A couple days ago, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro demanded that neighboring Guyana cease oil exploration in what is disputed offshore territory, calling it a “dangerous political provocation”. The region, west of the Essequibo River, has served as a bone of contentment between Venezuela and Guyana, and before that Venezuela and Britain (Guyana was previously a British colony) since the 19th century. While originally claimed by Venezuela after the country gained its independence in the early 19th century, the region was also claimed by the British, who needed territory in South America to serve trade sailboats on their trading route around South America. Back in 1899 an international tribunal ruled that the region belonged to Guyana, which at the time was a British colony. However, Venezuela has insisted that the tribunal was a sham acted out improperly by European judges, and have disputed its legality ever since.
Late last May, ExxonMobil announced a significant oil discovery in the area, prompting Maduro to issue a presidential decree claiming sovereignty over the waters around the disputing region. At the same time, the newly elected Guyanese President, David Granger, released a statement where he denounced the decree as a “flagrant violation” of international law, as well as accusing Venezuela of trying to “trample on the rights” of the much smaller Guyana. Granger insisted that Guyana would continue to develop the offshore natural resources that it considered its own.
Back on Tuesday, Maduro blamed ExxonMobil for the diplomatic row, and advised Guyana to not take “bad advice” from the company or any of its affiliates. With dialogue and diplomacy, he insisted, Venezuela and Guyana should be able to come to an agreement. It’s hardly surprising that Venezuela would denounce ExxonMobil; relations between the two have been tense since 2007, after the country’s then-President Hugo Chavez nationalized the company’s assets in Venezuela. Last year, an international arbitration ruled in favor of ExxonMobil, saying that Venezuela needs to pay them $1.6 billion in compensation for expropriated assets.