26 March 2024

4 min read

Vol 2, 2024 | More than meets the eye: Venezuela’s commitment to a diplomatic resolution with Guyana

Global Risk Bulletin
Mountain road Venezuela

While Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has committed to avoid the use of force to resolve his country’s claim to Guyana’s oil-rich Essequibo region, the expanded military presence along the border has raised concerns that there may be more than meets the eye when it comes to Venezuela’s approach to negotiations. Shannon Lorimer discusses how likely he is to escalate the situation militarily. 

Although Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has committed to diplomatic channels in resolving the longstanding border dispute with Guyana, he has continued to make both cooperative and confrontational moves in the past few months. This has raised the question of whether he still intends to annex the region, as he proposed to do at the end of 2023. A variety of elements are likely factoring into his decision of whether or not to escalate the situation militarily, including efforts to increase popularity at home ahead of a general election in July, achieving economic security in preparation for a potential reinstatement of US sanctions, and the significance of  regional and international pressures on adhering to agreements to avoid the use of force.

Venezuela agrees to diplomatic resolution

In late 2023, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced his country’s mandate to annex Guyana’s oil-rich Essequibo region after a referendum where he claimed to have received 95 percent approval for the plan, despite witness accounts reflecting a significantly lower voter turnout than he boasted. Following pressure from various international actors in the wake of the referendum, Maduro and President Irfaan Ali of Guyana signed the Argyle Declaration in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in mid-December 2023, which stipulated that to reduce tensions, neither country would threaten the use of force against the other and implemented a joint commission to work together to address the dispute.

Declaration notwithstanding, in January 2024, the Venezuelan military expanded its presence on Ankoko Island on the Cuyani river, which borders Guyana. Satellite imagery as well as videos posted to Venezuelan military and government social media accounts revealed construction materials, armoured vehicles, and various other military and construction equipment to bolster their presence in the area.


Venezuela map-1

Election effect  

Maduro likely intended the referendum as an effort to gather public support for his administration and improve perceptions of the country’s economic prospects to increase his popularity in the lead up to the 2024 election. Maduro’s popularity in Venezuela is currently low and his chances of victory are slim in an even moderately fair election. His approval rating is around 23 percent, while the leading opposition candidate, María Corina Machado, has garnered significant support. In the opposition party primary in October 2023, she received around 93 percent of the vote, with notably high voter turnout. Maduro has used the dispute to target opposition candidates, attempting to paint Machado as a co-conspirator with Guyana, including through claims that her party is financed by the American oil and gas corporation which initially discovered the oil reserves in Guyana.

The threat of US sanctions

The US, among other countries, imposed economic sanctions on Venezuela in 2017 and gradually increased the measures as Venezuela's political instability intensified. The US lifted these sanctions against the country's mining and oil industries in October 2023 as part of an agreement with Maduro which required he hold free and fair elections in 2024. Maduro reneged on the agreement, including by barring Machado from running for president. Subsequently, the US indicated its intent to reinstate oil and gas sanctions from 18 April if Maduro fails to make progress in restoring the democratic process. The US has already revoked a license permitting US companies to do business with a Venezuelan mining conglomerate, and US businesses had until 13 February to withdraw from transactions authorised by that license. However, Maduro has faced sanctions and other diplomatic pressures from the international community in the past, and despite the isolation it faced from the international community, excluding Russia and China, sanctions and diplomatic isolation were not sufficient to compel Maduro to step down or adhere to the demands of the international community, and his administration was able to adapt. And, although no firm figures have been made public, the discovery of oil reserves in the Essequibo region is likely substantial, and Maduro may see accessing even some of these reserves as a means to reduce the economic consequences of further sanctions.


Although no firm figures have been made public, the discovery [of oil reserves] is likely substantial, and Maduro may see accessing even some of these reserves as a means to reduce the economic consequences of further sanctions.”


The significance of international pressure

Maduro’s threat to annex Guyana has incurred substantial pushback from members of the international community. The US, UN, Brazil and Colombia, and other nations previously friendly to Venezuela, have encouraged both countries to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the dispute and have indicated a commitment to supporting Guyana if Venezuela continues to threaten annexation. In February 2024, the Brazilian army deployed two dozen armoured vehicles and additional equipment and soldiers to strengthen its forces in Boa Vista, near the borders of both Venezuela and Guyana. National security advisors from the US have visited Guyana and issued statements about deepening their defence cooperation to assist Guyana in preserving its borders. This will likely deter Maduro from launching a full-scale invasion, but may prompt him to continue to pursue bilateral negotiations with Guyana to limit the influence of the international community, and particularly of the US.

Looking ahead

Despite continued demands to hold free and fair elections in 2024 and the threat of snapback sanctions, the Maduro administration’s bans on opposition candidates indicates an unwillingness to bow to international pressures. Venezuela is therefore likely to continue to engage in these smaller military provocations in efforts to coerce Guyana into repudiating the jurisdiction of the  International Court of Justice. As a result, regions along the border will remain vulnerable to escalations by the Venezuelan military, despite Maduro’s spoken commitment to diplomacy.

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