Venezuela raises stakes in border dispute, creates military zone to be carved out of Guyana

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In what is likely to further inflame tensions in the hemisphere, Venezuelan ruler Nicolás Maduro announced Tuesday the creation of a new military zone that would be in charge of defending an oil -and mineral-rich territory of neighboring Guyana that he’s claiming belongs to his nation.

Maduro also designated a general, Alexis Rodríguez Cabello, as the sole authority of the Essequibo, a chunk of land in Guyana slightly smaller than the state of Florida. He also ordered that the more than 125,000 Guyanese living in the area, which is mostly jungle, be granted Venezuelan citizenship.

The announcement comes after Maduro claimed that 98% of Venezuelans overwhelmingly approved on Sunday his annexation of a new state that accounts for three quarters of Guyana’s current land mass. While Guyana objected to the vote and called it illegal, international observers have questioned the election results. The government’s report of voter participation did not square with the empty voting stations seen during the day and was more than twice as high as that of independent exit polls.

Maduro announced the creation of the Guyana Integral Defense Zone, or ZODI, to be called Zodi Guayana Esequiba, with headquarters in Tumeremo, a town in Venezuela near the Essequibo region. The Essequibo is at the center of a centuries-old border dispute between the two countries that is currently before the United Nations International Court of Justice.

It is unclear how large the new military force to be based in Tumeremo would be, but Maduro indicated it’s the first of several steps he plans to take to execute the mandate he says he was given on Sunday to invade Guyana.

On Tuesday, Brazil’s military reinforced its northern border due to rising tensions between Venezuela and Guyana. Brazil has borders with both countries.

U.S. officials, who have been keeping a close eye on the simmering tensions over Caracas’ claim to the Essequibo region, have grown increasingly concerned that Maduro could be preparing for the use of military force on Guyanase territory.

A White House official on Tuesday declined to comment, referring McClatchy to the State Department, which did not immediately respond.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Guyana President Irfaan Ali called the move by Maduro “reckless” and said his country plans to alert both regional and world leaders of Maduro’s attempt to disrupt the peace in the hemisphere.

“It is unfortunate that President Maduro would choose the road of defying an international court order. This speaks volumes about the way in which President Maduro prefers to operate and also points to the fact that he’s unconcerned about the peace and security of this region,” Ali said.

“The order of the [U.N. court] made it very clear that Venezuela cannot act or take any action that would disrupt the status quo and the status quo is that Guyana exercises governance and control of Essequibo,” he said. He added that he is seeking the support of the United Nations Security Council, the United States, the Caribbean Community, the Organization of American States and other countries to ensure Guyana’s territory is “not violated.”

“We once again call on Venezuela to retract from this reckless, adventurous move and to allow international law and the ruling of the [U.N. court] to guide our action,” Ali added.

Ahead of Sunday’s vote in Venezuela, the U.N. international court warned Maduro that pending a final decision in the border case, Venezuela “shall refrain from taking any action which would modify the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute.” The judges unanimously acknowledged that Guyana currently administers and exercises control over that area.

Maduro has dismissed the jurisdiction of the U.N court He announced the created of the defense zone in an event attended by mayors, governors , ministers and diplomats.

Venezuela’s military is organized in seven different zones covering all states and maritime territories. The new defense zone in theory would be in charge of defending the 61,600 square miles of Guyana, about three quarters of the country, that Caracas considers part of Venezuelan territory. The area has been under the control of Guyana since international arbitrators established the current borders in 1899.

As part of Tuesday’s announcements, Maduro also appointed his vice president, Delcy Rodriguez, to head a National High Commission for the defense of Guayana Esequiba and issued orders for the regime’s National Assembly to write new laws for the creation of the new state based on Sunday’s referendum.

The Venezuelan ruler also ordered the publication of a new map of Venezuela to include the new state and ordered the creation of new state-run oil and mining companies to be called PDVSA Essequibo and CVG Essequibo, respectively, for the exploration of oil and minerals inside the region.

Maduro also ordered regime officials to begin a process of giving Venezuelan nationality to the estimated 125,000 people that currently live in Essequibo.

“I announce the immediate activation of a human and social care plan for the entire population of Guayana Esequiba, the carrying out of a census, the beginning of the process to deliver identity cards,” he said.

The border dispute was revived after Guyana began benefiting from the discovery of vast deposits of oil in the region in 2015.

The 15-member Caribbean Community, of which is Guyana is a member, has said that “Venezuela cannot by a referendum, or otherwise, violate international law and disregard the order of the world’s highest Court.”

On Monday, the Biden administration said the countries need to find a “peaceful resolution” the the border dispute.

“The 1899 award determining the land boundary between Venezuela and Guyana should be respected unless or until the parties come to a new agreement or a competent legal body decides otherwise.” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters. “So we would urge Venezuela and Guyana to continue to seek a peaceful resolution of their dispute. This is not something that will be settled by a referendum.”

Miami Herald data reporter Ana Claudia Chacin contributed to this story.