The Essequibo River Dispute: A Dangerous Standoff Between Venezuela and Guyana
The Essequibo River cuts through the Kurupukari Crossing in Guyana, a country that is facing a longstanding territorial dispute with Venezuela. The source of the conflict can be traced back to a ruling issued in 1899 by an international court in Paris which granted the then British Guiana most of the territory between the Orinoco and Essequibo rivers.
Venezuela respected the ruling until 1962, when the British colony moved towards independence, alleging fraud in the court. A 1966 agreement, signed shortly before Guyana’s independence, paved the way for talks between countries over the disputed area and eventual intervention by the International Court of Justice. However, progress has been slow.
In recent years, Guyana has undergone a rapid transformation due to the discovery of oil off the coast of the Essequibo region by ExxonMobil in 2015. With more than US$1 billion annually in public revenue coming in from oil, Guyana has been able to promote enormous infrastructure projects. As a result, the country is on the verge of surpassing the oil production of Venezuela and is on track to become the world‘s largest per capita oil producer.
Venezuela has responded to the discovery by claiming that Guyana has no right to grant concessions to drill in marine reserves and has referred to Guyana as a tool of ExxonMobil. Political tensions escalated ahead of a referendum vote, with both countries raising the specter of armed conflict over the region.
In a move to prevent possible military confrontations, Brazil announced an increase in its military presence along its northern border with Venezuela and Guyana. Analysts from the International Crisis Group have expressed concerns about the potential for military skirmishes, cautioning that the belligerence from both sides poses a risk for dangerous territory.
Amid these tensions, Phil Gunson, an analyst with the Caracas headquarters of the International Crisis Group, believes that the Venezuelan government might use the crisis as a patriotic theme to gain political support. However, it remains to be seen whether allies will support Venezuela’s territorial ambitions.
As the territorial dispute between Venezuela and Guyana simmers, and with domestic pressures rising in Venezuela, the potential for tensions to escalate further remains a concern. Whether the two countries can reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict is uncertain, but the implications of further escalation are grave.