Venezuela (argusmedia)- Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro ordered state prosecutors to lodge treason charges against opposition leader Juan Guaido for allegedly agreeing to relinquish Venezuela’s century-old territorial claim to the Essequibo region of neighbouring Guyana.
Maduro’s order, which was swiftly followed up by the announcement of an investigation by attorney general Tarek William Saab, ratchets up the stakes in Venezuela’s political crisis, just as Guyana is about to debut as an oil producer from offshore acreage in the disputed territory.
ExxonMobil plans to produce 120,000 b/d of crude starting in March 2020 from the Stabroek block, rising to 750,000 b/d in 2025, a volume that nearly matches Venezuela’s shrunken output.
The territorial dispute is considered a legacy of British colonialism. Most Venezuelans of all political stripes support the country’s historical claim.
In a fiery speech on state-run television Thursday night, Maduro says the government has evidence of “how the treasonous bandit Juan Guaido is negotiating to give up the Essequibo in exchange for the (UK’s) political support for his phantasmagorical and pretentiously farcical government.”
Guaido, who presides the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared an interim presidency in January 2019, prompting the US and dozens of other countries to withdraw recognition of Maduro in his favor.
“Those who seek to weaken Venezuela, who seek to impose a pro-imperialist government and weaken the Bolivarian armed forces have but a single motive, which is to seize the Essequibo, seize Venezuela’s oil, seize the Gulf of Venezuela and split the country into 20 pieces,” Maduro said. “The attorney general must act expeditiously because the crime is treason against the fatherland.”
Saab “already is reviewing the matter to determine how best to proceed against Guaido, whether it should be handled by civilian or military prosecutors and courts,” an official in Saab’s office said, asserting that he could be arrested soon because he was already stripped of his parliamentary immunity.
Saab is among dozens of Venezuelan officials targeted by US sanctions.
The government-controlled National Constituent Assembly and Supreme Court voted to strip Guaido of his parliamentary immunity in April. While other opposition figures have been detained since then, Guaido has so far remained free.
Guaido has warned that if he is detained, his domestic and international supporters would react. But the White House has repeatedly signaled that it is not prone to military action in Venezuela, despite its outspoken support for Guaido’s interim administration and a raft of sanctions.
Guaido is holding a public rally today in the Lecheria district of Puerto La Cruz, site of state-owned oil company PdV’s stalled 190,000 b/d Puerto La Cruz refinery and the Guaraguao oil terminal. He has frequently led such rallies in Venezuelan cities since July as the huge crowds that initially responded to his calls for nationwide demonstrations have dwindled.
A senior official of Guaido’s Voluntad Popular party in Caracas denied that he agreed to give up the Essequibo claim in exchange for the UK’s support in the period before Guaido declared his interim presidency.
“Maduro is lying and inventing fake crimes to find ways to jail President Guaido illegally,” the party official said. “President Guaido’s position always has been that the Essequibo region historically belongs to Venezuela.”
Another official close to Guaido said yesterday that Maduro’s late predecessor Hugo Chavez effectively abdicated the claim in exchange for Guyana’s political support under Venezuela’s PetroCaribe subsidised oil supply programme for neighbouring countries.
Guaido’s putative foreign minister Julio Borges, who is based on Bogota, blamed Maduro’s government of “giving away the Essequibo” and not defending the country’s interests at the International Court of Justice.
Maduro’s accusation against Guaido is intended to divert attention from the government’s support for Colombian militants hiding in Venezuelan territory, Borges added.
Maduro’s assertion that Guaido made a treasonous territorial deal with London is based on an audio tape that was released on social media yesterday by executive vice president Delcy Rodriguez.
Rodriguez claimed yesterday that the tape captures the voice of Vanessa Neumann, Guaido’s UK envoy, discussing the Essequibo issue with opposition adviser Manuel Avendaño, before Guaido declared himself president on 23 January. In the recording, Neumann is alleged to say that after speaking with officials in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, she recommends that the opposition “drop the topic” of Venezuela’s claim to the Essequibo in order to secure London’s political support.
Argus could not confirm the validity of the tape. Neither the UK nor Neumann has commented. Guyana’s government has not commented either.
Saab says his office is also investigating Avendano and Neumann.
“We are warning of the danger for the Republic, the fact that people unknown in the country, based abroad and that work for other governments, have the licence of an inexistent government to negotiate out resources and assets,” Saab said.
He also announced that Venezuelan navy units seized Guyana-flagged vessel Wanderer allegedly smuggling diesel hidden in 12 ballast tanks. Smuggling is commonplace on Venezuela’s borders.
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