Leaders hold tense talks after Venezuela organised referendum to claim oil-rich territory that makes up two-thirds of Guyana.
Venezuela and Guyana have agreed not to resort to force to settle a territorial dispute over the oil-rich Essequibo region after a tense meeting between the two countries’ leaders in the Caribbean.
Guyanese President Irfaan Ali and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro agreed to “not threaten or use force against one another in any circumstances, including those consequential to any existing controversies between the two states” and to “refrain, whether by words or deeds, from escalating any conflict,” in an 11-point declaration that was read out at a press conference after the meeting.
The two men were unable to make progress in resolving the long-running dispute over the territory, however, with a joint commission composed of the foreign ministers of both countries and other officials asked to address the issue and report within three months.
No questions were allowed at the press conference.
Essequibo amounts to more than two-thirds of the territory of Guyana and is home to 125,000 of its 800,000 citizens.
Tension has been rising in recent weeks after Venezuela held a referendum earlier this month on whether to establish a Venezuelan state there in a move Guyana feared was a pretext for a land grab.
Venezuela insists Essequibo should be under its control because it was within its borders during the Spanish colonial period while Guyana says a border drawn by international arbitrators in 1899 means it is part of Guyana.
The hours-long meeting between Ali and Maduro took place at the main international airport in the eastern Caribbean island of St Vincent following mediation efforts by the regional groupings of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
The declaration noted the impasse between the two men, who clasped hands before their talks.
Guyana argues the controversy should be resolved by the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands while Venezuela says the court does not have jurisdiction.
Earlier in the day, Guyana’s government issued a statement saying that Essequibo was “not up for discussion, negotiation or deliberation”. Ali echoed those comments during a news conference he held during a break in his talks with Maduro.
“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 were 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 defence of our country,” he said.
Maduro 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”.
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that the United States was monitoring the situation closely. “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.”
Maduro has ordered state-owned companies to explore and exploit the oil, gas and mines in Essequibo. Both sides have put their militaries on alert.