U.S. officials are becoming increasingly worried about an armed escalation between Venezuela and Guyana, after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro asked the country’s state energy company to begin drafting extraction licenses in the oil-rich region of Essequibo. Some 95% of Venezuelan voters ostensibly cast ballots in favor of annexing the region in a weekend referendum, though the integrity of the poll has been questioned.
The U.S. military on Thursday announced it would begin air exercises in Guyana, and Brazil has mobilized troops near its border with both countries.
While experts still say that Maduro’s threats are more talk than action, the potential of an invasion is spooking the global community.
Venezuela is throwing Indigenous communities into the center of debate over Essequibo. Venezuelan leaders are sharing videos supposedly showing Indigenous people replacing the Guyanese flag with the Venezuelan one and communities rallying behind the army. But government critics like Domingo Fernández, a Venezuelan local near the border of Guyana, called the push “irresponsible,” accusing Maduro’s regime of not actually caring about the communities involved and “displacing them from their lands for #ArcoMinero operations,” referencing a controversial illegal mining campaign in the Amazon forest.
ExxonMobil — which is heavily invested in Guyana — is trying to calm investors. CEO Darren Woods on Wednesday said that he hoped “both nations will respect that process and respect the outcome of the arbitration,” while admitting that a resolution to the dispute was likely years away. His comments came as the stock for Hess, an Exxon partner in Guyana, fell to a five month low. The two energy giants are so heavily dependent on Guyana (some 10% of Exxon’s daily oil production) that “it’s become hard to distinguish where the oil company ends and the government begins,” Amy Westervelt wrote for the Intercept. Venezuela is framing that relationship as a key reason for annexation, with Maduro keen on removing U.S. influence in the region.
“Guyana is its own worst enemy” as political factions clash with one another over the “existential threat” from Venezuela’s moves, political scientist Vishnu Bisram wrote for Kaieteur News, a Guyanese newspaper. “Everyone was united” shortly after Venezuela’s referendum, but politicians and their supporters have since been taking “swipes against each other” over how to resolve the conflict, with supporters of the government blasting opposition figures who have raised concerns about ExxonMobil’s influence in the government as its role in the dispute has been thrusted into the spotlight. “Every effort should be made towards bipartisanship,” Bisram wrote.