CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Tuesday directed the country’s state-owned companies to “immediately” begin to explore and exploit the oil, gas and mines in Guyana’s Essequibo region, a territory larger than Greece and rich in oil and minerals that Venezuela claims as its own.
The announcement came a day a day after Maduro got the victory he sought in a weekend referendum on whether to claim sovereignty over the region.
Maduro said he would “immediately” proceed “to grant operating licenses for the exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mines in the entire area of our Essequibo.” He also ordered the creation of local subsidiaries of Venezuelan public companies, including oil giant PDVSA and mining conglomerate Corporación Venezolana de Guayana.
It is not clear how the Maduro administration intends to implement the idea of exercising jurisdiction over the territory once it’s officially declared part of Venezuela through a law that is to be soon discussed by the National Assembly, which is controlled by the ruling party.
In addition to the announcement regarding the exploitation of resources in Essequibo, Maduro announced Tuesday the creation of a new Comprehensive Defense Operational Zone, Zodi in Spanish, for the disputed strip, similar to the special military commands that conduct operations in different regions of the country.
The 61,600-square-mile (159,500-square-kilometer) area accounts for two-thirds of Guyana. Yet, Venezuela has always considered Essequibo as its own because the region was within its boundaries during the Spanish colonial period, and it has long disputed the border decided by international arbitrators in 1899, when Guyana was still a British colony.
Venezuela’s commitment to pursue the territorial claim has fluctuated over the years. Its interest piqued again in 2015 when ExxonMobil announced it had found oil in commercial quantities off the Essequibo coast.
Guyana has denounced Venezuela’s actions and Sunday’s referendum as pretext to annex the land. It had appealed to the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ top court, which on Friday ordered Venezuela not to take any action to change the status quo until the panel can rule on the two countries’ competing claims, which could take years.
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