Guyana Boosts Security, Engages US to Defend Land from Venezuela

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(Bloomberg) -- Guyana said it’s intensifying security measures and engaging the US military to help it protect the oil-rich region of Essequibo, describing Venezuela’s intentions to grant oil exploration licenses in the area as a threat to its territorial integrity.

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The United Nations Security Council plans to hold a closed-door meeting on the issue Friday, according to two people familiar with the matter. Both sides will have the chance to speak before the council’s 15 members. Guyanese President Irfaan Ali said in an earlier statement that his country had asked the Security Council to take appropriate action, but no immediate decision is expected at this point, according to the people.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro further escalated tensions with Guyana over Essequibo with an order Tuesday evening that state-owned oil and mineral companies start granting exploration licenses for deposits in the region.

“We will not allow our territory to be violated nor the development of our country to be stymied by this desperate threat,” Ali said in the statement, adding that Guyana’s defense force was on full alert and has engaged its military counterparts, including the US Southern Command.

Ali and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke Wednesday, with the top American diplomat offering “unwavering support for Guyana’s sovereignty.”

Guyana is set to join the Security Council for a two-year term in January. Before that, it needs a sitting member of the council to introduce on its behalf a draft proposal that would be binding if approved by the body.

Read More: Brazil’s Military on Watch as Venezuela-Guyana Tension Rises

Stronger Rhetoric

In a televised statement, Maduro also ordered foreign oil companies working in Essequibo to withdraw, asserting his right to do so after Venezuelan voters backed plans to regain control of the territory in a referendum Sunday. Guyana has insisted that Essequibo is within its borders, and the matter is currently being analyzed by the International Court of Justice, though Maduro has said he doesn’t recognize its jurisdiction.

Maduro hasn’t yet dispatched any military forces to carry out his demands. On Tuesday, he said he’d create a military unit for the disputed territory but that it would be based in a neighboring Venezuelan state.

“I propose a special law to prohibit all companies that work under Guyana concessions from any transaction,” Maduro said. “They have three months to withdraw” once his proposal is approved, he said.

The tension with Guyana is also part of Maduro’s efforts to whip up domestic support ahead of Venezuela’s presidential election next year, analysts including Nicholas Watson of Teneo Holdings have said. By that measure, last weekend’s referendum fell short. Polling places appeared empty, though the government officially said almost half the voting population had participated.

Read More: Maduro Fails to Rally Venezuelan Nationalism in Vote Over Border

While Venezuela and Guyana have disputed the sparsely populated territory of Essequibo since the 19th century, the discussion has grown more heated in recent years following massive oil discoveries off Guyana’s coast by companies including Exxon Mobil Corp.

In September, Guyana’s government said it would award concessions for the exploration of new oil blocks by the end of the year, infuriating Maduro, whose government has said some of those blocks are in waters that have not been delimited or belong to Venezuela.

--With assistance from Augusta Saraiva.

(Adds call with the US Secretary of State in fifth paragraph.)

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