Venezuela’s threat to annex part of Guyana

Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free

It is the sort of extravagant territorial claim that makes authoritarian leaders salivate. A demand to annex two-thirds of a much smaller neighbour’s territory, supposedly to right a historical injustice. Access to a rich offshore oilfield adds extra appeal, along with the lure of gold and diamonds onshore.

Venezuela’s revolutionary socialist President Nicolás Maduro could not resist the temptation. After leading a propaganda campaign featuring stirring reggaeton songs and tours of schools to instil patriotic values, Maduro held a referendum last week to ask if voters wanted to incorporate the sparsely populated and largely jungle-covered Essequibo region of Guyana into Venezuela.

Official media trumpeted the result as an overwhelming endorsement, despite witness reports of thin turnout. Maduro ordered state oil and gas companies to grant drilling rights in environmentally sensitive Essequibo, redrew Venezuela’s official map and established a new military zone covering the disputed area, which is larger than Greece.

Maduro’s mischief-making has broader geopolitical implications. Venezuela is an authoritarian regime backed by Russia, China and Iran. Moscow has equipped its military, although troops are said to be in a poor state of readiness. Guyana, by contrast, is a democratic state aligned with the west. Thanks to the discovery of oil, it was the world’s fastest-growing economy last year.

Backed by the US and the UK, Guyana has denounced Venezuelan aggression and vowed to resist the territorial claim, which it says violates an 1899 international tribunal ruling. ExxonMobil, operator of the big oilfield off the coast of Essequibo, hopes all parties will respect the decision of the International Court of Justice, which is considering the Venezuelan claim. Caracas has already rejected the court’s jurisdiction.

Maduro’s sudden reactivation of a long-dormant claim owes much to domestic politics. After cratering the economy, cracking down on dissent and triggering the flight of more than a fifth of the population, the president is highly unpopular. He will face a feisty and popular opposition candidate next year if, as widely expected, he runs for re-election. What better than a foreign adventure to distract voters from near-worthless salaries and triple-digit inflation?

The Venezuelan leader might wish to consider how a similar move by another authoritarian South American military-backed regime ended in the 1980s. The Argentine junta’s decision to invade the Falkland Islands triggered war with Britain and a humiliating defeat, which toppled the generals and paved the way for a return to democracy — surely not the outcome Caracas has in mind.

Maduro’s aggression towards a small neighbour raises serious questions about the Biden administration’s decision in October to grant Venezuela wide-ranging relief from economic sanctions for six months, in return for promises to move towards free and fair elections and to release hostages. 

Few observers believed Maduro ever had any such intention. But by pocketing US concessions, which were offered up front, then launching a fresh crackdown on the opposition, Maduro has ridden roughshod over the understanding, even before his move on Essequibo.

The Biden administration should respond by swiftly reimposing all the economic sanctions it lifted on Venezuela, sending Maduro a clear message that his behaviour is unacceptable and signalling future sanctions relief can only come after clear moves towards free and fair elections at home and respect for its neighbour’s territorial integrity. To do any less would be to betray Venezuela’s long-suffering opposition and an important democratic ally.


Articles You May Like

Yaccarino shakes up X amid pressure from Elon Musk over costs
Telegraph warns £278mn loans to Barclay family companies may never be repaid
Everton enters exclusive sale talks with billionaire Friedkin family
LinkedIn’s makeover lacks one thing: humour
Zero-hours contracts — an obituary