The authoritarian regime in Venezuela held a referendum on Sunday in which, according to official sources, 95 percent of voters backed Nicolás Maduro’s claims over the oil‐rich Esequiba region of neighboring Guyana. Although analysts speculate Maduro will not invade Guyana, there is no denying he has several strong reasons to do just that.
Reuters explained, Esequiba
constitutes over two thirds of Guyana’s total land mass. Venezuela’s claims on the Esequiba, which have been the source of a long‐running territorial dispute, were reignited in recent years after Guyana’s discovery of oil and gas near the maritime border.
The referendum comes on the heels of growing military tension on the border between Venezuela and Guyana, with Brazil, which shares borders with both countries, having “intensified defensive actions” on November 29, according to its defense ministry.
The Venezuelan referendum asked voters to back the regime’s rejection of the International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction over Esequiba and “to agree to a plan to incorporate it and create a state called Guayana Esequiba.”
It also sought “to grant its population Venezuelan citizenship.” In October, Guyana’s government, headed by president Mohamed Irfaan Ali, requested an explanation from the Venezuelan ambassador in Georgetown regarding heightened troop movements in the border regions.
Amid the uncertainty, there are reasons for concern. Maduro’s nationalist incentives, his domestic political fortunes, the Venezuela‐Guyana military balance, the regional politics, and the alignment of great power interests all come together in a way that could suggest military action.
The Nationalist Angle
Venezuela’s claim over Esequiba is indeed longstanding. It was only last April, however, that the ICJ ruled it did have jurisdiction over the matter after a 2018 request by Guyana to proceed against Venezuela. The ruling was significant. The Maduro regime clearly fears an adverse outcome. Maduro himself does not want Venezuela to lose its legal claim to Esequiba permanently on his watch. This would be a national humiliation that could weaken his grip on power.
He may see an unfavorable ruling coming, hence his attempt to deny entirely the court’s jurisdiction over the matter. The referendum, portrayed as proof of overwhelming popular support for his nationalist claim to Esequiba, could be seen as political preparation for military action.
The Domestic Political / Electoral Angle
Maduro is unpopular. Moreover, he now faces a serious electoral threat for the first time in over a decade. In October, the opposition organized and held a primary election in which María Corina Machado, a classical liberal and former congresswoman, won with 93 percent of the vote (over 2.4 million voters cast ballots both in Venezuela and abroad).
Nonetheless, the Maduro regime has tried to delegitimize the referendum and, for years, has banned Machado from being a candidate in any future, official election. However, the regime is under pressure to hold free and fair elections. It even agreed with the opposition, in principle, to hold “freer” elections in 2024. The agreement is understood to have involved the subsequent relaxation of US‐imposed sanctions, especially against the state‐owned oil company, PDVSA.
Maduro could hope that, after the referendum, annexing a large part of Guyana—under the cynical pretext of “anti‐imperialism” and the reclaiming of Venezuela’s lost lands—will rally at least some of the population around the regime.
More importantly, a state of war would allow Maduro to declare a state of emergency and thus postpone or cancel the 2024 presidential election entirely. He could even point cynically to Ukraine, which recently did the same (with the notable difference that Ukraine was invaded, not the invader, of course).
The Venezuela‐Guyana Military Balance
The balance of power between Venezuela and Guyana heavily favors Venezuela, which could also suggest the use of force. According to figures published by Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, the Venezuelan military counts 123,000 active personnel versus a mere 3,400 for Guyana. The latter country is badly outgunned in terms of weaponry, such as armored vehicles (514 vs. 6).
Military analysts, Folha’s Igor Gielow notes, believe that Venezuela’s socialism‐induced economic crisis has made its capacity to wage war look far stronger on paper than it is in fact, however. For instance, roughly half of the fleet of 24 Russian‐built Sukhoi Su‐30 fighter aircraft is considered fit to fly.
“But even as a paper tiger,” Gielow adds, Venezuela “is a colossus compared to Guyana.” Regarding the feasibility of an invasion: “a good part of the 800‐kilometer‐long border between Venezuela and Esequiba consists of dense jungle, which is impenetrable save for small units,” whereas operations with armored vehicles are “prohibitive.”
