BOGOTA, Colombia — President Nicolás Maduro ordered Venezuela’s armed forces to conduct defensive exercises in the Eastern Caribbean after the United Kingdom sent a warship toward Guyana’s territorial waters. The move comes as the South American neighbors dispute a large border region.
In a nationally televised address Thursday, Maduro said 6,000 Venezuelan troops — including air and naval forces — will conduct joint operations off the nation’s eastern coast near the border with Guyana.
Maduro described the impending arrival of the British ship HMS Trent to Guyana’s shores as a threat to his country. He argued the ship’s deployment violates a recent agreement between the South American nations.
“We believe in diplomacy, in dialogue and in peace, but no one is going to threaten Venezuela,” Maduro said in a room where he was accompanied by a dozen military commanders. “This is an unacceptable threat to any sovereign country in Latin America.”
Venezuela and Guyana are involved in a border dispute over the Essequibo, a sparsely populated region the size of Florida with vast oil deposits off its shores.
The region has been under Guyana’s control for decades. But in December, Venezuela relaunched its historical claim to the Essequibo through a referendum in which it asked voters in the country whether the Essequibo should be turned into a Venezuelan state.
As tensions over the region escalated, the leaders of both countries met in the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and signed an agreement that said they would solve their dispute through nonviolent means.
During the talks, however, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali said his nation reserved its right to work with its partners to ensure the defense of his country.
On Thursday, Guyanese officials described the visit of HMS Trent as a planned activity aimed at improving the nation’s defense capabilities and said the ship’s visit will continue as scheduled.
“Nothing that we do or have done is threatening Venezuela,” Guyana’s vice president, Bharrat Jagdeo, told reporters in the capital Georgetown.
HMS Trent is a patrol and rescue ship that recently helped intercept drug traffickers off the West Coast of Africa. It can accommodate up to 30 sailors and a contingent of 18 marines. The vessel is equipped with 30mm cannons and a landing pad for helicopters and drones.
The ship had been sent to Barbados in early December to intercept drug traffickers, but its mission was changed Dec. 24 when it was sent to Guyana. Authorities did not specify when it was expected to arrive off Guyana’s shores.
The U.K. Defence Ministry said the ship will conduct joint operations with Guyana’s defense forces.
The nation of 800,000 people has a small military that is made up of 3,000 soldiers, 200 sailors and four small patrol boats known as Barracudas.
Venezuela says it was the victim of a land theft conspiracy in 1899, when Guyana was a British colony and arbitrators from Britain, Russia and the United States decided the boundary. The U.S. represented Venezuela in part because the Venezuelan government had broken off diplomatic relations with Britain.
Venezuelan officials contend Americans and Europeans colluded to cheat their country out of the land. They also argue that an agreement among Venezuela, Britain and the colony of British Guiana signed in 1966 to resolve the dispute effectively nullified the original arbitration.
Guyana maintains the initial accord is legal and binding, and asked the United Nations’ top court in 2018 to rule it as such, but a decision is years away. The century-old dispute was recently reignited with the discovery of oil in Guyana.