A Brazilian delegation's quick trip to Guyana and Suriname suggests things are moving beneath the surface of the border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana. On Feb. 7, Brazilian President Michel Temer approved a trip by Defense Minister Raul Jungmann, Justice Minister Torquato Jardim and Institutional Security Cabinet Chief Sergio Etchegoyen to Guyana and Suriname. According to Agencia Estado, the visit's purpose is to discuss border security with the Guyanese and Surinamese governments. However, an unconfirmed report in Brazilian paper O Antagonista claimed the real reason behind the visit was to share information that Brazil's intelligence services had learned about Venezuela considering a military incursion into Guyana.
Venezuela has claimed ownership over the Guyanese territory west of the Essequibo River since 1962. But recently, the U.N. Secretary General referred the border dispute issue to the International Court of Justice, which may issue a binding decision on the matter within the next several years. According to the O Antagonista report, Brazil's information claims that the Venezuelan government is considering siezing that territory. On Feb. 8, the Brazilian ministers visited their country's Roraima state, an area bordering Guyana and Venezuela that has seen tens of thousands of Venezuelan refugees pour across the border in recent months as unrest in the country grows.
Much to Lose, Much to Gain
It may seem as though an incursion into Guyana would only further erode the country's current situation. And right now, O Antagonista is the only open source outlet reporting the alleged Venezuelan plan to enter Guyana militarily. Caracas is under increasing economic pressure at home, as hyperinflation accelerates by the day and the United States threatens sanctions that will choke off Venezuela's economic lifeline to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. Seizing even a small part of territory west of the Essequibo River would draw U.S. attention toward Venezuela's economic crisis and its slide into dictatorship, increasing the likelihood that Washington will employ heavier sanctions or intervene more directly.
But there are a number of political considerations that may motivate Caracas to make a move. In the short term, the incursion could help Caracas in its ongoing dialogue with the Trump administration over the terms of President Nicolas Maduro and his party's departure from power. The Venezuelan president won't leave power — or even loosen his party's grip over the opposition — unless he has assurances from Washington that he and his acolytes will receive some form of amnesty. And seizing and holding Guyanese territory might offer Caracas a bargaining chip, allowing it to wrangle a better amnesty deal in exchange for a troop withdrawal.
In the long run, holding Guyanese territory could offer Venezuela a way to delay the International Court of Justice's ruling about the border dispute. After all, the court may hold off on a ruling if Venezuelan troops are present in Guyanese territory. Moreover, the Maduro government may be counting on the incursion to pump up nationalism among Venezuelans. By directing attention outside its borders, the government could be able to buy time before organized domestic unrest gain critical mass, or even forestall any possible military coup attempt by moving units far from the capital.
Envisioning the Incursion
If a military incursion does happen, the majority of Venezuela's armed forces would likely enter Guyanese territory by helicopter. Some troops may enter by ground, but they would be limited by the dense jungles and lack of roads in the region. Similarly, moving naval forces along Guyana's coast would be difficult given Venezuela's limited naval capabilities. But the Venezuelan military does have aerial superiority over the Guyanese, as well as plenty of members of the National Guard and regular armed forces already situated in the eastern part of the country. Guyana, on the other hand, has extremely limited armed forces, which it would struggle to transport to its western border. Ultimately, it would be relatively easy for Venezuela to deploy just a few hundred troops into Guyana to seize limited points such as villages, bridges, or roads throughout the country.
In addition to the logistical challenges Venezuela would face — such as getting enough food rations for its armed forces — there is also the political risk for Caracas that the United States would respond harshly to an incursion into Guyana. So far, Washington has chosen to slowly and selectively raise pressure on Venezuela's government through escalating sanctions. But Venezuela's forceful seizure of the land west of the Essequibo River — even if it is disputed — would spark major debate within the White House. The Trump administration would have to either let Venezuela keep land that it could use as leverage, or act against the country in some way. Right now, the United States has a range of options to pressure Venezuela and may choose to implement much heavier economic sanctions. But it may eventually have to contemplate military actions, though a wider conflict with the Venezuelan armed forces would be difficult for Washington as it faces other foreign policy crises across the world.
Any Venezuelan military action against Guyana comes with major implications for foreign energy companies already doing business there. ExxonMobil, for example, is planning to continue oil exploration drilling off Guyana's coast in 2018, and other private companies own stakes in offshore blocks. Naval activity by Venezuela or the United States would disrupt business plans and increase the risk to personnel from oil companies with current or future operations in Guyana or neighboring Trinidad and Tobago.
Right now, the rumors surrounding the Brazilian delegation's sudden trip to Guyana and Suriname are just that — rumors. But although it would come with major risk, there is logic behind a Venezuelan incursion into Guyanese territory, and many eyes will likely be trained on the region west of the Essequibo River in the coming months.