Since a Venezuelan invasion through Brazil is hardly plausible, “the most logical possibility for dictator Nicolás Maduro is a combination of airborne attack against Esequiba’s few urban centers and an amphibious landing on the Caribbean.” Military action is always uncertain and risky, but the military balance between the two countries is not much of an obstacle to invasion.
Recent developments in two major neighbors could also be seen as making a Venezuelan more favorable than it had been previously. Domestic political changes in both Colombia and Brazil may make Maduro’s calculus somewhat more inclined to war than it had been previously.
Colombia has been the closest ally of the United States in the region since the late 1990s. However, that country took an abrupt turn to the far left with the election of former guerrilla member Gustavo Petro in 2022. Whereas former president Iván Duque refused to recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate president, a stance that led to the closure of official crossing points along the Colombia‐Venezuela border, Petro has not only recognized Maduro but also forged a de facto alliance with his regime.
Petro has already visited Caracas four times since he took office, most recently in November, when he announced a partnership between Ecopetrol, Colombia’s state‐owned oil company, and PDVSA. When he visited the White House in April, Petro’ focused on lobbying for an end of all US sanctions against Venezuela.
Due to his close ties to Petro, who was an advisor to Hugo Chávez, Maduro will see no potential military threat from Colombia while the Colombian leader is in power. This is a huge difference compared to recent decades and is only guaranteed to last until 2026, when Petro is supposed to leave office. Petro might even lend diplomatic cover to Maduro if he invades Guyana.
In recent decades, Brazil has fostered an alliance with Guyana, which has included military cooperation, to bolster its influence in northern South America. The Brazilian government, which supports the ICJ’s jurisdiction over Esequiba, likely has a preference for the status quo to prevail. On November 22, Celso Amorim, chief advisor to Brazilian president Lula Da Silva, visited Maduro and attempted to reduce tensions. Da Silva himself has spoken about his desire to avoid a war between both nations.
Militarily, Brazil is the one regional power that can operate in Guyana with the least logistical difficulty. As such, it is the most serious deterrent, or at least it could be. So far, Brazil has undertaken the aforementioned diplomatic efforts to avoid conflict and attempted to secure its own borders. But there is no security guarantee.
The problem for Da Silva in attempting to persuade Maduro to keep out of Guyana is that, to some extent at least, he is facing a creature of his own making. During his first stint in power, Da Silva was a close ally of Hugo Chávez. Da Silva’s support even helped to legitimize Chávez as he set up an authoritarian state, even if their ideological proximity did not transfer into a full geopolitical alignment. Before taking office again in late 2022, Da Silva announced he would recognize Maduro after a three‐and‐a‐half‐year interlude. Once in office, he also welcomed Maduro to Brasilia and even relativized the importance of democratic elections when asked about his government’s stance toward Venezuela’s tyranny.
In short, Maduro will not perceive the Da Silva government to be hostile to his interests. On the other hand, any dictatorial, Leopoldo Galtieri‐like move against Guyana on Maduro’s behalf should leave Da Silva with questions to answer, especially regarding the wisdom of lending credence to dictators in the first place.
Great Power Interests
Sanctions against rogue regimes tend to fail, even to be counterproductive. Nonetheless, Maduro seems to be emboldened over the White House’s relaxation of Trump‐era sanctions against Venezuela and PDVSA in particular. Maduro may sense that the Biden administration is eager—perhaps desperate—to keep a steady stream of Venezuelan oil flowing onto world markets. In this respect, Maduro might think that seizing by force an area with large oil reserves will only strengthen his hand vis‐à‐vis Washington. To put it mildly, Latin America has not been a focus of US foreign policy in recent years.
For their part, both Russia and China have close military and political ties to the Maduro regime, which has been a significant buyer of Russian weapons. According to a 2021 report regarding Russia and China’s roles in the region: “Combined, these ‘global powers’ are turning Venezuela into a serious front for gray zone conflict — one that provides a strategic and operational challenge to US partners in the region, namely Colombia and Guyana.”
At the same time, China has invested in Guyana. Will this lead to pressure on Maduro to stay put, or would Beijing benefit more from the inconvenience caused to the United States by the invasion of a small South American country, especially one where American companies are heavily invested? In Russia’s case, the answer seems clearer.
Experts assure us that Maduro will not invade Guyana, which would be the prudent option. At the same time, it would be remiss to deny that he has more than one incentive to do so.