February 23, 2024

On December 3rd, 2023, a referendum was held in Venezuela over the long-disputed region of Essequibo (Guayana Esequiba in Spanish). The referendum asked five key questions:

  1. Do you agree to reject by all means in accordance with the law, the line fraudulently interposed by the 1899 Paris Arbitration Award, which seeks to deprive us of our Guayana Esequiba?
  2. Do you support the 1966 Geneva Agreement as the only valid legal instrument to reach a practical and satisfactory solution for Venezuela and Guyana regarding the controversy over the territory of Guayana Esequiba?
  3. Do you agree with Venezuela’s historical position of not recognizing the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice to resolve the territorial controversy over Guayana Esequiba?
  4. Do you agree to oppose, by all legal means, Guyana’s claim to unilaterally dispose of a sea pending delimitation, illegally and in violation of international law?
  5. Do you agree with the creation of the Guayana Esequiba state and the development of an accelerated plan for comprehensive care for the current and future population of that territory, which includes, among others, the granting of citizenship and identity card? Venezuela, in accordance with the Geneva Agreement and International Law, consequently incorporating said state on the map of Venezuelan territory? [1]

This referendum continues a centuries-long dispute involving a complex web of bourgeois and national interests in Venezuela, Guyana, and the United States.

Historical Context

The disputed region of Essequibo was first colonized by the Dutch in the 17th Century and later transferred to the British at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. This territory, which would become British Guyana, had an undelineated border with the Captaincy General of Venezuela, which would become Venezuela following the dissolution of Gran Colombia in 1830. In 1840, the British commissioned a survey of this border, resulting in the creation of the Schomburgk Line. This line, which roughly follows the modern-day Venezuela-Guyana border, is solely a product of British Imperialism in the Guianas, with the most extreme claim granting Britain control of the entire mouth of the Orinoco River. However, as the region was rather sparsely inhabited, tensions would not flare up until the 1880s, when Venezuela attempted to reassert their claim to Essequibo as initially staked by the Captaincy General.

The dispute of this era primarily revolved around a gold mine operated in the area by Venezuela, at El Callao. This mine was considered one of the most productive in the world at the time and, perhaps worryingly for the Venezuelan Government, was primarily staffed by immigrants from Britain and the British West Indies, who thus had ample cause (by  19th century standards) to seize the mine directly. As such, when Britain declared the Schomburgk Line as the provisional boundary of British Guyana in 1886—violating an 1850 agreement to not encroach on the disputed territory—Venezuela severed diplomatic relations.

The Venezuelan government then proceeded to appeal the issue to the United States, arguing that the British decision constituted a breach of the Monroe Doctrine. After several years of lobbying in Washington, the US government came to agree with this argument, thus sparking the Venezuelan Crisis of 1895. The crisis itself would begin a disastrous interpretation of the Monroe doctrine, giving the US the perceived right to intervene in disputes in the Americas, one that has been used to devastating effect ever since. In this instance, however, the United States would end up arbitrating, and the result would be the aforementioned 1899 Paris Arbitration Award, which, ironically, awarded 90% of the disputed territory to British Guiana, including all gold mines in the region.

Despite the negative outcome, Venezuela largely left the issue to rest until 1949, when Venezuela was granted a posthumous memorandum of the leader of the US-Venezuela Delegation of the 1899 Arbitration, revealing collusion on the part of Britain and Russia against Venezuela’s claim. This revelation opened the scars of the dispute and, as such, in 1962 Venezuela would denounce the 1899 Paris Arbitration in the UN Special Political and Decolonization Committee, stating that “acts contrary to good faith” made the agreement null and void.

This denunciation would result in the 1966 Geneva Agreement, which provided the framework for resolving the dispute. Signed three months before Guyana gained independence from the British, it has been frequently called an “agreement to make an agreement” [2]. Since then, there have been periodic flare-ups of tension, but the most recent would be when, in 2017, the UN decided to forward the case over to the International Court of Justice, which was largely expected to rule in Guyanese favor. The case has been steadily moving through the court, most recently when they ruled that the ICJ had jurisdiction to resolve the dispute, hence question 3 of the referendum.

