-OpEd-

BOGOTA — A long-running border dispute between Venezuela and the former British colony of Guyana has been intensifying for weeks, purportedly because of plans by U.S. oil company ExxonMobil to conduct oil exploration in an area known as the Essequibo region.

Since winning independence in 1830, Venezuela has laid claim to the Essequibo region, which makes up around two-thirds of Guyana's small territory. And on May 26, in response to what he claims would be an incursion by ExxonMobil, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced a maritime defense zone comprising Essequibo and a vast portion of Guyana's territorial waters.

Tensions escalated further last week when Maduro recalled Venezuela's ambassador to Guyana.

It's complicated

The formal delimitation of borders in Latin America coincided with the dying moments of Spain's colonies in the region, when an array of viceroyalties, captaincies and governorates gave way to today's independent states. It was in South America that the international legal principle of uti possidetis juris was born: when a new nation arises, it keeps the same borders it had before independence.

The former country of Gran Colombia — comprising modern-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama — bordered Great Britain in the east, which itself didn't recognize the border at the time.

The Guyanas, a region colonized by the Dutch, French and British, have always been an outlier in South American geography. After an interminable series of conflicts, the three countries formalized the current borders in the 1814 London Convention. Except the treaty didn't account for the western frontier of British Guyana, bordering Venezuela, which was too weak to exercise its sovereignty over the resource-rich border area.

Venezuela and Great Britain ultimately submitted their dispute to international arbitration, resulting in the 1899 Paris ruling that gave Essequibo to the British. The court that produced the sentence was heavily biased against Caracas, and none of the judges came from Venezuela. Severo Mallet-Prevost, one of the judges on the tribunal, later revealed that the Russian president of the arbitration panel, Friedrich Martens, had negotiated with Britain to rule in its favor in return for concessions to Tsarist Russia.

Venezuela, for its part, declared the Paris ruling null and void at the United Nations in 1962. In 1966, three months before Guyana gained independence, London and Caracas negotiated the Geneva Agreement, which simply recognized Venezuela's "displeasure" with the British presence in Essequibo but failed to produce a lasting accord.

In 1989 the two countries agreed to the UN naming a goodwill envoy to help resolve the border dispute. But 26 years and many land and sea skirmishes later, the conflict is no closer to resolution.

Smoke and mirrors

Ahead of legislative elections scheduled for later this year, President Maduro is trying to distract Venezuelans from their country's profound social, political and economic crisis by stirring feelings of nationalism.

His maritime defense zones are a monstrous invention unilaterally imposed on his neighbors, based on an imaginary border line that assumes Essequibo is Venezuelan territory.

Guyana has accused Caracas of putting its national security at risk, receiving the support of the United States, Great Britain and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), faithful to its record of incompetence, is silent on the matter.

President Maduro's actions raise the dark specter that he could repeat Argentina's disastrous invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas in 1982. The ghost of Argentine General Leopoldo Galtieri is back to haunt the Latin American coast, this time in the form of Nicolas Maduro.