Saber-rattling and high stakes in Guyana’s geopolitical neighborhood

The Essequibo territory remains a point of contention between Guyana and Venezuela, and the stage is now set for the ICJ to step in and render a judgment.


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On January 7, 2021—one day after insurrectionist rumblings shook Washington, D.C.—Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro engaged in some saber-rattling of his own with the issuing of Decree No. 4.415, which claimed exclusive Venezuelan sovereignty over the waters and seabed off of Guyana’s coast, west of the Essequibo River. Maduro’s decree created a strategic zone called the “Territory for the Development of the Atlantic Façade,” which extends 200 nautical miles from the Orinoco Delta into the Caribbean Sea.

According to President Maduro, the establishment of this zone represents a “part of the battery of legal, diplomatic, political and State actions to defend our sacred rights of 200 years of the Republic.” The decree provides for a single authority to manage all aspects of the “strategic area.” It has a Board of Directors with representatives from the seven vice presidencies, the armed forces, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a mandate to handle revenue, taxes, and import facilities, among other responsibilities. 

Decree No. 4.415 constitutes a major development in Venezuela’s reaction to a December 2020 affirmation of jurisdiction by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in a case brought by Guyana, Venezuela’s neighbor to the east. The case pertains to the dispute triggered by Venezuela’s claim, first raised in 1962, that the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award—which determined the border between the two countries—was based on collusion between some of the arbitrators and was therefore null and void. On these grounds, Venezuela claims all of Guyana’s Essequibo region, which constitutes roughly three-quarters of Guyanese national territory. While this dispute has undergone many twists and turns over the past five decades, all attempts at permanent resolution have failed, leaving the United Nations Secretary-General with no choice but to clear the way for ICJ adjudication in 2018. The stage is now set for the ICJ to consider the validity of the 1899 Arbitral Award and render a judgment, which is likely to be favorable to Guyana. 

January did not mark the first time that Venezuela has intimidated and threatened Guyana. In October 1966, just five months after Guyana won independence from the United Kingdom, Venezuela deployed troops to seize and occupy the Guyanese portion of the island of Ankoko, situated on the littoral border between the two countries. The Venezuelan troops are still there, occupying the seven-square-kilometer island at the confluence of the Cuyuni and Wenamu rivers.

Two years later, in July 1968, President of Venezuela Raúl Leoni issued the “Decree of the Sea,” which aimed to annex a 12-mile marine belt along the coast of Guyana, between the mouth of the Essequibo River and Waini Point, and claim this zone as part of the territorial waters of Venezuela. Leoni’s decree also ordered the Venezuelan armed forces to occupy and exert control over the small maritime strip. The following year, Venezuela failed in its attempt to instigate a secessionist rebellion among Indigenous inhabitants of the Rupununi region of southwestern Guyana. The Guyana Defense Force successfully quelled the insurrection on January 2, 1969.

Maduro ramped up provocations once again in May 2015, issuing Decree 1.787—which asserted Venezuelan sovereignty over Guyana’s entire maritime area adjacent to the Essequibo coast—and authorizing the Venezuelan navy to enforce this claim. Maduro’s decree divided Venezuela’s coastline into four defense areas, one of them being the Zona Operativa de Defensa Integral Maritima Insular Atlantica (ZODIMAIN), or Atlantic Operational Maritime and Insular Defense Zone, which extended from the Paria Promontory to Venezuela’s maritime border with Trinidad and Tobago. The territorial claim made in Decree 1.787 would have annexed almost the entire Guyanese maritime zone. The decree also threatened the sovereignty of several neighboring countries, leading to protests from Guyana, Colombia, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados. In response to such international condemnation, Caracas backpedaled, issuing a superseding decree, No. 1.859, which withdrew the specific coordinates for the ZODIMAIN.

The provocations described above are merely a handful of the aggressive moves made by Venezuela against Guyana. Decree 4.415 represented a direct reaction to the massive offshore oil discovery—approximately eight billion barrels—in Guyanese waters that very month. This year’s decree, No. 4.415, has nevertheless been the most provocative measure in recent memory, given the magnitude of its repudiation of Guyanese sovereignty represented by Venezuela’s stated desire to incorporate such a significant amount of Guyana’s maritime territory. It is likewise significant that the maritime territory in question is the site of current, high-visibility petroleum extraction and exploration that appears poised to be an economic game-changer for Guyana and the investors involved. Understandably, therefore, Guyana aggressively denounced Maduro’s efforts to erode Guyana’s territorial sovereignty. In a special address to the nation on January 9, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali insisted that “Venezuela’s attempt to claim for itself the seas and seabed adjacent to the coast west of the Essequibo River is another legal nullity, which will receive no legal regard from any other State in the world, including Guyana.”

