Venezuelan territorial ambitions over the Guyanese region of Essequibo have increased fears of armed conflict in South America. Experts, however, point out that confrontation in the short term is unlikely.
(DW) A referendum held last weekend by the Venezuelan regime on its intention to annex the Essequibo region, currently administered by neighboring Guyana, has reinforced fears of an armed conflict in northern South America.
According to the Venezuelan authorities, 95.93% of the country’s voters who went to the polls were in favor of the “creation of the State of Guyana Essequibo and the development of an accelerated plan for the integral care of the current and future population of this territory”, in practice expressing support for the annexation of Essequibo – an area of 160,000 square kilometers, which represents more than two thirds of Guyana’s current territory. The 125,000 inhabitants who live in the disputed area did not take part in the vote.
Although the conflict over the area has been unresolved for more than a century, the holding of the referendum in Venezuela has put Guyana on alert.
“The Guyana Defence Force is on high alert and has been in contact with its military counterparts, including the United States Southern Command,” emphasized Guyana’s president, Irfaan Ali, in response to the action plan that Caracas announced on Tuesday, which foresees the start of a process of granting licenses by the Venezuelan oil company PDVSA to explore for oil, gas and minerals in Essequibo.
On the same day, the Brazilian government announced that it would send troops and armored vehicles to the state of Roraima, which borders Venezuela and Guyana. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said on Wednesday (07/12) that he is following the tensions between Venezuela and Guyana with “growing concern” and suggested that multilateral organizations such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) or the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) mediate talks between the two countries.
“We don’t want wars or conflicts, we need to build peace, because only with peace can we develop our countries,” said Lula at the opening of the Mercosur summit in Rio de Janeiro.
The possibility of armed conflict
“Many countries in the region are worried about the possibility of an armed conflict between states,” international analyst Andrei Serbin told DW.
According to him, the tensions are particularly worrying for Brazil, whose current political leadership “is committed to aspects of the regional integration agenda and is based, in part, on the premise of being a zone of peace”.
If it decides to launch an offensive, Venezuela would end up facing huge logistical problems.
The border between Guyana and Venezuela is predominantly jungle, which makes it difficult to move armored vehicles. One way around this would be for the Venezuelans to move troops through the Brazilian state of Roraima, which has more accessible terrain to reach Guyana. But the fact that Brazil is on the way could also be seen as a deterrent, since Maduro would risk expanding the conflict even further.
An offensive would also displease China, Venezuela’s ally, but which has commercial interests in Guyana.
Political analyst Mariano de Alba, from the International Crisis Group, points out that most Latin American countries have preferred to remain silent. Those that have spoken out, he points out, express great concern and have urged the two countries to reduce tensions and try to resolve their differences peacefully.
The role of the International Court of Justice
Although several governments in the region consider it unlikely that tensions will escalate into an armed conflict in the short or medium term, De Alba believes that as tensions rise, there will be more calls for regional organizations to discuss the situation and make a statement, something that has not yet happened.
In an interview with DW, the analyst points out that the territorial dispute is still pending before the International Court of Justice (ICJ): “It is likely that the countries of the region will ask the two countries to wait and comply with the Court’s final decision. But that final decision is still years away.”
What is the likelihood of war?
In the opinion of the political analyst, “an armed conflict is not a scenario that can be ruled out, but it is unlikely, especially in the short term”.
While Brazil has organized the deployment of a small number of troops to the border, Venezuela and Guyana have made limited military movements: “This is a sign that, for the time being, there are no great expectations of conflict. The risk in this kind of situation is that there is a misunderstanding and, consequently, an escalation of the conflict,” says De Alba.
International analyst Andrei Serbin points out that the reinforcement of Brazilian troops patrolling the border with Venezuela and Guyana and the dispatch of 16 armored vehicles, which will take 20 days to reach their destination, “are insufficient, considering Venezuela’s military capacity”.
On Wednesday, Brazil’s Defense Minister José Múcio said that the region of the triple border between Brazil, Guyana and Venezuela, in Roraima, is “guaranteed” by the Armed Forces. “Brazil has to secure its borders, and our borders are very secure. We will not allow [Venezuelan troops to pass through Brazil]. I can assure you of that,” said Múcio.
Interests behind the territorial dispute
On the other hand, Mariano de Alba emphasizes that both the Venezuelan and Guyanese governments have an interest in limiting the dispute to public debate for the time being.
“For Nicolás Maduro’s government, this is a way of feeding nationalism and strengthening the support of the armed forces ahead of the 2024 presidential elections. He is also using the dispute to divide the opposition and possibly damage the oppositionists’ electoral prospects,” he says.
As for Guyana, the tensions have served to strengthen diplomatic and military support from countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, explains the International Crisis Group expert. In addition, according to De Alba, Guyana will hold general elections in 2025, and “the government must be calculating that good management of the situation could increase its electoral prospects”.
*** Translated by DEFCONPress FYI Team ***