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Newsflash: a large country with a long history of ignoring human rights is threatening to invade a far smaller, oil and mineral rich country that has no real means to defend itself. The aggressor is not the US this time, but Venezuela, which wants to annex most of neighbouring Guyana under the pretext that it’s really part of Venezuela.   

Guyana discovered oil reserves off its coast in 2015, which have the potential to make it South America’s largest oil producer, a title now held by Venezuela. Venezuela promptly revived a centuries old dispute over Guyanese territory. 

A beautiful river, the Essequibo, snakes through the Amazon jungle in Guyana into the Atlantic Ocean. Venezuela claims everything to the west of this river, an area larger than Greece where the oil and minerals are, which borders Venezuela. 

It has claimed this land as part of its territory since it gained independence from Spain in 1811. At the time, Guyana was a British colony, and Britain did not recognise Venezuela’s claim. Decades later, in 1899, a panel of arbitrators confirmed Guyana’s claim over the disputed land, though Venezuela never recognised this verdict. 

In 1966, an agreement was reached among Guyana, Venezuela and the UK in terms of which the countries agreed to find a peaceful solution to the dispute, though this solution has never been found. Venezuela now claims, on dubious grounds, that this 1966 agreement nullified the 1899 arbitration verdict and that it is no longer bound to respect the terms of that verdict.

Consequently, its reasoning goes, since the parties have failed to find a solution since 1966 Venezuela is now entitled to take drastic measures to reclaim what is says is its territory. The matter is before the International Court of Justice, but it seems that since the discovery of oil there Venezuela is no longer prepared to wait for a verdict, which could take years to come. 

Venezuela’s immediate solution is a referendum in which it will essentially ask Venezuelans whether they should formally annex the Essequibo region. Since most Venezuelans firmly believe the region is theirs, rather like Argentina believes the Falklands/Malvinas are theirs, the outcome is all but certain to go in favour of annexation.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro votes in the referendum, in Caracas, Venezuela, December 3 2023. Picture: LEONARDO FERNANDEZ VILORIA/REUTERS
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro votes in the referendum, in Caracas, Venezuela, December 3 2023. Picture: LEONARDO FERNANDEZ VILORIA/REUTERS

Venezuela’s authoritarian president, Nicolas Maduro, is also spending hours on television in what he calls a “pedagogical electoral campaign” to convince voters to support the annexation. 

This has all the hallmarks of another international catastrophe in the making. The annexation would bear striking similarities to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has similarly claimed that Ukraine is not really a separate nation, but territory that belongs to Russia, notwithstanding there being no legal basis for such a claim. Russia is also a staunch ally of Venezuela, with the two countries having done military exercises together in the recent past.

Venezuela could therefore count on Russia’s support in the event of such an annexation, even if it is just a nice friendly veto at the UN Security Council in case anyone wants to condemn the annexation. Given how Russia is bogged down in its wretched war in Ukraine it is unlikely, though not impossible, that Russia would support Venezuela militarily should the poor Guyanese not submit themselves voluntarily to their new Venezuelan overlords after the proposed annexation. 

Having said that, Guyana would not stand much of chance against Venezuela in any military conflict, even without Russian military support. But Russia may still be tempted to provide some token support to assist its Venezuelan comrades for whatever political traction Putin can gain. Even a minor Russian contribution to a Venezuelan victory over a weak Guyana would give Putin something to brag about, a boost he desperately needs at the moment. 

Then there is the question of how the US and the rest of the world will react. The US is certainly no friend of Venezuela, though it is trying to mend relations with Caracas in view of the Ukraine war. But will it want to get involved in yet another conflict, especially with US presidential elections less than a year away? On the other hand, will it really let Russia crow victory in its own backyard? 

Regional reaction

South America’s reaction will be fascinating. With the recent election victory of far-right politician Javier Milei in Argentina, the left-wing hegemony in South America, which fully supported Maduro’s Venezuela in the past, has come to an end. Milei will not support Venezuela; in fact he is downright hostile to Maduro and he will be outspoken against the proposed annexation. But Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a long-time ally of both the late former Venezuelan president Hugo Chaves and now of Maduro, will no doubt be more accommodating.

While Lula will probably not openly support a territorial invasion of a fellow South American country, not even by his buddy, he is bound to display his characteristic neutrality, which leaders on both sides of the political spectrum use to such great effect to avoid criticising their pals when they disrespect human rights. And then there is also the rather appealing argument of just blaming everything on colonialism, as if that somehow justifies invading other countries.

The intransigent left-wing political discourse is clearly that every atrocity, war, kidnapping, annexation and whatever other bloodthirsty activity they can contemplate, is justified as long as you just say you are doing it to fight “the West”, or “the remnants of colonialism”, or “Zionism”, with crowds of people claiming to support freedom by cheering for it on social media. 

With the world ablaze in Ukraine, Israel and many other places, the last thing we need now is another conflict with ideological overtones to divide us even further. South America has had its fair share of conflicts since the Colombian era, but the past 150 years or so there have been relatively peaceful.

It should stay like that, and one can only hope Maduro’s peers will show the required statesmanship to persuade their comrade not to do anything stupid. 

Myburgh is an attorney practising in Johannesburg and São Paulo.

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