This May, an ExxonMobil vessel entered the coastal waters of the Essequibo. The arrival of the Deepwater Champion drillship followed the discovery of 700 million barrels of offshore crude and cemented a budding partnership between the energy multinational and the Co-operative Republic of Guyana. For the newly elected People’s National Congress (PNC) government, the discovery carried the promise of unprecedented development and windfall government revenue. Valued at approximately twelve times the nation’s current GDP, the find was celebrated as an economic boon to the former British colony. Conversely, faced with a fiscal crisis spurred by depressed commodity markets and the retreat of foreign capital, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro attempted to halt work on the offshore deposits with a renewed claim to two-thirds of Guyana’s sovereign territory.
The deployment of Venezuelan troops to the border region escalated the conflict, which Guyanese President David Granger deemed an act of “intimidation and aggression” in his address to the UN General Assembly. Western media outlets similarly portrayed the Venezuelan claim as an irrational challenge to the conventions of international law and diplomacy. Yet, in their deference to a post-Westphalian ideal of national sovereignty, assessments of this sort conveniently elide the exploitation of the region by external actors and interests. Borders, therefore, are both instruments of imperial design and essential features of postcolonial sovereignty. With respect to the latter point, Venezuelan-American journalist Eva Golinger indicted the renewed tensions as a “secret agenda” carried out by the U.S. Government and private multinationals with the goal of “isolating Venezuela in the region and…[taking] a direct stab at Venezuela’s lifeline: oil.”
The secret agenda Golinger details involves the development of parallel regional configurations to the Bolivarian Petrocaribe compact such as the U.S.-led Caribbean Energy Security Initiative. However, the intensification of oil and gas exploration in unconventional regions of the Caribbean basin represents another feature of the rush to locate alternatives to Venezuelan oil. The flurry of exploratory ventures in the Guianas—to include Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana—is part and parcel of this geopolitical campaign. Appealing to the privations of an historically impoverished region of the Americas, overtures of this sort counterpose the promises of neoliberal development with the advances of Latin American socialism. The partnership between ExxonMobil and the fledgling government of Guyana cannot be disentangled from the extractive requirements of U.S. imperialism or the campaign to isolate its socialist neighbor. But to dismiss the Guyanese claim as merely reactionary sidesteps a history of capitalist underdevelopment and political destabilization in Guyana and Venezuela alike.
In an October 22 address to the Guyanese National Assembly, President Granger attributed the renewed territorial skirmish to the “Chavez doctrine”—a diplomatic approach in which “Venezuela demanded a role in determining the developmental destiny of Guyana’s Essequibo.” Effectively, so long as Guyana refused to develop oilfields in the Essequibo and provide an alternative route to Venezuelan hydrocarbons, diplomatic relations between Guyana and Venezuela remained friendly. The emergence of alternative regional configurations such as ALBA and Petrocaribe generated solidarity but demanded relative subservience to the economic largesse of Venezuelan oil. Guyanese underdevelopment, in essence, remained a tacit condition of the preferential loans and oil rates extended by the Bolivarian Republic. But as Venezuela faced the crunch of depressed markets and international sanctions, Guyana saw fit to appeal to multinational oil investment in defiance of the Chavez doctrine.
In a prior essay, I discuss the paradox that underpins the current wave of Latin American socialism—namely its reliance on extractive commodities and resource rents to fund ambitious public works and social programs. Plummeting oil prices, in turn, pose an imminent threat to the long-term viability of democratic socialism in the region. In Ecuador, this sparked a series of challenges to the Correa administration from all sides of the political spectrum as it reneged on commitments to ecological sustainability. And in Venezuela, the market dip and rampant hoarding and smuggling by the private sector has forced Maduro’s hand as he seeks loans from China and Goldman Sachs to weather the fiscal storm. In the latest episode of the economic war waged against Venezuela, the deliberate production of a commodity glut and the search for alternative sources of energy—be it unconventional sources of oil and gas, “clean” coal, nuclear, or renewables—are called upon to stifle the Venezuelan economy.
