If it feels like the whole world is burning, that’s because it is. With hot conflicts in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, it sadly seems like South America wants to get in on some of that action.
In short, Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro is threatening war against neighboring Guyana. We’ll explore the root of that conflict, the chances of war, and what the tankies think about it.
The story begins way back in colonial times, when there used to be Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, British, and French Guyanas—all of them developing profitable sugar plantations.
Portuguese Guiana became the Brazilian state of Amapá. French Guiana is currently a department of France (like Hawaii is a state of the United States), the only territory in South America still governed from Europe. Spanish Guiana became part of Venezuela, Dutch Guiana became the current nation of Suriname, and British Guiana (which had also been a Dutch colony at one point) became what is now modern-day Guyana. It is the only English-speaking South American country.
The border region between Guyana and Spanish Guiana/Venezuela was originally ill-defined. As you’ll see below, it’s a mass of impenetrable jungle, apparently of little use to the sugar plantations that hugged the coastline.
In 1776, Spanish Guiana was merged into Venezuela, which was still a Spanish colony at the time. Venezuela eventually declared its independence in 1811, and finally defeated the Spanish in 1821.
In 1840, Britain drew up defined borders, taking most of the Essequibo border region for itself. (That area’s history is complicated—damn colonials grabbing and swapping and trading and warring and … you can get the details here.) Venezuela wasn’t happy with Britain’s borders, and retaliated by laying its own claims to the entire region. Both sides compromised in 1850 by prohibiting anyone from occupying the disputed territory.
Unfortunately, the Brits discovered gold in 1850, so … the territory was occupied. Venezuela protested, and the Brits were unbothered until U.S. President Grover Cleveland threatened to intervene on Venezuela’s behalf based on the Monroe Doctrine (i.e., European colonialism in the Americas was a hostile act against the United States). So off the parties went to arbitration.
The case was heard in Paris by two Americans, two Britons, and a Russian. The inclusion of the Brits on the panel doesn’t seem fair, but the panel handed a unanimous decision, granting the British 94% of the disputed Essequibo territory. Both parties accepted the decision and went on their merry ways. …
Until 112 years later, in 1962, when Venezuela revived the claims based on accusations of inside dealing by the judges on the arbitration panel, with the Russian and British judges conspiring against Venezuela. Again, why were there two British judges on an international arbitration case in which Britain was a party?
In any case … we were back to mediation in 1966, but Guyana won its independence from Britain that very same year, took over the negotiations, and then nothing happened for half a century. Venezuela was content to let things lie until 2015. And guess what happened in 2015?
Guyana discovered oil.
And Venezuela wants that oil.
Last weekend, Venezuela passed a “referendum” (in scare quotes because the current Venezuelan regime doesn’t do fair elections) annexing the region. They have already published new “official” maps painting the bulk of Guyana’s territory as Venezuelan.
So what happens next?
Our own Denise Oliver-Velez provided some background yesterday: “Venezuela has a population of approximately 29 million people, while Guyana is home to about 816,000. The military imbalance between the two nations is igniting concerns across the region.”
That military imbalance is massive. Venezuela’s military is 123,000 strong, with Guyana’s military at a tiny 3,400. It’s not even worth considering the equipment imbalances. Guyana has nothing, effectively.
But the military balance is far more complicated for a reason that readers of our Ukraine Updates will find familiar: logistics.
Look at the satellite picture of the border region:
That dotted line is the disputed border. That mass of green? That is impenetrable Amazonian jungle. And you know what’s missing across that entire 829-kilometer border?
Guyana has long feared its much larger western neighbor and purposefully refused to build or allow any roads connecting the two nations. So how does traffic pass between the two countries?
The only road connecting Venezuela and Guyana goes through Brazil. Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is an ideological ally of Venezuela’s Maduro but has zero patience for Maduro’s war-mongering. He has rushed military reinforcements to that border area to keep Venezuela out.
