Should Venezuela invade its oil-rich neighbor? Maduro will put it to a vote Sunday

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Venezuelans going to the polls Sunday will be asked to answer an unusually provocative question:

Should their government be given a blank check to invade neighboring Guyana, and wrest away three-quarters of its oil-rich territory?

The government of Nicolás Maduro is putting the query before voters, part of a century-old territorial dispute between Venezuela and Guyana that is raising tensions in the region and threatening to escalate into a shooting war.

The question will be on the ballot in a five-part referendum that, among other things, would grant Maduro special powers to invade Guyana and create a new Venezuelan state encompassing 74% of English-speaking Guyana’s current landmass. The new area would be called Guayana Esequiba.

Some experts see the whole thing as a political ploy, though many Guyanese see the threat as real and fear, among other things, the loss of their citizenship.

“Clearly Maduro has domestic constituencies in mind, but I think when you weigh the number of negatives of annexation, Maduro would be crazy to risk all of those negatives to take 74% of Guyana,” said Ivelaw Griffith, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former vice chancellor of the University of Guyana, who is a security expert in the region. “That’s not a small hunk of land.”

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The growing tensions became evident this week when Brazil — a close ally of both nations that shares its border with both — sent top foreign advisor Celso Amorin to mediate while announcing that it was increasing its military presence along its northern border amid fears that the long-standing dispute could turn into a war.

“The Ministry of Defense has been monitoring the situation. Defensive actions have been intensified in the northern border region of the country, promoting a greater military presence,” Brazil’s defense ministry said in a statement.

The border dispute between Guyana and Venezuela stretches back to the second half of the 19th century, and escalated after Guyana began discovering oil on its territory a few years ago. Venezuela claims ownership of about 61,600 square miles of Guyana — a chunk of land slightly smaller than the state of Florida called the Essequibo — tracing its possession to the time both countries were European colonies. Although Venezuela has unceasingly contested an 1899 ruling made by international arbitrators that established the current borders between the two countries, it had allowed the issue to remain on the back burner for decades.

The border dispute is currently before the United Nations’ International Court of Justice. Guyana has asked the court to rule the 1899 decision valid and binding. In November, Guyana again went before the court, this time asking it to halt parts of Venezuela’s five-part referendum.

“We’ve asked them to indicate that it is illegal for Venezuela to proceed with the referendum in its current form,” said Carl Greenidge, a former Guyanese foreign minister who has been representing Guyana in the long-running dispute.

Guyana’s government wants the international court to look at the questions on the referendum as well as the comments made by Maduro’s regime, including its National Electorate Council.

“The questions, as formulated, can be seen or interpreted as intended to give Venezuela a blueprint, or endorsement for taking action,” Greenidge said, describing the whole move by his Spanish-speaking neighbor as “completely absurd.”

Greenidge says his country hopes to have a decision from the court on Friday about the referendum.

Experts said that Maduro’s efforts to fan the flames of nationalism are an attempt to boost his faltering popularity that could easily get out of hand and create a situation where he is forced to use the powers he is invoking.

“The government is caught in a trap of its own making,” said Rocio San Miguel, president of Control Ciudadano, an organization that monitors Venezuela’s armed forces. A yes vote on the referendum may provoke public demand that Maduro act to take over the disputed territory, she said.

The regime has already launched an aggressive propaganda campaign over the news outlets it controls, with TV and radio stations every few minutes broadcasting jingles promoting one constant message: “The Essequibo is ours.”

While there is widespread mistrust about the Caracas regime’s ability to hold fair elections in Venezuela, an overwhelming yes vote is expected, given that even Maduro’s opponents have either refrained from criticizing the referendum or have actually supported it.

Guyana’s government says the border claims are baseless and have warned Maduro to not underestimate the country’s right to defend itself. The government also said that the referendum would usurp the jurisdiction of the international court before it has had a chance to rule on Guyana’s claim of sovereignty over the territory.

On Wednesday, Ashni Singh, senior minister in the Office of the President, described Venezuela’s threat “as provocation.”

“We reject it fulsomely, and we stand in firm solidarity in defense of our country,” he said.

Greenidge said he is not aware of any other case in which a country has held a similar referendum. If the referendum were to pass, it entitles Venezuela “to change the status of Guyanese, the rights of Guyanese, the assets of Guyanese, the resources of Guyana,” he said.

Both he and Griffith said the Essequibo area, which has more than 230,000 residents, has no historical connection to Venezuela.

“It is a territory with a significant number of people. It is a third of our population,” Greenidge said. “It isn’t a barren or empty region without people. And the people there have no links of consequence to Venezuela. It is not a place where you will find Spanish speakers, where you will find a Spanish footprint in the way that you will find a Dutch footprint in Guyana or even a French footprint in Guyana.”

Experts say an armed conflict with Guyana, which shoulders the north coast of South America, would lead to greater international isolation for Maduro, given that Guyana is a member of CARICOM, the 15-member Caribbean trade bloc whose support has been essential for Caracas in international forums such as the U.N. and the Organization of American States.

Maduro “has no real intention of going to war with [Guyana] because doing so means greater isolation and more international problems than the ones he already has,” said Antonio De La Cruz, executive director of the Inter American Trends think tank in Washington.

CARICOM has not been as forceful in its objections as in years past, a sign some observers say of the divisions that exist within the bloc, although in a press release last month the group said Venezuelan threats to stop Guyana from developing Essequibo’s natural resources is “contrary to international law.”

Washington has also been sending signals of its objections, leading Griffith to believe that even if the vote were to take place Sunday, little will come of it.

Griffith says Maduro ‘s gambit is meant to force Guyana to the negotiating table and give Venezuela a piece of the Essequibo.

Still, he admits that the potential for a forced annexation is creating fear, not just for the Guyanese but also for the country’s neighbors, some of whom base their own borders on the same 1899 arbitration decision.

That ruling “is the basis for the border between Brazil and Venezuela and Guyana, so if you can change that border, whether forcefully or not, it means you have to change the borders with Brazil and Venezuela,” he said. Brazil, he noted, has a border with every South American country with the exception of Chile and Ecuador, and “some of those countries are not happy” with their borders with Brazil.

“There are too many potential dominoes,” Griffith added. “Brazil cannot afford to allow that to happen, especially the forced aspect.”

The resolution to put the question to Venezuelan voters was approved in September by the Maduro-controlled National Assembly, which said it is intended to “allow the Venezuelan people to express their views on a significant territorial dispute.”

The resolution came after Maduro’s opposition was able to successfully organize a primary vote on its own, without the support of the National Electorate Council, which showed large support for opposition leader María Corina Machado for the country’s presidency in elections to be held next year.

De La Cruz said Maduro’s primary goal in organizing the referendum was to show inside Venezuela that the regime can still harness massive support in an election.

San Miguel said that Maduro’s saber-rattling follows a long tradition in Latin America where governments fan the flames of nationalism to gather political support. But he warned that this has led to war in the past, such as the 100-hour conflict in 1969 between Honduras and El Salvador, which was dubbed “The Football War” because it happened at the same time as qualifying games for the 1970 soccer World Cup..

“I believe Maduro has entered a dead-end street and he may be forced to go to war, a 100-hour war... like the Football War,” San Miguel said.