Oil and Bullyism: Venezuela Opens the Intimidation Playbook Again: Part 2
By Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith
October 12, 2023
In looking at Venezuela’s recent bullying actions against Guyana, the first article in this two-part series examined two questions. First, what exactly is the latest bullying attempt? Second, why this latest Playbook effort? In this final article attention is paid to two other key queries. What are some earlier Playbook pursuits? Finally, can Venezuela be made to stop the bullying?
Earlier bullying pursuits
It’s important to recall the background to this saga. Guyana referred the controversy about the validity of the 1899 Arbitral Award to the ICJ in 2018 after several failed resolution efforts over many decades. In keeping with its rules, the ICJ needed to consider whether it had jurisdiction to hear the matter. In December 2020 the Court decided that it did, indeed, have the relevant jurisdiction, and in March 2021 Guyana was given until March 8, 2022, to submit its Memorial (case brief), which it did. Venezuela was granted until March 8, 2023, to present its Counter-Memorial, and the decision on the substantive case was expected to be made by March 2024.
However, rather than work on its Counter-Memorial, in June 2022 Venezuela filed preliminary objections to the admissibility of Guyana’s petition. Under ICJ rules, the trajectory of the substantive proceedings was suspended, and Guyana was then granted until October 7, 2022, to file a response to the objections, following which the Court held hearings on the matter in November 2022. Essentially, Venezuela argued that since the United Kingdom was a party to the 1899 Arbitral Award, it is, therefore, an indispensable third party to the case and the Court cannot adjudicate the matter without its consent. The ICJ rejected Venezuela’s preliminary objection and affirmed again that it can adjudicate upon the merits of Guyana’s claims. Thus, the case trajectory was restored, with a modification.
Guyana exposed key entries in the Playbook in its submission to the Court in March 2018 when it instituted judicial proceedings, apprising the Court of some of the instances when Venezuela had taken or threatened action to discourage and prevent economic ventures it had authorized local and foreign investors to pursue. For instance, in June 1968, Venezuela placed a notice in the London Times strongly objecting to and warning against any “concessions either granted or to be granted by the Guyana Government over the territory stretching to the West of the Essequibo River . . .” The following month, President Raúl Leoni issued a Decree claiming Venezuela’s sovereignty over the land territory west of the Essequibo River and over the adjacent territorial waters.
Several years later, in June 1981, Venezuela objected to the World Bank’s consideration of financing of a hydroelectric project in the Mazaruni River, a tributary of the Essequibo River. A few years later, in July 2000, Venezuela intervened with the People’s Republic of China to object to the issuance of a forestry concession by Guyana to Jilin Industries, Ltd., a Chinese company, and in August 2013, the Venezuelan navy seized the RV Teknik Perdana research vessel while it was conducting seismic activities off Guyana’s Essequibo coast for the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. The vessel and its crew were arrested and detained in Venezuela. This resulted to the cessation of all further exploration activities in Guyana’s waters by that company.
The bullying continued, with objection in April 2014 to a hydroelectric project contemplated by Guyana and Brazil and a Decree issued by President Maduro in July 2015, which asserted sovereignty over the entire Guyanese coast between the boundary established by the 1899 Award and the mouth of the Essequibo River and asserted exclusive jurisdiction in all the waters adjacent to that coast out to a distance beyond 200 nautical miles.
Not content with this move, to which Guyana and supportive countries and groups around the world objected, the following month they objected to mining concessions issued by the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission. As a final example of the intimidation reported to the ICJ, in February 2018, Venezuela objected to the issuance of petroleum licenses to ExxonMobil in waters near the mouth of the Essequibo River, cautioning Guyana and ExxonMobil against taking any action under Guyana’s license.
The intimidation measures have coexisted with Venezuela’s calls for Guyana to strike a bilateral political deal over the matter as well as their diplomatic overtures to other Latin American countries to “sell the case” about their Essequibo claim. They adopted a new tactic in their diplomatic toolbox on September 28, 2023, when President Maduro used the social network X to post the following: “I ordered the Venezuelan diplomatic team to present to the Caribbean governments precise documentation demonstrating our historical rights in the dispute over the Essequibo Territory.” Thus, Venezuela is extending its diplomatic campaign to Guyana’s first line of diplomacy protection, hoping to capitalize on sympathies, especially in the Eastern Caribbean, about the possible resurrection of the Petro Caribe concessionary oil deal.
So, the Intimidation Playbook is open again. Its use over the years surely has stymied Guyana’s economic development pursuits, although the bullying has fallen far short of its overall intent, which is to stymie progress in the Essequibo—and, therefore Guyana, given the territory’s size and wealth—generally and the country’s petroleum pursuits particularly. Yet, Venezuelan leaders have become so invested in their misguided patria pursuits over the last six decades that one is compelled to ask: can Venezuela be made to stop the bullying?
Can Venezuela be made to stop the bullying?
The answer to this question depends on domestic and international developments and factors. On the domestic front, several political realities spawn a healthy skepticism about the intimidation ending any time soon. For one, the country’s patria pursuit has long been a key aspect of campaigns for political power, with contestants drumming up doses of jingoism they feel advantageous to their bids for power. Keep in mind that presidential elections are scheduled to be held in 2024 to choose a president for a six-year term that begins in January 2025.
Maduro is already positioning himself to retain power by hamstringing potential challengers. For instance, this past June a leading candidate, María Corina Machado, was disqualified from participating in the vote because of alleged political crimes. However, use of the Essequibo as political football is not restricted to contestation for the presidency; it happens in relation to jockeying for National Assembly positions, and even some mayoral ones. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that la zona en reclamación, as the area is called in Venezuelan officialdom, will feature in the next set of National Assembly and local government elections that will be held in 2025 as well.
On the international front, there is a multiplicity of possible influencing factors, only one of which can be addressed here. Venezuela’s pursuit of membership in the BRICS group provides an opening to explore possible behavior modification. Guyana should work the BRICS diplomatic corridors to inform current BRICS members of the nature and consistency of Venezuela’s intimidation and the awkwardness of embracing a nation with such overt designs to vanquish a nation on the way to becoming a petro powerhouse. Guyana also has the conceptual construct for such, in the form of the Defense Diplomacy Strategy—where diplomacy has been the nation’s first line of defense—that it adopted shortly after winning independence in 1966.
So, in the short term, hope and happenstance are the best that could be envisaged in so far as the end of Venezuela’s bullyism of its smaller and weaker neighbor is concerned, unless the international influencing factor noted above comes into play. Of course, in the long term, behavior modification will depend on the decision of the ICJ, Venezuela’s reaction to it, if the validity of the 1899 Award is affirmed, and whether the United Nations Security Council is engaged as a compliance mechanism. Scenarios related to these will be the subject of a discussion later.
Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith, a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana, is a Senior Associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies as well as a Fellow of the Caribbean Policy Consortium and of Global Americans. The University of Illinois Press will soon publish his next book, Challenged Sovereignty: The Impact of Drugs, Crime, Terrorism, and Cyber Threats in the Caribbean.