Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Themed Series: Land Grab and Border Criminality in the Guiana Shield. Part III: Border conflict and warmongering


Paul Mutsaers


Time to read

2 Minutes

Guest post by Paul Mutsaers, Department of Anthropology and Development Studies, Radboud University, The Netherlands. This post is the second post of a three-part themed series, entitled 'Land Grab and Border Criminality in the Guiana Shield'. You can find the first post here and the second post here


When I was cruising on the East-West Link towards Guyana in the (European) spring of 2023 (see Part I of this series), I wasn’t aware that I was driving towards an area where yet another international border crisis was about to develop. The conflict had been lingering for almost two centuries but had suddenly flared up due to a sham referendum held by president Nicolas Maduro on Sunday December 3, 2023. The referendum was meant as a public opinion check among Venezuelans on the annexation of two-thirds of Guyana’s territory: the long-disputed Essequibo region that has rich offshore oilfields (an estimated 11bn barrels) and the promise of gold and diamonds onshore. Unsurprisingly, it was reported that 95 percent of the voters favoured annexation, which was immediately followed by the mobilization of Brazilian forces at the border triangle and by US air force exercises in Guyana’s skies to show that a military answer would be swift and serious. 

‘Together we can make it, yes we can’ (in front of the Cabinet of the President)
‘Together we can make it, yes we can’ (in front of the Cabinet of the President)

Maduro’s annexation threat is only the latest move on a geopolitical chessboard that leads back to the 15th century, when the Dutch, British, French, Portuguese, and Spanish were about to move around the pieces of the Guiana Shield for centuries, until the Monroe Doctrine ushered in a time of U.S. hegemony (see The Guardian). The new alliances, however, unite all these (and other Western) nations behind Guyana in a stark opposition with an autocratic bloc in which Venezuela partners with global powers like Russia and China. Ironically, the COP28 that resulted in a last-minute treaty to transition away from fossil fuels synchronized with a conflict that shows once again that oil maintains its geopolitical importance. Ignited by an extravagant territorial claim of an increasingly unpopular president facing a presidential election in 2024 and a massive exodus of his people, an entire region may become unstable, adding to the long list of crises rooted in bloody attempts to right a historical injustice stemming from a hunger for power and land possession.  

This reenactment of a colonial conflict revolving around a border that was arbitrated in 1899 but disputed ever since, shows how the mess that is Europe’s legacy keeps spilling blood on the river, to speak with Kars’s eponymous book on the heroic rebellion of enslaved people against European powers in the Dutch colony (Berbice) that is now part of Guyana. We can only hope that a heroic attempt like theirs—which almost beat Haiti in becoming the first African nation in the Americas—does not have to be repeated in the near future.    

lege zakken te koop sign, which literally translates as ‘empty pockets for sale’.
Sign depicting 'lege zakken te koop' , which literally translates as ‘empty pockets for sale’.

The facts, however, point in the opposite direction. Although a mediation talk has taken place between Maduro and Guyana President Irfaan Ali on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in December, tensions keep rising. While Maduro is tirelessly broadcasting a new map of Venezuela that includes the Essequibo region, Guyana is seeking help from the U.S. to boost its defense capabilities. Daniel P. Erikson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere, has formally said that the U.S. will assist Guyana in creating a better equipped military in coming months, as reported in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, a British warship arrived in Guyana’s waters in late December, which has promoted Venezuela to begin with military trainings near the border.  

The tragic outcome of all this could be the redeployment of security forces to fight in yet another border conflict fought out over oil, minerals and commerce. This raises the question of who’s going to police the smugglers, traffickers and other road bandits who were considered the region’s real problem in the first place?  


sign saying 'protected by the brotherhood' on the side of the road


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

P. Mutsaers. (2024) Themed Series: Land Grab and Border Criminality in the Guiana Shield. Part III: Border conflict and warmongering. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2024/02/themed-series-land-grab-and-border-criminality-guiana. Accessed on: 15/07/2024


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