A land of many (black) waters

A land of many (black) waters


Picture: Thatched roofed houses in Guyana, credit Wikimedia Commons

Guyana is a tiny South American country, perched on the Atlantic coast, with Venezuela to the northwest, Brazil to the south and west, and Suriname to the east. It has a population of just 800,000, and a GDP per capita of around $10,000 US.  

Why is this insignificant little crumb on the world map worthy of interest? Because current events around Guyana may have larger geopolitical consequences, and could potentially impact the US election. 

Guyana is a heavily forested, sparsely-populated country, with several indigenous tribes living in vast areas with few, if any, roads. ‘Guyana’ itself means ‘Land of Many Waters’, which gives an indication of the terrain. Britain claimed the region in 1796, but after Venezuelan independence from Spain in the 1820s, Venezuela claimed the Guyana territory west of the Essequibo River, which bisects the country north-south. This accounts for two-thirds of all Guyana. 

In 1899, an international tribunal settled the claim in favour of Britain, and Guyana became independent in 1966. Since them, it has remained a small, relatively poor country. A few months before independence, a temporary ‘Geneva agreement’ was signed to find a peaceful way to resolve the dispute. The ‘temporary’ agreement has proved rather permanent. 

Venezuela has never abandoned its claims, and the disputed territories have become a hotter issue over the last decade. On December 3rd, Venezuela is holding a referendum that asks five questions, all of which seem to indicate that Venezuela covets Guyana’s territory. 

Coincidentally, it turns out that the Land of Many Waters contains a rather large amount of black liquid. Since 2016, vast amounts of oil have been found off Guyana’s coast; enough to potentially put it in the top twenty oil producers, and the merest prospect of which has already given it the fastest-growing economy in the world – up 62% in 2022. 

Venezuela is a country with its own rich oil resources; but one that has, through political ineptitude, done its best to waste the potential of those resources. 

This week, ahead of the referendum, it is reported that Venezuela has been moving troops towards its border with Guyana. The territory in the disputed area is sparsely-populated and not ideal for any form of mechanised warfare; more reminiscent of Vietnam than Iraq or Ukraine. Venezuela is familiar with the type of terrain, and could use helicopters and patrol boats to seize the few population centres in the region. 

Why would this impact America? Biden would surely just shrug his shoulders, argue that his relaxing of sanctions on Venezuela is in no way connected to this action, and get on with business. Israel/Palestine and Ukraine/Russia surely desire more attention, and Venezuela could quickly destroy its smaller neighbour. 

But neighbouring states are not viewing Venezuela’s actions favourably. In response to Venezuela’s build-up of troops, Brazil has sent troops to its border with Venezuela. Because of the nature of the terrain at the Guyana border, any help from Brazil might involve an invasion of Venezuelan territory – despite Maduro and Lula’s warming relationship. In addition, the US has close military ties with Guyana, including joint training exercises

Biden might be faced with a hot war not too far south of the USA, involving oil riches and a belligerent country he has recently relaxed sanctions on. This may well prove useful to his opponents.  

A sidenote: in all of this, I have seen no evidence of the ‘will’ of the local peoples in the disputed territory. Who do they want to govern them? Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have recently fled the chaos in their country to settle in Guyana – including the disputed region. This amounts to a significant percentage of Guyana’s population. If it comes to a conflict, will they see themselves as Guyanan or Venezuelan? 

Josias Jessop

Comments are closed.