Europe 1 with AFP 11:19 a.m., December 06, 2023

Days after Venezuela's referendum to annex the oil-rich region of Guyana's Essequibo, tensions are rising between the two countries. Guyanese President Irfaan Ali said late Tuesday that statements by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro were "a direct threat" after he ordered oil licenses in the Essequibo region.

Tensions are rising between Guyana and Venezuela: Guyanese President Irfaan Ali said on Tuesday night that statements by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro were "a direct threat" after he ordered oil licenses in the oil-rich Essequibo region under Guyanese administration. The exchange comes as Venezuela held a referendum on the Essequibo on Sunday. According to official figures - disputed by many observers - some 10.4 million Venezuelan voters took part and 95% said they were in favour of integrating the zone into their country.

Riding on this "victory", Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday ordered the state-owned oil giant PDVSA to grant oil and gas licenses in the Essequibo region. He also proposed that the country adopt a special law prohibiting the signing of contracts with companies operating in the sector under concessions granted by Guyana. Nicolás Maduro spoke of a three-month deadline given to these companies to withdraw from the area "to be demarcated", while saying he was "open to discussion".

He also called for the promulgation of a law to create the province of Guayana Esequiba, the conduct of a census and the issuance of identity cards to the inhabitants. The Venezuelan president nevertheless called for "a diplomatic, fair, satisfactory and friendly agreement" while affirming that his country would "recover" the Essequibo where vast deposits of crude were discovered in 2015.

'Full alert' in Guyana

The Guyanese president did not wait long to react, delivering an exceptional address to the nation late Tuesday evening. "This is a direct threat to the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of Guyana (...) Guyana sees this as an imminent threat ... will intensify precautionary measures to safeguard its territory," he said. "I spoke tonight to the UN Secretary-General and several leaders to alert them to this dangerous development and the desperate actions of President Maduro that jeopardize international law and pose a significant risk to international peace and security," he added.

"We urge President Maduro to reverse his mistakes and act and behave in accordance with international law," he said, stressing that Guyanese forces were on "full alert". "Venezuela has rejected international law, the rule of law, justice (...) as well as the preservation of international peace and security and has literally declared itself an outlaw nation," he insisted.

On the international side, Beijing, an ally of Caracas, has asked the two countries to resolve their dispute "in a proper manner". "China has always respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said. Beijing "has always supported Venezuela and Guyana to properly resolve issues related to border demarcations," Wang added, as it meets "the interests of the peoples of the two countries and also promotes stability, cooperation and development in Latin America and the Caribbean region," he added.

Oil discovered in 2015

For decades, Caracas has laid claim to Essequibo (sometimes called Guayana Esequiba), a 160,000-square-kilometer territory that makes up more than two-thirds of Guyana and is home to 2,125 people, or one-fifth of its population. Venezuela argues that the Essequibo River should be the natural boundary, as it was in 000 during the time of the Spanish Empire. Guyana, for its part, believes that the border dates back to the British colonial era and was ratified in 1777.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN's highest judicial body whose jurisdiction Venezuela does not recognize in the case, had ordered the Venezuelan government on Friday to "refrain from any action that could change the situation" in Essequibo and the two parties to "refrain from any action that could aggravate or extend the dispute."

Venezuela's claim has become even hotter since ExxonMobil's discovery of oil in the Essequibo in 2015. A new and significant discovery of black gold took place last month in the region, adding to Guyana's reserves at least ten billion barrels, more than those of Kuwait. Guyana has the largest oil reserves per capita in the world. Venezuela has the largest proven reserves in the world.