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The border dispute between neighboring oil producers Guyana and Venezuela could simmer this summer ahead of the July 28 Venezuelan presidential elections.

Venezuela, according to an analysis of satellite imagery by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), has engaged in a military buildup along the disputed border since early February — including the expansion of a base on the Anacoco Island.

CSIS assesses that the military buildup is part of a signaling campaign by the Nicolás Maduro government that it “is prepared to use military force to take the Essequibo from Guyana.”

The Essequibo region makes up two-thirds of Guyana’s land mass. Venezuela’s claim over the region dates back to the 19th century. But this dispute is not just about land. It’s also about what’s offshore.

Guyana: An Emerging Oil Giant in the Americas

Off the coast of the Essequibo region lies the Stabroek block, an expansive oil and gas field that could very well change Guyana’s destiny.

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Discovered in 2015, Stabroek has propelled Guyana’s economy to grow exponentially in recent years. (By a whopping 63 percent in 2022.) Guyana, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, was the third-fastest growing oil-producing country outside of OPEC from 2020 to 2023. And it plans on doubling output by 2027.

(For a deep dive into the perils and promise of Guyana’s new oil wealth, listen to my podcast with Jay Mandle.)

Maduro’s Aims

The unpopular Maduro is up for reelection this July. He’s done everything he can to guarantee his victory, including barring leading opposition candidate María Corina Machadorom from running. But Maduro is insecure. The economy is in tatters, with hyperinflation — exacerbated by U.S. sanctions — driving Venezuelans into desperation and millions out of the country.

(For more on Venezuela’s long crisis under Maduro, listen to my conversation with University of Denver Prof. Francisco Rodríguez.)

So Maduro is trying to whip up Venezuelan nationalism to tilt the vote in his favor.

Last year, the Maduro regime conducted a referendum to mobilize public support for Venezuela’s claim to Essequibo. A military buildup along the border has followed.

As Gisela Salim-Peyer writes in The Atlantic, Venezuelan irredentism has deep roots: “Part of the reason that Essequibo matters so much to Venezuelans is that we’ve been told it was robbed from us by the British empire.”

“Venezuela’s claim to Essequibo,” she says, “is as much about national pride as about resources.” And in her view, for Maduro, this is ultimately about the election, not Guyana’s oil.

But tensions over Essequibo could last beyond election day. CSIS analysts warn that should Venezuela experience a post-election crisis, Maduro could “manufacture a regional crisis” with Guyana.

The U.S. Factor

The power differential between Guyana and Venezuela is stark. Venezuela’s population is nearly forty times greater than that of Guyana. The Venezuelan military, including reserve forces, exceeds 300,000 personnel — roughly half the size of Guyana’s total civilian population. The Guyana Defense Force consists of roughly 4,000 active-duty and reserve personnel.

Guyana doesn’t stand a chance against Venezuela’s military. But the Essequibo — a vast jungle — possesses natural defenses and would be formidable terrain to conquer.

Nonetheless, in the face of Venezuelan bullying, Guyana has, naturally, tilted closer to the U.S. The bilateral relationship is also underpinned by a sizeable Guyanese diaspora, with whom President Irfaan Ali met during his U.S. tour in April.

U.S. officials are also increasingly making their way to Guyana. Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns made an unannounced visit to Guyana in March. Earlier this month, two U.S. F/A-18s performed a flyover in Guyana — after a U.S. Southern Command official met with his Guyanese counterparts.

The U.S. has a checkered history in the Americas. And as a former British colony, Guyana would want to avoid dependence on a single outside power. The state-owned Chinese (CNOOC) holds a 25 percent stake in the Stabroek block. (ExxonMobil has a 45 percent stake and Hess has a 30 percent stake.)

Indeed, at the moment, it may be unnecessary and unwise for the U.S. to serve as a formal security guarantor for Guyana. That would play into Maduro’s hands. But Washington should continue to quietly and carefully signal its support for Guyanese sovereignty and give its leadership the space to focus on building a domestic political consensus and a long-term plan to equitably transform its economy using its oil wealth while also addressing existential challenges like climate change.

Given the changes in the global economy and environment, Guyana has a limited window to achieve this domestic transformation. Washington can help Guyana by ensuring that Venezuela does not get in its way.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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