Venezuela’s Dangerous Play in Essequibo and Lessons from Turkey

December 25, 2023
by İmdat Öner, published on 25 December 2023
Venezuela’s Dangerous Play in Essequibo and Lessons from Turkey

In early December, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro held a referendum, seeking public opinion on the potential inclusion of the sparsely populated Essequibo region of Guyana into Venezuela. The government reported that 95 percent of voters supported the idea, asserting Venezuela's claim to Essequibo. While official media celebrated the outcome as a decisive mandate, reports from witnesses suggested a low voter turnout. Subsequent to the referendum, Maduro instructed state-owned oil and gas companies to grant drilling rights in the environmentally sensitive Essequibo region. Furthermore, he revised Venezuela's official map and established a new military zone covering the disputed area.

Maduro's approach closely mirrors Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's strategies in the Eastern Mediterranean from 2019 to 2022. Motivated by the need to bolster domestic support ahead of crucial elections, Erdogan heightened tensions with Greece and Cyprus, employing territorial disputes and maritime claims to divert attention from mounting economic challenges. The Turkish President even went so far as to issue a threat of landing Turkish troops in Greece "suddenly one night." The situation escalated in August 2020 when the Turkish and Greek navies faced off in the eastern Mediterranean, posing a potential broader military conflict between NATO allies.

Fueled by domestic political dynamics, Ankara's inclination for aggression toward Athens intensified, elevating these disputes into a significant crisis. Yet, shortly after Erdogan secured re-election in May, he notably toned down and de-escalated the conflict with Greece.He even made an official visit to Greece last week to improve bilateral relations, after consolidating power domestically.

Drawing parallels, as Erdogan effectively used external threats to heighten security concerns and maintain power, Maduro may similarly escalate the Essequibo crisis until he feels secure domestically. The Essequibo issue serves as an ideal distraction from an economic crisis, evoking nationalist sentiment and a narrative of victimhood rooted in centuries of perceived injustice. The substantial oil discoveries in the Essequibo region further inflame tensions. 

Maduro's deliberate decision to instigate a diplomatic crisis is a calculated move to advance his political agenda at home, using the Essequibo issue as a prelude to the upcoming election. The timing of the decision to conduct a referendum is a telling indicator of Maduro's intentions. He announced the referendum shortly after María Corina Machado's significant victory in the opposition primaries. However, Chavista authorities subsequently barred Machado from participating in electoral processes. Survey results suggest that Machado had the capability to emerge as the leading candidate in the approaching 2024 presidential race.

In drawing parallels with Erdogan's de-escalation after the elections, one cannot help but speculate on Maduro's motives. Maduro might aim to create a perception of crisis, enabling him to declare a state of emergency and postpone the elections. By controlling the narrative and potentially invoking a state of emergency, Maduro could be strategizing to delay the 2024 presidential elections. As the international community witnesses the unfolding dispute, Chavismo seems to find a pretext, offering a convenient justification for indefinitely postponing the elections.

A politically vulnerable Maduro presents risks to neighboring countries, and with escalating tensions, the potential for accidents looms large. His aggressive actions also raises serious concerns about the Biden administration's decision in October to grant Venezuela extensive relief from economic sanctions for six months, contingent on promises to progress toward free and fair elections. 

In response, the Biden administration should promptly reinstate all the economic sanctions it had lifted on Venezuela, delivering a clear message to Maduro that his conduct is unacceptable. Maduro must comprehend that any forthcoming easing of sanctions will solely be contingent on measurable advancements towards conducting free and fair elections domestically and demonstrating respect for the territorial integrity of neighboring nations. Failing to do so would betray Venezuela's long-suffering opposition and peace in South America.

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