Venezuela saber-rattles over Guyana, US wades in

Venezuela is reviving a longstanding claim over resource-rich territory in Guyana where ExxonMobil is developing a giant offshore oil field.

The outgoing US administration is doubling down on its support for Guyana in the dispute, exposing another flank in its campaign to force Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro out of power. The commander of the US Southern Command Craig Faller arrives in Guyana today for a three-day visit, following the start of joint US-Guyana coast guard exercises on 8 January. Acting assistant secretary of state Michael Kozak yesterday reaffirmed US support for Guyana's stance.

On 9 January, Maduro vowed to "reconquer" the disputed Essequibo province, which makes up the western two-thirds of Guyana. The key portion of Venezuela's territorial claim lies offshore, where ExxonMobil is ramping up development of the 120,000 b/d Liza oil field and exploring nearby acreage. Part of the Stabroek block that encompasses Liza is in the disputed territory.

Guyanese president Irfaan Ali rejected Maduro's claim as "a legal nullity," adding that Guyana has "always chosen a path of peaceful resolution of the Venezuelan issue within international law."

Venezuela and Guyana have never agreed on their border, and Venezuelan maps routinely show the "Guayana Esequiba" as part of Venezuelan territory. The festering 120-year-old border dispute is a legacy of British colonialism in Guyana in the late 19th century.

The new flare-up coincides with the 5 January installation of a new government-controlled National Assembly in Caracas, replacing the opposition-controlled legislature that is still recognized by the US and other countries as Venezuela's legitimate legislative body.

In one of its first moves, the controversial new assembly on 7 January rejected an 18 December decision by the UN Court of Justice (ICJ) that it will hear Guyana's case seeking validation of its border with Venezuela. The ICJ will decide on 15 January a schedule for the hearing of the case, Guyana's agent to the court Carl Greenidge said 26 December.

Venezuela is united "to fight against the dispossession of a territory that always belonged to Venezuela," Maduro said.

Venezuela's sovereign claim to the Essequibo is a rare point of unity between the government and the US-backed opposition, which blames Maduro for ceding to Guyana's de facto control over the territory.

Maduro earlier called for the dispute to be settled through bilateral talks as "only sovereign states can bring us closer to a solution to the controversy."

"We reject the ICJ's decision. We are determined to defend our Esequiba," Maduro said.

Guyana has never made any statements "regarding the continuing inflammatory remarks emanating from the government and other parties in Venezuela, except to continue to affirm our nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity," said Ali, who took office in August 2020 following a months-long political impasse in Georgetown.

In 2013, when Maduro rose to power, Venezuela's navy briefly seized a research vessel working in the Roraima block under contract from US independent Anadarko. And in December 2018, ExxonMobil suspended seismic surveys on a part of Stabroek after a research vessel it contracted was approached by a Venezuelan navy ship. ExxonMobil said the incident would not interrupt its long-term drilling and development operations. The US major forecasts 750,000 b/d of oil production from Guyana in 2026, surpassing Venezuela's current output of less than 400,000 b/d.

The head of Guyana's army said in November 2020 that foreign forces will never again be allowed to "target" the country's oil exploration and production operations. Guyana's military recently ordered one of two US helicopters which will be used "to strengthen its homeland defense," US security cooperation agency DSCA said in October.