by Austin Bay
December 6, 2023
Usually, dictators first invade and seize coveted territory before they hold a sham plebiscite to mask their aggression.
Russia's Vladimir Putin did that in Crimea. In 2014 he invaded Crimea, annexed it then held a sham vote. Russia has also held sham plebiscites in occupied eastern Ukraine. Putin justifies his continued aggression based on Russian nationalism, historical grievance and -- quite frankly -- greed. He wants Ukraine's agricultural and industrial resources.
Apparently, Venezuelan President-dictator Nicolas Maduro goose-steps to a different drummer.
On Dec. 3 Maduro held a referendum asking Venezuelan citizens if they wished to annex a huge slice of neighboring Guyana -- the Essequibo region. Annex means seizing Guyana by force. According to the U.N. Guyana is a sovereign country. According to documented opinion, Guyana's very ethnically and religiously diverse citizenry has no truck with Maduro's destructive socialist regime.
The Guyanese know Maduro and his Venezuela all too well. The so-called Bolivarian Revolution governance of Maduro and his predecessor-mentor, Hugo Chavez, has literally destroyed Venezuela. Chavez, a charismatic Juan Peron-type militarist-socialist, became president in 1998. He died in 2013, after turning the country into a "Chavismo" socialist dictatorship. Maduro replaced him in 2013.
Since 2014 an estimated six million Venezuelans have fled the country; 2.5 million are refugees in Colombia, which strains Colombia's economy. The others? The U.S. and Canada are preferred destinations, but the diaspora spills across North and South America.
Observers worldwide dismiss Maduro's referendum as a desperate domestic political stunt to save his withering regime. It appears a majority of the 27 million (estimated) Venezuelans still in the country despise him.
Maduro's referendum appealed to nationalism, greed, historical grievance and anti-colonialism sentiments -- emotional hot buttons to distract disenchanted Venezuelans. Maduro claimed 10 million Venezuelans voted and the majority approved annexing Essequibo. Media reports disagree -- apparently millions boycotted the vote.
Guyana's 60,000 square mile Essequibo region has significant oil reserves. Annexing it would gobble over half of Guyana.
The region has a legacy of overlapping claims. Spain claimed the Essequibo region was within the borders of Venezuela, but Great Britain and the Netherlands disputed that. Guyana was a British colony. In 1899 an arbitration tribunal in Paris, with the U.S. mediating, ruled that the region belonged to Britain.
Maduro portrays himself as a warrior seeking to right great historical wrongs. Well, playing drama king is easier than fixing a broken economy.
Maduro may be toying with a replay of 1982 when another shaky dictator thought a foreign war to distract his citizens was a dandy idea. The shaky dictator was Argentina's Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri who proceeded to invade the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas). He bet seizing the islands from the British "imperialists" -- "recovering" them Galtieri called it -- would unite Argentinians.
Britain, led by Margaret Thatcher, counterattacked, Argentina lost, and Galtieri's regime collapsed.
Britain still supports Guyana. Yes, Britain and NATO are focused on supporting Ukraine. Yes, Chavistas have made verbal common cause with fellow oil producer ayatollah Iran -- a rhetorical proxy. Yes, the Biden administration is reprehensibly slow to react to crises -- and a reptile like Maduro may see an opportunity.
However, wire services reported on Dec. 5 that Brazil was reinforcing its military units near the Venezuelan border. That might give Maduro a clue. Brazil has no love for Venezuelan Chavismo.
Unfortunately, South America still has many border disputes that are fodder for potentially violent border wars. The Council of the Indies in 1779 attempted to draw a more definite boundary between the Spanish viceroyalties of Peru and New Granada; the isolated, jungle-clad expanse of Maranon and Amazon rivers and their northern tributaries, however, gave the geographers fits. The borders were "guesstimated."
After a series of armed incidents in July 1941 Peru attacked and seized around 77,000 square miles of Ecuador's Amazon territory. In 1960 Ecuador claimed the peace settlement was based on faulty geography and poor cartography. In 1995 Ecuador and Peru fought a vicious little war in the disputed Cordillera del Condor region.
Ecuador still isn't satisfied.