Although the Petrocaribe compact endures, the conflict with Guyana suggests that the terms of the Chavez doctrine are ripe for reflection. As Guyana returns to the waiting embrace of the Washington Consensus, the border issue is merely symptomatic of a more threatening disorder. While many on the left remain troubled by the present crisis, few sufficiently attend to the contradiction between a market dependent model of neoextractivismo and a sustainable socialism in the Americas. Invigorated by technological innovations in the extraction and transport of unrefined crudes, energy multinationals have gained access to previously unimaginable frontiers that frustrate attempts by traditional oil giants such as Russia and Venezuela to exert influence over a more diffuse productive geography. Not unlike the shale boom in North America, the arrival of the Deepwater Champion into Guyanese waters demonstrates the capitalist imperative to create new reserves (and reserve armies) of human and mineral power. Without losing sight of the crisis befalling the Bolivarian Republic, the left neglects the crisis of Guyanese underdevelopment and the incongruities of petrosocialism at its own peril.
The map, by definition, is an imperial technology. National borders display the arbitrary and criminal ambitions of competing powers, and the Guyana-Venezuela border is no exception. First established at an 1899 arbitration tribunal, the border terms were effectively negotiated absent of Venezuelan or Guyanese representation. Instead, colonial officials of then British Guiana reached an agreement with United States arbitrators appointed to represent Venezuela under the terms of the Monroe Doctrine. Though Venezuela rejected the outcome, the border went unchallenged until the dispute was revived under the populist government of Romulo Betancourt in Venezuela. In 1966, officials from Venezuela, Great Britain, and British Guiana resumed talks in Geneva about the disputed border region. The revised agreement avoided a firm resolution due to the impending conferral of independence to Guyana, calling instead for a Mixed Commission to seek “satisfactory solutions for the practical settlement of the controversy.” An agreement was never reached, however, and tensions flared intermittently between the neighboring republics.
Cheddi Jagan, the political leader of the socialist People’s Progressive Party (PPP) in Guyana, chided the Geneva Agreement for its deliberately imprecise statutes that left the border open to manipulation by U.S. diplomatic and multinational corporate interests. In the throes of the Cold War political landscape in 1968, Jagan reasoned that “The United States of America has in Venezuela a big share of self-interest. Approximately 60 per cent of its Latin American investments are in Venezuela in oil, ore, iron, steel, etc. And therefore the United States does not want to take sides less anti-American feelings should develop in Venezuela. In August 1960, the Vice President of the United States Richard Nixon visited Venezuela and he was mocked, mobbed, and spat on by the people. This represented the feeling of the Venezuelan people until the Betancourt regime betrayed them.” Faced with a recalcitrant populace, Venezuela revived the border issue for “jingoistic purposes” to assuage popular discontent and redirect its anti-imperialist ire to Guyana. For Jagan, the origins of the dispute did not rest with Venezuela but rather a “grand conspiracy” between the Venezuelan government and the United States of America.
The irony of a Guyanese politician echoing the sentiments of Maduro should not be lost on critical observers of the present conflict. The economic quagmire of Guyana—which holds the second-lowest per capita GDP in the Caribbean—likewise resulted from efforts to isolate and withhold investment dollars throughout the socialist period. During this era, the fossil fuel potential of the Guianas laid dormant as foreign multinationals enjoyed the spoils of Venezuelan hydrocarbons. The pertinent question for Jagan did not concern who holds the rightful claim to the Essequibo, but whose interests the border issue serves. As such, the border dispute cannot be resolved through passive recourse to legal conventions negotiated by a corrupt governing bureaucracy operating against the popular masses. Nearly three decades prior to the upheaval of the Caracazo, Jagan identified its formative kernels as Venezuelans suffered under an authoritarian government that they had carried into power. But paradoxically, it was the creation of a vast oil infrastructure by multinational corporations that generated the conditions necessary for the rise of Chavismo and its distinctive brand of oil-fueled socialism in Venezuela.
Initially, the nationalization of the oil industry allowed the Bolivarian Revolution to stem the tide of U.S. imperialism in the greater Caribbean. As a statesman, Hugo Chavez parlayed the populist tide and an advantageous market into provisional regional solidarity through offers of loan agreements, deferred oil payments, and infrastructural works. For Guyana, a rice for oil trade agreement with Venezuela deferred the border issue as Chavez summarily dismissed the dispute as an outgrowth of European colonialism. Meanwhile, Guyana’s oil reserves waited in the wings. As a WikiLeaks cable from February 2007 revealed, “the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there could be as much as 15 billion barrels of oil resources in Guyana’s offshore waters—a resource that could transform Guyana in unimaginable ways if its border dispute with Venezuela is resolved.” While Guyana publically maintained its commitment to diplomatic relations with Venezuela and the unspoken terms of the Chavez doctrine, it quietly pursued alternatives to the Petrocaribe. As a separate cable recounts, Guyanese President Bharrat Jadgeo hesitated to “nudge Chavez about the border dispute and instead want[ed] the oil companies to test Venezuela’s sensitivity.”
