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Venezuelan ambitions and Guyanese oil

Maduro threatens Essequibo land grab after referendum

Dan Davison analyzes the recent referendum, called by President Nicolas Maduro, which appears to provide the pretext for Venezuela to annex two-thirds of Guyana in pursuit of its oil resources.

On December 3, Venezuela held a referendum on whether to establish a new Venezuelan state in the Essequibo region, which is governed by Guyana. Two million people—about 10 percent of eligible voters – participated. Ninety-five percent of those who voted answered “yes.” Now Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is moving to annex 160,000 square kilometers of oil-rich land—around two-thirds of Guyana’s territory.

For over a century, Guyana (and British Guiana before it) has controlled Essequibo, but it has long been claimed by Venezuela. Venezuela maintains that Essequibo fell within its borders when it was a Spanish colony and that an 1899 arbitral tribunal decision concerning the border between Venezuela and what was then British Guiana was unfair. As such, Maduro frames his actions in anti-imperialist terms. One sees this in the wording of the referendum question: “Do you agree to reject by all means in accordance with the law, the line fraudulently interposed by the 1899 Paris Arbitration Award, which seeks to deprive us of our Guayana Esequiba?”

Satellite border map of Venezuela, Guyana, and Surinam—from west to east— including Guyana Esequiba, which is highlighted on the map and is targeted by Venezuela for annexation.
Satellite border map of Venezuela, Guyana, and Surinam, including, Guyana Esequiba,  the region targeted by Venezuela for annexation. Image by SurinameCentral.

Despite the low turnout and how, formally speaking, the referendum was only consultative, Maduro is treating the result as binding. Already Maduro has ordered PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.), the Venezuelan state oil company, to issue extraction licenses in Essequibo, and signed a presidential decree creating the “High Commission for the Defense of Guayana Esequiba.” He has proposed that the National Assembly pass legislation to make the territory part of Venezuela and to give companies in the region three months to leave. On December 5, he unveiled a new map of Venezuela that includes Essequibo, declaring that it would be distributed across schools and public buildings.

While the territorial dispute between Venezuela and Guyana is long-running, there are three key contexts for understanding why Maduro chose to hold the referendum now. Firstly, Venezuela is caught in a major, long-term political and socio-economic crisis. Following Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013, Maduro became president. Since then, the economy has lost 80 percent of its value. In 2023, inflation reached a sky-high rate of 360 percent.

According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Finances, by March 2023, private and public sector salaries averaged 139 U.S. dollars (USD) per month and 14 USD per month, respectively. With the average family grocery shop at around 370 USD per month, low pay and chronic shortages of basic amenities have left many Venezuelans struggling to buy food. Widespread malnutrition and a crumbling healthcare system have increased infant mortality and deaths in childbirth. Seventy five percent of hospitals lack drinking water. Power cuts have been common since 2019. Over 7.7 million people have left the country to seek protection and a better life.

In January 2019, Juan Guaidó, then the speaker of the right-wing-opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared himself interim President with the National Assembly’s backing, alleging that the May 2018 presidential election had been rigged. However, the Venezuelan military’s top brass remained loyal to Maduro. This left Maduro in firm control despite more than 50 countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., recognizing Guaidó as president; large, clashing protests in the streets; and Guaidó attempting to seize power through an armed revolt on April 30, 2019. In December 2022, the majority of opposition parties withdrew their support from Guaidó and dissolved his “interim government.”

While Maduro has held onto power, after years of crisis his approval rating is down to 29 percent. By calling the referendum on Essequibo, Maduro hopes to bolster support for his regime through nationalist demagogy.

The second, related context is the Venezuelan presidential election due to take place by the second half of 2024. Under a deal with the Biden Administration in October 2023, Maduro promised to start lifting bans on opposition party candidates and releasing political prisoners in exchange for the broad easing of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector. The referendum and other saber rattling over Essequibo are Maduro’s attempt to energize and reconsolidate his voter base ahead of the 2024 election by appealing to patriotic sentiments.

The third context is foreign commercial and economic interests in the region’s oil. In 2015, Exxon struck a significant oil find off the coast of Essequibo. While Maduro tries to strengthen the “anti-imperialist” framing of his actions by pointing to how Guyana has handed oil resources to U.S. companies, it appears that Maduro wants to let Russian and Chinese companies extract oil in the region. This would strongly echo what has already happened with the ecologically destructive Arco Minero project in Venezuela’s Amazon region, where Maduro permitted multinational corporations to mine for natural resources under joint venture contracts.

The referendum has shaken residents of Essequibo, who are mostly indigenous people and have never believed that the land belongs to Venezuela.

While there have been troop movements on both sides of the border, it is unclear what Maduro could realistically do to bring Essequibo under Venezuelan control given Venezuela’s weak military capacity and the international response that an invasion of Essequibo would likely trigger.

The international Left should oppose what Maduro is doing and call it what it is: an authoritarian regime’s demagogic attempt to preserve itself by inflaming militarism and national chauvinism. The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) positions itself as pro-worker and blames the country’s troubles on U.S. imperialism. In reality, the Maduro government systematically attacks the working class through austerity measures. It is itself backed by imperialist powers like Russia and China. It keeps a Mafia-like grip on the unions and persecutes labor activists like Rodney Álvarez, who was imprisoned for over ten years.

Socialists should perform actions in solidarity with political prisoners and workers in struggle in Venezuela. They should amplify and make connections with the anti-regime Venezuelan Left. Simultaneously, they should push back against right-wing calls for intervention.

In brief, socialists should support the Venezuelan working class against the attacks it faces from the Maduro government and imperialist powers alike.

Featured image credit: Vector Portal; modified by Tempest.




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Dan Davison View All

Dan Davison is a British and Venezuelan labor activist based in the United Kingdom.