Venezuelization of Guyana?

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, so said a famous English lexicographer, Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1775. A deeply flawed politician, in a deeply flawed election in a deeply dysfunctional country claimed to have won the presidential elections with the help of institutionalized rigging. The international community questioned the authenticity of the elections. Now that deeply flawed politician is facing another presidential election in the year 2024. Aware that he is facing huge unpopularity, he is taking recourse to the time-tested route. That aphorism by Dr. Samuel Johnson seems to be true for Nicolas Maduro, the dictator cum president of Venezuela.

Having won two presidential terms earlier in disputed and rigged elections that were highly questioned by international observers, Nicolas Maduro is facing elections again in 2024. He is deeply unpopular in Venezuela. Since 2015, seven million Venezuelans have left the country out of a total population of 28 million. The only issue on which Nicolas Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition agree is annexation of Essequibo province of Guyana.  By invoking jingoistic fervor and nationalistic passions in Venezuela, Maduro is trying to win the third term that otherwise would be elusive. Hence the timing of the sham referendum in Venezuela on December 3rd, 2023! It was a tactical move by Maduro to improve his winnability in 2024 elections. Maduro government claims that 95% of the Venezuelan people voted for the referendum but international observers question the results and the level of participation. 

The issue of sovereignty of the Essequibo province is sub-judice in the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The ICJ earlier dismissed Venezuela’s appeal in April 2023 regarding lack of jurisdiction of the court in this dispute. The 1899 arbitration panel clearly voted in favor of Guyana and since then the sparsely populated Essequibo province is part of Guyana and constitutes 2/3rd of Guyana’s landmass. Since discovery of oil offshore in that province, Guyana has become an oil exporter with almost 14 billion barrels of oil reserves compared to 304 billion barrels of oil reserves of Venezuela. 

The match between Guyana and Venezuela is akin to the proverbial David versus Goliath story. The entire population of Guyana is only 800,000 with only125,000 Guyanese citizens living in the Essequibo province. Venezuela is much bigger country with a population of 28 million. Venezuelan armed forces have 343,000 soldiers on active duty while Guyana Defense Forces are a puny 5000 strong contingent. There is no way currently for Guyana to deal with a military invasion of the Essequibo province. Although the terrain of Essequibo province is very inhospitable and full of dense jungles and analysts suggest that it is very difficult to invade, one cannot rule out this possibility. After all, Maduro is learning very fast from his socialist and leftist friends internationally. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has distracted the US. The Hamas Israeli war is already the current focus of international attention. Because of the international oil market issues, US under Biden administration relaxed the sanctions of Venezuela which can export oil again in international market. Venezuela’s other Communist friend China has increased its belligerence in relation to the Philippines over Scarborough shoals, with Japan over Senkaku islands and with many ASEAN countries by claiming the entire South China Sea as its private lake. Maduro is trying to ape both Putin and Xi Jinping in its aggressive postures towards Guyana.  

Fortunately, both Caricom and the Organization of American States (OAS) have taken strong exception to Venezuelan brinksmanship. The International Court of Justice while not commenting on the referendum has castigated Venezuela about employing military means to occupy Essequibo. The final verdict in the case in the ICJ will still take more than a couple of years. The regional power Brazil has tried to mediate between the two countries without any results.  The US which historically invoked the Monroe doctrine in the nineteenth and twentieth century in favor of Venezuela is now forced to support Guyana’s moral and legal case in this dispute. Support has also come from the former colonial power, UK, that is strongly in favor of Guyana’s case. The bilateral meeting between Guyanese President Mohammad Irfan Ali and Nicolas Maduro did not resolve the issue despite the rhetoric to maintain peace. Guyanese President Irfaan Ali and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro agreed to meet again in Brazil within three months or at another agreed-upon time, according to an 11-point declaration read at a press briefing last Thursday at which no questions were allowed.

What happens if Maduro goes for the broke and decides to invade Guyana to occupy and annex Essequibo? Tiny Guyanese Defense Forces will not be able to protect the province from invasion. Some Guyanese citizens will be forced to flee the region. Will the US step in to correct the situation? There is no appetite in the US to send boots on the ground anywhere in the world. Will the Government of Guyana bite the bullet and decide to host a US military base in Guyana to deter Venezuela? Would regional powers like Brazil and Argentina support the notion of a US military base in their own backyard?  Could the UN Security Council step in and authorize a multilateral peace-keeping force in the Essequibo province? Will Russia and China veto any UN security council resolution on peacekeeping and de-escalation of the bilateral conflict? Maduro should not forget to learn from the lessons of history. We know what happened to Iraq under Saddam Hussain when it invaded Kuwait in 1991 and claimed it to be its 31st province. UNSC authorized a multilateral coalition of the willing that reversed the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. 

Guyana has very limited options. Guyana can try to improve the racial harmony in the country and unify the muti-ethnic nation with a strong voice against aggression by the neighboring giant. Guyana has the highest oil reserves per capita in the world. While Saudi Arabia has 1900 barrels per person, Guyana has 3900 barrels per person oil reserves. The oil wealth can be used to improve the level of development, standard of living and eliminate poverty from Guyana and prevent exodus of its Indo-Guyanese population to the US and other regional countries. Guyana should focus on increasing its comprehensive national strength besides modernizing and beefing up its minuscule armed forces. Efforts must be made to make Guyanese armed forces multi-ethnic to resolve domestic conflict between various ethnicities and racial groups. Guyana should also consider out of box solutions like entering in bilateral or plurilateral friendship and mutual assistance treaties with non-colonial countries like Brazil, Argentina and India as a deterrence to invasion by Venezuela.

More likely, Venezuela will keep the pressure on Guyana short of a full-scale invasion. Venezuela has already started to offer its own citizenship and identity cards to the Guyanese citizens living in the Essequibo province.  Venezuela will soon start a wave of migration to the Essequibo province changing the demography of the province in its favor. In the long run, a small country like Guyana will not be able to resist the changed demography of the Essequibo province. Will Essequibo province remain part of Guyana or become Venezuelized eventually is an important question of geopolitical significance in that region. One thing is for certain. After losing two-thirds of its resource rich territory, Guyana will not be able to survive as a sovereign and independent nation! The choices for Guyana are stark!


More by :  Dr. A. Adityanjee

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