How far will Maduro push Guyana?
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said Tuesday he will make a province out of the disputed territory of Essequibo, located in western Guyana, and to prove it he’s ordered gas and oil exploration in the region. His Guyanese counterpart, President Irfaan Ali, plans to head straight to the UN Security Council if Maduro makes good on his threat.
Maduro’s announcement followed his risible referendum on Sunday, when 95% of Venezuelans voted Sí to annexing the territory.
Staking a claim is easier than pitching a tent. The Essequibo region is mountainous, dense jungle with few modern roads. Venezuela’s military is neither well-equipped nor trained – and it hasn’t fought a foreign war in over 100 years.
Of course, Guyana has never fought a war and has fewer than 4,000 troops, but it does have one big advantage: a strong rapport with Uncle Sam. It’s counting on the US to deter a Venezuelan invasion, and that strategy might pay off. Maduro has not yet deployed troops, and he says the military unit he plans to organize to protect the new province will be based elsewhere.
Still, US leverage is limited. The US lightened sanctions on Venezuela this October in exchange for democratic reforms, and Maduro immediately tested Washington’s resolve: He barred opposition candidate Maria Corina Machado from running in next year’s election, and he refused to release three unlawfully detained Americans – both without recourse.
After months of playing up the issue and holding a public vote, Maduro has to be seen to be doing something. Besides, the two countries have been squabbling over the region since colonial times, and most Venezuelans want to see Essequibo annexed. So while going to war over it makes little sense, analysts expect that Maduro will play up his “province” – rhetorically, that is – to pump up his votes.