Crisis in Guyana: Venezuela follows Putin’s playbook, eyes territorial annexation – James Stavridis

In the oil-rich South American nation of Guyana, a looming crisis unfolds as Venezuela, led by authoritarian Nicolás Maduro, eyes the annexation of a resource-rich region. A blatant land grab reminiscent of Putin’s tactics in Ukraine, Venezuela’s ambition threatens Guyana’s newfound prosperity. As Maduro flexes military muscle, Guyana turns to the US and Brazil for support. With geopolitical echoes of history, this urgent call to action emphasises the need for diplomatic, military, and economic measures to avert a potential war in the Americas.

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Venezuela’s Threats to Guyana Follow Putin’s Ukraine Playbook: James Stavridis

By James Stavridis*

A nation that few Americans could find on a map, the oil-rich South American country of Guyana, is in trouble. It has a large and aggressive neighbor, Venezuela, run by an authoritarian leader who maintains close relationships with Russia, Iran, Cuba and other authoritarian states. 

In a move reminiscent of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the dictator of Venezuela — Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver and acolyte of leftist strongman Hugo Chávez — sponsored a referendum in his nation last week. The subject was whether to annex a vast region of Guyana adjacent to Venezuela called Essequibo, which represents roughly two-thirds of Guyana’s territory. It is a resource-rich tract with oil, gold, fresh water and timber — and a relatively tiny population of around 100,000.

Venezuela has claimed the territory for more than a century, although its claims were rejected by international arbitrators in 1899. The Guyanese, understandably, see the referendum as an existential threat. The official result was a forgone conclusion in repressive Venezuela — Maduro claimed “a total success,” with 95% of voters approving his proposals — but independent media reports indicated voting stations were largely empty.

The sad irony is that Guyana, historically a very poor country, is booming. It has seen economic growth of 37% in 2023 according to the World Bank (and is projected to do even better next year) as its vast oil and gas resources — larger than Venezuela’s at over 11 billion barrels of mostly offshore reserves — have finally come online. 

Given its total population of under 1 million, Guyana could become a Kuwait on the Caribbean. No wonder a big, aggressive, unprincipled neighbor with a basket-case socialist economy is talking seriously about redrawing maps, flooding Essequibo with surveyors, and behaving as though Guyana no longer exists — much as Putin seeks to do in Ukraine.

What are the implications of this putative land grab? And what should the US, its South American friends and the international community be doing about it?

When I was commander of the US Southern Command — responsible for military ties with all Latin America and the Caribbean — I visited almost every country in the region. But not Venezuela, then under Chávez’s rule.

During my time in Georgetown, the English-speaking capital of Guyana (a former British colony), I was struck by the friendliness of the people, the quiet charm of the city, and the immense beauty of the country’s mountains, rivers and seacoast. We had a quiet military-to-military relationship with Guyana’s tiny self-defense forces, and I tried to increase America’s assistance.

The nation’s president at the time told me he was worried about three things: narcotics trafficking; “brain drain” as talented younger Guyanese left the country for better-paying jobs in affluent nations; and, above all, the territorial ambitions of Venezuela. While we didn’t have a formal defense treaty with Guyana, I did all I could to assure its leaders of US support. Fortunately for the Guyanese, internal turmoil in Venezuela — including the death of the odious Chávez and the rise of a serious opposition — kept Caracas focused internally.

Now, with his power more consolidated and a national election coming in 2024, Maduro appears to be using the issue of “Venezuelan Essequibo” as a rallying cry. He is sending employees of PDVSA Corp., the inept and corrupt Venezuelan national oil company, into the waters and lands of Guyana to conduct surveys and prepare for extraction operations. Maduro has been promoting maps of a “greater Venezuela” that includes most of Guyana, and has signed a decree creating a so-called High Commission for the Defense of Guyana Essequibo.

Whether Maduro is serious enough to back all this up with a full-scale military invasion is unclear. But these are very troubling signs.

If it comes to an invasion, the Venezuelan armed forces are far larger than Guyana’s, have a massive advantage in equipment, and have been trained by Russia and Cuba. There would very likely be Cuban advisers helping with the incursion.

Guyana has tiny military forces — only about 4,000 troops including reserves — a small defense budget and no on-the-ground warfighting advisers. So the Guyanese are turning to the two largest nations in the Americas — the US and Brazil — for support.

The president, Irfaan Ali, says his government is conversing with Washington and Brasilia and is receiving assurances. He said he spoke with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who told him “Brazil stands strongly with Guyana,” and has deployed troops and armored vehicles to his nation’s Guyana-Venezuela border region.

All of this is an echo of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago: A much larger neighbor staking a territorial claim without legitimate international legal grounds, preparing for annexation, making new maps and licking its chops at gaining huge natural resources. It is a good example of the kind of knock-on effect in the global community when nations making illegal land grabs are not stopped early.

In his brilliant 2018 book on geopolitics, The Jungle Grows Back, political scientist Robert Kagan laid out the case that the more international norms are eroded somewhere, the faster chaos descends regionally and even globally. It can start to look like the 1930s, when Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan began to grab increasingly large chunks of territory in Europe and Asia, respectively.

The US, of course, is the largest and most powerful country in the Americas. Brazil has a strong military. Great Britain, as the former colonial power, is expressing support for its former colony, which gained independence peacefully in 1966. The US is starting military flights in Guyanese airspace as part of ongoing operational cooperation with US Southern Command in Miami.

Just as with Ukraine, Washington has to use diplomatic capital to rally the region against a bully’s aggression. This would be done most effectively in close cooperation with the Organization of American States, the 34-nation cooperation body of the Americas. An official joint US-Brazilian statement of support for Guyana would be helpful.

Amping up US military forces, perhaps even sending warships to Guyanese ports — there are always Navy and Coast Guard ships underway in the Caribbean — is a good idea. An on-the-ground exercise of units from US Army South (the Army component of Southern Command) could be organized quickly.

As always, the key is to get ahead of the dictator’s impulses. The West failed to send a sufficiently strong signal to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein before his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Serbia invaded Kosovo in 1998, ignoring the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Likewise, Putin discounted the West in the days before he launched a full-scale assault on Ukraine — although this time the US and its allies fortunately had in place a strong plan to aid Kyiv diplomatically and militarily. 

Maduro is clearly pondering his options, and Venezuelan military forces continue to move toward the Guyanese border. Strong action now may cause Maduro to pause: Guyana’s friends, the US and Brazil in particular, need to prepare a combination of diplomatic, military and economic tools to avoid a major war in the Americas.

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*Stavridis is also vice chairman of global affairs at the Carlyle Group. He is on the boards of American Water Works, Fortinet, PreVeil, NFP, Ankura Consulting Group, Titan Holdings, Michael Baker and Neuberger Berman, and has advised Shield Capital, a firm that invests in the cybersecurity sector.

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.