It was the depths of the Cold War in the 1960s and Caracas was on the edge.
Marxist guerrillas in Venezuela received weapons and training from Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Along Venezuela’s eastern border, anti-colonial leaders in what was then British Guiana agitated for independence.
Alarmed that a Guyanese leader might create a Cuban beachhead in South America, Venezuela’s staunchly anti-Communist president, Rómulo Betancourt, devised a strategy that blunted the independence push: At the United Nations, his government resurrected a long-held claim brood of more than half of the territory of Guyana.
Now the dispute over Essequibo – an oil-rich region of Guyana almost the size of Florida – has come back to life. This month, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro unveiled new maps showing it as part of Venezuela, appointed an army general as governor and offered Venezuelan identity cards to people living in the sparsely populated region.
Venezuela’s resumption of this claim highlights how much has changed in this part of South America since the Cold War – and how much, despite the passage of time, has remained the same.
The fight against communism aligned Betancourt with Washington in the 1960s, when Venezuela was a democracy oasis in a region that fell under military dictatorships.
Now Venezuela is ruled by a socialist authoritarian government allied with Cuba and Iran. The country, rocked by an economic collapse that has caused an exodus of migrants to the United States, has become a thorn in Washington’s side.
Guyana, long one of the poorest countries in South America, now boasts one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Huge discoveries in Essequibo by American oil giant ExxonMobil are transforming the small country into a global energy powerhouse with skyrocketing oil production.
By contrast, Venezuela’s once-booming oil industry has been hampered by mismanagement, sanctions and crumbling infrastructure.
Guyana “will very soon produce more oil than Venezuela,” said Phil Gunson, an International Crisis Group analyst who has lived in Caracas for more than two decades.
“Think about what will happen to the geopolitics of South America when Guyana is like a second Qatar,” he added, referring to the small country on the Arabian Peninsula that has used energy wealth to boost its global standing.
Essequibo’s vast natural resources contribute to the territorial dispute: the Venezuelan government did spread complaints from ExxonMobil, as it moves to launch its own bidding process for oil leases in Guyana territory that Venezuela doesn’t even control.
As tensions ease, the United States is increasing its own military cooperation with Guyana with the aim of improving the English-speaking country’s “military readiness and capabilities to respond to security threats”.
So far there is ongoing fighting between Venezuela, with around 150,000 active military personnel second to the estimates of the CIA and Guyana, with only about 3,000, seems unlikely. Political analysts in Venezuela say Maduro is largely exploiting the dispute to rally support ahead of next year’s elections.
Maduro met with his Guyanese counterpart, President Irfaan Ali, last week in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. They shook hands and decided not to use force and to meet again. But Maduro maintained the territorial claim.
John Kirby, spokesman for the US National Security Council, said American officials were following the dispute “very, very closely” and made clear that the administration believes that an 1899 agreement that establishes the current border between Venezuela and British Guiana “should be respected”. ‘
“We don’t want to see this situation come to blows,” he told reporters this month.
The tensions are also complicating the Biden administration’s efforts to thaw relations with Venezuela. The United States recently lifted sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry in a bid to improve the country’s battered economy. And on Wednesday, the Biden administration announced the release of a Maduro ally accused of corruption in exchange for the release of U.S. citizens held in Venezuelan prisons.
But Maduro’s resumption of the territorial dispute is sparking calls to reimpose sanctions.
“When President Biden gave him an inch, President Maduro took a mile,” said Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And without any accountability, he’s taking more.”
As the Biden administration faces pressure in Washington, the dispute and renewed US involvement awaken ghosts from a time when Guyana was still a British colony and Venezuela threatened part of its territory.
“Ironically, the dispute that makes headlines today has its origins in the anti-communism of 1960s Venezuela,” said Tamanisha J. John, a Guyanese scholar of black politics at York University in Toronto.
When Venezuela claimed territory from Guyana during the Cold War, the United States publicly tried to keep its distance, arguing – as the State Department now does – that differences between the two countries should be discussed in legal bodies.
But behind the scenes, the United States was just as concerned as Venezuela that Cheddi Jagan, a U.S.-educated dentist who was prime minister of British Guiana and was seen by some as a left-wing radical, might wield power after Guyana had achieved independence.
According to Forbes Burnham, the CIA conducted covert actions in Guyana aimed at diminishing Mr. Jagan’s chances, including secretly funding workers’ strikes, and calling off those of his opponent, Forbes Burnham. declassified documents obtained from the National Security Archive, a research institution of George Washington University.
At some point in 1964, the CIA discussed a proposal coup d’etat to overthrow Mr. Jagan’s government, in which he and his wife would be “kidnapped and hidden in Venezuela,” according to a CIA cable.
Ultimately, the CIA kept its campaign secret, working with British intelligence agents to ensure that Burnham, seen as more docile to U.S. interests, was Guyana’s leader.
After Guyana finally gained independence in 1966 with Burnham at the helm, Washington’s satisfaction with this achievement was short-lived. He moved left and presided over an authoritarian government, embracing his version of socialism and remaining in power until his death in 1985.
In 1969, a secessionist uprising in Guyana called the Rupununi Rebellion it failed, suggesting that Venezuela was trying to foment unrest in the newly independent country.
The territorial dispute then remained largely dormant until 1982, when another Venezuelan president, Luis Herrera Campíns, facing declining popularity ahead of elections, revived Item.
Under Hugo Chávez, the leader of Venezuela’s socialist-inspired revolution, the country’s policy towards Guyana toned down considerably. Mr. Chávez visited Guyana in 2004 and Venezuela exported subsidized oil to Guyana in exchange for Guyanese rice.
“It doesn’t matter who is in power in Venezuela,” said Jan Mangal, a former oil adviser to Guyana’s previous president, David Granger. “Essequibo will always be a political football that they will use.”
The dispute dates back two centuries, and in 1899 a Paris court established the internationally recognized border. But a letter from one of the Venezuelan lawyers at that court, published in 1949, suggested that the result was void because it involved a secret agreement between Britain and Russia.
In Venezuela, Maduro’s opponents have also focused on territorial claims. María Corina Machado, recently elected in the primaries to challenge Maduro for next year’s presidency, took a trip canoe in 2013 in the disputed region in an attempt to advance Venezuela’s claim.
Maduro, tackling the issue with all his might, last month organized a referendum on the territorial dispute. The government reported that more than 95% of voters supported the request, although observers said turnout was much lower than expected.
Venezuela’s chief prosecutor later charged several leading opposition figures with treason and ordered their arrest, saying they had taken money from ExxonMobil to sabotage the referendum. ExxonMobil could not immediately be reached for comment.
For its part, Guyana, with a population of just 800,000, is rapidly increasing its visibility through Essequibo’s resource management. Venezuela, with about 28 million people, currently to produce about 800,000 barrels of oil per day, about double that of Guyana. But Guyanese production is expected to do so arises at 1.2 million barrels per day, according to the International Energy Agency.
Swimming in oil, however, does not offer much comfort as the dispute casts a veil of darkness.
Fay DeYoung, 63, a Guyanese co-owner of a lakeside recreation site in Essequibo, said she would evacuate rather than live under Venezuelan control.
“We’ve already decided, if we have to go, we have to go,” he said. “We’ll just have to drop everything and go and run.”
Anselm Gibbs contributed reporting from Guyana and Isayen Herrera from Venezuela.