Venezuela urges diplomatic resolution to Essequibo dispute with Guyana, condemns US attempts to militarize region

President Nicolàs Maduro has urged his Guyanese counterpart Irfaan Ali to resume direct dialogue over a long-standing territorial dispute over Essequibo. Venezuela has also accused the US of trying to militarize the resource-rich region, where ExxonMobil has been conducting oil drilling projects for years

September 27, 2023 by Tanupriya Singh
Venezuela Guyana Essequibo dispute
Satellite map showing the Region of Essequibo/Guayana Esequiba that is disputed between Venezuela and Guyana. (Photo: SurinameCentral via Wikimedia Commons)

Venezuelan President Nicolàs Maduro has called upon neighboring Guyana to resume “face-to-face and direct dialogue” to resolve an ongoing territorial dispute over the oil-rich Essequibo region on the border of Venezuela and Guyana. 

Competing claims over the 160,000 square-kilometer area are rooted in the colonial period, with Caracas maintaining that Essequibo had been a part of Venezuelan territory since the time it became a Captaincy General of colonial Spain in the 18th century. Meanwhile, Guyana has staked its claim to the region on a 1899 ruling by a tribunal in Paris, which had awarded Essequibo to the UK, the former colonizer.

Venezuela has declared the ruling as null on grounds that it was not “directly represented” among the judges of the Paris Tribunal of Arbitration. Caracas has instead emphasized a treaty that was signed between Venezuela and the UK (Guyana was still a British colony at the time) in 1966, called the Geneva Agreement, under which the parties agreed to reach a mediated solution to the Essequibo dispute, recognizing Venezuela’s nullification of the 1899 decision.

Read more: How ExxonMobil uses divide and rule to get its way in South America

Venezuela had called upon Guyana to engage in direct negotiations, however, the latter opted for UN-based mechanisms including through the General Assembly and the Security Council. In 1987, both countries agreed to negotiate their claims through a UN-mediated “Good Offices” process. 

As this approach played out over the subsequent decades without a resolution, significant tensions rose in 2015, after US gas and oil giant Exxon Mobil discovered crude oil reserves off of the Essequibo shore. The value of the oil and gas reserves in the Stabroek Block, off the coast of the disputed Essequibo region, is nearly 11 billion barrels

The terms of the Production Sharing Agreement signed with Georgetown were so egregious— Exxon Mobil retaining 75% of the oil revenue as “cost recovery” and the remaining to be split 50-50 with Guyana—that a former presidential adviser warned that the country was being “recolonized.” 

Earlier this month, Guyana received bids for eight new offshore oil blocks from corporations including Exxon Mobil and Total Energies. “The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela strongly rejects the illegal licensing round being carried out by Guyana as it intends to use maritime areas that are subject of delimitation between both countries,” Caracas said in a statement on September 19.  

It added that any unlawful and arbitrary concessions granted by Guyana were unacceptable and constituted a violation of Venezuela’s sovereign rights, and that Guyana’s actions would not generate any rights for third parties. 

In a separate communique, Caracas stated that “The government of Guyana and its ruling elite continue to act as brazenly as employees of Exxon Mobil, and have handed over their sovereignty and independence to this US company, with the pretension of appropriating natural resources that do not belong to them.” 

The government also warned all companies participating in the bidding process that Venezuela would take all measures necessary to prevent the “illegitimate exploitation of natural resources belonging to our nation.” 

Meanwhile, Guyanese President Mohamed Irfaan Ali responded saying that the country had the right “to pursue economic development activities in any portion of its sovereign territory or any appurtenant maritime territories.” 

Selective sovereignty?: Western meddling in Essequibo 

On September 20, US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian Nichols, stated on X (formerly Twitter) that “The US supports Guyana’s sovereign right to develop its own natural resources,” calling on Venezuela to accept the 1899 ruling. 

Rejecting the US’ “opportunist and interventionist position,” Venezuela responded stating that Washington was trying “to justify this new attempt to strip Venezuela of its legitimate historical rights and, in turn, encourage a dangerous escalation of a controversy that for years has been addressed through diplomatic and peaceful mechanisms.” 

Venezuela has repeatedly warned against attempts by the US to militarize the region. “The Southern Command is trying to create a military base in the disputed territory in order to create the spearhead of its aggression against Venezuela and seize our energy resources,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yvàn Gil said in his speech to the UN General Assembly. 

While the US had previously simply called for a “timely resolution” of the Essequibo dispute, it abruptly changed its official position in 2018, calling instead for the 1899 arbitration decision to be upheld. 

