small control tower. Satellite imagery from March 26 shows an area next to the airfield dotted with over 75 field tents, enough for a battalion-sized unit of several hundred personnel. According to a press release from the Venezuelan air force on April 21, a C-130 Hercules was involved in a training mission to land and take off from the dirt runway. Meanwhile, the aircraft and the base at Anacoco were used to train paratroopers and special operations personnel, as well as to simulate land and maritime operations. As of April 28, the field tents have been relocated to the southern side of the airfield, demonstrating the base’s continued ability to provide logistics and resupply for a sizeable military force continuously for over a month.

Construction and movement of personnel at airstrip between March and April 2024

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The FANB has increasingly brought airpower into play in the maritime domain as well. Video dated February 24 and shared by General Domingo Hernández Lárez, the head of the FANB’s Strategic Operational Command, shows two K-8W light attack aircraft patrolling the Atlantic Coast from Guiria. Their tails display the message “El Esequibo es Nuestro” (“The Essequibo is Ours”), and their stated mission was to “exercise sovereignty in the Atlantic.” Three planes, whose dimensions are consistent with K-8Ws, can be seen on satellite imagery taken of the Guiria airport on March 28. Parked beside the jets are two Buk-M2EK antiaircraft missile launchers, likely the same that were deployed to the city in late January. Finally, a number of military-affiliated social media accounts have been telegraphing that they are projecting power into the Atlantic from Guiria, sharing imagery of combined arms patrols with Su-30 fighter jets, possibly over portions of the disputed waters between Guyana and Venezuela. 

Juan Manuel Valdez Airport, March 28, 2024

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At the coast guard station in Guiria, social media posts from April 5 show a Los Frailes-class landing ship, T-95 Las Aves, unloading a fresh complement of the famed Zolfaghar missile boats. Satellite imagery from April 13 corroborates an increased naval presence in Guiria, showing five Zolfaghars moored together at the coast guard dock, along with two patrol boats, possibly one Págalo-class vessel and one Gavión-class vessel. Sources differ, however, over the true extent of Venezuela’s current naval power in Guiria. Some reports claim three boats were delivered, though from video shared on social media it appears that only two were actually unloaded. Given that CSIS found three Zolfaghars already at the Guiria station on January 28, this uncertainty means it is possible that there are between five and six missile boats in the area, out of an estimated seven total in the Venezuelan navy’s service.

It is also possible that if three Zolfaghars were delivered to Guiria, Venezuela’s navy has more than seven of these ships. Reporting by Straight Arrow News suggests that the Venezuelan navy acquired new boats after the December 3, 2023, referendum on the Essequibo, but no source for that information was given. Regardless of the true number, the new Zolfaghars in Guiria point to a significant concentration of firepower for a comparatively minor coast guard installation far from the FANB’s main facilities in La Guajira and Puerto Cabello. As of May 8, at least two of the Zolfaghars, alongside one Págalo patrol vessel, appear to have arrived at Punta Barima, a secondary coast guard station that CSIS reported in February was undergoing upgrades as part of Venezuela’s military buildup. This development marks an even more concerning escalation, placing Venezuelan missiles and naval forces within arm’s reach of the Guyana-administered Essequibo.

Pier at Venezuela’s Atlantic Coast Guard Station, Guiria, April 13, 2024

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While the Venezuelan military has been eager to showcase its new boats, FANB commanders have also not been shy about flexing the armaments these vessels could wield. On April 16, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López visited the Agustin Armario Naval Base in Puerto Cabello, where, according to a Ministry of Defense communiqué, he inaugurated a new “workshop” for the navy’s recently acquired Iranian-built CM-90 missile. Social media shows the minister inspecting the missiles and declaring “we are in full development and we are advancing for the entire combat capacity of the Bolivarian navy” before repeating the common refrain “the sun in Venezuela rises over the Essequibo” (authors’ translation). With a range of 90 km, the Zolfaghars will presumably be armed with these longer-range missiles.

On April 20, the Venezuelan military launched a field exercise, involving perhaps as many as 4,000 cadets, under the operational name “The Essequibo is Ours.” While the exercise was held far from Guyana in the state of Cojedes, its scale and provocative nomenclature should be cause for close scrutiny.

There is evidence of continuous buildup of military infrastructure and hardware at all the abovementioned locations, as well as troop planning, rotation of personnel, and training exercises for increased operational readiness—all undertaken under the constant refrain that “the Essequibo belongs to Venezuela” and similar patriotic slogans. The Venezuelan military is making a concerted effort to intimidate, threaten, and coerce Guyana, attempting to transmit one message: Venezuela is prepared to use military force to take the Essequibo from Guyana.

Where Does This End?

As in so many other facets of his regime, such as the pending NGO law, Maduro has engaged in “authoritarian learning” and aped his idol, Vladimir Putin. Scholars writing on Russia’s war in Ukraine noted Putin’s domestic transition to a war footing well before the full-scale invasion—indeed, even well before the first invasion of “little green men” in Crimea. For example, Leon Aron writes of a sense of “militarized patriotism in peacetime,” referring to Russian propaganda that even during peacetime, Russia faces an external threat landscape tantamount to a near state of war.

Similarly, Maduro may be leveraging a conjured sense of impending conflict during peacetime. He has saturated Venezuela with propagandist claims about Guyana’s government—that it does not exist and is in fact run by Exxon Mobile, United States Southern Command, and the Central Intelligence Agency—and that any move by Guyana to bolster its defenses should be interpreted as an offensive preparation for war, mostly impelled and directed by the United States and its corporations.