The geopolitical waltz would only last so long. As oil prices dropped precipitously in the final quarter of 2014, the promised benefits of Petrocaribe appeared ever more precarious and evidently encouraged Guyana to take the temperature of the border issue. As Guyana entered into an agreement to exploit its offshore reserves, Maduro denounced the “imperial” offshore exploration as “a brutal campaign against Venezuela, financed by ExxonMobile.” As the Venezuelan economy floundered, Maduro pointed to the Geneva Agreement in an effort to stall Exxon-Mobil and defend the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Numerous commentaries on the proverbial oil war refer to a WikiLeaks cable that details the USAID/OTI program to “isolate Chavez internationally” and secure amenable market conditions for U.S. energy multinationals. But efforts to circumvent Venezuelan oil infrastructure through new methods of hydrocarbon exploitation represent a neglected feature of the isolation and destabilization program. An examination of the technical properties of the Deepwater Champion, an ultra-deepwater drillship designed by the Dutch engineering firm GustoMSC, sheds greater light on the new status quo. Per a Rigzone training brief, drillships such as the Deepwater Champion are “differentiated from other offshore drilling units by their easy mobility” and ability to function independent of external transport vessels, but remain susceptible “to being agitated by waves, wind and currents.” The ease with which extractive infrastructures traverse across sovereign territories and resource frontiers poses new possibilities for the exploitation of fossil fuels and places structural constraints on longstanding oil producers such as Venezuela. Not unlike the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the prospective drilling in Guyanese waters is indicative of an approach that privileges expediency and mobility over the stability of infrastructure and mitigation of risk.
The Bolivarian Revolution, by contrast, sprouted from a landscape of fossil fuel production largely confined to conventional zones and methods of extraction. The Chavez doctrine served a critical purpose during the revolution’s formative years, insulating national oil interests via fiscal incentives and strategic diplomacy in the region. Thus, the rekindling of the border dispute with Guyana does not merely signal the departure of an erstwhile partner from the orbit of the Bolivarian Republic, but the practical exhaustion of the Chavez doctrine as a blueprint for socialism. From its inception, the revolution was propped up by a commodity boom and an effective monopoly on the extractive capacity of the Eastern Venezuela Basin. Today, however, the Bolivarian Revolution faces a reality of an adverse market and competing sovereign claims to the hydrocarbons of the Essequibo.
Though Chavez identified as a Trotskyist, the ideal of “permanent revolution” was thwarted by the extractive demands of his socialist program. While windfall revenue funded social welfare initiatives that alleviated poverty, the Chavez administration balked at a reorganization of the economy away from a mixed model of foreign investment and private sector cooperation toward workers’ control of the oil and petrochemical industries. In lieu of deepening the revolution, the Bolivarian Republic now inflames the territorial dispute with Guyana to revive the dwindling promises of neoextractivismo. As Maduro rallies the masses behind the claim to the “zona en reclamación,” the charge of jingoism once again rings true. At the heart of the border issue is not the competing claims of two sovereign nations, but the impossibility of building a socialist revolution on an extractive capitalist foundation.
Commentaries that alternatively present the Venezuelan or Guyanese perspective on the border issue unfortunately neglect the broader issue of Euro-American corporate imperialism and its exploitation of colonial histories and accompanying legal precedent. Both camps structure their arguments on a definition of national sovereignty that offers little in the way of building international socialism. As the Trinidadian polymath C.L.R. James reminds us in his critique of Soviet state capitalism, “[I]f Russia could build Socialism by herself, then for Russian Socialists the world revolution was a matter not of necessity but of gratuitous benevolence.” The Bolivarian Republic finds itself at a similar juncture at which it can finance international solidarity with promises to forestall the debt burdens of its regional compatriots or attend to the limits of its market dependent model. As the circumstances that gave rise to Chavismo yield to an economic landscape characterized by low commodity prices, global economic slowdown, and the proliferation of new extractive technologies, the Bolivarian Revolution will adapt to this new order of things or collapse under its own contradictions.