In 2020, the US and Guyana announced that they would undertake joint military patrols in the Essequibo region, ostensibly for “drug interdiction” and to provide “greater security” to the South American country. 

These developments were taking place at the same time as the US and its allies were waging an all-out diplomatic and economic war against Venezuela in their bid to oust democratically-elected President Maduro and replace him with right-wing politician Juan Guaidó.

In 2019, a leaked recording of a phone conversation between Guaidó’s “ambassador” to the UK, Vanessa Neumann, and his international coordinator, Manuel Avendaño, featured Neumann advising Guaidó’s team to concede Venezuela’s claims to Essequibo in exchange for support from the UK for the coup.  

While the West failed in the coup attempt, the US and its allies have continued to deploy other illegal measures, including sanctions, to undermine the sovereignty of the Bolivarian Republic. 

Addressing the Voices of Dignity solidarity event held in New York City on September 23, Yvàn Gil reiterated that “If Washington tries to get involved in a conflict that does not concern it, the Venezuelan people will stand up.”

Meanwhile, on September 21, Venezuela’s National Assembly approved a motion calling for a popular consultative referendum on the country’s rights over Essequibo.   

During deliberations on the motion, the institution’s president, Jorge Rodríguez, criticized the right-wing opposition for reneging on an earlier agreement in support of Venezuela’s claims to Essequibo by “paying attention to their imperialist bosses.” 

Caracas has also repudiated statements made by the Organization of American States (OAS) in which the body objected to “Venezuela’s encroachment on Guyana’s sovereignty and territorial rights through intimidatory and unfounded statements.” 

“Today, the US, the UK and that infamous caricature of the Ministry of Colonies called the OAS, pretend to legitimize internationally immoral, illegal, legally manipulated actions, which have been deliberately presented to install them as acceptable…to perpetrate a new and aberrant theft of territory, of oil resources, and to try to impose, shamelessly, plundering, colonization and domination,” read a communique issued by the National Assembly. 

Addressing the OAS Secretary General Luis Amalgo, Venezuela’s Executive Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez said on X, “You have been a participant in coups d’état, economic wars and fruitful corruption. Godfather of regional extremism and perverse mind of lawfare. Venezuela will hold its referendum for the defense of its rights over the Essequibo territory in accordance with our Constitution and international legality…your plans of aggression against Venezuela directed by Exxon Mobil will be defeated!” 

Venezuela calls on Guyana to resume direct dialogue

In 2018, Guyana approached the International Court of Justice (ICJ) asking it to confirm the legal validity of the 1899 Arbitration Award. Venezuela subsequently told the Court that it did not have the necessary jurisdiction over the matter. 

The ICJ ruled against Venezuela on this matter in 2020. In April 2023, the Court dismissed the preliminary objections raised by Venezuela including its demand that the UK be included as part of the case. 

In a statement, Venezuela said that it had “taken note” of the ruling, while re-emphasizing that it did not recognize the judicial mechanism (on the basis that it has not given its consent to the ICJ-led process). It added that the 1966 Geneva Agreement “is the only valid instrument, and in force, to settle the dispute…through direct political negotiations.” 

Venezuela had previously also stated that Guyana had “unilaterally tried to abstain from the Geneva Agreement with a legal interpretation financed by oil transnationals.” 

Guyana, for its part, has been intent on a resolution delivered by the ICJ, with President Ali calling upon Venezuela to fully participate and abide by its outcome in an address on September 23. 

On September 25, Maduro reiterated Venezuela’s willingness to engage in peaceful, bilateral negotiations under the aegis of the Geneva Agreement, adding that he was ready to meet Ali in a place of their choice in the Caribbean to resolve the Essequibo dispute diplomatically. 

Venezuela has never threatened nor will it threaten the people of Guyana,” he said, recalling the past cooperation between the two countries including the Petrocaribe regional oil agreement “before this unionist instance was destroyed by the criminal sanctions of the United States.”

“The pretensions today of the American empire with the support of the British government and the ExxonMobil puppets that govern in Guyana are to come for the riches of the territory of Guyana Esequiba.”

Maduro also highlighted that Guyana and Venezuela had not signed any agreement for the delimitation of the sea off the Essequibo shore. 

It is important to remember where our fight for Essequibo comes from, in the face of manipulation and attempts to portray us as an aggressor country. This territory was won by the Liberation Army with Bolívar at the helm, no one gave us freedom. Venezuela is not a threat, we are only defending our historical rights,” he said on X