However, as Maduro’s domestic position has eroded, challenged by a more effective opposition led by the generational figure of Machado, Maduro has become even more beholden to the armed forces. He hopes to receive several things in return for the armed forces accreting more power. First, Maduro could call on them to repress and secure his regime’s security after July 28, when it looks likely that the regime will brazenly steal the presidential election. Second, it is the armed forces that have blitzed the airwaves with propaganda regarding the Essequibo, including real-time updates to fortifications and operations near Guyana, special ceremonies marking these upgrades and operations, and catchy slogans.

Many have speculated that Maduro’s escalation against Guyana over the Essequibo territory is a domestic ploy meant to distract from his manifold leadership failures. From this premise, they argue that the salience of the Essequibo may decline after Maduro’s “reelection.” On the contrary, the course of action Maduro pursues after July 28 may prove even more dangerous. Rather than tamp down the rhetoric, Maduro may be tempted to ramp up both rhetoric and action related to the Essequibo in a true gambit to manufacture a regional crisis in the aftermath of a stolen election. Further, the armed forces have their own interests within Maduro’s regime—interests that go well beyond illicit enrichment. In such a scenario of a post-election crisis, Venezuela’s rhetoric risks crossing a Rubicon beyond which it cannot return without taking some kind of action against Guyana.

The continued military buildup on Anacoco Island, alongside the movement of troops and additional air and naval assets to Guiria, and most recently the Zolfaghars at Punta Barima, fit squarely within a continued strategy of compellence by the Maduro regime. Maduro appears to be ratcheting up the pressure on Guyana in an effort to demonstrate resolve and credibility as he pushes for key concessions at the negotiating table. Thus far, the strategy has been successful in constraining the Guyanese government’s options and in driving up the price of operations. Guyana has maintained a moratorium on new oil exploration in parts of the disputed maritime territory, while Guyanese citizens living in the Essequibo and working in the oil industry have indicated high levels of tension and anxiety, suggesting that these individuals are taking Venezuela’s threats seriously.

Maduro, however, has little to gain and much to lose from a full-blown conflict. Even against a militarily inferior opponent, the FANB would face significant obstacles conducting complex operations in an unforgiving environment like the Essequibo. Blatant aggression would also isolate Maduro from the international community he appears keen to rejoin, and it could galvanize support for multilateral sanctions that could deliver the death knell to the anemic economic recovery Maduro is banking on for domestic support. As with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the lesson of February 22, 2024, is that dictators do not always act rationally.

In spite of these facts, the Venezuelan government is playing a dangerous game with its rhetoric and actions around the Essequibo. The constant drumbeat asserting “the Essequibo is ours,” alongside the creation of new military commands and legal structures to oversee the defense of the region, is helping to institutionalize a sense of perpetual prewar footing. Even if Maduro were to cut a lopsided deal with Guyana for access to offshore oil blocks, he likely could not easily de-escalate and swiftly dismantle institutions like the new Integral Defense Operations Zone charged with managing the Essequibo. Doing so would provoke fierce resistance from within the armed forces, who have seen their stature grow in Venezuelan politics and society while eagerly embracing their role as the vanguard of Venezuela’s sovereignty claims over long-denied territory. De-escalation could even disqualify Maduro’s presidential bid, as Venezuela’s Essequibo defense law (passed by the Chavista-controlled National Assembly) bars anyone who denies Venezuelan sovereignty over the Essequibo from running for public office. 

Thus, one of the most concerning possibilities is that Maduro will fall victim to his own rhetoric. He has whipped up nationalist passions without providing an escape valve. Eventually, he may face a point of no return wherein he is either compelled to act in order to maintain the support of the armed forces domestically, or else the military (or elements of it) will act without approval from Caracas with the objective of pursuing what they perceive as their unique role in defending sovereign territory. The latter possibility is especially troubling, as the corrupt and highly fragmented distribution of power in Venezuela gives outsized authority to individual commanders who may see provocations along the border with Guyana as a means of creating facts on the ground that will push the regime in Caracas to act.

In the face of this dangerous escalation, both materially and rhetorically, the international community should remain vigilant. The potential for miscalculation is highest if Venezuela feels it will not face substantial consequences for continuing to pursue a compellence strategy. Displays of solidarity with Guyana against Maduro’s coercion, such as the flyover of Georgetown conducted by two U.S. F/A-18 Super Hornets on May 9, are important signals in this regard. However, it remains incumbent upon key players from the United States, Brazil, Colombia, and regional bodies like the Caribbean Community and the Organization of American States to signal publicly and in private that they are watching Venezuela at every turn.

This commentary has been updated with a new synthetic aperture radar (SAR) image of Anacoco Island and its surroundings, acquired on May 12, 2024. The image provides an overview of the complete installation, from the road to San Martín de Turumbán, to the temporary Bailey bridge over the Cuyuni River and onto the military base and airfield on Anacoco Island. The image is the first satellite capture reviewed by CSIS showing the Bailey bridge, which is now in use to transport equipment and vehicles to Anacoco. This marks the first use by CSIS of synthetic aperture radar, which is capable of “seeing” through darkness, clouds, and rain.

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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 in Washington, D.C. Christopher Hernandez-Roy is deputy director and senior fellow with the Americas Program at CSIS. Henry Ziemer is a research associate with the Americas Program at CSIS. Rubi Bledsoe is a program coordinator with the Americas Program at CSIS. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. is senior fellow for imagery analysis with the iDeas Lab and Korea Chair at CSIS. Jennifer Jun is a project manager and research associate for satellite imagery analysis with the iDeas Lab and Korea Chair at CSIS.