Venezuela has been increasing its military presence near the disputed Essequibo region that’s controlled by Guyana, a new report from a Washington-based think tank shows, potentially escalating tensions with its neighbor over the oil-rich territory.
The report published Friday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies presents satellite images as evidence that Venezuela is building a military base on the Anacoco Island on the border with Guyana. The images from mid-January show a staging area with piled up construction materials, three armored vehicles, a heavy river ferry and the clearing of a new area to the north, the report described.
While Venezuela and Guyana have disputed the sparsely populated territory since the 19th century, the argument has grown more heated in recent years following massive oil discoveries off Guyana’s coast by companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. Tensions flared up late last year after President Nicolas Maduro held a referendum that allegedly showed overwhelming support for his nation’s push to take control of the Essequibo.
“This escalatory behavior on the part of Venezuela creates opportunities for miscalculation and loss of control over events on the ground,” said the report, led by CSIS Deputy Director for the Americas Christopher Hernandez-Roy. “It remains uncertain whether Maduro can effectively avoid misunderstandings and manage the forces he unleashed with the December referendum.”
Venezuela Commander Elio Estrada Paredes wrote on social media that more than 65,000 troops initiated construction of a school and a hospital in Anacoco to benefit local communities.
Other experts say Venezuela had started to upgrade its infrastructure along rivers on the border with Guyana even before Maduro ratcheted up his rhetoric by proposing the Essequibo plebiscite in December.
“It is an expansion of infrastructure necessary to deploy military operations in the area,” said Andres Serbin, an Argentina-based analyst with Regional Coordinator of Economic and Social Research, adding that the build-up is taking place along the entire border with the Essequibo region. “They’ve deployed Iranian-made boats and anti-air Russian-made systems in Guiria, toward the Atlantic. This presence is quite out of the ordinary.”
Maduro and his Guyanese counterpart Irfaan Ali held a meeting on Dec. 14 in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines where they pledged to refrain from using arms against each other and committed to dialogue.
After the encounter, however, Maduro sent more than 5,000 troops and numerous ships and aircraft to his country’s east coast to counter the arrival of a British Royal Navy patrol boat for military exercises with Guyana. Venezuela pulled back troops after the ship withdrew.
Later, in a follow-up meeting in Brazil on Jan. 25, the foreign ministers of both countries pledged to maintain peace and continue working toward a diplomatic solution to the dispute. After Exxon announced plans to drill two exploratory wells off the coast of the Essequibo earlier this week, Venezuela’s Defense Minister said the nation would respond in a “proportional, forceful and rightful” way.