Turning Away From U.S. Dependence, South America Rallies To Discuss Guyana-Venezuela Border Tensions

On December 10th, Guyana agreed to talks with Venezuela following pressure from Brazil, the United States, and other concerned parties. Guyanese president Ifraan Ali met with Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro on Saint Vincent, an island nation near both national coastlines, to discuss Venezuela’s recent claims on the Essequibo region of Guyana. (Various concerned nations also participated, including Brazil and the Dominican Republic.) Four days later, as a result of the bilateral dialogue, the prime minister of Saint Vincent released a statement assuring a non-violent resolution of the dispute. Maduro’s hostile posturing has united neighbouring nations and deflated his ambition for an easy land grab.

“In relation to our border, there is absolutely no compromise,” President Ali said. “The matter is before the [International Court of Justice] and there is where it will be settled.”

The United States, while occupied in Ukraine and with Israel, has been in close communication with Ali, whose rhetoric has not hesitated to condemn Venezuela’s threats. However, the U.S. doesn’t “want to see this come to blows,” said White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby. “There’s no reason for it to, and our diplomats are engaged in real time.”

Nonetheless, Brazilian armored vehicles have been stationed in the state of São Marcos, which borders Venezuela and hosts the only major road into the Essequibo region. “We are following the situation with concern,” Brazilian diplomat Gisela Padvoan said in a public statement following the deployment. “I do not believe it will come to an armed conflict.”

“A conversation is more worthwhile than a war,” agreed Brazilian president Lula da Silva. “So I hope that good will prevail on the side of Venezuela and Guyana.”

The tension between Venezuela and Guyana likely stems from Venezuela’s October agreement to hold free elections in 2024 in exchange for the United States loosening its economic sanctions. Through the use of aggressive rhetoric, Maduro may be attempting to build popular support for his administration to increase electoral turnout and provide cover for election interference.

Additionally, Venezuelan claims on the Essequibo region dating back to 1890 have re-emerged after ExxonMobile’s exploration of the Guyanese coastal seafloor revealed, according to the Associated Press, approximately 11 billion barrels worth of petroleum. ExxonMobile predicts Guyana will produce 1.2 million barrels per day by 2027, making Guyana a major nation for oil exports.

While Venezuela has significant reserves of fossil fuels, the quality of oil under Venezuela is much poorer than Guyanese offshore oil products, combining poor resource quality with inconsistent economic policies and rampant corruption. Guyana offers better quality petroleum, without that political baggage, for potential trade partners – the nation is politically, geographically, and economically suited for oil export to the United States, Europe, and the rapidly-developing Global South. Because petroleum comprises 70% of Venezuela’s export revenue, Guyana’s future as an oil producer could provide the income Venezuela desperately needs to survive.

Thus, Venezuela’s aggression is not the beginning of a violent transition, but rather the last desperate act of a dying administration and a nation racked by economic turmoil.

With U.S. attention focused in the eastern Mediterranean, Maduro may have hoped for an early capitulation from Guyana, but it appears these hopes have been dashed. The most recent meeting on Saint Vincent saw leaders from across the Caribbean and South America support Guyana, demonstrating a regional coalition to resolve conflict without U.S. leadership. The unity of concerned nations demonstrates a non-violent, regional approach to conflict resolution.

This rapid initiative of involved nations is in response to a global political shift away from the United States and towards regional powers such as Brazil. If the Saint Vincent resolution holds, it would mark a significant change to conflict resolution in South America. Without the heavy-handed shadow of the United States, regional actors have more agency to holistically solve conflict via good-faith negotiations. As these regional nations are economically, culturally, and politically inter-dependent, there is a shared incentive to prevent war and maintain the status quo. This network of nations could grow to fill an expanding power vacuum left by the United States’ gradual withdrawal from international affairs.

The Saint Vincent summit marks an end to Maduro’s hope of an easy political victory for his party before elections next year. The unity of Latin and Caribbean nations in the face of potential conflict demonstrates a regional willingness to fill the role of peacemaker and guarantor of national sovereignty, historically held by the United States, in the southern hemisphere. While conflict seems to be unlikely, only time will tell if this coalition of developing nations can mobilize to mediate future disputes.