In late January, the Venezuelan Navy intercepted and detained two Guyanese fishing vessels and 12 Guyanese citizens for two weeks. The detainment was the result of a recent decree issued by Venezuela’s leader, Nicolás Maduro. The decree ordered the creation of a special commission by the Venezuelan National Assembly that supports the unsubstantiated claim that more than 70% of Venezuela’s neighboring state, Guyana, belongs to it.
These events continue a longstanding border controversy between Guyana and Venezuela. International arbitration in 1899 settled the frontier between the two countries. Afterward, a 1966 Geneva Agreement reaffirmed that if no progress was made to solve the decades-long dispute, the United Nations Secretary-General could determine the means of settlement. After decades of little progress between the neighbors, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sent the matter to the International Court of Justice in 2018.
Cooperating with international mechanisms, Guyana filed an application to the ICJ in 2018. Venezuela did not participate in this procedure, instead rejecting the ICJ’s authority and subsequently requesting that the controversy be settled peacefully and bilaterally. However, Maduro’s actions are far less peaceful and include interceptions of Guyanese-registered vessels in 2013, 2019, and now 2021.
Maduro’s increasing aggression against Guyana threatens to further destabilize the broader region. His regime’s involvement in the region’s illicit economy, and his stewardship of a national economic meltdown that has led to the exodus of more than 5.5 million Venezuelans, have already destabilized Latin America and the Caribbean. While rhetorical threats are a routine part of Maduro’s foreign policy, commandeering Guyanese vessels is a physical attempt to intimidate a sovereign state.
Maduro probably expects domestic political benefits from increased belligerence toward Guyana. Conflict over territory with Guyana reinforces Maduro’s narrative of a Venezuela under siege by the entire continent, and especially by its neighbors, Guyana and Colombia. Maduro’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) letter of support for Guyana and the ICJ’s jurisdiction by accusing CARICOM of “contributing to an ominous hostility climate.”
Chest-thumping also lets Maduro illustrate the need for investment in the country’s armed forces, even as Venezuelans suffer from widespread food insecurity.
Guyana’s response to Venezuela’s actions has been swift. Addressing the nation, Guyana’s President, Irfaan Ali, stated that he would not engage with Venezuela bilaterally unless it stops its aggressive actions toward Guyana. Further, President Ali emphasized, “we [Guyana] have no military might, but we have moral and legal right. In doing so, we will seek the protection of international law and the support of the international community.”
Guyana has received support from international allies, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Organization of American States, and notably, its CARICOM neighbors.
The latter is important because some of CARICOM’s members were once part of PetroCaribe, Venezuela’s lavish program for subsidizing the export of its petroleum reserves, and there is currently division among the group on whether they recognize Maduro or Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s leader. In this regard, however, condemnation from CARICOM has been swift and unanimous.
This is why the United States should pay close attention to Venezuela’s aggression. Not only is Guyana a longtime partner of the United States, a status affirmed by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the country in late 2020, but recent events provide a focus for hemispheric pushback on Maduro. Opposition to the Venezuelan regime’s actions can spur deeper communication between the United States and CARICOM states with regard to Venezuela’s crisis. Such a dialogue is critical to a more inclusive hemispheric approach to Venezuela’s political and humanitarian breakdown.
To help preserve Guyanese sovereignty and regional stability, Guyana’s allies, such as the United States, should play close attention to the unfolding controversy. Supporting Guyana’s adherence to international mechanisms such as the ICJ is a great start, but the Biden administration should make it a point to acknowledge the controversy in any public statements on Venezuela and Maduro. Indeed, before long, Biden should deliver a speech outlining his Venezuela policy and plan to address the region’s gravest humanitarian crisis — an excellent opportunity to reiterate support for Guyana and its sovereignty against a predatory Maduro.
Finally, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, now chaired by Rep. Gregory Meeks, a longtime friend of the Caribbean, should issue a public statement on recent events. Members of Congress that are either influential in Venezuela policymaking or have a strong base of constituents from the Guyanese diaspora should be equally as outspoken.
While it is best for the United States to leave the resolution of the Guyana-Venezuela border controversy to the ICJ mechanism, it should also recognize the unprecedented opportunity to forge sought-after unity within CARICOM on the Venezuela crisis.
Wazim Mowla is a Guyanese American M.A. candidate at American University’s School of International Service and also holds an M.A. in History from Florida International University. Ryan Berg is a research fellow focused on Latin America Studies at the American Enterprise Institute based in Washington. The views expressed are the authors' own.