Guyana says it won’t bow to Venezuela in dispute over territory rich in oil and minerals

BARRIO (AP) – Guyana refuses to bow to Venezuela in their dispute over an oil- and mineral-rich territory claimed by both nations, the small South American country said Thursday as its president met Venezuela’s leader in the latest chapter of the bitter rivalry.

Guyana’s control over Essequibo, a vast border region located along its border with Venezuela, “is not up for discussion, negotiation or deliberation,” Guyana’s government said.

Guyanese President Irfaan Ali echoed those comments during a press conference he held during a break in talks with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent.

“All of this belongs to Guyana,” Ali said, pointing to a thick leather bracelet on his right wrist featuring the outline of Guyana. “No narrative propaganda (or) decree can change this. This is Guyana.”

Ali noted that while both parties are committed to keeping peace in the region, Guyana “is not the aggressor.”

“Guyana is not seeking war, but Guyana reserves the right to work with all of our partners to ensure the defense of our country,” he said.

Maduro did not speak to reporters during the break. He had said ahead of the meeting that “we will make the most of it so that our Latin America and the Caribbean remains a zone of peace.”

The two presidents clasped hands before their talks as leaders around them clapped.

Tension over Essequibo has raised worries about a military conflict, though many believe that unlikely. Venezuela insists the Essequibo region was part of its territory during the Spanish colonial period and argues a 1966 Geneva Agreement between Venezuela, Britain and then-British Guiana, now Guyana, nullified a border drawn in 1899 by international arbitrators.

The century-old dispute recently reignited with the discovery of masses of oil in Guyana. The dispute escalated when Venezuela reported that its citizens had voted in a Dec. 3 referendum to claim two-thirds of their smaller neighbor.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that Biden administration officials were closely monitoring the rising tensions. “We don’t want to see this come to blows,” Kirby said. “There’s no reason for it to and our diplomats are engaged in real time.”

Ali and Maduro first met individually with prime ministers and other officials from the region who had pushed for the meeting at the Argyle International Airport on St. Vincent. Guyana’s government has said that it is awaiting a ruling from the International Court of Justice in The Netherlands over the dispute, and in its statement Thursday said that regional leaders “concurred with Guyana‘s position.”

Ahead of the meeting, Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, said that “to use a cricket metaphor, this is not a one-day cricket match.”

“The fact that they will be talking is very important on friendly, neutral grounds like St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” he said.

Venezuela’s president has ordered state-owned companies to explore and exploit the oil, gas and mines in Essequibo. And both sides have put their militaries on alert.

Ali rejected in a letter to Gonsalves on Tuesday what he said was Maduro’s description of the “meddling of the United States Southern Command, which has begun operations in the disputed territory.”

The U.S. Southern Command has conducted flight operations within Guyana in recent days.

“Any allegation that a military operation aimed at Venezuela exists in any part of Guyanese territory is false, misleading and provocative,” Ali said in the letter.

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