Maduro’s iron fist: Why would Venezuela risk an all-out war?

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After three decades of US-dominated ‘new world order’, Washington could be facing a redrawing of borders in its own backyard

The South American nation of Venezuela has purportedly voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to affirm its territorial claim to part of the neighboring nation of Guyana.

Caracas, which was recently subject to an unsuccessful American regime change attempt to topple its leader Nicholas Maduro, argues the oil reach territory known as the Essequibo region was its own historically, but had it stolen away by the British Empire. Such grievances may be found all over the world.

While an invasion of the region remains unlikely at this point, given the role of regional power Brazil and obvious opposition from the nearby US, it is a telling sign about the world today that Venezuela feels it can viably affirm its claims like that. Only a few years ago, the US imposed crippling sanctions on the country and appointed Juan Guaido as an “interim president.” Where is Guaido now? He’s a political exile who rode on a failed dream and eventually joined the scrapheap of puppets used, abused and discarded as Washington’s political preferences shift – the likely looming fate of Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky.

But more to the point, it is an affirmation that the US-led world order is fragmenting and that American power is declining. This is paving the way for other countries to reshape the international order to address what are deemed to be historic grievances or injustices. The weakening of the unipolar political order’s ability to assert its authority presents a window for overt challenges to the status quo for nations that were previously unable to do so.

In 1990, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein attempted to do the same, but massively miscalculated the shift towards American unipolar hegemony at the end of the Cold War, believing Washington did not have the will to fight. Seeking to rectify the perceived partition of Iraq by the British Empire and the creation of the Sheikdom of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein invaded and attempted to annex the Gulf State. The US and its allies hit back with a powerful response, and George H.W. Bush famously proclaimed the objective of creating a “new world order.” His message was essentially that American hegemony was here, and that the US would now reshape the world on its own terms.

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro shows a map of the country, which includes the ‘Guyana Esequiba’ province. Venezuela adds disputed oil-rich region to its map

That message was backed by the overwhelming use of military force, which crushed Saddam’s forces, opening the way to decades of unopposed US-led regime changes and wars, including in Iraq again. However, within those passing decades the world has changed. The US is no longer the only geopolitical force in town and the distribution of power has diversified. New actors, such as a resurgent Russia, China, India, and Iran, among others, have changed the geopolitical landscape towards multipolarity and because of this, other states may now find political space to make their own moves without suffering the same fate as Saddam Hussein.

The two wars of 2022-2023 have been instrumental in changing this. First of all, the US and its allies have not been able to muster the political will to defeat Russia in Ukraine or, as they had assumed, even crush the economy of the Russian Federation. Second, America’s support of Israel and its attempts to squeeze Iran have provoked a war in Gaza, with Hamas successfully sensing an opportunity to lure Israel into a destructive conflict which will crater its credibility and global standing for generations. As the US has become distracted by the emerging crises and seemingly unable to resolve them, Venezuela thus sees an opportunity to strengthen its hand by reaffirming its territorial claims over Guyana as a nationalism-driven bargaining chip.

Venezuela is not a major military power and its geographic location means that an attempt to forcibly occupy the Essequibo would be defeated, as the US is on its doorstep and would do everything it takes to crush hostile states in the western hemisphere. However, Washington’s failed regime change, combined with its need to negotiate sanctions relief due to the impact on global oil markets, mean its own hand against Caracas has shrunk, and the US is not in a position to crush Venezuela as of present. Even without the military dynamic, an extended territorial claim gives a country diplomatic leverage that it can use to extract concessions and assert its authority, just like China in the South China Sea, over Taiwan, or Russia incorporating a number of Ukrainian oblasts into its own territory. All these are part of a long list of historic problems which the given states have been unable to address before, held back by American hegemony, but we now live in a different world and because of that, the political map as we know it is changing.

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