Miscalculation and Escalation over the Essequibo: New Insights into the Risks of Venezuela's Compellence Strategy
A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Christopher Hernandez-Roy on his commentary with Rubi Bledsoe, Henry Ziemer, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., and Jennifer Jun, “Miscalculation and Escalation over the Essequibo: New Insights into the Risks of Venezuela's Compellence Strategy.”
Tensions between Venezuela and neighboring Guyana appear to have cooled since the December 2023 referendum, in which the authoritarian government of Nicolás Maduro claimed Venezuela had a mandate to annex the disputed Essequibo territory administered by Guyana. Under international pressure to peacefully resolve the crisis, not least from South American heavyweight Brazil, Presidents Maduro and Irfaan Ali of Guyana met in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines on December 14, 2023, and signed the Argyle Declaration. Both countries agreed not to threaten the use of force against one another to avoid incidents on the ground conducive to tensions and to establish a joint commission “to address matters as mutually agreed.” On January 25, the foreign ministers of Venezuela and Guyana met in Brasília under the good offices of the foreign minister of Brazil, Mauro Vieira, to install the joint commission.
At the meeting, Guyanese foreign minister Hugh Todd reiterated his country’s position that it was up to the International Court of Justice to resolve the border controversy, but was open to conversations over counter-drug cooperation, and food security, among other topics. Venezuelan foreign minister Yván Gil said the idea was for the two countries “to deal with this controversy in a bilateral, direct, diplomatic manner” (authors’ translation) without interference from foreign military powers, a veiled jab against U.S. and UK diplomatic and military support for Guyana.
However, there is likely more than meets the eye when it comes to Venezuela’s approach to negotiations. In a previous CSIS Critical Questions on the crisis over the Essequibo, the authors posited the Maduro regime may be engaging in a strategy of compellence aimed at Guyana. Compellence, as outlined by Thomas Schelling, is a strategy aimed at pairing the use or threat of force with diplomatic incentives to coerce another actor into changing its behavior. Under this reading, Venezuela’s participation in the Argyle process represents the diplomatic carrot, while its military engagement in provocative behavior acts as a stick to tilt negotiations in Caracas’s favor. Recent activity by the Venezuelan armed forces within the Essequibo and in nearby waters observed in satellite imagery lends credence to this argument and suggests Maduro may be duplicitous in his commitment to resolve the dispute through diplomatic channels.
Venezuela’s Diplomatic Duplicity
In the weeks leading up to the January 25 meeting in Brasília, Venezuela had been building up a military presence on Anacoco Island. The island, awarded to Guyana as part of an 1899 arbitral award but seized and administered by Venezuela since 1966, has long been a point of tension between the two countries. A video, linked to the Bolivarian National Guard dated January 15, 2024, shows a staging area across the Cuyuni River from Anacoco Island where construction materials are piled up. Three armored vehicles, likely V-100/150 Commando amphibious armored personnel carriers (APCs) are also visible in the staging area. Maxar satellite imagery of the area from January 13, 2024, also shows the APCs, construction materials, a heavy river ferry and the clearing of a new area to the north, likely where Venezuelan military engineers intend to build a Mabey Compact 200 bridge to the island.
Expansion and Buildup of Materials and Equipment at River Crossing between 2023 and 2024
More recently, videos shared from Venezuelan military and government social media accounts on January 24 and 25 (the day of the meeting in Brasília) show an exercise taking place on Anacoco under the supervision of General Domingo Hernández Lárez, commander of the Strategic Operational Command of the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB), who reports only to President Maduro and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López. General Hernández inspects the construction of a “tankódromo” (tank base) by the 11th Armored Brigade along with the 6th Engineering Corps of the FANB in order to “improve the armed forces’ response system in this important border area with the state of Guayana Esequiba and repelling any eventuality that threatens the Republic” (authors’ translation). General Hernández Lárez also promoted the sustained mission of the FANB’s new Guyana Esequiba Integral Defense Operations Zone, established after the December referendum and responsible for coordinating military activity along the disputed border. The videos also show interesting facets of the buildup, including the presence of two Arava light short takeoff and landing (STOL) transport aircraft; a Mi-17 helicopter; a mixture of armored equipment, including two to three types of APCs and two types of tanks; and a mix of national guard, army, and marine elements. Another earlier video from January 19 explains that what is being built on Anacoco Island is a jungle tank base with a 3.8-kilometer track (2.3 miles) with 14 obstacles, which will be used to train Venezuela’s armored units. The highly produced videos and coordinated social media campaigns suggest that the FANB is actively displaying its activities on Anacoco as part of an information operation. With videos boosted relentlessly by military social media networks featuring logos, music, and editorial flourishes, the Venezuelan armed forces are intentionally crafting a message for external consumption, with one key audience being the Guyanese government.
