Divided Venezuela finds common ground in Guyana dispute

An offshore oil platform and wells are silhouetted by the setting sun in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, U.S., on Thursday, July 15, 2010. Photographer: Derick E. Hingle
An offshore oil platform and wells are silhouetted by the setting sun in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, U.S., on Thursday, July 15, 2010. Photographer: Derick E. Hingle

The socialist government of Venezuela and its political opponents at home who have been starkly divided over the past two decades on the best path forward for the country, have suddenly united around a common theme: the century-old dispute with Guyana.

The neighboring countries are clashing over offshore oil development in the disputed area as Exxon Mobil Corp ramps up activity and after the Venezuelan Navy interrupted the path of a vessel for seismic surveying on Dec. 22.

While the U.S. and countries of the Caribbean have sided with Guyana in the most recent incident, the Venezuelan government and the opposition-led National Assembly, which was essentially decreed useless by President Nicolas Maduro, are united in their message to defend national sovereignty and protect natural resources in the area.

“Exxon Mobil must know that hiring a seismic exploration vessel to operate in waters subject to an international claim is a provocation and a high-risk operation”, the National Assembly’s Commission for the Defense of the Essequibo said in a statement sent to Bloomberg.

Exxon said Dec. 26 that development work off the Guyanese coast will continue after the incident halted efforts to map the sea floor. Guyana is one of Exxon’s biggest projects for the next decade and may produce 750,000 barrels of oil a day by 2025, about 20 percent of the oil giant’s current output. All its Guyanese discoveries so far have been made in the Stabroek block, a vast area covering 6.6 million acres, part of which is near Venezuelan territory.

Even pollster and political analyst Luis Vicente Leon, of Caracas-based Datanalisis, weighed in on his social media account.

“The action of the Navy defending national sovereignty in Venezuelan waters is correct. All Venezuelans, without distinction of political position, must support it and send a clear message of unity in the defense of our territory,” Leon wrote on Twitter.

Guyana awarded Exxon Mobil a contract in 2015 to develop reserves believed to hold as much as 5 billion barrels of oil. Once significant output begins in Guyana it may rival Venezuela and Mexico as major Latin American oil producers.

To be sure, Venezuela is in no condition to actually develop new offshore oil areas. Output at home has slid to about 1.2 million barrels a day from more than 3 million barrels just five years ago. State-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA is in default on part of its international debt and has struggled to partner with major new international partners in recent years due to previous expropriations and unfavorable macroeconomic conditions.

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