The Recent History of Venezuela

The very nature of the dispute, however, cannot be understood without the underlying historical context of the Bolivarian Revolution. Riding on a wave of rising contradictions in Venezuelan society, and following a decade-long economic slump, Hugo Chavez successfully utilized the unrest and anger over the existing governmental structures to be elected president in 1999, under social-democratic, populist rhetoric.

This would result in the transformation of Venezuela into the Bolivarian Republic of today, one which, while flirting with left-wing ideas, still seeks to strengthen it’s own national bourgeoisie and reinforce their class interests. It is for this reason that Venezuela has heavily aligned with both BRICS and the World Anti-Imperialist Platform, with the United Socialist Party of Venezuela being the only member party that does not at least claim to be communist. This has resulted in Venezuela taking an adversarial position towards American imperialism in Latin America, while furthering the interests of its own national bourgeoisie in order to advance its position within the imperialist system [3].

Guyana

Though the Guyanese government has historically made a claim to socialism, especially during the tenure of Forbes Burnham, in actuality, much like British Guiana was inextricably linked to Britain, Guyana has found itself closely tied to the United States since independence, with the CIA intervening heavily in their internal affairs. Guyana is also a member of several organizations that serve to expand US interests, such as the Organization of American States, and closely cooperates with the US Southern Command.

The Dispute Renewed

Much like the dispute in the 1800s flared up over gold mines, this modern dispute primarily stems from resources as well, namely the discovery of offshore oil reserves in 2013 within the maritime borders of Essequibo [4]. As the true extent of these reserves was revealed, Guyana granted extraction rights to ExxonMobil in 2014, following up on the 2007 expropriation of ExxonMobil assets in Venezuela into the PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil and gas company.

The PDVSA’s role in the Venezuelan economy is critical, with Oil exports expected to make up 58% of the 2024 National Budget [5]. Historically, the Venezuelan government has been extremely invested in the operations of the PDVSA, especially since the Bolivarian Revolution. In 2002, the government took part in assisting to break a strike of PDVSA employees, revealing the fundamentally bourgeois character of the “revolution” [6]. More recently, in 2017 Venezuela handed control of the PDVSA over to the Venezuelan military, in a move further tying oil production to the prosperity of the country. Moreover, there has been a recent decline in Venezuelan oil production for a variety of factors, from the mismanagement of PDVSA previously mentioned to the imposition of US sanctions in 2017 [7].

The dispute is further compounded by the intertwining of the American and Venezuelan oil markets. For decades, the PDVSA has maintained mutually-beneficial contracts with Chevron, another US-based Oil and Gas Company, to export Venezuelan Oil within the American economy and have it refined out of the country [8]. However, this is far from the only way that Venezuela has to export oil into the US. The PDVSA has owned, since before the Bolivarian Revolution, the US-based Petrol refiner and distributor, Citgo.

Citgo has long been a source of tension between the PDVSA and American oil companies, especially after 1999. The company has been accused of advancing foreign interests, and as such has faced it’s operations being heavily restricted due to boycotts and US meddling. In 2016, in the face of declining oil extraction, the PDVSA took out a loan of $1.5 billion from the Russian energy company, Rosneft, using a majority control of Citgo as collateral. Due to the instability of the Venezuelan economy, the US government began to make moves to prevent Citgo from falling into the hands of Russia. Consequently, since 2019 Citgo has been managed by the US-backed Transitional Government of Venezuela, effectively depriving the PDVSA of this resource and necessitating further cooperation with Chevron [8].

As such, the promise of billions of barrels of oil production in the Essequibo region has effectively poised the interest of US corporations, namely ExxonMobil, against the interests of the PDVSA, with both seeking to export oil to their respective benefactors. However, this does not paint the whole picture of why the referendum occurred now and not earlier, or later for that matter.

The 2024 Venezuelan Election

The main reason for the pressing of the issue now can primarily be chalked up to the upcoming Venezuelan presidential elections, scheduled to take place in the latter half of this year. As part of the US easing sanctions on Venezuela, there are mandated “electoral guarantees for an internationally monitored vote to be held in the second half of 2024” [9]. Due to the growing unpopularity of Maduro’s government, there are legitimate fears that there will be a loss of power for the PSUV-led Great Patriotic Pole, especially with the recent defections of many leftist parties, most notably the Communist Party of Venezuela.

