Maduro’s clamoring came after a recent referendum where some 95 percent of Venezuelan voters approved the idea of annexing the region — known to Venezuelans as El Esequibo, after the major river that flows through Guyana and which Venezuela has long contended should be the natural border between the two countries. For the better part of two centuries, Venezuelans of all political stripes have viewed Esequibo as rightly theirs and insisted upon their sovereignty over the land.
“The Venezuelan sun rises in Esequibo,” tweeted Maduro, an otherwise polarizing, demagogic autocrat, in 2021. “The Venezuelan people reiterate their firm and irreducible determination to defend our sovereignty.”
The current move is partly guided by Maduro’s domestic travails, as elections loom next year and the oft-divided Venezuelan opposition is, against the odds, rallying around a strong, newly minted opposition leader. “The government’s only options are to try to rile up nationalist sentiments with Guyana and gradually escalate the situation and to increase political repression and persecution,” Enderson Sequera, strategic director for the Venezuela-based political analysis firm Politiks, told my colleagues.
Venezuela claims nearly three-quarters of Guyana. Guyana wants help.
Oil is part of the equation, too. Since ExxonMobil discovered massive offshore oil deposits in Guyana’s territorial waters in 2015, Maduro’s regime has stepped up Venezuela’s historic claims — a time during which the regime in Caracas has presided over an epochal economic crisis that forced millions of Venezuelans to flee the country.
Last week, “Maduro presented a map that showed Guyana’s 61,000-square-mile Esequibo region as part of Venezuela,” my colleagues reported. “The authoritarian socialist told a crowd of government officials and supporters that he would create the Venezuelan state Guyana Esequiba, grant Venezuelan citizenship to its Guyanese residents, license the state oil company PDVSA and state metal conglomerate CVG to search it for oil and order energy companies currently there, including Houston-based ExxonMobil, to leave in three months.”
The threats perked up ears in Washington. It led to the United States announcing joint military flight drills with its Guyanese counterparts on Thursday. A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Guyana cast the maneuvers as “routine engagement and operations to enhance security partnership” between the United States and Guyana, “and to strengthen regional cooperation.”
But, as Brazilian troops massed along the border with Venezuela in their own bid to keep the peace, the subtext was clear.
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The American role in this leads to a curious irony. One of the main origins of the dispute stems from a U.S. intervention more than a century ago, during which Washington was on the side of Venezuela — not Guyana.
For centuries, the jungles, marshes and scrublands between the Orinoco and Esequibo rivers were the site of furtive European exploration and colonial fantasies. Spanish conquistadors embarked on disastrous expeditions down both waterways in search of the mythical El Dorado. The notorious English privateer Sir Walter Raleigh baldly lied to his country’s public that he found said “golden city” and then, later in life, was compelled to prove it in an ill-fated voyage that claimed the life of his son.
Into the 19th century, there was no clear boundary here between the Spanish empire and that of the British, which assumed control of what was to be called British Guiana after a treaty agreement with the Netherlands in 1814. By 1841, independent Venezuela bridled against the territorial boundary drawn by German surveyor and naturalist Robert Hermann Schomburgk in the service of the British government, which they claimed violated the understood delineation of the territory at the time of Venezuela’s 1811 independence from Spain.
The dispute simmered on in an age where borders were vague and porous and maps themselves tools of political coercion. The discovery of gold and other valuable minerals in the sparsely populated region sharpened British attention to its possessions there, much to the consternation of the fledgling Venezuelan republic.
Then entered the United States and President Grover Cleveland. Most famous for being the only person — so far — to occupy the White House in two non-contiguous terms, Cleveland’s most significant but now mostly forgotten foray into foreign affairs centered on the disputed Venezuelan-Guyanese border. In 1895, the impasse between Venezuela and Britain was more than a half-century old, but came to a head with U.S. involvement.
Cleveland’s secretary of state, Richard Olney, sent a stern letter to his British counterpart, reviving the ethos of the Monroe Doctrine, which, invoked in the early part of the century, warned against European colonial projects in the Western Hemisphere. Olney, who was pressing the British to accept outside arbitration to settle the border with Venezuela, extended the principle, declaring the United States “practically sovereign on this continent.”
The bemused British scoffed at this and told the Cleveland administration that it didn’t believe the Monroe Doctrine was compatible with international law. That triggered howls of outrage in Washington and led to Cleveland delivering a special address to Congress, where he asked for the authority to appoint a boundary commission to settle the matter, and warned Britain its rulings would be enforced “by every means” at the United States’ disposal.
This implicit threat of military action inflamed the U.S. public, with periodicals printing cartoons of Cleveland yanking the imperial tail of the British lion and Olney suggesting the “American heart” had not been so stirred since the Civil War. The British envoy in Washington lamented to his superiors that, in the aftermath of Cleveland’s “note of war,” “nothing was heard” in the country but “the voice of the Jingo bellowing out defiance.”
Coping with the deeply damaging Boer War in South Africa, Britain relented and acceded to U.S. demands for independent arbitration. Much to the chagrin of Venezuela, the commission that emerged settled the boundary roughly along the Schomburgk Line, with a few deviations, in 1899. Guyana achieved independence in 1966 and takes this resolution as a settled matter. Successive Venezuelan governments rejected the ruling and the manner in which it was made.
For Cleveland’s legacy, the outcome of the dispute mattered less than his reassertion of U.S. primacy in the affairs of the hemisphere, a prelude to decades of American colonial endeavors across the Caribbean. Britain’s acquiescence underscored a new reality.
“In 1826, British trade, British capital, British diplomacy and British naval power had won for Great Britain a preeminent position in Latin America,” wrote historian R.A. Humphreys. “In 1896, American diplomacy, American trade, and American capital were beginning to win that preeminence for the United States.”