The US military said Thursday that it would conduct flight operations in Guyana amid tensions between the Caribbean nation and its neighbor Venezuela over the disputed Guayana Esequiba region.
Guayana Esequiba is an oil-rich region that makes up about two-thirds of the territory of the state of Guyana, which gained independence from Britain in 1966. In 1899, an American-British tribunal ruled that the territory belonged to the UK, a position that was rejected by Venezuela.
Venezuela, the UK, and then-British Guiana reached a new agreement in 1966, known as the Geneva Agreement, to reach a mutually satisfactory solution to the dispute. The International Court of Justice opened a case into the dispute in 2018, but a decision is still expected to be years away.
Tensions have risen in recent years over the dispute as more oil discoveries in Guayana Esequiba continue to be made. The American energy giant ExxonMobil discovered massive oil reserves off the coast of Guyana in waters claimed by Venezuela and has been involved in a major offshore drilling project.
The dispute escalated this week as Venezuelans voted to create a new state in Guayana Esequiba in a referendum that was held on Sunday. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has since ordered the creation of a state, raising fears of potential military action, although the two sides have agreed to keep talking about the issue.
The US is backing Guyana in the dispute, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed in a phone call with Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali on Wednesday. According to the State Department, Blinken said the two sides should respect the 1899 ruling “unless, or until, the parties reach a new agreement, or a competent legal body decides otherwise.”
According to the US Embassy in Guyana, US Southern Command planned to conduct flights with the Guyanese military on Thursday. “This exercise builds upon routine engagement and operations to enhance (the) security partnership between the United States and Guyana and to strengthen regional cooperation,” the embassy said.
The US attempted to overthrow the Venezuelan government in 2019 by backing failed coup leader Juan Guaido against Maduro and imposing crippling economic sanctions on the country. The Biden administration recently eased some sanctions but is threatening to reimpose them.