Venezuela has fallen on hard times, as its economy collapses amid a crippling shortage of goods and the world's highest inflation rate. In what may seem a sign of increasing desperation, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has revived a territorial dispute with neighboring Guyana over a stretch of territory that makes up approximately two-thirds of the tiny South American country.
A long-simmering disagreement over the Essequibo region, as the territory is known, has lain dormant for more than 15 years, Maduro appears to have been prompted to extend his country's claim after the discovery of a potentially rich oil deposit in the area.
In 1899, Guyana won possession of the 95,000 thousand miles of territory in an arbitration court ruling while it was still a British colony known as British Guiana. Venezuela contested this decision in 1962, and four years later a treaty was signed by Great Britain, Venezuela, and British Guiana on the understanding that the parties work toward a peaceful resolution to the disagreement. Guyana won independence just months later.
Venezuela's government recently sent a letter revisiting this issue to ExxonMobil, which Guyana has contracted to undertake offshore drilling in the area — and which reported making a significant oil discovery in May. Maduro's critics have decried the revival of the territorial claim as a farce that is meant to distract Venezuelans from their country's economic crisis while shoring up flagging support for the embattled president.
Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state and former opposition presidential candidate, questioned whether Maduro actually has a real interest in recovering the Essequibo, suggesting that it was merely a stunt for improving Maduro's popularity rating, which recently fell to a near-record low of 25 in May.
"They are stepping away from the idea of Hugo Chavez," Sadio Garavini, who served as Venezuelan ambassador in Guyana between 1980 and 1984, told VICE News. "Maduro said practically nothing about the subject while serving for years as Chavez's foreign minister."
According to Emilio Figueredo, Venezuela's former UN ambassador for the implementation of the Geneva treaty, the letter should have been addressed to the Guyanese government rather than the oil company.
"This is a new way in which the Venezuelan government is looking for the famous foreign enemy," Figueredo told VICE News. "First they tried with Obama, then with Spain. Since they've yielded no results, now they're trying with Guyana's president."
Maduro issued a decree in early June claiming sovereignty over the area and has asked United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to reinitiate arbitration while vowing to Venezuelans that he will win control over the Essequibo.
Guyana has responded by withdrawing from the UN-backed settlement framework.
"We have said to the UN secretary-general very clearly that the good offices process, which we have faithfully followed, does not seem to offer any solution to go ahead," Guyanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Carl Greenidge remarked in a press conference on Monday.
The threat to Guyana's territorial integrity, Greenidge suggested, should be settled at the International Court of Justice.
Venezuela has meanwhile formed an Office for the Rescue of the Essequibo led by a retired army colonel, which plans to charm Guyanese who are living in the disputed territory with a marketing blitz that will also involve sending them hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan identification cards.