map of South America focused on Venezuela and Guyana

The Essequibo Territorial Dispute: A New Proxy War?

by Zaid Darraj, Lebanon Trail High School

The cause of many modern-day territorial disputes is rooted in vague or even undefined borders set up by colonial powers decades ago: the Kashmir conflict, the Israeli-Arab war, the Kosovo Crisis, and many, many others. A majority of those disputes escalate into military conflicts that cause a rise in international tensions. Additionally, there has been a pattern observed in most of those conflicts; they turn into proxy wars of world powers. A proxy war is a war in which two powerful states back two smaller states in a conflict, without directly participating. All of the previously mentioned conflicts are considered to be at least somewhat of a proxy war: The Kashmir conflict is fueled by American and Chinese military aid to different parties. The Israeli-Arab war is heightened by U.S. support of the Israelis and USSR support of the Palestinians. The Kosovo Crisis is fought between Russia and NATO. Nonetheless, there is one conflict in particular that is becoming more relevant than ever due to escalating tensions: the Essequibo dispute between Guyana and Venezuela.

Essequibo is a region separating the South American countries of Guyana and Venezuela. The entirety of the region with the exception of the Ankoko Island is controlled by Guyana based on the 1899 Paris Arbitral, which granted British Guyana almost all of the territory. Since then, Venezuela has refuted Britain’s claim (and later Guyana’s) of Essequibo and has filed multiple complaints to the United Nations. The situation on the ground has for decades remained the same; both Venezuela and Guyana claim the region as their own, but only Guyana has real control. However, everything changed in 2015, when an extremely important discovery was made off of Essequibo’s coast: oil and natural gas. Since then, Venezuela has strengthened its claims to the region, with tensions at an all-time high in December 2023, when the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, launched a referendum essentially asking Venezuelans on whether the country should annex Essequibo. Allegedly, 96% of those who participated in the referendum voted yes. The referendum was condemned by the Commonwealth of Nations, the Caribbean Community, and the Organization of American States. Meanwhile, Guyana appealed to the International Court of Justice and summoned the Venezuelan ambassador.

“How could this turn into a proxy war?” you might ask. Well, in order to understand how proxy wars form, we need to first comprehend the political nature of the region on an international scale. Venezuela has long been a valued economic and political partner of Putin’s Russia, considered by many to be Russia’s closest ally in South America. On the other hand, Guyana has been strengthening its diplomatic ties with countries such as the UK and the U.S. The UK has recently sent a military vessel to Guyana’s border, and in response, Venezuela deployed troops in the Caribbean and stated that the troops will stay deployed until the British vessel leaves. Meanwhile, as the U.S. has announced joint military drills in Guyana, Venezuela denounced the drills and expressed that such operations threaten Venezuelan sovereignty. The U.S. embassy in Guyana responded by stating that the drills were “routine engagement” in order to “enhance security partnership.” As intense as all of that sounds, Guyana and Venezuela have signed an agreement guaranteeing each other that they will not use force to settle this dispute. However, about a week later, Venezuelan President Maduro stated that Guyana had broken the agreement as it had allowed foreign militaries to operate near its territory.

The chance of a proxy war, or even a war at all occurring in the region is heavily debated. Many politicians and intellectuals argue that the referendum launched by Maduro is only another attempt by the ‘authoritarian’ president to bring attention away from the country’s soaring poverty rates, meaning that Venezuela does not intend to start a war and is simply not ready to be involved in such a conflict. This is only in addition to the fact that Venezuela’s primary ally, Russia, has its hands full, dealing with internal conflicts, its invasion of Ukraine, and even the Syrian Civil War. Others believe that Maduro’s immediate reaction to the presence of the U.S. and UK troops in the region signals that Venezuela is planning to do much more militarily.

“Why should I care?” That’s a valid question as Venezuela is over 2500 miles away from Dallas/Fort Worth. As distant as that sounds, a conflict in Latin America will most likely directly affect cities in the U.S., especially those closer to the southern border. First off, you will probably notice an influx of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in the Metroplex, possibly prompting further division between the Republican and Democratic parties on how the situation should be handled. Secondly, Guyana and Venezuela hold significant oil reserves; instability in the region may cause oil prices to go up in DFW and worldwide. Lastly, a war in the region may provoke a shift in international diplomatic relations, meaning the U.S. might reassess its relations and alliances. This would cause businesses in DFW that participate in international trading to experience a change in regulations, tariffs, or market access.

Guyana and Venezuela together have a population of 29 million people; war in the region is expected to displace millions who are already struggling to feed their families. For now, let’s pray for peace and stability in Latin America and worldwide.

 

The views and options expressed in this article are the student’s alone and are not endorsed or reflect the views of the nonprofit, nonpartisan, World Affairs Council of Dallas Fort/Worth.