Guyanese President Irfaan Ali speaks during a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not in frame) in Georgetown, Guyana on July 6, 2023. Credit - Keno George—AFP/Getty Images
Tensions between Venezuela and Guyana continue to escalate after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro ordered the country's oil companies to issue extraction licenses in oil-rich Essequibo, a region in neighboring Guyana. The longstanding dispute over the region has been reginited, emboldened by the placement of armed Venezuelan troops at the border.
On Sunday, more than 95% of Venezuelan voters approved a referendum claiming ownership over land—which makes up more than two-thirds of Guyana—with plans to create a new state in the region, though some reports say that voters largely shunned the vote. On Tuesday, Maduro, who is trying to rename the territory Guayana Esequiba, debuted a new map of Venezuela that included the disputed region.
“We want the peaceful rescue of the Guayana Esequiba,” said Maduro, who also demanded that Guyanese companies working in the territory leave within three months. “Our Guayana Esequiba has been de facto occupied by the British Empire and its heirs and they have destroyed the area."
In an address to the nation on Tuesday, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali called the move an “existential threat.”
“This is a direct threat to Guyana’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence,” he said.
In the midst of this tension, a helicopter containing Guyanese military officials went missing near the country’s border with Venezuela on Wednesday, sparking a search party and rescue mission.
Here’s everything you need to know.
What happened to the helicopter?
The crash site of a Guyanese helicopter that went missing near the country’s border with Venezuela on Wednesday morning (local time) was located within 24 hours.
The Guyana Defence Force (GDF) said on Thursday at 11 a.m. that the crash site had been “positively identified” and the aircraft was also spotted. “Search and rescue teams have also reported positive signs of life on the scene,” the GDF said in a statement. “Troops are being rappelled to the exact site location. Further updates will be provided as the situation unfolds."
The helicopter—carrying two crew members and five Guyanese military officials—vanished during an inspection of troops guarding a contested border that Venezuela claims as its territory. Authorities said dire weather conditions likely contributed to the disappearance, rather than hostile fire from Venezuela.
The Guyana Defence Force lost contact with the Bell 412 EPI aircraft after it departed from a fuel stop in western Guyana, Army Chief Brigadier General Omar Khan said, according to the Associated Press. The aircraft was flying over mountainous areas about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Guyana’s border with Venezuela when contact was lost after the aircraft sent an Emergency Locator Transmitter signal at 11.20 a.m., local time.
Khan stated there was no sign of foul play when search efforts for the aircraft were still ongoing.
“We do not have any information suggesting that there was any flight by Venezuelan aircraft in that area,” Khan said. “Speculation is not what I want to go into. Our priority is to save the lives of our officers and ranks.”
TIME reached out to the GDF for further information.
Why is the Essequibo territory disputed?
Venezuela has long sought to control Essequibo. Disputes stretch back to 1841, when the Venezuelan government alleged that, in its acquisition of British Guiana (now Guyana) from the Netherlands, the British had encroached on Venezuelan territory. In 1899, the border was decided by an international Tribunal of Arbitration and the region has remained under control of British Guiana and now Guyana for over a century.
In 2015, the discovery of oil off of Essequibo’s coast revived the territory dispute over the 160,000 square km (61,776 square miles) region. The region holds strong economic prospects. Guyana’s fast-growing economy is largely driven by gas and oil. For Venezuela, which has faced hyperinflation, international sanctions, and economic crises in recent years, a revival of the country’s oil industry—coupled with a recent ease in U.S. sanctions—could help stabilize the economy.
What happens next?
Venezuela’s decision will likely be met with strong international resistance. The case is currently before the United Nation’s top court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), though a formal ruling on the disagreement could take years. Last week, the IJC banned Venezuela from taking any action in the region, though Maduro has said the court does not have authority to rule on the dispute.
Ahead of Sunday’s referendum, Brazil’s top foreign policy advisor Celso Amorim urged Venezuela to avoid the use of force or threat over the border region. "Now there are new facts that are still more worrisome. We'll not fail to transmit our concerns especially in relation to the policy of no use of force," Amorim told Reuters.
On Thursday, the U.S. conducted military drills in Guyana. "In collaboration with the Guyana Defense Force, the U.S. Southern Command will conduct flight operations within Guyana on December 7," the U.S. Embassy in Guyana said in a statement.
The embassy noted that the flight exercise "builds upon routine engagement and operations to enhance security partnership" between the U.S. and Guyana, and is meant to "strengthen regional cooperation."
President Ali told CBS in a Dec. 5 interview that he has reached out to leaders across the globe— including the U.S., India, and Cuba. “Our first line of defense is diplomacy,” he said.
In his address, President Ali assured investors that they had nothing to fear, and said he has already spoken to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and that the matter would be reported to the ICJ and U.N. Security Council.
“The Guyana Defense Force is on high alert …” he said. “Venezuela has clearly declared itself an outlaw nation.”
On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy Georgetown in Guyana announced in a statement that the U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) will conduct flight operations in the country as a show of cooperation between the two nations. “This exercise builds upon routine engagement and operations to enhance security partnership between the United States and Guyana, and to strengthen regional cooperation,” the statement read.
USSOUTHCOM will also continue to collaborate on additional areas of security including disaster preparedness, aerial and maritime security, and countering transnational criminal organizations.