Guyana will defend itself “by all and any means” as fears mount that neighbouring Venezuela’s strongman president Nicolás Maduro will try to annex part of its territory, its vice-president has said.
“We will defend our country by all and any means whatsoever,” Bharrat Jagdeo told the Financial Times in an interview in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, as the US ally faces an increasingly bellicose claim from Caracas over the vast and mineral-rich Essequibo region.
“We’re not a belligerent nation, we’re not an aggressive nation,” said Jagdeo, who served as president from 1999 to 2011. “We’re a small country that has placed its faith in diplomacy and international law.
“But if Venezuela takes action that will seek to change the borders that were defined by the 1899 agreement, then we will explore every means whatsoever, including defence co-operation with our allies,” Jagdeo said, referring to the international arbitration in 1899 that led to the two countries’ current border.
The vice-president admitted that the Guyana Defence Force — with only 4,070 active personnel and reserves — is dwarfed by Venezuela’s 351,000-strong, Russia-backed armed forces.
“That is precisely why we are exploring this stronger defence co-operation with our allies, including the United States of America,” he said, declining to expand on what form that co-operation would take.
“We believe we have a capability to deter Venezuela and to thwart any aggressive intent on our country,” added Jagdeo, who was speaking in a suite in Georgetown’s convention centre, where parliament meets.
But Jagdeo also suggested that Washington, through its decision to relax sanctions on Venezuela, may have emboldened Maduro in his threats against Guyana.
The US in October agreed to ease sanctions on Venezuela’s oil, gas and gold sectors and secondary financial markets on condition that political prisoners were freed and bans on opposition candidates lifted.
“We’re concerned that the lifting of the sanctions could give Venezuela more resources to pursue its evil intent against Guyana,” Jagdeo said.
Asked whether the US should reimpose sanctions on Venezuela, he said: “That’s a matter for the United States of America. We have not called on the US to reinstate them.”
The latest dispute over Essequibo has been simmering since 2015 when ExxonMobil discovered oil in the Stabroek block off Guyana’s coast.
That escalated into a crisis on December 3 when Caracas held a referendum asking voters whether the region should become the Venezuelan state of “Esequiba Guyana” and its inhabitants be made citizens of Venezuela.
All five questions on the ballot, including one rejecting the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, which is hearing the case, were approved with 95 per cent support, though the government’s claim that more than 10mn people voted is widely disputed.
Following the vote, Maduro authorised state-run companies to grant licenses for exploration and exploitation in the Essequibo region. He also ordered that new official maps including the territory be distributed to schools.
“Venezuela is trying to redraw a border that was settled over a hundred years ago through the use of force,” Jagdeo said. “Only outlaw nations will do that in a contemporary context.
“There has been increased [military] activities in our border region since the referendum, and that is why we are so concerned.”
Jagdeo said that “oil and greed” were among Maduro’s motivations when it came to Guyana. Exxon discovered the equivalent of at least 11bn barrels of oil offshore in 2015 in waters claimed by Venezuela, which itself boasts the world’s largest proven oil reserves, though production has collapsed as a result of corruption, mismanagement and US-led sanctions.
“He claims otherwise, but we believe that greed is part of what is driving this,” the vice-president said.
Another reason, according to Jagdeo and many analysts, was that Maduro, a socialist, was attempting to shore up support at home ahead of elections next year. Washington expects Maduro — whose 2018 re-election is regarded by the US as fraudulent — to permit a “free and fair” vote as part of the sanctions relief deal.
Jagdeo said that despite the mounting geopolitical tensions, Guyana remained open to investment. “We have not had a single call from any investor who’s concerned about Maduro and his ranting,” he said.
On Thursday, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali will meet Maduro in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in talks organised by two regional blocs, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, and Caribbean Community. Ali’s office has said that while he will attend to promote peace, “Guyana’s land boundary is not up for discussion”.
The meeting has drawn criticism in Guyana over concerns that it could legitimise Caracas’s position on the Essequibo region.
Mark Kirton, professor of international relations at West Indies university, said that following the announcement of the meeting, Georgetown was “losing the public relations war” with Venezuela.
Referring to a Guyanese nationalist pop song written in the 70s in defence of the Essequibo, Kirton said: “We’re looking here at a situation where we’re singing ‘Not A Blade O’ Grass’, but we’re whispering, ‘What is happening?’”
“The government response has been inadequate and we need to get a grip,” he added.
But Jagdeo said that it was important to meet Maduro.
“There’s always a need to talk, especially between two countries that will forever be neighbours,” Jagdeo said. “A face-to-face meeting between the leaders, if approached in good faith, could quiet the unease in our population and the global community that there will be conflict in this region.”