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Venezuela's military may prompt a crisis with Guyana, but would struggle to occupy it

Michael Wilner, Antonio Maria Delgado and Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

Early this week, shortly after Nicolás Maduro held a sham referendum on whether Venezuela should annex the majority of neighboring Guyana, Presdient Biden’s top national security advisers ordered a classified assessment of Venezuelan troop movements on and around the border, a U.S. defense official said. Maduro seemed to be acting on what had initially been viewed in Washington as a domestic political ploy. He would soon establish a combatant command to oversee the territory, known as Guayana Esequiba, and the White House wanted to know how serious he was.

Multiple U.S. officials tell McClatchy and the Miami Herald they have yet to see the sort of activity along the border they would expect if Maduro intended to launch an imminent, full-scale invasion of the Essequibo, a region roughly the size of Florida.

But even if Maduro planned to do so, taking over and occupying such a vast jungle terrain would be a challenge for a Venezuelan military that, while strong on paper, has been gutted of recruits over poor pay and meager food rations.

Yet a crisis could still unfold far short of an invasion, U.S. officials say.

A simple operation deploying a small unit of Venezuelan armed forces could be enough to force a global response to an event that would widely be seen as a violation of Guyana’s sovereignty — yet another conflict over territorial integrity, this time prompted by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin as he conducts his own war of aggression in Ukraine and of China’s President Xi Jinping, who vows to impose rule over Taiwan by any means necessary.

Any armed conflict — large-scale or small — could be used by Maduro as a pretext to impose martial law at home ahead of an anticipated presidential election next year that, if free and fair, could end his reign. Maduro has faced international sanctions for years over his role in curbing Venezuelan democracy.


“The Venezuelan armed forces might have enough equipment to make some kind of show of force, but it really does not have the men for a serious effort,” said Manuel Cristopher Figuera, a retired major general in the Venezuelan army. “This is a farce — a perfect farce to declare martial law.”

The U.S. military conducted a military exercise in Guyana this week that a White House official referred to as “routine.” But a Guyanese official said the air operation, by U.S. special forces, was conducted in response to a request for military support from the United States by Guyana’s president, Ifraan Ali, ahead of Venezuela’s Dec. 3 referendum.

It was a display of U.S. support for a country that has few means to defend itself on its own — even if Venezuela’s forces are ill-equipped themselves.

“I’d be careful drawing too strong connective tissue between routine military operations that we do in the region and this particular issue,” John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council in the White House, told reporters at a press briefing on Thursday. “That said, as I said before, we recognize the sovereign territory of Guyana, and as we do with many nations — sovereign nations — in the region, we conduct operations and exercises as appropriate.”


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