By intensifying Venezuela’s claim to resource-rich territory in neighboring Guyana, the Maduro regime is “trying to link this international dispute with his own domestic politics” in order to “whip up nationalist sentiment” ahead of 2024 Venezuelan elections, says USIP’s Mark Feierstein.

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.

Transcript

Laura Coates: Joining us is Mark Feierstein, who is a senior adviser with the Latin America program at the United States Institute of Peace. Mark Firestein, welcome to the program. How are you?

Mark Feierstein: Good to be here. Thanks so much. I'm doing great. How are you doing?

Laura Coates: I'm doing great. Thank you so much for joining us. You know, I had been covering a story recently about an American who their family believes is wrongfully detained in Venezuela. And it's caused us to really lean into what's going on in Venezuela in particular, and you say that, the government itself is operating from a position of weakness. There's polling that suggests that the President, Nicolás Maduro could lose next year's election and by a landslide. Tell us a little bit about what's going on right now.

Mark Feierstein: Sure, well, Venezuela has suffered a tremendous humanitarian political and economic crisis. In recent years, Nicolás Maduro has been in power for some 10 years now, as you mentioned, he's very unpopular. There's a presidential election scheduled for 2024. The opposition has coalesced and nominated a leading critic of the regime as its candidate, María Corina Machado. United States, meanwhile, has been negotiating with Venezuela trying to trade the lifting of sanctions in exchange for Maduro's agreeing to holding free and fair or at least relatively free and fair elections. And in addition, there is a dispute over a territory in Guyana, a country that borders Venezuela in the northern coast of South America, and that Nicolás Maduro is in Venezuela has long had claims to that territory. And that process has been that dispute has been intensifying, in in recent weeks.

Laura Coates: And the intensifying is it translating to what's happening in the public? I mean, is it is it just political. Where are the stakes?

Mark Feierstein: Yeah, so just to a little bit of context, so we're talking about a region called the Essequibo, which is an area in the country of Guyana. It covers about 75% of Guyana, it's quite large. It's larger than the state of Georgia. Very few people live there. But it is rich in natural and mineral resources. And there has been a long-standing dispute over who has a right to that territory. And interest in the region intensified in 2015, when Exxon Mobil the U.S. oil company found massive oil reserves off the coast of Guyana. And those reserves are transforming Guyana, which is a relatively poor country. That's about to become an oil exporting powerhouse. Last year, the Guyanese economy grew 25%. So, what's happening now within Venezuela in relation to Guyana, is that the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, has intensified and as well as claims he's made moves to exert Venezuelan sovereignty over the area. And that is because as we've mentioned, elections are coming up. So, he's trying to whip up nationalist sentiment. And if there's one issue that as well as agree on, it is at this region, the Essequibo belongs to them. So, he held a referendum on December 3, that asked the Venezuelan people their view of the dispute, and they overwhelmingly backed the country's claim to the territory. Maduro then took certain steps to create a new state, a Venezuelan state within the country of Guyana. And he said he would provide Venezuelan IDs to the residents of this region of Guyana. This is not something that the residents of Guyana want. So, the key question now is whether Venezuela would actually act militarily to take over this region and it appears not, they don't have the military capabilities to do so. The Jungle terrain there is very difficult to penetrate. And there's been a lot of international pressure on Venezuela, from the United States, from Caribbean countries, from Brazil, which borders both Guyana and Venezuela. As a precaution, Brazil placed troops on its border, the United States carried out a military exercise with Guyana and the U.S. position is that Guyana has sovereignty over the region. It does not belong to Venezuela, and that a long-ago arbitration decision should be respected. But there has been most importantly sorry, go ahead. Sorry.

Laura Coates: No, I was gonna say what so what compelled Brazil to put military might on the border? Is it because they have a relationship or they're just trying to ensure that it does not spread? What was the basis for Brazil's actions?