CSIS was unable to independently verify when the FANB recorded the footage shown in the social media campaign, now reshared over hundreds of times, but the timing of the campaign, along with satellite imagery showing an increase of military activities in Anacoco, strongly suggests a political motivation. Compared to 2021, the recent satellite image from January 13, 2024, also reveals the beginnings of the expansion project at the base with signs of road traffic, significant ground clearing suggesting planning for additional buildings or a vehicle park, and the construction of a small fueling station—an indication of future construction and military vehicle presence. The expansion would likely indicate an increase in stationed personnel from platoon to company or battalion size, increasing personnel from around 50 up to and possibly over 300. Notably, a mixed group of armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) can be seen consisting of six vehicles, likely Scorpion light tanks and at least one EE-11 APC. New trails or roads have also been built from the base south through the forest to the airfield, and there is evidence of recent tracked and wheeled vehicle activity. A Bell 206 helicopter can also be seen.
Base Enlargement and Military Buildup between 2021 and 2024
The presence of a military barge in Tumeremo, a heavy river ferry, and light tanks on Anacoco shows the capacity to move heavy equipment across rivers, while the EE-11 and other amphibious APCs observed in social media posts could indicate an effort to build up an amphibious capability on the island. This equipment constitutes a threat to the small Guyanese airfield located only 140 yards across the river, as well as the nearby border town of Port Turumban.
The FANB have not limited their movements to Anacoco Island. After Britain deployed the HMS Trent on a defense diplomacy and training mission on December 29, President Maduro announced operation Nico Domingo Antonio Sifontes 2023, an exercise along the Atlantic Coast supposedly involving the deployment of 5,682 military personnel, coastal and maritime defense ships, tank and cargo landing ships, amphibious vehicles, seven Peykaap III (Zolfaghar) fast missile boats, helicopters, 23 fighter jets of different sorts, Buk antiaircraft missile batteries, among other equipment. The significant Venezuelan military resources claimed to be employed in the exercise are on a different order of magnitude than the presence of the lightly armed Trent, designed for counter-piracy, fishery protection, and search and rescue, which had been stationed in Barbados as part of counter-narcotics efforts in the Caribbean.
The overreaction to the Trent may have been an excuse to redeploy certain assets closer to the border with the Essequibo. The redeployment of at least three Peykaap III (Zolfaghar)-class guided missile-armed fast patrol boats (PTGF), which are Iranian-built, fast, and very maneuverable anti-ship missile boats, is a concerning case in point. Social media shows three of the boats on trailers were loaded on December 30 onto a Los Frailes-class landing ship in Puerto Cabello for transport towards “the Atlantic coast” of Venezuela. Recent satellite imagery shows the boats arrived sometime between January 18 and 22 at Venezuela’s main Atlantic coast guard station in Guiria, which faces Trinidad and Tobago, just days ahead of this year’s meeting in Brazil. A January 28, 2024, image of the station shows boats moored together along a pier, immediately aft of which is what appears to be a Venezuelan Coast Guard Pagalo-class patrol craft (WPB). It is possible the intent is to further redeploy the missile boats to the small coast guard station at Punta Barima, located only 43 miles from the Essequibo controlled by Guyana. The base is currently being upgraded from a secondary coast-guard station to a naval-air station, according to the commanding admiral of the Venezuelan Navy, Neil Villamizar Sánchez who visited it on November 30, 2023. If that were to occur, it would place the fast missile boats within easy range of oil platforms off the Essequibo coast. In addition to the missile boats, the FANB deployed two Buk M2E surface-to-air systems to Guiria on January 31.
