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‘Maduro is playing with fire’: Venezuelans in South Florida condemn Guyana border dispute

When José Antonio Colina was a student in Venezuela in the 1980s, the school books depicted a large swath of neighboring Guyana as a “Zona en Reclamación” — zone in reclamation — the terminology the text books used to argue that the land actually belongs to Venezuela.

The area, called Guyana Essequibo, is a resource-rich jungle about the size of Florida. It makes up three-quarters of Guyana, and many Venezuelans grew up learning that it belonged to them, not to their neighboring country.

Decades have passed since Colina’s school days. But the centuries-old border dispute persists, and it recently escalated after Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro carried out a national vote that asked voters whether Venezuela should annex Guyana Essequibo. Maduro’s government claimed that 10 million Venezuelans voted and that 98% favored invading Guyana.

There are over 132,000 Venezuelans in Miami-Dade County, according to the U.S. Census. And many of them, like Colina, are grappling with the most recent developments of the border dispute. While many affirm their home country’s right to claim Guyana Essequibo, they vehemently oppose Maduro and believe that the Venezuelan leader is using the border conflict for his own benefit to manipulate the run-up to next year’s presidential election.

“It is a political scam carried out by Nicolás Maduro’s regime. His intention is not to even claim an area that belongs to us, it’s purely political interests trying to divert attention from the problems that Venezuela is experiencing... and to divert and possibly prevent the elections,” said Colina, who leads an organization of politically persecuted Venezuelans in South Florida called Venezolanos Perseguidos Políticos en el Exilio.

Colina, a former lieutenant in Venezuela’s national guard, said Maduro “Is playing with fire,” and that Venezuela does not have the capacity to face a military even as small as Guyana’s armed forces. Any kind of military action would isolate Venezuela from the international community even further, he added.

The Essequibo “belongs to us,” he said. “But if we really want to reach a solution we have to see it from a practical and realistic point of view. That is a territory that has been in dispute for more than 50 years. The population that is there does not even speak our language. We have to look for a mechanism that benefits both parties.”

Before the referendum took place Sunday, the United Nations International Court of Justice ordered Venezuela to not invade Essequibo. After the vote, Maduro created a military zone near the country’s border with Guyana and designated a general as the sole authority of Essequibo, where about 125,000 Guyanese live. The invasion threats have prompted concern from U.S. officials and sparked criticism and warnings from international observers.

“War is the greatest stupidity that human beings have invented. Unfortunately we are in this situation because a government that does not have any type of legitimacy is trying to have legitimacy through the exercise of sovereignty,” said José Hernández Contreras, a journalist and former diplomat at the OAS of opposition leader Juan Guaido who lives in Miami.

Beatrice Rangel, a business consultant in Miami Beach, believes that the latest escalation in the Essequibo conflict is happening because Maduro’s political power is weak and he wants to rally support for his government. Rangel told the Herald that Venezuela has a right to claim the Essequibo, but that it’s an antiquated and non-enforceable right that arises from a 19th century vision.

“When someone says this is mine, it is because they have possession of that thing. So the question is: Do Guatemalans have possession of Belize? Does Venezuela have possession of the Essequibo? The answer is no,” she said.

Rangel wants a solution that benefits both countries. She hopes that diplomatic negotiations could pave the way for a stronger economic future for both nations. She suggested that if the two nations collaborated they could become a “global aluminum production empire,” given Guyana’s a high volume of bauxite and Venezuela’s large iron deposits.

“They should come to a practical arrangement and see how by working together … they can achieve something better,” she said.

Wesley Kirton, the president of the Guyanese American Chamber of Commerce in Miami rejects that Guyana Essequibo belongs to Venezuela and said that the escalation of the threats from Venezuela is “an unfortunate development that threatens the security of the Caribbean and the hemisphere as a whole.”

Kirton urged Venezuela to obey the order from the international court, and said that Guyana views Venezuela as a neighbor and friend, and that his country has taken in thousands of migrants from Venezuela.

“Mr. Maduro is pushing this not only for his political survival but based on greed,” said Kirton, who added that the dispute threatens the many indigenous communities who live in the Essequibo. “We have a very high respect for our indigenous people and we want to see them live comfortably without any fear.”

Kirton said that South Florida’s Guyanese community has been holding virtual briefings to discuss the situation, and that businesses are fielding questions about whether it’s safe to keep doing business in Guyana or whether the supply chains and shipping will be affected.

“The Essequibo belongs to Guyana,” Kirton said. “There is no doubt about that and you will not find a single Guyanese that supports the claim by Venezuela, and even more so the reckless behavior of Mr. Maduro.”

Miami Herald data reporter Ana Claudia Chacin contributed to this story.