OPINION: US President-elect Joe Biden will have plenty of domestic dilemmas to sort out after he is inaugurated next week, but the country's long-running feud with the administration in Opec member Venezuela looks set to require the Democrat's attention early on.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist administration has set alarm bells ringing by rejecting a recent jurisdictional ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) concerning his country's territorial claims over oil-rich neighbour Guyana.
Maduro issued a new decree last week claiming sovereignty over areas claimed by Guyana, while Venezuela’s national assembly established a special committee for the defence of disputed territory.
A decade ago, regional analysts saw Venezuela itself as a potential regional flashpoint due to the anti-Washington rhetoric of Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, and his strategy of using oil resources as leverage for alliances with Russia, China and Cuba.
A boom in US unconventional production, an oil price crash and diminishing interest in extra-heavy crude means that jostling for access to Venezuelan commodities is less of a concern to the US than it used to be.
US sanctions have also aggravated Venezuela's home-grown problems to the point that there are serious shortages of gasoline and diesel in the country.
Yet regime change has not come, and Venezuela can still pose problem for the US and upset regional stability.
The respective territorial claims of Venezuela and Guyana reflect the turbulence of colonial history in the region.
The claim covers more than half of Guyana’s land mass and much of Guyana’s Atlantic maritime territory, including most of the prolific ExxonMobil-operated Stabroek block, where a raft of huge oil discoveries have been unearthed in recent years.
Guyana’s modern argument for ICJ jurisdiction was based on the 1966 Geneva Agreement — signed by the UK, Venezuela and colonial British Guiana — which stipulates that the parties will agree to find a practical, peaceful and satisfactory solution to the dispute.
Guyana has argued, successfully, that the Geneva Agreement also establishes jurisdiction for an ICJ ruling, and diplomats now expect that ruling to come within a timeframe of two to four years.
Anxious to stave off unrest in a country where living standards have plummeted, Maduro has seized on the jurisdictional ruling in an attempt to galvanise popular support.
“It is ours! It belongs to the Venezuelans and we are going to retake it in peace and with national unity,” Maduro said of the Essequibo territories.
Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali called Maduro’s actions and words “deeply disturbing” and argued that any attempt to “unilaterally” fix boundaries between the two countries would be a legal nullity in the eyes of international law.
In the event of a favourable ICJ ruling, Guyana is likely to tread carefully before offering acreage for oil and gas exploration in disputed maritime areas as there have been troublesome incidents in the recent past.
In 2013, a seismic vessel working for Anadarko Petroleum in what were assumed to be Guyanese waters was forced off track by Venezuela's Navy, while in 2018 the Navy intercepted two vessels working on the Stabroek block for ExxonMobil.
With US sanctions showing no signs of triggering political transition in Venezuela, Biden will likely have to steel himself for renewed action against the Caracas regime sooner rather than later.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)