As such, what would be better to shore up support for a floundering national government than appealing to chauvinism and nationalism by promising to reclaim a long-disputed territory from an adversary, a movement that also promises significant economic benefits as well? This has been identified as a primary reason for the referendum, and for the ratcheting up of tensions by our fraternal allies, the Communist Party of Venezuela [3].

The Guyanese Reaction

Since the referendum was announced on October 23rd, Guyana has been planning for a Venezuelan incursion into the Essequibo region by deepening their ties with the United States. They have conducted exercises with the US Southern Command and proposed establishing a military presence in the disputed region, even allowing SOUTHCOM to establish military bases in the region, in order to protect the investments of ExxonMobil [10, 11].

Moreover, there have been many Latin American countries calling for tensions to not escalate, most notably Brazil, which shares a land border with both nations, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which hosted a summit on December 14th in which both Irfaan Ali, President of Guyana, and Nicolas Maduro agreed “that they ‘will not threaten or use force against one another in any circumstances’ and ‘will refrain, whether by words or deeds, from escalating any conflict or disagreement’” [12]. Despite this, a few days later the United Kingdom got involved in the dispute over the former colony and deployed an offshore patrol ship, the HMS Trent, clearly violating the promise to not escalate tensions [13].

 As of the time of this writing, no new developments have occurred. There are planned to be more extensive talks in the next three months, to be hosted by Brazil, following up on the December 14th summit, though given how difficult it has been to prevent escalation thus far, one must wonder how much will truly come out of further discussions.

The PCV: The Present and Future Interests of the Workers

The Communist Workers’ Platform USA denounces the warmongering on both sides of the dispute, and stands in solidarity with the workers of both Guyana and Venezuela. We condemn the assault by the PSUV regime on our comrades of the Communist Party of Venezuela.

Alongside the recent anti-communist crusade by Maduro, the PSUV has been furthering their anti-popular campaign in the nation. Beyond thrusting a chauvinist dispute ahead of their elections, there has been systematic repression of the working class, which the PCV rightly identified as anti-popular and anti-proletarian, despite the PSUV’s insistence otherwise. It is for this reason that the PSUV has been attempting to usurp the PCV, granting a new party, one that rejects Marxism-Leninism, the identity of the PCV. It is through this false PCV that the Venezuelan government endeavors to create an opportunist party, one that will rally the working class to support the PSUV and by extension bring the workers and people to the feet of the bourgeoisie.

The CWPUSA stands alongside the PCV and its General Secretary, comrade Oscar Figuera, in their struggle against this false party.

We demand an end to the interference of the Venezuelan government in the affairs of the PCV!

We demand the end of the anti-Popular and anti-Democratic actions of the PSUV against the Venezuelan workers and people!

We demand the de-escalation of tensions in the Essequibo dispute, and the peaceful resolution of the dispute, on the terms of the working class and not of bourgeois interests!

Hands off the PCV!

References

  1. Venezuelan Supreme Approves Essequibo Referendum Questions
  2. Venezuela reanuda su reclamacion sobre Esequibo
  3. CP of Venezuela, Pronouncement of the VII plenary session of the Central Committee of the PCV in view of the consultative referendum on the esequibo territory
  4. Venezuela Rejects ‘Unacceptable’ US Meddling in Essequibo Dispute
  5. Exclusive: Venezuela to receive 27% more income from PDVSA after sanctions easing-document
  6. Venezuelan president purges oil company
  7. The Venezuelan Oil Industry in the Last Decade
  8. Venezuela’s PDVSA, Chevron request 15-year extension for two joint ventures
  9. U.S. extends Citgo’s protection from creditors for three months
  10. US broadly eases Venezuela oil sanctions after election deal
  11. US Army and Guyana Strengthen Military Partnership
  12. U.S. Southern Command to conduct flight operations today in Guyana
  13. Guyana, Venezuela agree to not use force or escalate tensions in Esequibo dispute
  14. UK to send naval ship to Guyana amid Venezuela border dispute