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Venezuela says it's moving ahead with plans to take over territory in Guyana

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Venezuela claims to be moving ahead with plans to take over a huge oil-rich territory in neighboring Guyana. The threats have drawn international concern. The U.S. announced joint military flight drills there. Brazil is reinforcing its northern border. And the U.N. Security Council is meeting about it today. John Otis reports.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: For more than a century, Venezuela and its much smaller neighbor, Guyana, have bickered over where their borders should lie. At stake is a jungle region called Essequibo that makes up two-thirds of Guyana's territory.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER FLYING)

OTIS: To reassert Guyana's claim to this land, President Irfaan Ali, along with Guyanese military officers, recently toured in a helicopter. Then they raised their country's red, gold and green flag, to which they pledged allegiance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: I pledge myself to always...

OTIS: The dispute over Essequibo was resolved in Guyana's favor by an international tribunal in 1899, but Venezuela rejected the decision. And ever since huge offshore oil deposits were discovered in Guyana in 2015, Venezuela has pressed its claim to the territory. The matter is now before the U.N.'s International Court of Justice. However, Venezuela rejects the court's jurisdiction, and last Sunday, it went ahead with a referendum in which voters approved a plan to annex Essequibo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Citing the results, Nicolas Maduro Venezuela's authoritarian leader, went on TV to propose a law making Essequibo the nation's 24th state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Then Maduro unveiled an official map with Essequibo now affixed to Venezuela. Finally, he said, foreign oil companies in Essequibo have three months to get out so that Venezuela's state oil company can move in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Guyana had better realize that by hook or by crook, we're going to settle this," Maduro warned. However, all of this may be just political theater. Maduro is deeply unpopular at home. Many Venezuela watchers say his bellicose statements are designed to drum up nationalist fervor ahead of his bid to win another term in the country's presidential election next year. But Mark Kirton, a political analyst in Georgetown, Guyana's capital, doesn't rule out some kind of military intervention by Venezuela.

MARK KIRTON: When governments are at its lowest, they become unpredictable. There's a concern because we see this nationally as an existential threat.

OTIS: Over the years, there have been border skirmishes. And shortly after Guyana gained independence from Great Britain in 1966, Venezuelan troops took over Guyana's half of an island on a jungle river that the two countries shared. Relations used to be better. Before striking oil, Guyana received low-cost petroleum from Venezuela. Over the past decade, as Venezuela's democracy and economy have crumbled, nearly 30,000 Venezuelans have migrated to Guyana.

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GERRY GOUVEIA: We are extending a hand of love and friendship to the people who are coming to Guyana. They are in our hospitals and our schools, and we are working together as brothers and sisters.

OTIS: That's Gerry Gouveia, Guyana's national security adviser, in a TV interview. He said that threatening to swallow up most of Guyana is no way to repay his country for its hospitality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOUVEIA: The Venezuelan government is being very aggressive. They are behaving like a neighborhood bully.

OTIS: As the conflict escalates, a patriotic song from the 1970s has become the soundtrack for Guyana's fight to defend its territory. It's called "Not A Blade Of Grass."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOT A BLADE OF GRASS")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTISTS: (Singing) Not a blade of grass.

OTIS: For NPR News, I'm John Otis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.