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by Mick the Ram
Tensions are high in Venezuela as military leaders have ordered armed forces to hold “defensive” exercises on the country’s eastern Caribbean and Atlantic coasts.
This is in response to the UK’s decision to divert a warship – which was in the area originally to search for drug smugglers – to support Guyana in their on-going dispute with their South American neighbours.
The threat of trouble has heightened since the Venezuelans stepped up their campaign to claim the oil-rich Essequibo region of Guyana as their own, and have received significant backing from voters to go ahead and annex it and create a new state.
The Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro, explained that the exercises were being launched “in response to the provocation and threat of the United Kingdom against peace and the sovereignty of our country”.
The UK for their part claim their presence is only to ensure the territorial integrity of Guyana is upheld and to prevent any escalation.
It was the discovery of oil in waters off Essequibo’s coast back in 2015 that triggered an upturn in tensions, gradually increasing each year.
Nevertheless, an agreement was reached earlier this month between Mr Maduro and Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali, for the two countries not to resort to force to settle the dispute.
Region disputed for over a century
The ownership of the 61,000 sq-mile region of Essequibo has long been claimed by Venezuela. It comprises approximately two-thirds of the country of Guyana, who have administered it – and British Guiana before it – for well over a century, after it was established under an international agreement in 1899.
Venezuela maintain that the awarding of the region to the UK at the end of the 19th century was unfair. The matter is currently before the International Court of Justice, although even that displeases the Venezuelan government who believe that the court does not have authority to rule on it.
UK supporting former colony
It was on Christmas Eve that the UK confirmed that its patrol vessel, HMS Trent, would be deployed to Guyana. Foreign Office minister for the Americas and Caribbean, David Rutley, said: “The border issue has been settled for over 120 years and it is important that sovereign borders must be respected, wherever they are in the world.”
Patrol vessel re-deployed
HMS Trent left its home port of Gibraltar in early December. It has a crew of 65, a top speed of 24 knots and a range of 5,000 nautical miles. It is armed with 30mm cannon and a contingent of Royal Marines. It can also deploy Merlin helicopters and unmanned aircraft.
Having spent Christmas in Bridgetown, Barbados, it is expected to anchor off the capital of Guyana, rather than actually dock in Georgetown, because the port is too shallow.
The vessel is mainly used for tackling piracy and smuggling, protecting fisheries, counterterrorism, providing humanitarian aid, and search and rescue operations; although the Royal Navy has confirmed that it is also designed for border patrols and defence diplomacy.
Attempt to play down ship’s significance
Guyanese Vice-President Bharrat Jagdeo said the ship’s presence was simply “routine” and part of building a “defensive capability”. He stressed: “We don’t plan on invading Venezuela. President Maduro knows this and he need not have any worry about that.”
Major defensive exercise
President Maduro however was far from impressed. He ordered over 5,600 military personnel to participate in a “defensive” exercise, which included fighter jets, together with ships and ocean patrol vessels.
He then called the arrival of a UK warship into the region a move that was “practically a military threat from London” and broke the “spirit” of a recent agreement reached between Venezuela and Guyana not to use force to settle their dispute.
President slates UK involvement
He requested Guyana to take “immediate action for the withdrawal of the HMS Trent, and to refrain from involving military powers in the territorial controversy.” He followed that up with a defiant message, insisting that “no one should mess with Venezuela”.
He went on to add: “We are men of peace, we are a people of peace, but we are warriors and this threat is unacceptable for any sovereign country. The threat of the decadent, rotten, ex-empire of the United Kingdom is unacceptable.”
Guyana was of course previously known as British Guiana, before it secured its own independence back in 1966.