Guyana (254735)
Credit: Image by Ronny K from Pixabay

A few weeks after the Venezuelan government vowed to reconquer a large chunk of territory belonging to the Caribbean Community headquarter nation of Guyana, authorities sent gunboats at the weekend to intercept two Guyanese fishing vessels and detain the crew as tensions once again escalate between the two neighbors.

The move by Caracas comes just weeks after The Netherlands-based International Court of Justice, or World Court, ruled on an application by Guyana that it has the jurisdiction to rule on Guyana’s contention that an 1899 boundary settlement of border demarcations was valid and legal.

Venezuela has perennially disputed this, arguing that British, American, Russian and other boundary commissioners had cheated it out of Guyana’s mineral and oil-rich western Essequibo region that encompasses about two-thirds of Guyana’s land mass. Fearing it could lose the case, Venezuela stridently opposes the court intervening in the dispute, suggesting instead that direct talks with Guyana should suffice even though decades of such have proven to be an abysmal failure. The latest round of saber rattling appears to have coincided with the court ruling and seems to have resulted from it.

For its part, the local foreign ministry has condemned the detention of crews, noting that “the ministry is currently seeking to ascertain the status and welfare of the crew members. The Venezuelan vessel was illegally maneuvering within Guyana’s exclusive economic zone and contiguous zone when it intercepted, boarded and commandeered the Guyanese fishing vessels. The international community will be kept informed of all actions undertaken by Venezuela to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Guyana,” the ministry said.

Tensions between the two go back decades but Caracas has in the past eight years stepped up both its diplomatic and military bullying of its smaller neighbor to the east. In 2013, gunboats expelled a contract vessel conducting oil and gas seismic work for an American company offshore Guyana, detaining the crew for more than a week.

In 2015 when American supermajor ExxonMobil declared a world class oil and gas find off Guyana’s coast, an angry administration of President Nicolás Maduro administration issued decrees and redrew maps to encompass nearly all of Guyana and Caribbean countries to the north, sparking a diplomatic furor in the region. It has demonstrated its displeasure of Guyana’s new-found wealth and its relationship with Exxon, with which it has had a messy falling out over the past decade. Exxon has largely ignored anything Venezuela has done, including orders to abandon operations and leave the area, further angering Caracas with its unprecedented success in finding oil gushing wells offshore Guyana.

To make matters worse for Venezuela, the 15-nation Caribbean Community earlier this month made it clear that it stands fully behind Guyana. “The Caribbean Community is in full support of the judicial process underway at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is intended to bring a peaceful and definitive end to the long-standing controversy between the two countries,” heads of governments noted after a meeting earlier this month, expressing its “strongest possible terms its firm and unswerving support” for Guyana.

The latest tiffs between the two means that relations are probably at their lowest ebb in decades as Maduro seeks to rally the Venezuelan population back home around the issue of reclaiming Guyana’s Essequibo region even as his popularity continues to sink and as the country continues to struggle economically.