As Venezuela threatens to invade oil-rich Guyana, U.S. worries about how far Maduro will go

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Venezuela’s threats to annex a majority of Guyana may be an effort by its leader to consolidate power at home ahead of a potential presidential election next year instead of a real intention to invade its neighbor, U.S. officials say. But Washington is increasingly concerned over how far Nicolas Maduro may be willing to go.

An internal State Department assessment, as well as the consensus of international observers and independent analysts, is that Maduro is seeking leverage against the United States at the negotiating table by threatening an invasion of western Guyana, a region rich in oil and gas that has been the subject of dispute between the two countries for over a century.

Maduro has been under U.S. sanctions for years for undermining Venezuelan democracy and is currently under pressure from Washington to hold free and fair elections.

The Biden administration is not seeing imminent signs of an invasion. But the possibility is raising anxiety levels in the region. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres on Wednesday called on Caracas to avoid the use of force and to respect the recent ruling of the International Court of Justice. The U.N. court last week called on Venezuela to refrain from taking any action that would change Guyana’s control and administration of the Essequibo region, which remains part of a territorial dispute.

“The Secretary-General strongly supports the use of solely peaceful means to settle international disputes,” Guterres’ spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said, confirming that the U.N. leader had spoken to Guyana’s president, Irfaan Ali, the previous evening over the latest escalation.

An excuse for martial law?

In Washington, concerns mounted that Venezuelan military action against Guyana could provide Maduro with an excuse to impose martial law in his troubled South American nation of 28 million, setting favorable conditions for himself in a sham presidential election next year, officials and experts said.

In October, the Biden administration announced an easing of sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector as part of an elections deal between Maduro and the opposition. Washington said it would lift the sanctions if by Nov. 30 Maduro began the release of American hostages “wrongfully detained” by his government, and if he were to lift a ban that keeps opponents who want to run for president from serving in office. So far, Maduro has failed to comply with the deadline, with Maria Corina Machado, the winner of the opposition’s presidential primary, still barred from office.

“He wants to be able to consolidate power in a way in which he can be assured of a ‘sound victory’ when the elections are held next year,” said Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith, a Guyana-born expert on security in the region.

Griffith said Maduro’s reactivation of the Venezuelan claim to the Essequibo territory in Guyana is also about trying to seize the oil discovered there in recent years.

On Tuesday, Maduro announced the creation of a military zone to be carved out of the Essequibo region, which accounts for three quarters of Guyana’s current land mass. The area was the subject of an 1899 decision by international arbiters that placed it under the control of what was then called British Guiana. Venezuela’s new military zone is among seven measures Maduro claims he’s been authorized to pursue following a Sunday referendum in which voters overwhelmingly supported his takeover of the dense jungle region that’s about the size of the state of Florida.

In addition to the measures, Maduro also ordered state-owned companies to grant licenses for the exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mines in the territory.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that President Joe Biden is aware of and monitoring the developments.

“It’s concerning. We’re watching this very, very closely,” John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council in the White House, told reporters in a press briefing on Wednesday. “The [1899] decision needs to be respected. We obviously don’t want to see any violence occur here, or conflict occur, and we’re obviously in touch with all of our partners.”

Griffith, the security expert, said Maduro is “pushing the envelope on what I call the psychological warfare against Guyana that he’s engaging in, the military maneuver, the creation of a base, the seven measures he announced.”

‘Humiliating for Brazil’

The implications, he said, could also affect Brazil, which shares a border with both countries, and other nations in South America including Colombia, which has a border with Venezuela. Several of the nations in the region have decades-long claims about their own borders.

“If you have an opening of that Pandora’s box, there are a lot of countries that will rumble about their border. They’ll presume, ‘Can we revisit, can we revisit?’ he said.

“The extent to which small and powerful friends of Guyana, people who are concerned about the respect for international law, people who are interested in peace and not instability, are able to signal directly and indirectly to Maduro that he has a certain line that he cannot cross, that will influence how far he’s willing to push the envelope,” Griffith said.

Oliver Stuenkel, an associate professor at the School of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo, thinks there are few political actors capable of restraining Venezuela, and said the crisis has become “potentially a headache for the Biden administration” and for South American leaders.

“It is quite humiliating for Brazil,” which wants to be a regional leader in helping to resolve conflicts, he added, because instead of turning to Brazil for help, Guyana’s president sought out the U.S.

“Guyana has already reached out to the United States in part because it doesn’t believe Latin American governments are capable or willing to condemn Venezuela more forcefully or as a last resort, to actually defend Guyana,” Stuenkel said.

The crisis is a reflection of the limitations of Brazil’s influence in the region, he added, because “this is the kind of thing where a regional leader would step up and make sure this doesn’t continue.”

Stunkel said he believes Maduro’s plan isn’t to actually invade “but to produce a sense of crisis, mobilize the population for as long as possible because he needs to divert attention from the economic” crisis in Venezuela.

“He now has a supposed mandate,” he said, noting that Maduro has even published a new map of Venezuela that includes a new state of Essequibo. “I continue to believe an actual conflict is unlikely, but it’s already had a lot of effects.”

This would not be the first time that a Latin American country has threatened or waged war to distract from its domestic problems. There are several parallels in Latin American history, including the 1982 conflict that erupted after Argentina seized control of the Falkland Islands and proclaimed the end of 149 years of British sovereignty.

The 10-week undeclared war, analysts note, didn’t fare well for Argentina, whose effort ended in defeat by the British navy.

Brian Fonseca, director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy and an adjunct professor in international relations at Florida International University, believes what Maduro is doing isn’t that different.

Though the border dispute between Guyana and Venezuela over the Essequibo was supposed to have been settled back in 1899, Venezuelans have been supportive of asserting claims over the region.

Fonseca and others who closely monitor the region’s armies say that while Venezuela’s military is significantly larger and better equipped than Guyana, which has about 5,000 soldiers, the ability of Venezuela’s 100,000-plus soldiers to make their way into the dense jungle of the Essequibo region is in question.

Venezuela’s forces suffer from a “lack of resources, lack of maintenance, inadequate training,” Fonseca said.

Manuel Cristopher Figuera, a former director of Venezuela’s intelligence service under Maduro, also cast doubt on Caracas’ ability to invade is neighbor.

“Many of the positions are vacant, and many of the soldiers are poorly trained or have not been trained at all. So when you examine it, the operability is practically zero,” he said.

He and other Venezuelan military experts do not believe that an armed invasion is truly in the works.

No U.S. military involvement

Were Maduro to send troops into Guyana, none of the experts interviewed by the Miami Herald envisioned a scenario in which the United States, which currently provides Guyana with military expertise, would deploy troops to defend Guyana or the region.

“I think the Americans would try to rally a coalition of nations to condemn Venezuela and put added pressure” on Maduro, Fonseca said.

Fonseca said he believes Maduro’s motive for the saber-rattling is Machado’s recent overwhelming victory in an opposition primary for the presidency.

The U.S. pressure for free and fair presidential elections in Venezuela next year, and the ability of the opposition to put forth its own candidate, Fonseca added, “has forced Maduro” to seek other leverage.

Maduro’s threat to invade Guyana, a staunch U.S. ally, he added, “makes for far more complex” negotiations.

Miami Herald journalist Ana Claudia Chacin contributed to this report.