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El Esequibo: Guyana oil discovery revives Venezuela border dispute


Almost everyone agrees El Esequibo belongs to Guyana.

The problem, now, is the maps.

For decades, maps and charts produced by Venezuela have represented the 61,000-square-mile territory — nearly three-quarters of Guyana — as an integral part of … Venezuela. It’s what governments in Caracas of all ideologies have argued, what generations of schoolchildren have been taught. It’s the rare point on which the authoritarian socialist state of President Nicolás Maduro and the U.S.-backed opposition agree.

“The Venezuelan sun rises in Esequibo,” Maduro tweeted in 2021. “The Venezuelan people reiterate their firm and irreducible determination to defend our sovereignty.”

Guyana firmly rejects Venezuela’s centuries-old claim — and has been backed by nearly all the world’s governments. To Guyana, the border dispute, such as it ever was, was settled more than a century ago.

What’s a little oil between neighbors? Venezuela-Guyana tensions flare.

But, the maps. In the years since ExxonMobil discovered massive reserves of oil in the ocean floor off the territory in 2015 — a windfall that has turned the tiny nation into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies — versions of the Esequibo-claiming charts, some of them produced by Maduro’s government, have proliferated on social media.

Maduro says Guyana is developing valuable resources in Venezuelan waters. Caracas is accused of harassing ships there.

At Guyana’s urging, the United Nations in 2018 referred the matter to the International Court of Justice for what Georgetown hopes will be the final word. With that case pending, Foreign Secretary Robert Persaud has asked Facebook and Twitter to take down maps that show Venezuela with a chunk of Guyana attached. The Foreign Ministry met virtually with Facebook officials in October about what it called the “campaign of disinformation.”

The maps, Persaud told the social media giant, could “permanently damage relations between States, incite violence against the territory and people of Guyana, and derail the current adjudication of the matter.” Neither Facebook nor Twitter responded to requests for comment.

“We are a very peace-loving nation,” Persaud told The Washington Post. “We always try to have very strong and fruitful ties with our neighbors, including Venezuela. …

“We’re asking the social media platform to respect what the United Nations and international law is on these matters and not to contribute in any way to damaging good neighborly relations.”

The map flap is only the latest flare-up in a dispute that stretches back centuries. It’s drawn in the United States and Britain, on opposing sides. It’s considered the “last major dispute” between the allies.

Venezuela says its territory has extended east to the Essequibo River since the country declared independence from Spain in 1811. Guyana says its ownership begin in 1814, when Britain gained control through a treaty with the Netherlands. That treaty, though, left the territory’s western boundary undefined.

Guyanese territory

claimed by Venezuela

Guyanese territory

claimed by Venezuela



claimed by


Britain commissioned the explorer Robert Schomburgk to clarify the frontier, and he came through: His Schomburgk Line granted more territory than London had claimed. Timely, too, because the region would soon be found to contain gold.

In 1841, Venezuela disputed the borders of what by then was British Guiana. Invoking the then-new Monroe Doctrine, Caracas pressed Washington for help.

That help came in 1895, when President Grover Cleveland asked Congress to authorize a border commission to determine the extent of Venezuelan territory, and declared that it would “be the duty of the United States to resist by every means in its power” any British appropriation of such land as a “willful aggression upon its rights and interests.”

That was taken as a threat. Some saw a third war with Britain looming.

The sides agreed to arbitration. The 1899 tribunal comprised five jurists — two named by Venezuela (American lawyers, one a U.S. chief justice), two by Great Britain (British lawyers), and a fifth chosen by those four (a Russian diplomat). They decided the bulk of the disputed territory was British Guiana’s.

Why Venezuela wants to annex two-thirds of the country next door

And that appeared to be that, for the next 50 years. Then, in 1949, a letter emerged suggesting the Russian had colluded with the British. Venezuela disputed the validity of the 1899 decision.

Washington would see value in keeping the issue alive. In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, advising President John F. Kennedy on ways to prevent a communist takeover in British Guiana, suggested they could “encourage Venezuela and possibly Brazil to pursue their territorial claims</