Diplomatic tensions between South American neighbors Venezuela and Guyana intensified after an Exxon exploration ship began operating in the disputed offshore area on Guyana’s behalf. Venezuela has issued a new maritime defense perimeter, and could attempt to halt private operations over the disputed sea.
On May 20, Exxon Mobil announced that it had discovered recoverable hydrocarbon resources on its Liza-1 well, at the Stabroek Block, with a commercial value in excess of $1 billion USD. This represents the first major energy discovery in Guyana’s history.
Venezuelan leaders have accused Guyana of illegally conceding licenses for Exxon to explore hydrocarbon resources at the Stabroek Block, which allegedly lies beneath Venezuela’s territorial waters. Venezuela’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has demanded that Exxon halt its operations over the Essequibo area.
Guyana denies such accusations, claiming that Caracas has far exceeded its cartographic projection of sovereign sea territories, out of the Esequibo basin delta, which divides both nations.
The Esequibo basin and delta region amounts to over 150.000 square km of territory — or nearly two-thirds of Guyana’s landmass — reclaimed by Venezuela.
The origin of the discord lies in a century-old dispute, dating back to administrative divisions within the Spanish captaincy of Guyana in the 16th century. The area was soon afterward controlled by the Dutch West India Company, then by France in the late 17th century, and eventually seized by the British Empire in the 19th century as British Guyana.
The 1895 crisis brought Venezuela to the brink of a war with the British Empire due its unsettled claims over the Essequibo river basin territories. Amidst the crisis, the US — under the Monroe doctrine — intervened in representation of Venezuela before Britain in an arbitration tribunal convened in Paris, which in 1899 awarded to Britain most of the disputed territories.
However, by the 1960s, the UN accommodated Venezuela’s demands to review the validity of the 1899 agreement, and in the 1966 Geneva Convention the UN obliged Guyana and Venezuela to resolve the difference and abstain from exploration or exploitation of resources without bilateral consent.
Against the 1966 UN convention, on May 26th Maduro signed a Presidential decree re-defining Venezuela’s maritime borders and activating the so called “Atlantic ZODIMAIN” (for Insular and Maritime Defense Zones). This new delimitation of territorial waters claiming the disputed sea territories takes away Guyana’s sovereign access to the sea, leaving it with a coastal area encircled by Venezuela’s and Surinam’s territorial seas.
“Aggressive and Illegal” were the words chosen by of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Guyana. President Carl Greenidge has announced that he will turn to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to mediate a resolution on the territorial dispute with Venezuela.
Guyana is poised to maintain its claims based on the 1899 Paris award, whilst Venezuela will charge against it, looking for the UN to declare its nullity and prevent foreign oil companies from drilling the basins.
Convenient timing for Venezuelan officials
This sudden escalation comes right at the right time for Venezuela, which is experiencing an acute economic crisis and critically low government approval rates. President Maduro is at the brink a major social disaster due public distress, and midterm elections are just a couple of months ahead.
It would not be absurd to conceive this resurfacing dispute as an international affairs stunt — an attempt to divert public attention away from inflation and food shortages. Planting the idea of an armed conflict could be a political stratagem to revive old patriotic fervors while diverting attention away from domestic problems
Back in 2013, the Venezuelan navy seized an oil survey ship and its 36 crewmembers, operated by the Houston-based Anadarko oil company. Such a scenario is likely to occur again under the current circumstances.
If it is looking to increase pressure, Venezuela could extend its Navy’s presence further into the disputed area, which could significantly increase the possibilities of a maritime incident with either private vessels or Guyana’s navy ships.
Martin F. De Angelis is a political and security risks analyst with a focus on Latin America. He has lived and worked in the US, UK and Cuba. He is a former US DoS Fulbright Scholar and UK FCO Chevening Fellow. Martin has been broadcast by BBC, AlJazeera, SkyNewsHD, Euronews and other media. He holds a Licentiate degree in Political Science from the University of Buenos Aires, an MA in Strategy and Geopolitics from the Army War College of Argentina and an MSc in International Relations Theory by the London School of Economics [LSE] with Merits.