During the last few months, the Venezuelan government has been positioning troops along the border with the small South American nation of Guyana. This has raised the concern that Caracas may be intending to take the Essequibo territory through military force.
The dispute with Guyana is not a new thing. Venezuela has been claiming the resource-rich Essequibo region, which comprises most of the current Guyanese territory, since the 19th century. However, the Arbitral Tribunal Award of 1899 settled the border between Venezuela and Guyana, at the time a British possession.
In the 1960s, Venezuela decided it would no longer respect that arbitration. The region has been registering periodic spikes in tension ever since. The current crisis could be seen as one more incident in this now long dispute, although the details surrounding it could hint at something more.
According to Caribbean 360, the attempt by the United Nations’ Secretary-General António Guterres to discuss the dispute through the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was refused by Caracas. David Granger, the president of Guyana, had welcomed the UN’s decision and hoped that the ICJ would reaffirm the validity of the 1899 accord.
The hardening stance of Nicolas Maduro can have several meanings. However, given the teetering condition of Venezuela, military action could be used both to try to regain control of the nation and bargain with the international community.
Venezuela is on the brink of collapse, but it shouldn’t be. The country has the largest oil reserves in the world, Bloomberg reports. However, it also has a runaway case of hyperinflation, which is estimated to be at a rate of more than 4,000 percent.
The dire economic situation has caused unemployment, and lack of food and even the most basic items like toilet paper. This situation is compounded by political repression, and the country has suffered waves of protests, although not enough violence to spark a civil war just yet.
Even so, many people felt compelled to escape Venezuela. Many went to Colombia and Brazil.
The Brazilian state of Roraima, which borders Venezuela, has been taking between 500 and 1,000 refugees per day, and the total number may now ascend to 70,000 people, Defesa.net reports. Most refugees go directly to the state capital of Boa Vista, which has a population of around 330,000 people and has received something like 40,000 refugees looking for jobs, health services, and food.
The situation is becoming a large-scale humanitarian emergency that is straining Brazilian public services. But the Brazilian involvement in the crisis goes even further.
Earlier this month, Brasilia has sent delegations to Guyana and Suriname to discuss border defense policies. STRATFOR adds that the Brazilian government also wanted to share intelligence reports regarding the Venezuelan buildup and the possibility of an invasion of Guyana.
It is hypothesized that Nicolas Maduro may use military action as a way to unite the Venezuelan people against a foreign foe. Additionally, the occupation of Guyanese soil could become a bargaining chip against the ICJ and the United States.
The fact that Guyana lacks any credible military force makes the country an optimal target for the relatively well-equipped, but logistically barren, Venezuelan military.
But even if these are the aims of Caracas, the invasion itself would face several practical obstacles. The first would be one of geography. The region to be seized lacks roads and is thick with jungle. The invasion force would mostly be composed of light infantry riding helicopters, maybe enjoying some air support from the Venezuelan Air Force.
Heavier assets, like tanks, would probably be placed along the border with Brazil, given the second obstacle, which is one of politics.
It is probable that Brasilia would react to an aggression of Guyana, as would the U.S. While it may be difficult for the White House to get directly involved in a military action, given its commitments around the world, it could very well support the Brazilian Armed Forces, which would certainly welcome such an income of resources and equipment.
More probably, Washington would simply escalate the sanctions against Caracas to unbearable levels.
It should be noted that another front has recently opened in this crisis.
Last Friday, the Venezuelan Minister of the Interior, Néstor Reverol, advanced the possibility of military action against Colombia, the Globo reports. He accused Bogotá of providing Venezuelan citizens Colombian identities and military training, which would be a reason for a military intervention. Reverol also added that the recruitment is characterized by the presence of “paramilitary personnel, partisans, and criminal bands.”
The website Poder Aéreo reported the deployment of Venezuelan F-16 fighter jets on the border with Colombia.
However, contrary to Guyana, Colombia is a credible military threat to Venezuela, which would be hard-pressed to contend with the Colombian Armed Forces.
As all the factors are put together, the question remains: Will Venezuela invade its neighbors?
The answer is hard to determine. At first glance, the risks of such an endeavor are aplenty. Even the invasion of the relatively harmless Guyana could bring on unforeseen consequences. Should Brazil act, the Venezuelan Armed Forces would lack the ability to withstand a prolonged fight. More importantly, greater sanctions could compromise the nation beyond its ability to cope, even before the border issue can be properly discussed in the UN.
Nevertheless, Nicolas Maduro is walking over thin ice. Venezuela is already on the verge of disaster, given the economic and social issues it is currently facing. Military action could be a last-ditch effort to hold on to power, even if for just a little longer.