A First Effect of the Esequibo Campaign: Xenophobia against Venezuelans in Guyana

More than 20,000 migrants in that country are being posed as a threat and a Trojan horse from the Guyanese media and political sphere

Despite sharing borders with the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, it feels as though a deep chasm separates us. This unbridgeable divide has been etched out by the Macizo Guayanés (Guiana Highlands), a heavily forested plateau and low-mountain region north of the Amazon and south of the Orinoco River. This extensive natural border, coupled with nonexistent infrastructure and insufficient political willingness to cooperate from both sides, has left Guyana –and its institutions, customs, culture, and people– as an enigma for the majority of Venezuelans. Conversely, this is likely the perception that Guyanese citizens have of us.

In recent months, especially after the referendum over the Esequibo in December, there has been an aggressive and distrustful response on the other side of the Macizo Guayanés. Understandably, Guyana’s political elite and civil society have treated this issue as an existential threat and are orchestrating a non-partisan national movement under the Guyanese creole slogan “Essequibo is we own” to protect what they believe is their legitimate ownership of the Esequibo. Unfortunately, this development has also catalyzed a strong xenophobic sentiment against Venezuelan migrants living there.

According to the database provided by Home Affairs Minister Robeson Benn, there are approximately 21,782 registered Venezuelan migrants in Guyana. This data was disclosed after opposition MP Tabitha Sarabo-Halley posed questions at that country’s National Assembly about the influx of Venezuelan migrants and the government’s ability to record and track them, as well as to determine if any have a military background. Registering Venezuelan migrants has proven to be a challenging task for the government, particularly because some of them inhabit hard-to-access areas next to the Venezuelan border. This complicates knowing the exact number of Venezuelans in Guyana and thus the data on the Venezuelan population given by different entities differ. EL PAIS English mentioned 35,000 people while the UN Refugee Agency estimated by 2022 that there were around 24,500 refugees and migrants from Venezuela, from which some 2,500 are indigenous Warao.

Besides the remarks made by Sarabo-Halley on whether the government could record and track Venezuelan citizens, there have been numerous instances of aggressive remarks made against those migrants by other Guyanese politicians and civil society commentators. Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo, for instance, cautioned last December that the country should be vigilant about the community. “We have to be careful because there is a possibility that we could be infiltrated by the Venezuelan intelligence apparatus by planting people here,” Jagdeo said on a radio show. “So we have to be vigilant. Our security forces and our intelligence operations are geared towards finding such people if they exist. And we also have to be careful that the communities don’t become a Trojan horse here.” Not so long ago, before the Maduro regime embraced the Esequibo campaign, Jagdeo had expressed solidarity for Venezuelan migrants and condemned xenophobic actions against two Venezuelan migrants who were forced to walk naked in the streets and coerced to say they were thieves.

In a similar vein, Aubrey Norton –the leader of the opposition– called for screening, recording, and monitoring Venezuelans to ensure Guyana’s safety and security. Furthermore, he emphasized the importance of addressing this threat on a nonpartisan basis. And such messages are not confined to Guyana’s political representatives: they are also prevalent in newspaper columns and various social media platforms. In one notable instance, Mosa Telford wrote in Stabroek News that there were reports of Venezuelans already surpassing Guyanese people in Region 1 and that “a friend of mine who has Venezuelan relatives said that they shared that some of the Venezuelans coming to Guyana are criminals. We must ask ourselves, is the Trojan horse already here?”. 

This take echoes the recurring view of Venezuelans as criminals found in other countries in South America –and now even in the U.S.– and is only one of many aggressive or even xenophobic comments circulating in the social media platforms of the main Guyanese newspapers when reporting on the Venezuelan migration.

While these statements may be mere rhetoric and aspirations, such sentiments have the potential to significantly impact the established Venezuelan population there, especially if the rhetoric expressed by Guyanese politicians materializes into policies such as surveillance and monitoring of migrants. This would inevitably hinder Venezuelans seeking to improve their living conditions in Guyana. The irony lies in the fact that Maduro’s strategy regarding the Esequibo appears to be a geopolitical bluff unlikely to result in military annexation. Nonetheless, it indirectly jeopardizes the integration and well-being of Venezuelans residing in the neighboring country. The same regime that made them flee in the first place is now causing them more problems in the new country where they try to improve their lives.