As expected, in defiance of the strong views expressed by the Caribbean Community (Caricom), the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN), Venezuela went ahead with its referendum on Essequibo on Sunday.
Also not surprising is its National Electoral Council’s claim that more than 10.5 million Venezuelans took part in the exercise and voted resoundingly—by more than 95 per cent—to support the Nicolás Maduro administration’s plan to make that mineral-rich region part of its territory.
Based on the figures provided by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, the number of voters who participated in the referendum exceeded those who voted for the late Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s very popular predecessor, in 2012.
The predictable outcome of this referendum, after the weeks of posturing and sabre-rattling over the long-disputed border between Guyana and Venezuela, only adds to the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding this matter.
The practical and legal implications of the referendum are still unclear but there are worrying implications for regional instability.
The anxiety over this issue throughout the Caribbean and Latin America has to do with the likely use of force that might be involved if Venezuela seeks to implement the referendum, and those concerns have not been eased by recent assurances from the Maduro regime that it is not seeking justification to invade or annex Essequibo.
The on and off dispute over the 61,600-square-mile Essequibo territory resurfaced recently after the discovery of oil and gas in the Stabroek Block. However, over the years, Venezuela has often challenged the 1899 decision on the border made by arbitrators from Britain, Russia and the United States.
For T&T, particularly because of its geographic proximity, the immediate priority will be to support diplomatic efforts to avert a possible escalation into a larger conflict and to heal the strained diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Guyana.
Given all that is at stake politically and economically, as the Maduro regime presses on with its claim to two-thirds of Guyana’s territory, the best approach for T&T and all other Caricom member states, is to maintain a united front on this matter.
This is easier said than done, since in the recent past, Caricom members have been extremely divided on critical issues pertaining to Venezuela.
As recently as the 2020 50th General Assembly of the OAS, the region was deeply fractured on the issue of “free and fair” elections in Venezuela. That was when the United States and its allies sought to remove Maduro in favour of then Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido.
On that occasion, T&T, along with Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Grenada, St Kitts-Nevis and Suriname, stuck to a stance of non-interference and non-intervention.
However, with border tensions around the Essequibo region escalating since September, when Guyana took bids for several offshore oil exploration blocks and the announcement of a major new oil find in October, this is not a matter on which neighbouring nations can silently stand by.
There must be a united Caricom front, with firm support for measures to de-escalate the dispute, as well as the clearly enunciated position of the Caribbean as “a zone of peace and that nothing should be done to disrupt the tranquility of the region.”
Unity and diplomacy must now be at the forefront as the region presses for a peaceful resolution of this matter.