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‘People Are Fearful’: Guyana Alert for Land Grab by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro

Despite their proximity to Venezuela, inhabitants of the Guyanese border town of Mabaruma have little to do with their Spanish-speaking neighbors, says Brentnol Ashley, governor for the Barima-Waini region.

Like other communities dotted across the dense jungles of the Essequibo region, Mabaruma is a patchwork of Indigenous peoples bound together by the English language and Guyana’s national culture.

“We are a diverse nation, but at the end of the day we are all one people: the Guyanese,” said Ashley.

The only Spanish speakers in the riverside settlement are Venezuelans who have sought refuge there in recent years after fleeing their home country’s economic collapse, Ashley said.

So when the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, announced this week that he would issue his country’s ID cards to the local population, and step up efforts to convert Essequibo into a Venezuelan state, local people showed little interest in taking up the offer.

“We are not in need of Mr Maduro’s ID cards! We already have one. We are Guyanese!” said Ashley. “Even the Venezuelans who have sought refuge here stand with us on this. They do not want to suffer more of the hardship that sent them here in the first place.”

Venezuela has laid claim to the oil-rich Essequibo region – which accounts for two-thirds of Guyana – since it gained independence in the 19th century, but Maduro has dramatically raised the stakes in the past week, prompting concerns across the region that the authoritarian leader could be paving the way for a land grab.

Amid growing fears that Maduro is seeking to annex the territory, the US staged a flyover above the border region on Thursday in a show of military strength.

“People are fearful of an invasion. You’re talking about a country with military power and resources against a country of 780,000 people,” said Nazima Raghubir, a journalist based in the capital, Georgetown.

At the center of the dispute is an incendiary vote held in Venezuela on Sunday in which Caracas alleges the public overwhelmingly backed the country’s claims to the 160,000-sq-kilometre swathe of resource-rich rainforest.

Maduro hailed the plebiscite a “total success”, claiming that 95% of Venezuelans supported the plans to annex the region and disregard the international court of justice, which is currently mediating the century-old territorial dispute.

, Analysts say voter turnout was likely inflated by the government, but Maduro has used the vote as a springboard to forge ahead with plans to assimilate the region into Venezuela.

Appearing on national television after the vote, he unveiled an enlarged map of his country and announced that he had tasked the national assembly with drafting a law recognising the Essequibo region as a Venezuelan state. Maduro also ordered the national oil company PDVSA to begin exploring the region for oil and appointed a deputy of the United Socialist party of Venezuela, Maj Gen Alexis Rodríguez Cabello, as the head of a special military unit overseeing the new state, Guayana Esequiba.

“The Venezuelan people have spoken loudly and clearly,” Maduro told cheering crowds in the capital.

Venezuela has become increasingly vocal about its claim to the territory since billions of barrels worth of oil were discovered in the region in 2015, and there are growing concerns that the bluster could turn into action.

As Venezuela ratchets up tensions, Guyana in turn must respond, prompting concerns that the countries could find themselves in a loop with no way out.

“What is concerning to us is that Maduro has given specific instructions, all of which speak to the occupation of our Essequibo,” Guyana’s foreign minister, Hugh Todd, said. “We interpret those actions as a direct threat to our sovereignty and territorial integrity so we obviously intend to send a strong signal to Venezuela that Guyana will protect its territorial integrity.”

“We remain on high alert and we are not taking any option off the table,” Todd added.

Guyana was part of the British empire for 200 years until it gained independence in 1966. As the only English-speaking country in South America, the country has closer cultural and political ties with the Caribbean than with the rest of the continent. Knowing it could not compete militarily with its much larger neighbour, Guyana is looking to its allies – particularly the US – to make it clear they will not tolerate an invasion.

Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has cast himself as a mediator in the dispute, but he also sent troops to his country’s northern border, and it appears the leftist leader is running out of patience with Maduro’s saber-rattling.

“We do not want and we do not need war in South America,” an irritated Lula, as he is known, told journalists at a regional summit.

Venezuela has never occupied Essequibo, but it has argued that the borders drawn up with what was then British Guiana were the product of corruption.

“Our Guayana Esequiba has been de facto occupied by the British empire and its heirs and they have destroyed the area,” Maduro said before the referendum, using the Venezuelan name for the region.

Maduro’s belligerent campaign is widely seen as a way to drum up support and test his capacity to drive turnout before presidential elections in 2024, when he is expected to face a serious challenge by the opposition leader María Corina Machado.

“He could also just use the alleged looming threat from Guyana and the US to say there are no conditions for an election to be held and cancel it entirely,” said Ryan Berg, an analyst and the director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

As Maduro ramps up the rhetoric, Guyana’s diplomats are hurriedly traveling to meet representatives of the Caribbean community (Caricom) as well as going further afield, hoping that they will secure guarantees that their allies will not allow what Guyana’s president called an “outlaw nation” to invade.

“Guyana is a young democracy and our friends and partners will not stand idly by and encourage that kind of behavior from a failing democracy,” Todd said.

For now, it remain unlikely that Maduro will invade Guyana, said Berg. Launching a conflict would leave Venezuela internationally isolated and risk the US reimposing economic sanctions.

“But the lesson we take away from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that the rational thing to do is not always what a dictator does,” Berg said. “This could end up in some kind of shooting war or minimal land invasion because we’ve seen how things like this can take on a life of their own.”

Source: The Guardian