US announces military exercise in Guyana and Venezuela responds: “Threat to regional peace”

US Embassy says it is working to “defend the country”; Venezuelan Foreign Minister says action is “provocation”

May 10, 2024 by Lorenzo Santiago
The Venezuelan Armed Forces carried out military exercises in the region after the deployment of a UK aircraft carrier (Photo: Venezuelan Armed Forces)

The US embassy in Guyana announced on May 9 that military exercises will be held in the South American country. The US representation in Guyana said that two US military planes will fly over Georgetown and the region on Thursday. The Venezuelan government responded in social media posts, in which ministers called the measure a “threat to regional peace”.

Guyana and Venezuela are currently experiencing diplomatic tension over the disputed territory of Essequibo. In December 2023, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro called a referendum for the population to vote on the reincorporation of Essequibo—which was Venezuelan until the 19th century. The majority voted yes.

Other international actors entered the dispute, with threats from the US and the deployment of a UK aircraft carrier off the coast of Guyana.

A US military officer also visited Guyana recently. On Thursday, the US embassy in the country also said that US Southern Command’s Director of Strategy, Policy and Plans, Julie Nethercot, was in Guyana from May 6 to 8 to oversee “strategic planning, policy development and coordination of security cooperation for Latin America and the Caribbean.”

The note also states that the United States is working on “deterring aggression, defeating threats, responding rapidly to crises, and working with allies and partner nations to strengthen the region’s capacity to ensure a safe, free, and prosperous Western Hemisphere.” According to the text, the embassy’s objective is to maintain its commitment to the “US-Guiana bilateral defense and security partnership.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yván Gil responded to the statement. In a post on social media, the foreign minister said that this measure is “further proof of the provocations” that the Southern Command is waging against the Venezuelan government from a “war machine” against the country.

Yván Gil linked the exercises to ExxonMobil’s activities in Guyana. According to the Venezuelan minister, the measure meets the company’s “unlimited desires.” In March, the US oil company discovered the Bluefin oil well, located in the Stabroek block, exactly off the coast of Essequibo, a region that is the subject of a historical dispute between Venezuela and Guyana.

ExxonMobil discovered oil in Guyana in 2015, but only started extracting in 2019 and has implemented 5 projects for the region. Today, the company produces 650,000 barrels of oil per day in the South American country.

The Venezuelan Foreign Minister said that ExxonMobil has taken over Guyana and now intends to destabilize the region by threatening the Peace Zone that was agreed between the two Caribbean countries. For him, the Guyanese government is violating the so-called “Argyle Accords”, which provided for the non-use of force and the continuation of dialogues to resolve the Essequibo dispute.

Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López also commented on the case. He said that the measure “threatens regional peace” and that he rejects “forcefully” the “provocations of the Southern Command” and said that Guyana has assumed the role of a “new US colony”.

“Our Aerospace Defense system remains activated against any attempt to violate Venezuelan geographic space, including the territory of Essequibo. Alert!” concluded the minister.

Understanding the dispute

Covering 160,000 km, the Essequibo territory has been the subject of dispute since the 19th century, but the controversy took on new contours after 2015, when US company Exxon Mobil found huge offshore oil reserves off the coast of the enclave.

Guyana then handed over concessions so that the company could exploit the reserves, which are estimated at more than 11 billion barrels of oil and have made Guyana’s GDP the fastest growing in the world, according to projections by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The decision displeased Caracas, which claims that Georgetown could not have unilaterally issued concessions in an non-demarcated territory. The government of President Nicolás Maduro has even accused his Guyanese counterpart of following the interests of Exxon Mobil and inciting a conflict in the region. Guyana, on the other hand, accuses its neighbor of “expansionist intentions” and has been allowing US military exercises on its border since September.

In 2023, Venezuela held a referendum to hear the population’s opinion on the incorporation of Essequibo. According to the National Electoral Council, around 10.5 million voters took part in the referendum and 95.93% agreed to incorporate Guyana into the map and grant citizenship to the more than 120,000 Guyanese living in the region.

The presidents of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, and Guyana, Irfaan Ali, met in December to discuss the dispute over the territory. On social media, the Venezuelan presidency celebrated the meeting and said that the presidents were “willing to continue the dialogue to resolve the dispute over the Essequibo territory”.

The Guyanese president said that he had expressed to Maduro “Guyana’s clear position that we are a peaceful country and people, we have no other ambitions than to seek peaceful coexistence with Venezuela”. However, Ali said that he defended “the fact that the dispute should be resolved at the International Court of Justice [ICJ]”, which Caracas rejects.

This article was translated from an article originally published in Portuguese on Brasil de Fato.