Mark Feierstein: So, Brazil's concern is that if Venezuela word try to invade Guyana, it would do throw it would do so through Brazil, which borders both with borders both countries in Brazil just trying to avoid one use of its territory for evasion but also trying to avoid, avoid larger instability within the region. But most importantly, Brazil together with Caribbean countries hosted a meeting between the Guyanese and Venezuelan President, and they both agreed this meeting took place last Thursday, and they both agreed to resolve the issue of peaceably. They agreed not to issue threats or to use force to settle the dispute. Another meeting is going to take place in Brazil in three months. So, it appears that things are calmer now. Military action is not impossible, but it seems to be unlikely.

Laura Coates: So, they don't have the military might to do this. Although the people of Venezuela seem to have supported this action. The Guyanese people do not acknowledge this even the idea of having IDs that say now they're Venezuelan. You've got Caribbean pressure and national pressure. So what is the point is, is this Maduro political puffery? Is there something that we're missing as to why he would attempt to do that which he cannot do?

Mark Feierstein: It's two things. I think it's saber rattling to try to generate support within Venezuela, because as I noted, this is an issue but often as well on the ground, but he also he's trying to accuse the opposition of being traitors and not being supportive of enough of his effort to take over this territory. He's accused the opposition of taking money from Exxon Mobil. And of course, there's no evidence to that. He has recently taken additional political prisoners, put opposition, or issued arrest warrants for opposition supporters. So, he's basically trying to link this international dispute with his own domestic politics and hoping and help some in the coming elections. Thus far, there's no evidence that it's, it's been helping to drive up his political support, and I think it's probably hurting him, given the way he's been handling it.

Laura Coates: What is the United States said about this?

Mark Feierstein: So, the United States supports Guyana's position. Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State spoke with his counterpart in Guyana, they believe that the long-ago decision by an arbitration panel, giving the territory to Guyana should be respected. But I think the reason that Americans should care the reason your listeners should care, there's a few reasons one because of economic interests of both Guyana and Venezuela, as noted our oil producers, so we would not want to see a disruption over the oil market. Second, we're seeing already a lot of illegal migration from South America and instability in the region would lead to even more illegal migration of Venezuela is already a leading source of migrants. And frankly, I don't think we want to see U.S. leaders diverted to another international crisis, there's enough going on in the world, Congress is having enough trouble agreeing on a package with support for our allies in Ukraine, Israel, the last thing we need in the world is another border dispute.

Laura Coates: Going forward. And you wonder, I mean, certainly the border disputes we are seeing in places like Ukraine, we're seeing and beyond, you know, when we record our own nation grappling with border security, as conditions for aid and what's going on next, when you look at what the likelihood of Maduro potentially losing next year's presidential election, and in a landslide, according to polling, one, is that polling accurate and to any replacements that might come Are they an improvement, or the status quo.

Mark Feierstein: So, the polling is accurate. I'm a pollster, I've actually done polling in Venezuela, and the polling in the past has proven to be quite accurate. Yeah, I think the alternative is a democratic opposition, a pro-American democratic opposition, that would pursue policies very, very different from those of Nicolás Maduro, they would be a shift away from China, Russia and back toward the United States. They would shift away from a socialist economic model, which has been a disaster. So, I think a Venezuela under a new government would be a strong partner for the United States.

Laura Coates: This is really important to focus on what's going on there. And their elections are when?

Mark Feierstein: Well, they're not scheduled. Well, they're scheduled for 2024. But the month has not been determined yet, but most likely toward the end of next year.

Laura Coates: Why don't they set it in advance?

Mark Feierstein: It's an odd system that Venezuela has it basically the president electoral council have the option of, of scheduling the exact month, but there will be an announcement six months in advance, but the expectation is that it would be toward the end of next year.

Laura Coates: That's really interesting. That could mean if he doesn't want to leave the presidency, he could just delay the date on which the elections are held.

Mark Feierstein: So, there is a risk that the election would be delayed. There is a risk that he might even use this crisis to cancel the elections. Yes, that is certainly a possibility when you're talking about an authoritarian regime like Nicolás Maduros, that is correct.

Laura Coates: Wow, this is really fascinating. Thank you so much for getting us all the information we need. I appreciate it. And there's a lot of nuance to it, and we've only scratched the surface. We appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

Mark Feierstein: My pleasure. Thank you.


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