Early this week, shortly after Nicolás Maduro held a sham referendum on whether Venezuela should annex the majority of neighboring Guyana, President 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, he’s calling 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, Irfaan 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.”
“We absolutely stand by our unwavering support for Guyana’s sovereignty,” he added.
Venezuela’s paper tiger
Venezuela’s border with Guyana, defined by an international tribunal in 1899, runs over 500 miles of rivers and watersheds from the Atlantic Ocean to a tri-point border at Mount Roraima in Brazil.
Far from being militarized, the border region is sparsely populated on either side and barely patrolled by a Venezuelan military that has suffered alongside the country’s economy in recent years.
On paper, the Venezuelan armed forces count more than 120,000 men among its ranks and possess roughly 600 armored vehicles and 200 main battle tanks, half of which are Soviet era T-72s. It also has 100 combat-capable planes and dozens of helicopters.
But Venezuelan officers, active and retired, told the Miami Herald that the country’s four military branches have been decimated in recent years by massive desertions. The Defense Ministry has been swamped by a wave of resignation requests from more than a quarter of its officer core, which are constantly turned down or placed on hold.
“We have had reports of battalion level units being shrunk down to about 95 men” — about a fifth of their regular size — “because they don’t have anyone to fill those positions,” a retired Venezuelan major said. “The actual operational capacity of the army is little more than a third.”
Officers consulted said they have not seen any evidence of a Venezuelan military buildup along the border, aside from a seasonal rotation of personnel.
While not a new phenomenon, mass desertions have increased during the past three years amid rapidly deteriorating living conditions for officers and professional troops, whose salaries are among the lowest in the hemisphere. Growing discontent among uniformed men has forced the top brass to grant troops personal free time from their duties to be able to obtain second jobs to make ends meet.
And an economic spiral, which has seen Venezuela’s gross domestic product plunge by 75%, has also severely impaired the operational status of the country’s military equipment. The air force, for example, has been forced to ground much of its fleet for lack of maintenance and parts.
In some cases, fighter jets are capable of flying but are missing missiles, or are carrying bombs with lapsed life expectancy, Figuera said.
Even if Maduro were to muster the men and equipment, a Venezuelan incursion into the Essequibo region would then have to traverse thick jungles and swampland.
There are no roads between the two countries. And while some of Venezuela’s armored vehicles do have amphibious capabilities, they would still be ill-fitted to cross through large swamps.
In a hypothetical armed conflict, Venezuela could deploy its navy — which has one frigate and patrol boats — to block Georgetown, the Guyanan capital, and enter the nearby Essequibo River, establishing a potential beachhead on the west bank, Figuera said.
But that beachhead would be isolated by land from the Venezuelan side, and would have a very precarious supply line, giving Venezuelan troops no other option than to stay near their boats.
The difficulties of the terrain and the army’s state of disrepair would make it very difficult for Venezuela to take military control of the vast region that it claims.
Experts say Caracas could flex its muscles with an attempt to blockade Georgetown, or even bomb the Guyanan capital. But sustaining a military presence in the bordering country would be a fare more ambitious challenge.
Guyana’s promise of allies
Despite Venezuela’s weaknesses, Guyana’s military by comparison is far weaker still.
With military strength between 4,000 and 5,000 troops, Guyana would find itself at a disadvantage. In Georgetown, officials worry abouot not just a physical incursion but also of an air assault on their military headquarters or a cyberattack that could disrupt communications.
“There’s no way Guyana can have a response, not even as a deterrence,” said Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith, a Guyana-born regional security expert.
Guyana, Griffith said, would need to rely “on partners and friends and supporters, diplomatically and militarily.”
A Venezuelan attack on Guyana could trigger Article 4 of the Regional Security System, an international security agreement among some Caribbean nations that Guyana joined last year, becoming its eighth member. That provision states that an armed attack against one member by a third state “is an armed attack against all” and would trigger a collective military response.
But Griffith said the security forces that are part of the military alliance, originally formed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, “are very small.”
Even Trinidad and Tobago, the largest military in the region with 10,000 enlisted personnel, wouldn’t be of much assistance.
Guyana is also a member of the 15-member Caribbean community known as CARICOM. But “the CARICOM military assets are no match for Venezuela,” said Anthony Bryan, co-founder of the Caribbean Policy Consortium and a former director of Institute of International Relations at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.
“Logistically, it would be difficult for them to come to the assistance of Guyana except in a supportive position,” Bryan said.
That leaves the United States.
Maduro’s threats come as relations between Guyana and the United States have strengthened, particularly under current Guyanese President Ifraan Ali. With Maduro’s threat hanging over the country, vice president Bharrat Jagdeo, who served as president from 1999 to 2011, recently traveled to Washington seeking stronger military cooperation.
Washington has increased security cooperation with the country after years of keeping it at arm’s length due to concerns about corruption in its security forces.
U.S. military assistance to Georgetown comes in several forms, including intelligence support. There are also military training exercises, such as the Tradewinds operations that were recently conducted in the country involving about 20 allied nations in the region.
“Guyana does not have its own intelligence capabilities and it needs to rely on the United States and other partners to provide assistance,” Griffith said.
The country has also begun to beef up its military assets, purchasing equipment from the United States and India. But more is needed, said Griffith, who points out that despite its large Atlantic coastline, Guyana does not have a major naval vessel.
“So the collaboration and cooperation and assistance has been there, and needs to be there,” he said.
In a statement, U.S. Southern Command said the Pentagon “has a strong defense relationship with the Guyanan Defense Forces.
“U.S. Southern Command’s enduring partnership with the GDF is important and highly valued,” the statement added, “and we are steadfastly committed to expanding and strengthening it in ways that are mutually beneficial to our countries and our people.”
Miami Herald data reporter Ana Claudia Chacin contributed to this story.