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(CNN Español) -- The centuries-old dispute between Venezuela and Guyana over the sovereignty of the Essequibo, the territory in northeastern South America of almost 160,000 km2 with access to the Atlantic Ocean, located between the mouths of the Orinoco and Essequibo rivers, has reignited tensions between Caracas and Georgetown in recent weeks.

The reason? The government of Nicolás Maduro called a referendum for December 3 to, according to him, reaffirm his rights over that area, which is currently controlled by Guyana and which Venezuela claims was stripped of in 1899 in the Paris Arbitral Award, which he described as null and void when denouncing alleged defects in the procedure before the UN in 1962.

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In that popular consultation, Venezuela will ask its citizens if they want to annex Guyana Esequiba, or simply Essequibo, the term with which Venezuelans are most familiar, and grant the people who live there the citizenship of that country.

People queue to vote outside a polling station during a mock consultative referendum on Venezuelan sovereignty over the Essequibo, in Caracas on Nov. 19, 2023. (Credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP via Getty Images)

The area, in fact, corresponds to two-thirds of Guyana's territory, so an "annexation" of Venezuela, as Georgetown has called it, would pose an existential threat to the Caribbean country.

The region is coveted by the large amount of mineral resources. There is a large presence of bauxite, gold, diamonds and manganese, according to the Venezuelan government, and "it is suspected," Caracas says, that there are "important reserves of uranium, oil and natural gas."

Guyana rejects this referendum and has asked the International Court of Justice to issue an emergency order to stop the referendum.


For Georgetown, Caracas' actions are "a textbook example of annexation," Reuters reported.

The conflict is simmering and tensions are rising, as Venezuela speaks of "dispossession" of the area and Guyana says its neighbor would annex the territory that rightfully belongs to it, in clear violation of international law, according to the government of President Irfaan Ali.

But what's behind this dispute?

Renewed interest

"This is the first time in the last 10 years that this has become a hot topic," Phil Gunson, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Venezuela-based conflict prevention think tank, told CNN that in recent years has begun investigating the conflict that has been dormant for years.

According to Gunson, it was much more interesting for Maduro's government to maintain alliances with Cuba or the Non-Aligned Movement, to which Guyana belongs, than to pursue the claim to the Essequibo.

Gunson is referring to the foreign policy pursued by the late President Hugo Chavez since 1999. Chávez gave special prominence to oil diplomacy, the term used by the South American country's vast crude reserves to shore up its strategic interests. In 2005, Chávez created Petrocaribe, an agreement with 17 countries in the Caribbean area to sell Venezuelan oil on credit and at low interest. And Guyana was among the beneficiary countries.

But with the collapse of the South American country's economic activity between 2013 and 2021 – the economy lost more than three-quarters of its size in that time – Maduro's government has set its sights on the wealth concentrated in the so-called Mining Arc, a mineral-rich area located in the southeast of his country. to try to get the resources it has lost with the fall in oil production, and it has not lost sight of what is happening in Guyana, a poor country whose vast oil reserves were discovered in 2015 in waters also claimed by Venezuela.

Petroleum & Exxon Mobile

Venezuela acknowledges that the conflict with Guyana "was stoked" in 2015 when the U.S. oil company Exxon Mobil announced the discovery of a first field in the Atlantic Ocean. Guyana then gave ExxonMobil the go-ahead to extract oil. Venezuela protested.

According to preliminary calculations, the field would contain a flow of oil and gas twelve times more valuable than the entire economic output of the country. At the time, Exxon Mobile announced that the Liza-1 well could hold the equivalent of more than 700 million barrels of oil.

In May 2023, Exxon Mobil and two partners reported profits of $5.800 billion in 2022 on account of oil production off the coast of Guyana, Reuters reported.

Shortly before, in a July 2022 report, consulting firm Rystad Energy said that Guyana's oil and gas production was "going from strength to strength," and that government revenues from domestic production could approach $7.500 billion annually by 2030.

Over the past 20 years, Guyana's GDP per capita rose from $955 in 2002 to $18,989 in 2022, according to World Bank data.

Guyana then went from having "previously non-existent" oil production and being part of the oil supply agreements underpinned by Venezuela to producing thousands of barrels of oil and the prospects are better, according to President Irfaan Ali's estimates.

"The current account of the balance of payments increased thanks to crude oil exports, which in 2020 accounted for 41% of exports," says a January 2022 World Trade Organization report.

Rystad Energy estimates that Guyana will collect $4.200 billion annually until 2025, reach $4.200 billion annually, and that by 2040 it could reap profits of $157 billion. The projection is very ambitious: Guyana is projected to produce 000.1 million barrels of oil per day by 7, which could put it at the top of the list of the world's largest offshore oil producers, surpassing the United States. Mexico and Norway, according to the consultancy.

While Venezuela, on the eve of an election year, announces that it wants to "recover" this region, Guyana is fighting to guarantee its territorial integrity "at all times, even after December 3," according to the government of that country.

"I don't see at this point the intention of reaching an open conflict" with Guyana, Gunson said.