Dispute Over the Essequibo Region in Guyana is a Maneuver by Maduro and Havana to Postpone the Elections

Photograph provided by the Miraflores Palace of President Nicolás Maduro holding a map of Venezuela with the Guyana area, at a Government event in Caracas. (EFE/Miraflores Palace)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 8 December 2023 — Havana’s silence in the face of the bellicose declarations of its Venezuelan ally to integrate  the Essequibo region of Guyana into its territory seems to reflect a short-term calculation: to present itself as a mediator and use the risk of a conflict with small Guyana to postpone the elections, and thus stave off the risk of an opposition victory in Caracas, something totally unacceptable to the Cuban regime.

The tension between Venezuela and Guyana has reached its zenith since last Sunday, when after a referendum of very dubious validity Nicolás Maduro announced his plans to annex the territory, which include founding a state administered by Caracas, promoting the oil exploitation of the area by the Venezuelan-owned PDVSA and create, together with the Army, a “comprehensive defense zone.” After the announcement, Guyanese President Irfann Ali warned Maduro that he would summon his allies, including the United States Southern Command. The factors at play in Essequibo: oil, gold and geopolitics.

For his part, Cuban President Díaz-Canel gave a discreet show of support to Guyana this Friday, recalling the more than 50 years of diplomatic relations that both countries have behind them. Both “peoples and governments” are united by “deep ties of friendship and cooperation,” said the president, without referring to his meeting in the United Arab Emirates with Ali and other Caribbean friends from Havana, such as Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

In addition to the United States and the Commonwealth of Nations – an organization that brings together countries with historical ties to the United Kingdom – Guyana has found support among the leaders of the Caribbean Community (Caricom), whose headquarters are located in Georgetown itself, and which on Friday Díaz-Canel greeted in his X profile.

This week a newspaper clipping from 1981 circulated on social media where, next to a photo of an angry Fidel Castro, a headline appeared: “Venezuela is expansionist!

The Cuban president approached Georgetown in 2022, when he spoke by phone with Ali and agreed on cooperation agreements in several key areas, such as health. “Guyana has benefited enormously from the good will of Cuba and its people,” the Guyanese leader said then.

The alliance between both countries is historical and pre-dates Chavismo. This week a newspaper clipping from 1981 circulated on social media where, next to a photo of an angry Fidel Castro, a headline appeared: “Venezuela is expansionist!” The news item, which spoke of the dictator’s opinion on Essequibo, stated – citing Ricardo Alarcón, then chancellor – that the Island considered any attempt by Caracas to take “what does not belong to it” illegal.

That year, Havana and Georgetown had signed a pact that united them as members of the Summit of Non-Aligned Countries. That pact, those who recall it say, is still in force today, despite the Island’s alliance with Venezuela.

Ali’s request, last July, to “get nurses” from Cuba to help alleviate the shortage of health personnel in his country demonstrates the validity of the alliances between the two states.

As expected, the official Cuban press reflects the caution of the authorities in addressing the conflict in Essequibo. In a comment on the referendum held by Maduro, Cubadebate limited itself to saying that the day had passed with “complete tranquility” and that the authorities had had to extend the closure of the schools, a sign that the Caracas regime did not achieve the massive response it expected, although the Cuban news site does not say so.

The official media did not explain to its readers why Venezuelans were voting. They alluded, barely, to a decision “on the defense of Guyana’s Essequibo region,” or more precisely on “the recovery of it.” Of course, they did not spare adjectives about participation in the referendum: “splendid,” “immense,, “peaceful” and “victorious,”,as well as facilitating the “fusion between the people and the military.”

The official media did not explain to its readers why Venezuelans were voting. They alluded, barely, to a decision “on the defense of Guyana’s Essequibo region”

As for Guyana, they added, it was following the referendum “carefully” through the “front pages of the local press.” However, Cubadebate cited several international organizations that agree with Georgetown and remind Venezuela that it must “refrain from taking any measure that could modify the situation that currently prevails in the disputed territory,” as stated by the United Nations.

“Caricom advocated adhering to the principle of maintaining the Caribbean as a zone of peace and not engaging in any act contrary to the tranquility of the region, as it considered it an essential element for the economic prosperity and social well-being of all its member nations and those of Latin America,” the official media reports, without once alluding to Havana’s opinion on the conflict.

Essequibo, a territory of 159,000 square kilometers and 125,000 inhabitants, represents two thirds of Guyana. In the heart of the Guyanese Highlands, its mineral and oil wealth is considerable: it has gold, diamonds, aluminum, copper, bauxite and iron. As for oil, the discoveries made since 2015 by the American company Exxon have contributed to boosting the gross domestic product of the country, which has since become an oil power.

For Maduro, several analysts explain, annexing Essequibo would not only represent a great economic achievement, but also the ideal pretext to postpone the 2024 elections, in which he would face the very popular opponent María Corina Machado at the polls if the current government does not manage to permanently disqualify her candidacy.

This Thursday, Corina Machado expressed her concern about the ulterior motives of the conflict. “If the regime, knowing it is lost in the electoral process, opts for the path of repression or even an escalation of war, (the fact) could have terrible consequences, not only for Venezuela, but also for the region,” she stated.

This they know well in Havana, where there is more concern about what is at stake in the elections than about the situation in Essequibo, although the official press remains silent on that score.


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