There are reports of Venezuela building an airfield and a road near the disputed territory. But as we’ve seen in Ukraine, a single road is about the worst place any army wants a convoy driving on, exposed to easy surveillance and ambush. Venezuela could land military forces by boat, but there is nothing more complex than an amphibious landing, and it’s likely far outside the abilities of Venezuela’s armed forces. And even if they managed a landing, supplying those troops would be nearly impossible.
Rather than engage Guyana directly, Venezuela could simply build roads into the deep jungle and send its mining and oil companies to explore for resources. But security would be a problem, and Guyana could easily disrupt any Venezuelan economic activities in its own territory. There is a long South American tradition of guerrilla movements operating freely in this verdant terrain.
And then there’s the looming shadow of the U.S. military. A single aircraft carrier parked offshore would make short work of anything Venezuela mustered in the air or sea, blocking any Venezuelan military advances. The U.S. and Guyana held a seemingly small-scale military exercise today, reminding Maduro that his armed forces wouldn’t likely face Guyana alone.
Meanwhile, Venezuela is isolated diplomatically, with none of its regional neighbors backing its claims.
Venezuela does have one friendly constituency on its side: the tankies, who blame the U.S. for literally all of the world’s ills. In this case, the conspiracy is all about ExxonMobil, which is developing the newly discovered oil fields in Guyana.
There is no doubt that European colonialism made a mess of things. But this isn’t Africa or the Middle East, where lines were arbitrarily drawn that cut across tribal and cultural borders. This one was drawn across unpopulated jungle. It’s simply weird to rant against British colonialism, when Venezuela’s own lines were drawn by … the Spanish empire. If one is to discount one set of lines because of colonialism, then none of South America’s borders are legitimate.
Ben Norton also bizarrely claims that the U.S. is using Guyana to destabilize Venezuela by, er, forcing Venezuela to hold a referendum laying claim to another country’s internationally recognized territory, and furthermore threatening military action.
That’s some serious “the U.S./NATO forced Russia to invade Ukraine” energy.
Tankies truly believe that no one has agency in the world except the United States. No country or regime can make their own self-interested decision and walk their own paths.
How much do you want to bet that Ben Norton opposed the American invasion of Iraq because “no blood for oil!”? Yup, here we go. And he was right about it at the time.
But why is “no blood for oil” only applicable when the United States is the aggressor?
In the same vein:
Again, it’s weird to pretend that British colonialism was its own special kind of evil when Spanish colonialism was just as bloody, genocidal, and destructive. Venezuela’s colonially defined borders are no more legitimate than the ones the British, Portuguese, French, or Dutch drew.
It’s particularly ironic here, given how relatively uncomplicated the borders are in South America. The colonial powers split entire ethnic groups and tribes apart in Africa and the Middle East. That’s part of what makes those conflicts so intractable. But this? There are no ethnic Venezuelans living in the disputed territory. There are no ethnic Guyanese on the other side yearning to be reunited with their brethren. The dispute mechanism may have been rigged (sure seems that way at cursory glance), but that border was established over 170 years ago, and there is no historical record binding Essequibo to Venezuela beyond territorial greed.
Here’s a suggestion to ultimately resolve the issue: Ask the residents of Essequibo what flag they want to fly. Of course, Maduro would never agree to that. The results wouldn't be close.
How about one more tankie?
Yup, Venezuela is helplessly being dragged into threatening war and making preparations for one. It, like every other nation on earth, has no say in the matter, no agency over its own actions. And no one sees it except for the tankies!
That thread starts out bad and just gets worse. It turns out the CIA and ExxonMobil forced Guyana to ask the United Nations for arbitration, rather than allowing Guyana and Venezuela to negotiate directly. As if Guyana would happily hand over Essequibo to Venezuela if only the CIA would stop meddling in their affairs and let them talk?
Anyway, given the logistical difficulties of operating militarily in that relatively unspoiled region of the world and the looming threat of a U.S. aircraft carrier group parking itself offshore, the odds of this turning into a shooting war are slim.
But they’re not zero. And with inflation at 360% and international sanctions hampering Venezuela’s economy, war is always a handy way for embattled regimes to distract the masses from their own suffering and discontent.