Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has instructed the country’s state-owned companies to “immediately” commence exploration and exploitation of oil, gas, and minerals in the disputed Essequibo region of Guyana. The announcement follows Maduro’s victory in a weekend referendum aimed at claiming sovereignty over the territory, an area larger than Greece, rich in oil and minerals, which Venezuela has long claimed as its own.
Maduro stated that he would proceed to “grant operating licences for the exploration and exploitation of oil, gas, and mines in the entire area of our Essequibo.” Additionally, he ordered the establishment of local subsidiaries for Venezuelan public companies, including the oil giant PDVSA and mining conglomerate Corporación Venezolana de Guayana.
The Venezuelan administration’s plans for implementing jurisdiction over the territory remain unclear, especially considering the pending legislation to officially declare Essequibo as part of Venezuela, set to be discussed in the National Assembly, currently controlled by the ruling party.
Maduro also announced the creation of a new Comprehensive Defense Operational Zone (Zodi) for the disputed strip, similar to special military commands operating in different regions of the country.
The contested Essequibo region, covering 61,600 square miles (159,500 square kilometres), constitutes two-thirds of Guyana. Venezuela’s historical claim to Essequibo stems from its inclusion within the country’s boundaries during the Spanish colonial period. The dispute intensified in 2015 when ExxonMobil discovered oil in commercial quantities off the Essequibo coast.
Guyana has condemned Venezuela’s actions, considering the recent referendum as a pretext for annexation. Guyana had sought intervention from the International Court of Justice, which, on Friday, ordered Venezuela not to take any action to alter the status quo until the court rules on the competing claims, a process that could span several years.