Is Venezuela Going to War To Steal Territory from Guyana?

The mainstream media is full of reports that Venezuela is threatening to go to war in order to steal most of Guyana. But it is neither clear that Venezuela is threatening war, nor that annexing the territory would be theft.

On December 14, under pressure from the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and Brazil, President Irfaan Ali of Guyana and President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela met on the island of St. Vincent. Maduro had been calling for bilateral talks, but Ali had refused, insisting that the dispute be settled by the International Court of Justice. Venezuela, however, insists that the dispute be settled according to the 1966 Geneva Agreement that mandated the countries to resolve their boundary dispute according to a mutually satisfactory solution.

Leading up to the talks, Venezuela called, not for war, but for peace. Though Maduro insists on Venezuela’s claim on the disputed territory, he also insists that he “want[s] the peaceful rescue” of the territory.” Maduro said that he agreed to the talks “in order to preserve our aspiration to maintain Latin America and the Caribbean as a zone of peace”.

The need for the talks was triggered by Maduro’s territorial claim over the Essequibo region of Guyana following a national referendum. The region is home to only 125,000 of Guyana’s 800,000 people, but the 62,000 square mile region makes up two thirds of its territory. But the region is home, not only to people, but to one of the worlds richest oil reserves.

The mainstream media has been in concert in its claims that Maduro is a bully who is defying international law and threatening the peace to steal the oil rich region from Venezuela’s smaller neighbor. But, as Alfred de Zayas, Professor of international law at Geneva School of Diplomacy and former UN Independent Expert on International Order told me, “Venezuela has a strong case.”

The massive oil reserves were discovered off the coast of the region in 2015. But the dispute over the territory goes back nearly two centuries before that. In 1836, Britain sneakily eased over the western borders of the Guyanese colony it had inherited from the Dutch and usurped a large portion of land that belonged to Venezuela. That is the foundation of Maduro’s claim.

In 1899, the matter of the disputed territory came up before an international tribunal. The tribunal ruled in favor of Britain and granted British Guyana control over the disputed territory. But the tribunal was stacked. Rather than being an impartial tribunal made up of Latin American countries as it should have been, the dispute was adjudicated by an international body dominated by the US and – of all countries – Britain. Britain was hardly a disinterested party. Worst of all, Venezuela was not even permitted a delegate to the tribunal. The Venezuelans were represented by former US President Benjamin Harris.

“Needless to say,” Miguel Tinker Salas says in his book Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know, Venezuela’s “prospects of prevailing in a tribunal dominated by foreign powers appeared slim.” And slim they were. The tribunal, which was dominated by Britain and excluded Venezuela, ruled in favor of Britain and against Venezuela. The tribunal issued its decision without any supporting rationale. The ruling gave Britain possession of over 90% of the disputed territory it had stolen from Venezuela sixty-four years earlier.

Years later, it would be revealed that the tribunal was not only stacked, it was fixed. The official secretary of the American represented Venezuelan delegation to the international tribunal, Severo Mallet-Prevost, confirmed Venezuela’s allegation when he revealed in a posthumously published letter that the governments of Britain and Russia influenced the president of the tribunal to exert pressure on the arbitrators to rule in Britain’s favor.

That letter was not published until 1949. Seventeen years later, in 1966, citing the corruption that usurped the territory that was rightfully theirs, Venezuela claimed the territory at the United Nations. At that time, Venezuela, Guyana and Britain signed the Treaty of Geneva, agreeing to resolve the dispute and promising that neither Venezuela nor Guyana would do anything on the disputed territory until a border settlement had been arrived at that was acceptable to all.

Despite the accusations made against Maduro of aggressive and illegal orders for Venezuelan oil companies to explore and extract oil from the region, it was Guyana who first broke the Treaty of Geneva requirement not to do anything in the region until the dispute had been resolved. Guyana began extracting oil of the coast of Essequibo soon after its discovery in 2015. In partnership with the US oil company ExxonMobil, Guyana simply asserted that the oil was in Guyanese territory and began extraction. ExxonMobil has been extracting and exporting the oil since at least December 2019.

That it is Guyana that first violated the Treaty of Geneva is a point seldom made in the mainstream media or in the US case against Venezuela. Reuters notes in passing that Ali “sought to reassure investors with projects already approved by the Guyanese government, including Exxon Mobil and soon-to-be partner Chevron,” highlighting the threat from Venezuela without drawing out the obvious implications.

When I asked Miguel Tinker Salas, Professor of Latin American History at Pomona College and one of the world’s leading experts on Venezuelan history and politics, why Maduro is acting more boldly now, he said that “there are multiple reasons (internal and external), but one has to do with Guyana’s issuing oil contracts to Exxon Mobil both offshore and on land.” He added that “internally it plays to Venezuelans nationalism at a time when foreign oil companies are receiving contracts from Guyana.”

De Zayas agrees. “The urgency,” he told me, “is in the state of explorations and the advance in the Exxon-Mobile bonanza.” That advance is set to see Guyana’s output increase from the current level of 400,000 barrels a day to 1.2 million by 2028.

Guyana also previously challenged the Treaty of Geneva order to undertake no action on the disputed territory until a mutually acceptable border settlement had been arrived at when, upon being elected in 2020, Ali agreed to hold joint maritime patrols with the US near the disputed border. Then US Secretary of State said that “Greater security, greater capacity to understand your border space, what’s happening inside your Exclusive Economic Zone – those are all things that give Guyana sovereignty.” On December 7, 2023, the US Embassy in Guyana announced that “In collaboration with the Guyana Defence Force (GDF), the U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) will conduct flight operations within Guyana on December 7. This exercise builds upon routine engagement and operations to enhance security partnership between the United States and Guyana, and to strengthen regional cooperation.” The US recently stated that “We reaffirm the United States’ unwavering support for Guyana’s sovereignty.”

While Venezuela has been reluctant to partner with the US, including on oil, Guyana, since Ali was elected, has been more accommodating. In 2020, a contested Guyanese election went to a recount. The re-election of David Granger was reversed, and Ali was declared the winner. The US led the call for a recount instead of redoing the election and exerted a great deal of pressure on Granger to turn power over to Ali. Upon being elected, Ali agreed to a Voice of America request to use Guyana as a base to broadcast into Venezuela that had been rejected by Granger just after the first election count.

Salas told me in 2020 that “The US has been attempting to manipulate relations between Guyana and Venezuela, especially the long standing border dispute between both countries over the issue of the Essequibo which Venezuela has historically claimed.”

But despite the talk of war, the two presidents agreed in their meeting on December 14 to resolve the dispute diplomatically. In a “Joint Declaration . . . for Dialogue and Peace between Guyana and Venezuela,” the two countries agreed to pursue “good neighborliness” and “peaceful coexistence.” They promised to “refrain, whether by words or deeds, from escalating any conflict or disagreement arising from any controversy between them.” They further agreed that they would “not threaten or use force against one another in any circumstances” and that “any controversies between the two States will be resolved in accordance with international law.”

Though they fell short of resolving the dispute, they agreed to “establish immediately a joint commission of the Foreign Ministers . . . from the two States to address matters” and to “meet again in Brazil, within the next three months . . . to consider any matter with implications for the territory in dispute.”

After the talks, Maduro thanked Ali “for his candor and willingness to engage in broad dialogue on all the issues addressed, directly.”

So, despite mainstream media and US claims, it is clear neither that Venezuela is threatening war nor that it is stealing territory that rightfully belongs to Guyana.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at