Venezuela, Guyana Leaders to Meet to ‘De-escalate’ Tensions

The presidents of Venezuela and Guyana will meet Thursday for talks that analysts say could “de-escalate” tensions but will do little to resolve their countries’ long-standing territorial dispute.

The meeting in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines will see Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro meet Guyana’s Irfaan Ali amid their dispute over Essequibo — an area of 160,000 square kilometers (62,000 square miles) rich in oil and natural resources that is administered by Georgetown and claimed by Caracas.

Maduro’s government held a referendum on December 3 in which 95 percent of voters supported declaring Venezuela Essequibo’s rightful owner.

He has since started legal maneuvers to create a Venezuelan province in Essequibo and ordered the state oil company to issue licenses for extracting crude in the region — moves Ali branded as a “grave threat to international peace and security.”

The two leaders have voiced sharply opposing views of the talks.

Maduro has hailed the meeting as a way to “directly address the territorial controversy.”

Ali has said he will not discuss the border dispute and insists it should be resolved at the International Court of Justice, whose jurisdiction is not recognized by the Venezuelan government.

“I think nothing substantive is going to come out in terms of the territorial claim, since Guyana’s position is that there are no bilateral talks on the issue, because that is in the International Court of Justice,” Sadio Garavini di Turno, former Venezuelan ambassador to Guyana, told AFP.

He said a best-case scenario would be a joint statement in which both sides commit “to lower the escalation” and agree that “they are going to continue talking to lower tensions.”

Guyana has taken the case to the UN Security Council and approached military “partners,” including the United States, which carried out joint military exercises in the Essequibo.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, invited to the talks at both sides’ request, has backed a peaceful solution and warned Maduro against “unilateral measures that could escalate the situation.”

Brazil has also reinforced its troops around the area.

“If this meeting is going to be useful to talk about eradicating the idea of going to an armed conflict, then I welcome it,” Ramon Escovar Leon, a lawyer specialized in international litigation, told AFP.

Oil, a Point of Conflict

The decades-old dispute intensified after ExxonMobil discovered oil in Essequibo in 2015, helping give Guyana — which has a population of 800,000 — the world’s biggest crude reserves per capita.

The Venezuelan government’s anti-imperialist rhetoric has seen it accuse Ali of being “a slave” of ExxonMobil.

On Monday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yvan Gil told reporters there could be talk of “cooperation in oil and gas matters.”

Gil cited the Petrocaribe agreements, under which Venezuela supplies crude oil at preferential prices to Caribbean countries, and gas deals with Trinidad and Tobago.

He said these were “concrete examples” that “could serve as a basis for future agreements with the Cooperative Republic of Guyana.”

The row has other South American nations on edge.

Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay issued a joint declaration calling for “both parties to negotiate to seek a peaceful solution.”

Colombian President Gustavo Petro warned the situation was potentially explosive.

“The biggest misfortune that could hit South America would be a war,” he wrote on social media.

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