There are quite a few present-day villainous dictators. Two of the most well-known are Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China, and perhaps lesser known is Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. Yes, they all share the title of president to shroud themselves in a false cloak of legitimacy. Yet, at the end of the day, they are, in fact, the iron-fisted despots of their respective countries. Among the negative attributes these men share is the lust for territory in a neighboring country and the willingness to seize it. Putin has invaded Ukraine, while Xi is preparing his military to invade Taiwan and lock its people in the shackles of communist oppression. Maduro, for his part, has, since late December last year, been threatening to invade and seize about two-thirds of neighboring Guyana.

New Life for the Essequibo Controversy, Simmering since 1899

The Essequibo region of Guyana is a vast landmass. It is primarily composed of 150,000 square kilometers (57,915 square miles) of untouched, mountainous rainforest (Da Cruz, 2015, p. 2). This region not only makes up roughly two-thirds of the country, but in terms of sheer size, it is larger than England. The dispute over this territory began in 1899 when Essequibo was awarded to Guyana by international arbitration (Da Cruz, 2015, p. 1). Since that time, Venezuelan leaders have persisted with the notion that the region is, in fact, part of Venezuela.

The now 125-year-old dispute received new life in 2015 when ExxonMobil discovered massive deposits of high-quality oil and natural gas deposits off the shore of Essequibo. The dispute was exacerbated when ExxonMobil increased its earlier estimate from 6 to 8 billion barrels of oil (Paraskova, 2020).

The Big Steal

Knowing full well that Venezuela has vast resources of “heavy” oil (meaning it is more difficult to pump and, therefore, more expensive to refine), President Maduro has put Essequibo in his crosshairs. On December 3, 2023, he put the “Consultative Referendum” on the ballot. This referendum asked voters “among other things, whether they supported incorporating Essequibo as a new Venezuelan state, granting citizenship to current and future residents” (Insanally, 2024, p. 1). Despite reportedly low voter turnout, Venezuelan authorities nonetheless claimed overwhelming public support for the referendum.

Initial Venezuelan Military Deployment

Amid persistent propaganda about Essequibo belonging to Venezuela, President Maduro has initiated military action and put forth concrete plans to incorporate the region as part of Venezuela (John, 2024). The Venezuelan government has created new military commands and legal structures to administer the region.

According to analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in late March 2024, satellite imagery revealed that the Venezuelan military made initial and provocative moves toward Guyana. Maduro’s soldiers began deploying to Anacoco Island, situated approximately halfway down the Guyana-Venezuela border. The island is now:

Dotted with over 75 field tents, enough for a battalion-sized unit of several hundred personnel. According to a press release from the Venezuelan Air Force on April 21, a C-130 Hercules was involved in a training mission to land and take off from the dirt runway. Meanwhile, the aircraft and the base at Anacoco were used to train paratroopers and special operations personnel and simulate land and maritime operations (Berg et al., 2024).