The Esequibo rift heats up... again

Ladies and Gentlemen: I present to you… the Atlantic Facade of Venezuela* (*:international recognition of it may differ)

The long diplomatic conflict between Venezuela and Guyana regarding the territory known as the Esequibo has entered a brand new phase this year. In recent weeks, both nations have toughened up their words and actions, thanks to the discovery of oil under disputed waters by ExxonMobil, whose presence is rejected by our central government.

Last month, ExxonMobil said that their search for oil and natural gas (which started in early March) was “showing promise”. On May 20th, the oil company announced “…a significant oil discovery”: their survey found high-quality oil-bearing sandstone reservoirs in the Stabroek Block, which has been challenged by Venezuela as its own territorial waters since the year 2000.

One week later, the Bolivarian Republic decided it had enough and literally drew a line in the sea… via decree 1.787.

Nicolas Maduro created the “Atlantic Facade of Venezuela”, reaffirming full sovereignty over the Esequibo waters and therefore limiting Guyana’s maritime access. And just two days later, he created the Operational Maritime & Insular Defense Zone (ZODIMAIN), to be guarded by the Armed Forces through the Strategic Defense Region (REDIMAIN).

On June 8th, Guyana finally responded to Maduro’s decree with a strong statement by its Foreign Affairs Ministry:

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has issued a Presidential Decree purporting to annex maritime spaces pertaining to the Cooperative Republic of Guyana under the relevant rules of International Law.
Decree No. 1.787 is a flagrant violation of International Law and is inconsistent with the principle that all States should respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other States, large and small. The Cooperative Republic of Guyana rejects this illegality which seeks to undermine our efforts at development through the exploitation of our natural resources off-shore. Guyana will continue, undeterred, to access and develop its resources in accordance with its Constitution and laws in keeping with the principles of International Law…

The Government of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana wishes to make it pellucid that Decree No. 1.787 cannot be applicable to any part of Guyana’s territory and any attempt by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to apply that instrument in an extra-territorial manner will be vigorously resisted by the Cooperative Republic of Guyana. In light of this Guyana will spare no effort in bringing to the attention of the international community this aggressive and illegal act by Venezuela.”

Brigadier Mark Phillips, chief of staff of the Guyana Defense Force, said that “…(the GDF) will not sit idly by and allow any illegal incursion of this country’s territory,” and that they’re “…ready and capable of addressing any invasion”.

Right before the official statement, Guyana suspended the flights of Venezuelan flag carrier Conviasa. The argument was the non-payment of a deposit fee to be cashed in case of suspended operations. Passengers were left grounded, and they spent the night in Georgetown’s international airport but later they were allowed to return to Maiquetia in a special flight.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister (and new VP of International Affairs for State Oil Company PDVSA) Delcy Rodriguez  has called this statement a “provocation” and placed the blame on both the Guyanese government and ExxonMobil. However, she opened the door for a meeting with her Georgetown counterpart in the future to discuss the impasse.

Just a few hours later, Delcy’s boss tried to somehow exculpate Guyana and blame everything on evil, greedy, capitalist ExxonMobil. Still, he went on to accuse Guyanese sectors of “verbal aggressions” and making “political mistakes”. He also said that “Venezuela helped Guyana’s development like no other country in the last ten years”. Talking about imperialism…

This reigniting of the Esequibo affair comes weeks after a close general election in Guyana, which gave retired military commander David Granger the Presidency. Following ExxonMobil’s announcement, Mr. Granger visited the oil drilling ship Deepwater Champion and said that he wants the Cooperative Republic to establish a sovereign wealth fund (SWF), “…so that the disposal of any natural resource will go towards benefiting the people of Guyana”.

What’s the central government’s doing here? More than playing a geo-political game, it’s engaged in a balancing act.

They want to present an image of patriotic strength over a problem of their own making – thanks to their deliberate inaction over the years, which our neighbors took huge advantages from it. But at the same time, they don’t want to alienate their CARICOM allies. But let’s not forget: CARICOM has already sided with the Guyanese on this matter.

Their strategy is doomed to failure. Ultimately, the government’s speech has to be matched by actions. It’s one thing to speak to two different crowds at the same time. It’s quite another to act as the defender of Venezuelan sovereignty as well as Guyana’s sugar daddy.