Maritime and air provocation

Venezuela’s intimidation took a new form on January 21, 2021, when the Venezuelan naval vessel Comandante Hugo Chávez GC 24 detained two Guyanese-registered fishing vessels, the Lady Nayera and the Sea Wolf, that were operating off the coast of Waini Point, within Guyana’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The captains were ordered to sail into Port Güiria, where their boats and crew of a dozen fishermen were detained. Venezuela’s escalation drew further condemnation from Guyana and various other countries, including the U.S. and the European Union. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Organization of American States also criticized Venezuela’s actions, resulting in the release of the detained sailors and vessels on February 3.

Venezuela took its provocation to new heights—literally—shortly thereafter. Guyanese authorities maintain that on March 2, two Venezuelan Soviet-made Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets overflew the community of Eteringbang and its airstrip at a threatening altitude of 1,500 feet, circling the community before leaving Guyanese aerospace. Guyanese Foreign Minister Hugh Todd condemned the overflight, declaring it to be yet another act of foreign aggression and a violation of Guyana’s sovereignty. Speaking in the National Assembly on January 28, 2021, he warned that “the incursion of our territory of the two Venezuelan fighter jets is a clear indication that the government of Venezuela is prepared to use aggression and intimidation to accomplish what cannot be accomplished by legal means—the surrender by Guyana of its patrimony.” 

High stakes

Clearly, the heat is on in northern South America, where Venezuelan aggression has raised anxieties in the world’s newest petrostate. These anxieties, however, are surely felt elsewhere, as well—by foreign and local investors, and by countries including the U.S., the U.K., China, Canada, Spain, Israel, and others with geopolitical or geoeconomic interests in Guyana. Guyana’s status as the world’s newest petro-power-in-the-making, Venezuela’s recent saber-rattling moves related to its claim over the Essequibo region, and the battle over the territory brewing before the ICJ all provoke curiosity with respect to the stakes involved for both countries.

The stakes are high for both Guyana and Venezuela. For Guyana, retaining the disputed Essequibo territory is a matter of national survival. The territory’s existential significance for the Guyanese becomes clear when one recognizes that Venezuela claims all of the territory located west of the Essequibo River, which runs 600 miles north to the Atlantic Ocean from its origins near the Guyanese-Brazilian border, and which gives the disputed territory its name. The majestic Essequibo is South America’s third-largest river, after the Amazon and the Orinoco; its estuary alone is 20 miles wide. 

The disputed territory

The Essequibo territory comprises 61,600 square miles of Guyana’s 83,000 square-mile territory (almost 75 percent of the country). Slightly larger than the size of the state of Georgia, the Essequibo’s expanse is such that it could accommodate Jamaica fourteen-and-a-half times, or Costa Rica three times. The territory holds six of Guyana’s 10 administrative regions (the equivalent of states or provinces in other countries), and some 300,000 people out of the country’s estimated population of just under 800,000. The population of the Essequibo territory is notable for the significant presence of Guyana’s nine recognized Indigenous peoples: the Lokono (Arawak), Akawaio (Kapon), Arecuna (Pemon), Macusi, Warrau, Wapisiana, Wai Wai, Patamona, and Kalina (Carib).

The territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela dates to 1841, when Venezuela alleged that Great Britain had encroached upon its territory. In 1814, Great Britain had acquired the territory that was then known as British Guiana through a treaty with the Netherlands. Since the Anglo-Dutch treaty failed to define British Guiana’s western border, the British commissioned German surveyor and naturalist Robert Schomburgk to delineate the territorial boundary. Schomburgk’s 1835 survey resulted in what came to be known as “the Schomburgk Line.” Venezuela disputed the British demarcation, claiming territory based upon pre-Schomburgk delineations that were established at the time of Venezuela’s independence from Spain in 1810. Venezuela maintained that its border extended east to the Essequibo River—in effect, claiming two-thirds of British Guiana.

The gold discovered in the disputed area in the 1850s led Great Britain to seek new ways to further extend its territorial reach, claiming an additional 33,000 square miles west of the Schomburgk Line. Venezuela protested in 1876, severing diplomatic relations with Great Britain and appealing to the U.S. for assistance, citing the Monroe Doctrine as justification for American involvement. With Washington’s encouragement, in 1897 Great Britain and Venezuela signed the Washington Treaty, which took the dispute to arbitration. The treaty contained a key provision: that both parties would consider the outcome of the arbitration “as a full, perfect, and final settlement of all the questions referred to the Arbitrators.” 

This arbitration process resulted in the October 1899 Paris Tribunal Award, which granted Venezuela the mouth of the Orinoco River and a 5,000 square mile extension around Point Barima and awarded to Great Britain the land to the east, extending to the Essequibo River. As a follow-up to the Award, a joint Anglo-Venezuelan Commission was formed in 1900 to demarcate the boundary; and in 1905, after the boundary had been delineated, British and Venezuelan commissioners produced official maps and signed an agreement verifying that the coordinates of the boundary listed were correct.

