Guyana, Venezuela presidents set to meet on border row

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his Guyanese counterpart, Irfaan Ali, will meet Thursday on their countries’ growing dispute over the oil-rich region of Essequibo, amid mounting international warnings against escalating the row.

The meeting will be held in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, according to the Caribbean country’s Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, who said Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had also been invited at both sides’ request.

Gonsalves, whose country currently chairs the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, said in a letter to Maduro and Ali that the meeting would be held under the auspices of that organization and another regional body, the Caribbean Community.

There is an “urgent need to de-escalate the conflict and institute an appropriate dialogue, face-to-face,” Gonsalves said.

“Both of you have concurred with this assessment in the quest of peaceful coexistence, the application and respect of international law, and the avoidance of the use or threats of force.”

Tension has soared over Essequibo, which has historically been controlled by Guyana, since Maduro’s government held a controversial referendum last weekend in which 95 percent of voters supported declaring Venezuela its rightful owner, according to official results.

The United States, Britain, Russia and South American countries have all urged de-escalation and a peaceful solution.

The United Nations Security Council held a closed-door meeting Friday on the spiraling dispute, which is also the subject of litigation before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Ali and Maduro voiced sharply conflicting views of the meeting.

Maduro, the hand-picked successor who took over from late Venezuelan socialist Hugo Chavez in 2013, announced the encounter on X, formerly Twitter, saying he would defend “Venezuela’s historic rights.”

“Once again, we will defeat lies, provocations and threats against our people. Our fatherland will prevail!” he wrote.

Ali, for his part, said Guyana remained “fully committed” to resolving the dispute via the ICJ, not a sit-down with Maduro.

“I am firm that the controversy is before the ICJ and it’s not for negotiations, and that will not change,” he told AFP.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yvan Gil said direct talks were useful, insisting that the dispute “will only be resolved through dialogue, mutual respect and the commitment to preserve the region as a zone of peace and free from interference.”

Guyana has administered Essequibo, which makes up more than two-thirds of its territory, for more than a century.

The decades-old dispute with Venezuela intensified after ExxonMobil discovered oil in Essequibo in 2015, helping give Guyana – population 800,000 – the world’s biggest crude reserves per capita.

Since last Sunday’s referendum, Maduro has started legal maneuvers to create a Venezuelan province in Essequibo and ordered the state oil company to issue licenses for extracting crude in the region.

The United States has announced joint military exercises with Guyana, which Venezuela condemned as a “provocation.”

The row has caused growing concern in South America, historically a relatively peaceful region.

On Thursday, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay issued a joint declaration calling for “both parties to negotiate to seek a peaceful solution.”

Lula’s office said he had spoken with Maduro by phone earlier Saturday and proposed CELAC set up talks with both sides.

Lula also warned Maduro against “unilateral measures that could escalate the situation,” it said.

Veteran leftist Lula has so far kept friendly ties with Maduro, inviting the socialist president to a South American summit in May even as other regional leaders criticized the Venezuelan government’s human rights record.

But the Essequibo dispute is rife with risk for Brazil, which has sent army reinforcements to its northern borders with Guyana and Venezuela amid the surge in tension.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro also warned the situation was potentially explosive.

“The biggest misfortune that could hit South America would be a war,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

“Reproducing a local version of the NATO/Russia conflict in the Amazon rainforest would just make us lose vital time, progress and life… Venezuela and Guyana need to de-escalate the conflict.”

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