Venezuela has increased its military presence near the border with Guyana, despite Caracas saying it will seek to resolve a long-standing territorial dispute over Essequibo, an oil-rich part of Guyana's territory, through diplomatic channels.
Tensions rose last year after a referendum in Venezuela in which voters agreed to the creation of a Venezuelan state within the disputed region. Guyana called this move a step towards annexation as the specter of armed conflict loomed over the region, world media reported.
Violation of the December agreement
The government of Guyana announced on February 10 that it has evidence of satellite images from friendly Western allies showing the movement of the Venezuelan army near the South American country's eastern border with Guyana, the Associated Press reports.
Officials say the administration of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is violating a peace accord signed in the Caribbean in December in which the two countries agreed not to use force or threaten each other.
Guyana's reaction to the latest development came hours after satellite images released by the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) showed Venezuela expanding its base on Ankoko Island, half of which Venezuela seized from Guyana in the mid-1960s. and nearby Punta Barima, less than 80 kilometers from the border with Guyana.
Guyana's Foreign Affairs Minister Hugh Todd and Secretary of State Robert Persaud said Guyana was monitoring the situation across the border while Venezuela's defense ministry accused Guyana of undermining the December agreement through irresponsible actions and media deception, claiming "Essequibo is ours".
The two sides have been arguing over the border lines for decades, the Associated Press points out, adding that Guyana claims that the international boundary commission of 1899 determined the border once and for all. But for more than 60 years, Venezuela has accused the commission of deceiving it over the Essequibo region.
Guyana has taken the matter to the World Court in the Netherlands for a final ruling, while Venezuela has indicated its preference for direct bilateral talks.
Disputed oil drilling
Venezuela has promised a "strong response" if oil drilling begins in disputed waters near neighboring Guyana, as announced in early February by the American oil giant "ExxonMobil", France Press agency points out.
Although Caracas has long claimed the Essequibo region, the rhetoric has intensified since Guyana began issuing permits to oil companies to operate there.
Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino wrote on the Xx social network that while ExxonMobil may have the protection of the United States and Guyana, "in the maritime space that rightfully belongs to Venezuela, it will receive a proportionate, forceful, law-abiding response."
ExxonMobil, which discovered huge crude oil reserves off Guyana in 2015, announced on February 6 that it plans to drill two exploratory wells this year off the coast of Essequibo, which Guyana has operated for more than a century.
On February 7, the Vice President of Venezuela, Delsy Rodríguez, accused ExxonMobil of wanting to "protect its illegal operations in the demarcated sea, under the guise of warmongering by the United States in complicity with Guyana."
In December, AFP reminds, Venezuelan President Maduro called a controversial non-binding referendum that overwhelmingly approved the creation of the Venezuelan province of Essequibo, which raised fears of a military conflict in mostly peaceful South America.
Tensions flared further when Britain sent a warship to the area, prompting Maduro to mobilize 5.600 troops in military exercises near the border.
However, tensions eased after the two countries' foreign ministers met in Brazil in January, after earlier face-to-face talks between Maduro and Guyana's President Irfan Ali, who agreed not to resort to force.
Maduro's rattling of weapons
Although Maduro vowed in December not to take military action against his neighbor, footage shared by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington suggests a buildup of military forces as Maduro steps up his threats to annex the country's oil-rich neighbor, the Guardian points out.
Christopher Hernandez Roy, deputy director of CSIS's Americas program, said: "On the same day that the Venezuelan foreign minister is meeting with Guyanese diplomats, the Venezuelan military is conducting tank exercises just a few steps from Guyana. All this tells us is that Maduro is pursuing a duplicitous policy ".
Aerial footage shows the Venezuelan military sending tanks and missile-equipped patrol boats to the border.
Analysts saw Maduro's gun-rattling as a means of building support ahead of elections expected this year, but suggested it could also be an attempt to pressure Guyana to share revenues from recent oil discoveries.
Venezuela's economy, the Guardian wrote, has collapsed in the last decade despite having some of the largest deposits in the world.
"All of this suggests that Maduro may have originally had domestic reasons for what he was doing, but now the strategy is to force the Guyanese to make some sort of concession," Hernandez Roy said.
Maduro's deployment, along with a referendum he held in December in which he said millions of Venezuelans approved plans to seize Essequibo, has unsettled Washington, which is increasingly strained to shape a response to Venezuela's alliances with Russia, Iran and China, according to the "Wall Street Journal" ( WSJ).
In recent months, US officials from the Department of Defense and the White House have visited Guyana's capital, Georgetown, to discuss increased cooperation. President Ali said his government would soon buy US helicopters, drones and other defense equipment.
Venezuela's military build-up near Guyana comes after the US eased some US economic sanctions to encourage Maduro to hold fair elections and accept Venezuelan migrants deported from the US. Instead, rights groups say, Maduro has jailed dissidents and barred rivals from running in presidential elections due later this year.
Venezuela's threats have raised concerns among other neighbors, including Maduro's close ally Brazil, which has deployed dozens of armored vehicles and soldiers in recent days to beef up security on its borders with Venezuela and Guyana.
On the other hand, the "Wall Street Journal" points out, Maduro directed most of his anger towards "Exxon", which many years ago gave up business in Venezuela due to conflicts with the socialist government and has been working in Guyana ever since.
After the December referendum, Maduro presented a new map of Venezuela with an expanded border, saying that "the only losers are the government of Guyana, Exxon Mobil and the US empire," and that "Guyana and Exxon Mobil will have to negotiate with us."
However, the paper adds, former high-ranking Venezuelan military officials and analysts of that country's military do not think the regime is planning an invasion. Instead, they believe that the regime, seeing how tiny Guyana has gone from being a poor country to being an important oil producer, wants to negotiate some kind of deal that could benefit Venezuela.
"What they are trying to do is extortion," said Isidro Perez, a former colonel in the Venezuelan army.
However, the New York newspaper emphasizes, heightened tensions in the northern part of South America prompted shipping industry risk assessors at "Lloyd's Market Association" in London to put Guyana on their global list of areas affected by war, piracy and terrorism.
The designation increases insurance costs for operators and puts Guyana's waters at the same level of risk as the Red Sea, where the Houthis, rebels backed by Iran, have attacked ships, as well as Black Sea routes threatened by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.