President Mohamed Irfaan Ali addresses nationals at a diaspora Town Hall meeting at the Hotel Liberty Inn & Suites in Queens.
President Mohamed Irfaan Ali addresses nationals at a diaspora Town Hall meeting at the Hotel Liberty Inn & Suites in Queens.
Photo by Tangerine Clarke, file

Fearing the possibility that an upcoming World Court ruling in Guyana’s favor could put a once and for all end to Venezuela’s decades-old territorial claim to Guyana, the oil and gas-rich South American nation has in recent weeks significantly increased its saber-rattling with Guyana with threats to annex the entire Essequibo County in a referendum in early December.

One of the questions being asked of Venezuelans in the vote is whether they oppose the planned creation of a state in Venezuela referred to as “Guyana Essequibo,” the award of Venezuelan citizenship to Guyanese living in Essequibo and also the distribution of Venezuelan national identification cards to Guyanese citizens. Voting in the referendum is scheduled for Dec. 3.

The planned vote, authorities say, comes in the wake of a serious, if not unprecedented, military build up across Venezuela’s eastern border with Guyana, surpassing all the previous skirmishes recorded in the past including live firing of rifles on Guyanese boats traversing the border Cuyuni and Wenamu rivers, the seizure of pontoons and other equipment of miners and daily hassling of Guyanese conducting business in a river that Venezuela claims as its own.

Back in 2013, the crew of a Venezuelan naval ship had arrested the crew of a seismic vessel conducting work off Guyana’s coast, keeping the crew in detention for more than a week before their release. For Guyanese authorities, that was one of the more serious military incidents involving Venezuela since it began claiming that it had been cheated out of the Essequibo region and its oil and gas-laden waters by an international boundaries commission back in 1899.

With the referendum looming, Guyana’s government this week sounded the alarm bells about the impending referendum saying that it has not only taken careful note of the “five questions” in the vote but interprets the latest developments as a plan to forcibly seize the territory.

“This amounts to nothing less than the annexation of Guyana’s territory, in blatant violation of the most fundamental rules of the United Nations charter, the Organization of American States (OAS) charter and general international law. Such a seizure of Guyana’s territory would constitute the international crime of aggression. The government of Guyana categorically rejects any attempt to undermine the territorial integrity of the sovereign state of Guyana. The people of Guyana remain resolute against any threats to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their country,” government said in a statement late Monday.

Continuing to alert the domestic and international community, the Irfaan Ali administration complained that “neither the government or the people of one country have the right in international law to seize, annex or take the territory of another country. International law emphatically prohibits this.”

The latest round of tensions between the neighbors have a bit to do with American supermajor, ExxonMobil, declaring a world class oil and gas find offshore back in 2015. It appeared to have seriously irked Venezuela which reacted by immediately issuing a parliamentary decree claiming ownership of all waters off Guyana and redrawing maps that had basically encompassed the entire Guyana land and marine mass even though the oil find was far away at the southeastern border with Suriname.

As tensions continue to rise, Guyana said it was alerting the international community to the latest situation as it has the potential of inciting violence and threatening peace and security of Guyana and the Caribbean.

“When you see a leading question in a referendum that talks directly about annexation you know that this is very serious business. This has clearly gone to another level,” said Professor Mark Kirton, a Latin American expert who recently retired from the University of the West Indies.