Will Maduro Escalate the Esequibo Conflict?

Chavismo is using Guyana’s oil activity in disputed waters—and its support by the US—to galvanize the population and sabotage the opposition primaries with a referendum

In November of 2021, Guyana’s government announced they were hopeful that new oil blocks could be auctioned off by late 2022. The South American nation, slotted in between Venezuela and Suriname, has been enjoying a sizable economic boom, powered greatly by ExxonMobil’s discovery of vast offshore oil deposits in 2015. This has turned Guyana into the world’s fastest-growing economy with analysts projecting growth of 38% this year alone. That said, this newfound wealth hasn’t come without controversy.

Venezuela and Guyana have an ongoing dispute over a large swath of land west of the Essequibo River that both nations claim as their own and is commonly known by Venezuelans as Guayana Esequiba. As luck would have it, it turns out that some of the large offshore oil deposits that Guyana is auctioning off extend well into waters that Venezuela claims as its own.

Expectedly, this has caused quite the diplomatic spat, which has intensified since officials in Georgetown announced they had received bids for 8 out of 14 exploration blocks they were seeking to auction. The Venezuelan foreign ministry reacted immediately denouncing Guyana’s auction as “illegal”, and claiming that oil companies shouldn’t expect the transfer of any rights over the blocks. 

Mid-Atlantic Oil & Gas’ map of the 14 exploration blocks being auctioned in Guayana Esequiba. It is worth noting that the exploration blocks Stabroek and Roraima extend over the Venezuelan state of Delta Amacuro.

Since then, tensions have continued to escalate, with Venezuela protesting and communiqués coming and going, but how do their chances for success look? 

How Have the Dice Fallen

It didn’t take too long for sides to be taken by relevant actors. Perhaps the single most important public declaration came from Brian Nichols, White House Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, who took to X to say that the United States “supports Guyana’s sovereign rights to develop their own natural resources.” Nichols went on to add that any attempts to “infringe” on Guyanese sovereignty were “unacceptable.” These are big words coming from one of the historical participants in the dispute.  Similarly, Luis Almagro—Secretary General of the OAS and a close ally of the opposition—also supported “Guyana’s sovereign right to practice its franchise” on its maritime territory while accusing Venezuela of not respecting the 1899 Arbitral Award which unleashed the conflict.

Venezuela did not pass these comments up. Vice president Delcy Rodríguez called the United States “the imperialist masters” pulling the strings behind the thievery of Venezuela’s land. Defense Minister, Vladimir Padrino López, claimed the United States was attempting to colonize Guyana. 

The National Assembly ran speeches about how the Esequibo is a Venezuelan territory and called on the National Electoral Council to organize a public consult on the defense of the land, something rather curious considering that the defense of the nation’s territorial integrity is a constitutional mandate and not up for debate but… we’ll get to that.

Besides the United States, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)—which for years has supported the Chavista governments—responded to Venezuela’s September 19th communiqué that threatened to employ “all necessary measures” to prevent the exploration of the blocks, by siding with member-state Guyana and denouncing the veiled threat of the use of force. Guyana has, of course, defended its claims to transfer exploration rights over the oil blocks, both in declarations by President Irfaan Ali and his parliamentary opposition. Georgetown also went a step further and summoned the Venezuelan ambassador, Carlos Pérez Silva, over the threats that have been made.

The dice seem to be falling against Caracas, and Guyana will no doubt rush foreign companies to start working to make the mattera fait accompli. So, is there anything Venezuela can do? Will it?

Maduro’s Interests vs. Venezuela’s

Nicolás Maduro must be loving this. The Esequibo issue has, historically speaking, united Venezuelans across political divides, and a little bit of escalation may be of great use to him as he seeks to motivate the disillusioned PSUV base to head back to the polls in 2024, when he expects to regain legitimacy and negotiate sanction lifting. 

This is why the National Assembly’s trying to organize that “national consultation” we spoke about at the start. It’s the circus part of “bread and circus.” That’s also why, if we look at the government’s official statements, they’ve chosen their words to play Guyana off as some hapless victim being manipulated by big, bad America and its evil oil companies. Venezuela has accused Guyana of becoming a colony of the US, they’ve also called them “employees” of ExxonMobil. Government complaints have, coincidentally, left out that Exxon’s biggest partner in Guyana is China National Offshore Oil Company. No one else can take the blame, there are no companies besides Exxon, and Guyana can’t make its own decisions, it’s all coming from the Empire.

The dice seem to be falling against Caracas, and Guyana will no doubt rush foreign companies to start working to make the mattera fait accompli. So, is there anything Venezuela can do? Will it?

This is also why all the saber rattling will probably stay as just that, bothersome noise. From a strategic point of view, Venezuelan officials understand the die is cast, with diplomatic and legal efforts unlikely to go the way they hoped, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be willing to commit to military action. Maduro’s government is mainly concerned with securing their position in Miraflores and the best way to do that would be winning the 2024 election and remaining on America’s good-side to get the sanctions lifted. Under normal circumstances, Venezuela could use its Navy to patrol the waters where Guyana has divided up the oil blocks, but this is hardly an option for Nicolás Maduro and his associates. The United States has already sided rather heavily with Guyana, and military escalation may only hinder Maduro’s attempts at complete recognition and the lifting of sanctions. It could also endanger his fresh “all weather strategic partnership” with China, who have very clear interests in things going smoothly and their investment in the Guyana-Suriname basin being profitable.

On top of all these considerations, I find it hard to imagine that a military operation would convince people to suddenly like Maduro and his government. Don’t get me wrong, social media is full of people claiming Venezuela should act with force, and a small scale (successful) operation could rally PSUV voters, but I highly doubt those who were going to vote for the opposition candidate (or abstain altogether) would have a sudden change of heart. 

The people may support action in general, but that doesn’t mean they’d support this government in an election. Plus, Maduro probably remembers what happened to Jorge Anaya and Leopoldo Galtieri after they failed to take the Falklands and South Georgia Islands in 1982.

Antagonizing the United States (beyond some tweets) and seeking a conflict against another nation are two things that may not play into Maduro’s personal interests, even if they may be in the interest of his country.