Pier at Venezuela’s Atlantic Coast Guard Station, Guiria, January 28, 2024
The crisis created by Maduro has also had a direct impact on Guyana’s booming oil industry, with Lloyd's Market Association’s Joint War Committee adding Guyana’s offshore sector to its list of areas of elevated risk. This means that the cost of shipping crude oil from Exxon Mobil-operated offshore facilities may rise sharply. Guyana is now on the same level of risk as shipping in the Red Sea where ships have been under attack from Iranian-backed Houthi forces, or in the Black Sea where Russia has continuously attacked Ukrainian ports and port cities. The movement of the Peykaap III-class missile boats to Punta Barima would lend support to Lloyd’s precautions.
The Peykaap III-class made headlines in the summer of 2023 when they first appeared during a Venezuelan naval parade. Each can be equipped with two single-use launchers for Nasr-1 anti-ship cruise missiles. With a range estimated at 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) and ability to sink or disable ships up to 1,500 metric tons (the HMS Trent’s displacement is roughly 1,800), a single missile poses a significant threat to civilian vessels, but become vastly more dangerous when launched en masse. The Peykaap III’s design in turn recognizes this feature, and forms a lynchpin in the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) tactics Iran has pursued in the Persian Gulf, relying on large quantities of comparatively cheap, expendable platforms intended to swarm and overwhelm targets. These same tactics could be readily applied to a Venezuelan effort targeting ships and oil platforms off the coast of Guyana. Indeed, if stationed at Punta Barima, these boats could give Venezuela the capability to strike at targets in the Essequibo and its waters in under an hour.
Overall, these deployments of the Venezuelan armed forces point to Caracas’s efforts to try to compel Guyana to sidestep the ongoing case before the International Court of Justice, and assent to Venezuela’s preferred approach of bilateral negotiations to resolve the disputed territory’s status or extract concessions. The FANB’s presence and maneuvers on Anacoco on the same day as the joint commission meeting in Brasília, the redeployment of missile boats closer to the Essequibo, and the upgrading of a naval base at the mouth of the Orinoco, may allow Maduro to selectively raise the temperature along the border with the Essequibo. Combined with inducements at the negotiating table, these acts may help Venezuela to secure more favorable terms. To hedge against further tensions, on February 2, 2024, the Brazilian army sent two dozen armored cars to reinforce its forces in Boa Vista where the garrison there would become a regiment with the tripling of equipment and men. Two days later U.S. deputy national security advisor Jon Finer visited Guyana and said the two countries were “deepening [their] defence cooperation” to assist Guyana in preserving its borders. These moves by Brazil and the United States suggest there is more going on than the diplomatic deliberations of the Argyle Agreement or the meeting of the joint commission in Brazil.
This escalatory behavior on the part of Venezuela creates opportunities for miscalculation and loss of control over events on the ground. The Venezuelan state is not a unified actor, fragmented as it is by corruption, criminal interests, and internal jockeying for power. It may well be the case that the buildup on Anacoco was undertaken to placate factions within the armed forces frustrated with the change to diplomatic negotiations and desiring to flex their muscle even as the two sides sit down to negotiate. Even if this is the case, it is not without risks, as local commanders, operating far from the locus of Venezuelan state power, may be tempted to escalate the situation on their own with further provocations or even by launching operations in the Guyanese Essequibo. Accordingly, it remains uncertain whether Maduro can effectively avoid misunderstandings and manage the forces he unleashed with the December referendum.
Policymakers need to be attentive to both the words and actions of the Maduro regime in navigating the Essequibo dispute. Negotiations should not overlook provocations on the border. In doing so, Anacoco Island, Punta Barima, and likely other locations, stand out as areas to monitor as the March meeting between Presidents Maduro and Ali approaches. The United States, Brazil, and international community can play a vital role in raising awareness about Maduro’s duplicitous actions and ensure his efforts to coerce Guyana find no purchase. This will require sustained attention, but, as Schelling notes, it is always harder to compel another player to act than it is to deter a bad actor from making a move.
Christopher Hernandez-Roy is deputy director and senior fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. 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.
Special thanks to William Taylor from the CSIS iDeas Lab for imagery markup design and to Rayna Salam for editing and publication support.