Decades later, in 1944, Severo Mallet-Prevost, one of the Venezuelan lawyers present at the arbitration, penned a letter that he asked to be opened only upon his death. The letter, finally published in 1949, alleged collusion between the Russian president of the tribunal and the British negotiators, to the detriment of Venezuela. Notwithstanding Mallet-Prevost’s posthumous intervention, Venezuela accepted the terms of the 1899 agreement until 1962. As talks pertaining to Guyana’s independence progressed, however, Venezuela informed the United Nations in February of that year that they wished to dispute their border with the soon-to-be-independent Guyana.

Abundant oil and other resources

The Essequibo holds the preponderance of Guyana’s wealth—its oil, gold, diamond, bauxite, manganese, and other minerals, as well as agricultural lands and timber. Additionally, the Essequibo region—which comprises part of the Guiana Shield, extending across the Guainía department of Colombia; Venezuela, where the Orinoco River marks the Shield’s northern boundary; Guyana; Suriname; and French Guiana—boasts an abundance of riches in terms of biodiversity.

Hess is so confident about profitability in Guyana that last month, Yahoo Finance reported the sale of USD $150 million of its assets in Denmark, quoting company representatives who noted that “proceeds will be used to fund our world-class investment opportunity in Guyana.” Earlier that same month, ExxonMobil Senior Vice President, Neil Chapman, told investors that the company’s acreage in the Guyana-Suriname basin is the largest of all the international oil companies. He added that “[s]eventeen of our eighteen discoveries have been in the Southeast region of the Stabroek Block. Importantly, the resources we’ve discovered to date are high-quality.” Meanwhile, companies from the U.K., Canada, France, Israel, and Spain also are pursuing Guyana’s bounty of ‘black gold.’

Gains for Venezuela

Venezuela, anxious to reclaim what it considers to be its stolen patrimony, refers to the disputed area as Guayana Esequiba or zona en reclamación. Writing in the February 21 edition of the Caracas Chronicles, analyst Reybert Carrillo explains the sizable economic and strategic gains that Venezuela would acquire if it were to take possession of the disputed territory. For instance, it would obtain an extensive hydrographic network that includes the Essequibo River and its Atlantic delta; the Cuyuni, Rupununi, Mazaruni, and Supenaam rivers; and the Potaro River and its 741-foot Kaieteur Falls–the world’s largest single drop waterfall by volume of water flowing over it.

Crucially, as the disputed territory includes almost 300 kilometers of new coastline and over 40 square kilometers of ocean waters, the benefits to Venezuela would also include customs taxes, increased fishing opportunities, increased territory for military exercises, increased opportunities for tourism, and the chance to strengthen commercial exchange with Europe and Africa. Carrillo acknowledges that Venezuela is currently able to cover only the southern Caribbean Sea with its maritime checkpoints at the Isla de Aves and the Los Monjes Archipelago, and notes that “if the coastal band towards the Essequibo is expanded, the fishing resources would be much broader, also strengthening Venezuela in terms of security and defense.”

Meanwhile, the natural resources that Guyana would gain from annexation of the Essequibo territory would include bauxite, diamond, manganese, gold, and oil. Indeed, the oil reserves in Guyana must have the Maduro government practically salivating, with some analysts speculating that Guyana’s ample petroleum assets have made Venezuela more brazen in its aggression. Writing in the January 25 edition of, Viktor Katona posed a provocative question: “Will Venezuela go to war over oil?” My own sense is that, although Venezuela outmatches Guyana militarily by a factor of more than 35 to one, wisdom will prevail in foregoing use of the military option; Venezuelan leaders will realize that the geopolitical and economic losses that the country would incur as a result of military aggression toward Guyana far outweigh any potential gains from military occupation.

So, Guyana—now in its 55th year of independence from the U.K. and on the cusp of taking off into the economic stratosphere due to its abundant oil supplies—is wracked with existential anxiety. The stakes are not only high for the Guyanese, however. The corporate executives and investors of ExxonMobil, Hess, Anadarko, CGX Energy, Ratio Oil, Repsol, Tullow, and China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation must also be anxious to avoid any conflict that could disrupt their valuable investments on the north coast of South America. I have every reason to believe they will not rely on hope alone but will act appropriately to dissuade further saber-rattling and facilitate a peaceful resolution of the Guyanese-Venezuelan dispute at the ICJ.

Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith is a Senior Associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a Fellow with the Caribbean Policy Consortium. The University of Illinois Press will publish his next book, Challenged Sovereignty. He is the recipient of the Dr. William J. Perry Award for Excellence in Security and Defense Education, named in honor of former U.S. Defense Secretary Dr. William J. Perry. He has published widely on Caribbean security, drugs, and crime and has also testified before the U.S. Congress on Caribbean security issues.

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