Guyana prepares to defend borders as Venezuela tries to claim oil-rich disputed region, president says

Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali said the country is taking all necessary steps to defend itself against Venezuela, which has ordered its state-owned companies to explore and exploit oil and minerals in Guyana’s vast and resource-rich Essequibo region, which it considers own, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday. Ali echoed similar sentiments Tuesday in an interview with CBS News, explaining that Guyana is preparing to protect its borders with Venezuela so that they remain as they are.

Asked if he had asked for military assistance, Ali said his government was reaching out to allies and regional partners, some of which Guyana has defense agreements with, to protect the Essequibo region, which makes up two-thirds of the country.

“Our first line of defense is diplomacy,” Ali told CBS News, adding that Guyana has reached out to leaders abroad, including in the U.S., India and Cuba, hoping “they can encourage Venezuela to do this, which is right, and to ensure that they do not act in a reckless or adventurous manner that could disrupt the pace in that area.”

“But we’re also preparing for the worst possible scenario … We’re preparing with our allies, with our friends, to make sure we’re in a position to defend what’s ours,” he said. Although Ali noted that Guyana would prepare its military assets in the event of a Venezuelan invasion, he also reiterated, “We want this to be resolved peacefully.”

Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the US State Department, echoed the president’s hope for peace in a statement, saying: “We urge Venezuela and Guyana to continue to seek a peaceful resolution to their dispute. This is not something that will be decided by a referendum.”

Venezuela claims its citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of a referendum aimed at giving Venezuela power over Guyana’s Essequibo region. It is part of a long-standing border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana.

Dispute over the territory of Guyana and Venezuela
The Essequibo River flows through the Kurupukari Pass in Guyana, Saturday, November 19, 2023. Venezuela has long claimed the Essequibo region of Guyana, a territory larger than Greece and rich in oil and minerals.

Juan Pablo Araes / AP

“We take this threat very seriously and have taken a number of precautions to ensure peace and stability in this region,” Ali told the AP in a brief telephone interview.

He noted that the Guyana Defense Force is also in talks with counterparts from other countries.

“If Venezuela continues to act in this reckless and adventurous way, the region will have to respond,” he said. “And that’s what we’re building. We are building a regional response.”

Ali spoke a day after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said he would “immediately” grant operating licenses for exploration and exploitation in Essequibo and ordered the creation of local subsidiaries of Venezuelan public companies, including oil giant PDVSA and mining conglomerate Corporación Venezolana de Guayana.

Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, but years of mismanagement and economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. against Maduro’s government have hurt PDVSA and subsidiaries.

Maduro also announced the creation of a comprehensive defense operational zone for the disputed territory. This would be similar to special military commands that operate in certain regions of Venezuela.

“Venezuela’s announcements are in complete violation of international law,” Ali said. “And any country that so openly defies important international bodies should be alarming not only to Guyana but to the entire world. He said that Venezuela’s actions could seriously disrupt stability and peaceful coexistence in the region.

Guyana expects to raise the issue at a UN Security Council meeting on Wednesday.

The president said in a statement late Tuesday that his administration had reached out to the US, neighboring Brazil, the UK, France, the UN secretary-general and the US Southern Command, which oversees military operations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Ali also accused Venezuela of defying a ruling the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands issued last week. He ordered Venezuela to take no action until the court rules on the parties’ competing claims, a process expected to take years.

The Venezuelan government condemned Ali’s statement, accusing Guyana of acting irresponsibly and saying it had given US Southern Command the green light to enter the Essequibo region.

Venezuela called on Guyana to resume dialogue and put aside “volatile, threatening and risky behavior”.

The diplomatic dispute over the Essequibo region has raged over the years, but intensified in 2015 after ExxonMobil announced it had discovered vast amounts of oil off its coast.

Venezuela insists that the region belongs to it because Essequibo was within its borders during the Spanish colonial period. Venezuela rejects the border that international arbitrators drew in 1899, when Guyana was still under British rule.

The dispute escalated after Maduro held a referendum on Sunday in which Venezuelans endorsed his claim to sovereignty over Essequibo.

Ali called the referendum a “failure” and said Guyana was preparing for any eventuality.

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