Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro points on a map to the border between Venezuela and Guyana, at the presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 8, 2015. (EPA/MIRAFLORES PRESS HANDOUT)

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is facing a staggering array of problems far too numerous and severe to list here. Things were already going badly before global oil prices tanked, so now they're a lot worse.

With Venezuelan crude down to about $50 a barrel, Maduro's government has been devouring its foreign currency reserves and plunging deeper into debt, though not fast enough to keep supermarkets stocked. Annual inflation is the highest in the world, and the country's largest bank note, 100 "Strong Bolivars," is now worth just 17 U.S. cents on the black market. The country's may soon run low on beer.

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It might come as something of a surprise, then, to see that the Venezuelan president's most pressing concern in recent days is not a shortage of milk, surgical supplies or contraceptives. It is a vigorous and noisy campaign to take control of a large swath of South American savannah and jungle, known as the Essequibo, that belongs to neighboring Guyana.

For the past several days, Maduro has been assuring Venezuelans, many of whom are busy queuing up for groceries and basic goods, that his government is working to achieve a "great victory" and take control of the disputed Essequibo, an area equal to two-thirds of Guyanese territory.

Possession of the Essequibo -- named for the big jungle river flowing through it -- was granted to Guyana, then a British colony, by an arbitration judge in 1899. Venezuela challenged the ruling as unfair in 1962, and the dispute has been quietly simmering ever since.

"We are going to take back what our grandparents left for us," Maduro told his country last week. He asked U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon to provide a new round of international arbitration, while promising "a great victory" over Guyana "by peaceful means."

Maduro has assigned a retired army colonel, Pompeyo Torrealba, to lead a newly formed government agency, the "Essequibo Rescue Office," whose plans include issuing 200,000 Venezuelan identification cards to the Guyanese living in the area.

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Torrealba said it would devise an advertising campaign for Guyanese families living in the jungle aimed at "approaching them, getting to know them, winning them over and earning their love."

Setting aside for a moment the matter of political and economic priorities, the attempt to take control of two-thirds of Guyana is a somewhat strange one in light of the hard-earned reputation of Maduro's political mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, as a big-hearted, tireless advocate for the world's poor.

After all, tiny Guyana is one of the most impoverished countries in South America, while Venezuela sits atop the world's largest proven oil reserves.

Guyana was seemingly intent on closing this petro-gap and cashing in on its geography when it signed an offshore drilling agreement with ExxonMobil. In May, the company announced a "significant find" 120 miles off the Guyanese coast adjacent to the disputed Essequibo.

The Venezuelan government, which had objected to the company's operation in the area, demanded that ExxonMobil leave. Maduro then issued a decree claiming Venezuelan control over the waters off the coast of the Essequibo and quite a bit beyond that. The decree left little more than a pitiful little slice of sea for Guyana itself.


The dispute has pushed tensions between the two countries to their highest point in decades, particularly as Maduro blasts Guyanese "aggression" and accuses President David Granger, who took office in May, of "provoking" his country, casting him as a lackey of foreign oil companies and U.S. imperialism.

It doesn't help that Venezuela has a long-running dispute with ExxonMobil as well, stemming from Chavez's nationalization of the company's properties in 2007. Other U.S. multinationals, like Chevron, continue to work in partnership with the Maduro government.

During the 14 years that Chavez was president, the competing Essequibo claims were largely smoothed over by generous oil subsidies to Guyana through Venezuela's Petrocaribe assistance program.

But Granger's election ended two decades of rule by the leftist party that was friendly with Chavez and Maduro. He has denounced Maduro's campaign as "obnoxious and oppressive," viewing it as a veiled military threat.

Addressing a summit of CARICOM Caribbean states earlier this month, Granger said "any state that systematically, cynically and sedulously seeks to repudiate solemn international agreements and to undermine the security and sovereignty of another state must be condemned."

The CARICOM group of nations, which includes some of the biggest recipients of Venezuelan oil largesse, sided last week with Guyana. They urged Maduro to withdraw his claim to Guyana's maritime claim.

But Maduro seems to have little incentive to dial back the nationalism. With an approval rating in the mid-20s and parliamentary elections scheduled for December, he may have found a useful distraction from unending bad news of economic meltdown. And Venezuela's opposition leaders aren't sticking up for Guyana either.

For more on the dispute -- and the questionable legal strategy of challenging 19th-century territorial judgments -- here's a useful history from the Caracas Chronicles blog.

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