Last week we wrote that Maduro’s bellicosity towards our Essequibo was “all political”; without a shred of legality supporting what in effect would be an annexation of two-thirds of our national territory. And it is for this reason that he and his predecessors have refused to entertain a judicial settlement of the controversy they created, but insist on direct “negotiations” between the two countries, where they could browbeat us because of their superior military capabilities. It should surprise no one that Venezuela have dismissed the ICJ’s ruling on their “referendum”.
However, there is the truism that “all politics” is local: meaning that, invariably, actions at the macro level are driven by local contingencies. In the case of Venezuela, utopian populism, reinforced by bad governance, corruption and incompetence, intensified after Chavez succumbed to cancer in 2013. Maduro barely squeaked into office on a razor-thin majority.
And it went downhill from there, following Chavez’s degutting of the national oil company PVSA to install army cronies, which coincided with lower oil prices. Production plummeted from 2.5 million barrels daily to barely 500,000 barrels. Agreements with foreign oil companies, which had been induced to make the massive investments to extract and process Venezuelan heavy crude oil, were now arbitrarily scuttled to bolster sagging state coffers.
The companies like Exxon baulked, left, and later had to be compensated via court action. Venezuela’s GDP shrank by three-quarters between 2014 and 2021; debt doubled to more than $150B, while hyperinflation skyrocketed 130,000 percent by 2018, and devastated savings. Maduro clung to power increasingly through political repression, censorship, and electoral manipulation. The 2018 elections, for instance, which he “won”, were widely considered fraudulent. Under his regime, almost 8 million Venezuelans fled, and 94% of those remaining live below the poverty line. Maduro knew he could not hold on to power through democratic elections.
A week after Exxon announced, on May 20, 2015, it had struck a massive seam of oil extending into Essequibo’s territorial waters, Maduro issued a decree claiming the entire 200 miles based on their Essequibo Border Controversy. Since then, he escalated the rhetoric and hostility until our Government decided to utilize the terms of the Geneva Agreement that Venezuela had signed and requested the UN Secretary-General to choose one of the dispute resolution measures from Art 33 of the UN Charter. The latter chose the judicial route via its ICJ affiliate, whose jurisdiction Maduro contemptuously rejected.
I suggest that Maduro’s bellicosity is not because he coveted the 1B barrel of oil then discovered by Exxon: Venezuela already had over 300B barrels reserve. Their challenge was not oil reserves, but exploiting those reserves. Rather, Maduro was following the very well-known “diversionary theory of war”. As explained succinctly by one scholar: “…unpopular leaders generate foreign policy crises to both divert the public’s attention away from the discontent with their rule, and bolster their political fortunes through a rally-around-the-flag effect… Because people tend to react to territorial issues intensely, the embattled leader could attempt to manipulate and exploit this proclivity by launching specifically a territorial conflict”.
The unpopular Maduro already had on hand the 1899 Arbitral Award Border controversy Venezuela had raised in 1962, but which Chavez had downplayed. He was counting on the populace emotionally rallying around the flag to even ignore objective facts about his ineptitude and dictatorial actions. Maduro truculently dismissed the ICJ’s jurisdiction over the Border controversy, and has raised the ante by defying the ruling of the ICJ to go ahead with today’s provocative referendum.
But Maduro would know that in the modern state system, annexation of another country’s territory would not be accepted, especially when he is threatening a very powerful American corporation – ExxonMobil. Powerful neighbours like Brazil and Colombia would also not brook opening up the Pandora’s Box of settled borders. So why take this risk?
He is “gambling for resurrection”. Here, leaders who see defeat staring them in the face of competition or conflict take high-risk actions that would be considered “irrational” in normal circumstances, because the high costs of defeat “objectively” outweigh the low probability of victory.
Maduro would have concluded that the democratic elections insisted on by the US would be fatal, and so would continue his bluff. Even though the old Yankee bogeyman might even boost the “rally round the flag” effect, the US must reimpose sanctions to introduce free and fair elections that would remove Maduro. Enough Venezuelans have not been duped.