Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has temporarily withdrawn his government’s ambassador to neighbouring Guyana in the wake of a heated disagreement over longtime disputed waters.
“The Esequibo zone,” which lies between the two countries and just east of the Esequibo river has been subject to an ongoing dispute for centuries. The land and its offshore territory originally belonged to what is now Venezuela in the 1600s, before being subsequently granted to the former British colonial rulers of Guyana in 1814 by the Dutch. The land has been under official mediation by the United Nations since 1966.
While the disputed territory has been addressed principally through diplomatic routes for decades, the friendly relations between the two countries have come under significant strain since transnational oil company, Exxon Mobil, was granted a US$200 million deal by the Guyanese government to start drilling offshore in the oil rich territory in March of this year.
The move was immediately contested by the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry, which maintains that Guyana is not authorised to give permission to explore and drill on disputed territory and requested that exploration be halted until the dispute is resolved.
President Maduro also emitted an executive decree in June outlining Venezuela’s maritime borders, which included part of the disputed area, in an apparent response to the incursion. The decree catapulted the ongoing dispute to the fore of a heated and controversial diplomatic exchange.
“A provocation plan has been activated against Venezuela and it is our duty to show our steadfast union to overcome these scenarios that they are attempting to impose from abroad,” stated Maduro on monday evening.
At the beginning of the week, the president hit back on television at what he described as “provocative” remarks from the Guyanese government, which has warned Venezuela to stay away from Exxon’s offshore drilling project and described the maritime decree as illegal.
He also announced a series of measures relating to the dispute, including a revision of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the temporary withdrawal of the government’s ambassador in Guyana for consultation in Caracas, the convocation of a diplomatic meeting between the two countries mediated by the current presidency of CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), as well as the acceptance of an offer from the United Nations to mediate in the dispute.
“We want to activate, in accordance with the Geneva Agreement, the designation of an officiator to coordinate so that Guyana sits down at the table and looks for the solution to this historic claim,” explained the president.
Another measure to be adopted will be the creation of a state presidential “boundary” committee that will be in charge of all of Venezuela’s territorial negotiations. The committee was created through the enabling law powers granted to the Venezuelan president by the National Assembly earlier this year.
The altercation also appears to have had regional implications and Maduro went on to accuse Guyana of trying to sow division between Venezuela and the Caribbean after the country sought support and gained backing from CARICOM (Community of Caribbean States) in the dispute. He also charged the David Granger government with representing the interests of “Exxon Mobil” as opposed to those of the Guyanese people.
Following the measures announced on Monday, the Venezuelan president released a second decree on Tuesday evening modifying the first in the wake of the altercation. The second decree does not contain official measurements as in the first.
Although Guyana has yet to respond to the new decree, it was welcomed by the Colombian administration of Juan Manuel Santos. His government had also initially protested the first emission of the maritime border decree and its designation of the entrance to the oil-rich Lake Maracaibo as an “operative zone of integral maritime and insular defense”.
“What this demonstrates is that it is through dialogue and through diplomacy that problems are resolved, not through confrontation or through insults… I really celebrate the fact that this difference, this misunderstanding, has been defined once and for all,” said the Colombian president.
The dispute and subsequent reactions from the Guyana government have provoked a backlash in Venezuela, where many citizens have rallied behind the government and backed its claim to the territory. They have also likened the altercation to the infamous Malvinas (Falklands) historic territorial dispute between Argentina and the UK.