Maduro hoped to mobilize Venezuelans around an old grievance in Guyana. He seems to have failed

What happens next remains unpredictable, as the president’s actions grow increasingly erratic.

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On 3 December, the Venezuelan government held a referendum on Venezuela’s right to annex two thirds of Guyana – formerly British Guyana. 

In addition to calling for the absorption of Guyana’s Essequibo region the referendum also put to a vote whether to offer Venezuelan citizenship to the 200,000 or so Guyanese citizens living in the area. The measures were approved with over 94 per cent of the vote.

President of Guyana, Mohammed Irfaan Ali, said that the international community stands with Guyana’s sovereignty. The International Court of Justice in The Hague condemned any action by Venezuela to remake its borders.

The outcome of the vote was never in doubt, but voter participation is: the move does not appear to have energized Venezuelans. But President Nicolás Maduro’s rhetoric remains alarmingly aggressive and what happens next remains uncertain. 

On 6 December, his government called for the arrest of 15 opposition leaders, alleging that some had accepted funds from the primary investor in Guyana’s Essequibo region, Exxon Mobil, to undermine Venezuela’s sovereignty.  The government presented no evidence to support its outrageous – and seemingly desperate – claims.

Current borders

Venezuelans have long considered the Essequibo region part of Venezuela, with school and government maps showing what is effectively two-thirds of Guyana lying within Venezuela’s borders. 

The current borders were settled in 1899, when Guyana was still a British colony, in international arbitration. The point of contention was that the sparsely populated Essequibo – a region larger than Greece – was originally under Spanish rule, and therefore belonged to the former Spanish colony, Venezuela.

The arbitration panel in Paris ruled otherwise. Since then Venezuela argued for the agreement to be scrapped, but more often tacitly rather than aggressively.

Oil

Several recent developments pushed Venezuela to resurface this old grievance.
The first was the discovery of oil off the coastal waters of Essequibo. An estimated 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil lie in the area just off the coast and within the Guyanese territory, which is also rich in minerals and metals.

The bonanza across its border is just too tempting to bear. 

The oil-dependent Venezuelan government of Maduro has seen its own oil production decline by over two million barrels a day – a result of mismanagement, corruption and lack of investment – and economic contraction of almost two thirds. The bonanza across its border is just too tempting to bear. 

Politics

There were political considerations as well. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2024 – at least in theory – though the Maduro government has yet to set a date.

The incumbent president’s prospects in a fair election are bleak: his rating stands at around 23 per cent.

The incumbent president’s prospects in a fair election are bleak: his rating stands at around 23 per cent, and according to recent surveys in a contest with the leading opposition candidate, Maria Corina Machado, Maduro would lose

Regardless, international pressure to hold a relatively fair presidential election in 2024 has increased. 

In a ceremony in Barbados on 17 October, attended by representatives from the US, UK, EU, Canadian and Colombian governments, progress seemed to have been made. The Maduro government committed to a series of measures intended to ensure a competitive election, in return for the lifting of US sanctions on the country’s oil and gas sector (which duly followed a day later).

The Maduro government promised to consider a process for re-instating three opposition candidates to run for office (including Maria Corina Machado), guarantees for freedom of expression and the right of opposition groups to campaign and enjoy equal access to the media. There were also pledges to allow credible international election observers to monitor the process.

Machado was elected as the opposition candidate in a 22 October primary with over 90 per cent of the estimated near two million voters who participated. Sensing a threat, the government quickly denounced the exercise and the vote, and threatened those who had organized it with arrest. The partisan Supreme Court also refused to recognize its results.

The referendum on Guyana’s Essequibo region was supposed to serve as a convenient distraction from these events.

Distraction

With declining popularity, growing opposition support and mounting international pressure, mobilizing Venezuelan voters around a long-standing grievance (and looming economic bonanza) over Essequibo probably seemed like a perfect opportunity for the beleaguered government. 

If anything, the 3 December referendum was an ‘own goal’ by the Maduro government domestically and internationally.

Only this time the classic autocratic tactic of rallying popular support for a trumped-up external threat didn’t work. If anything, the 3 December referendum was an ‘own goal’ by the Maduro government domestically and internationally.

Predictably, the government declared the 3 December vote a success, but in doing so it made questionable claims that more than 10 million voters had participated. Independent observers and journalists on the ground have cast doubt on those numbers, citing the lack of lines at voting centres, and sharing images of empty voting locations.

Rather than give an impression of an effective, trustworthy and transparent electoral system the inflated voter turnout claims have reinforced international perceptions of a partisan electoral machine and oversight body, eroding what little trust has been reestablished with international actors like the US and EU.

Maduro has also alarmed one-time allies like the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, who have condemned the bellicose rhetoric.

President Lula mobilized troops to the Brazil–Guyana border presumably to deter a potential invasion, and has urged the Maduro government to remain calm. The issue also failed to split Venezuela’s opposition. 

In a country in which more than 50 per cent of the population living in extreme poverty, the whole exercise mainly served to make the government look out of touch.

Ramping up pressure

However, despite Lula’s urging, the Maduro government seems to be ramping up the pressure. 

In the days after the vote, Maduro appointed a general to oversee the new department of Essequibo.

In the days after the vote, Maduro appointed a general to oversee the new department of Essequibo. The next day, the government issued a declaration allowing Venezuela’s state-owned oil company to explore for gas and oil in Essequibo, though as it’s still in sovereign Guyanese territory what these moves mean is unclear.
 

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It is possible, probable even, that these actions were never intended to lead to an armed intervention and that conflict is unlikely. But increasingly the Maduro government appears wounded, domestically and internationally, facing an election it would lose with an even modestly level playing field.

The 6 December arrest orders for opposition leaders indicate that any kind of credible election remains a distant goal. The government appears to be immune to international public opinion, as it flails to remain in power.

Some have speculated that this effort to ramp up conflict with Venezuela’s southern neighbour is a pretence to suspend the elections under a (self-generated) national emergency.

But even without premediated intention, bluffs and demagogic bluster can create momentum toward an end that was never fully thought out, especially if a government is autocratic, erratic and weak.