FO° Talks: Make Sense of the Crazy Venezuelan Crisis

María Corina Machado is challenging Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in the upcoming elections. Maduro is a true Latin American caudillo whose power flows from the barrel of a gun. In a bid to boost his popularity, this strongman has claimed Venezuelan ownership over the oil-rich Essequibo territory in neighboring Guyana. His antics are aimed for a domestic audience and unlikely to lead to war.


Venezuela is suffering from multiple crises. Continued mismanagement of the economy has diminished the popularity and power of President Nicolás Maduro. In a desperate move to regain control, Maduro is claiming the oil-rich territory of Essequibo from neighboring Guyana. Venezuela held a referendum on December 3, 2023 asking its citizens whether Venezuela should use military action to take over Essequibo. Are we likely to see war in Latin America, or is Maduro engaging in last-minute, symbolic flag-waving to boost his domestic support?

Successful primaries frighten Maduro

Under Maduro, Venezuela experienced hyperinflation. In 2018, the annual inflation rate reached a jaw-dropping 63,374.08%. More than 60% of Venezuelans live on the “Maduro Diet,” a colloquial term for the disastrous level of poverty caused by Maduro’s policies. Riots in 2014 and a mass exodus of citizens demonstrate Venezuelans’ frustration with the Maduro government.

María Corina Machado has emerged as the winner of the recent primaries to emerge as Maduro’s challenger. She is charismatic, energetic and a real challenge to the Venezuelan caudillo. After years of suffering, Venezuelans desire change and, in a free and fair election, Machado is likely to trounce Maduro.

Therefore, the repressive Maduro regime has banned Machado and her party from running in the elections. In October 2023, hopes for a relatively fair election were reignited. The government and the opposition held talks in Barbados. They signed a pact to hold fair elections, which would lead to the easing of sanctions that have put the Maduro government under increasing pressure in recent years. The strongman was cynical while signing the pact because the opposition was in disarray at the time. Since then, Machado has unified the opposition and Maduro’s star has waned considerably.

Worryingly for Maduro, almost 2.5 million Venezuelan citizens voted in the opposition primaries despite significant obstacles from the government. Machado won with a whopping 93.5% of the votes. In contrast, note that, as per many opinion polls, Maduro’s popularity has sunk to a measly 9%. Naturally, Machado now poses a real threat to Maduro’s reign. She is a leader with popular support at a time when voters crave a radical change in government. With Machado’s relentless rise, Maduro feels insecure. It is a cliché that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel and Maduro is proving to be no exception. His threats of military intervention in the Essequibo region are a last-ditch effort to boost his flagging popularity and regain control in Venezuela.

Nostalgia for oil diplomacy prompts Maduro to play with fire

Venezuela’s claim for Essequibo goes back a long way. The 1899 Paris Tribunal granted Guyana (then a part of the British Empire) control over the Essequibo territory. It wasn’t until Guyana became independent in 1966 that it signed the Geneva Agreement with Venezuela. As per this agreement, the two countries were to resolve the dispute over Essequibo peacefully. Now that Guyana has struck oil, Venezuela wants to acquire the oil-rich territory.

Venezuela and Guyana. The portion of Guyana claimed by Venezuela is shaded in red.

Maduro’s referendum on December 3, 2023 aimed to whip up patriotic frenzy in Venezuela for the reconquest of Essequibo. He hopes that possession of Essequibo will bring back the golden age of his mentor and predecessor Hugo Chávez. In the heyday of Chávez, bumper oil prices gave Venezuela the cash to emerge as one of the leading nations in Latin America.

Today, Venezuela lacks the money, expertise and managerial talent to refine, produce and export oil. Even if Maduro’s troops conquered Essequibo, Venezuela would not be able to exploit the oil. Hence, Maduro’s referendum is largely symbolic and hurts, not helps, Venezuela.

Venezuela has now recognized the Guyanese within the Essequibo region as Venezuelans who can get their own identity cards. In international law, Guyana is an independent and sovereign nation. Venezuelan military invasion of Essequibo would violate Guyana’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. 

Oil companies from many countries are drilling Guyanese oil. If Venezuela lays claim to Essequibo, these companies face vast losses and their home countries lose access to our age’s liquid gold. The US, China and other nations could intervene. Latin American neighbors do not want war on their continent. Reportedly, Brazil has been mobilizing its military to intervene. Venezuela is clearly playing with fire and could get badly burnt.

[Cheyenne Torres wrote the first draft of this piece.]

The views expressed in this article/video are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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