Venezuela’s Terribly Slippery Sovereignty

Almost unnoticed in the current crisis of who is the real sovereign of Venezuela is that national maps fail to show the remove of sovereign power from territorial bounds. Even as blockades obstruct borders, closing points of entry and ports from entering Venezuela, the pressure that push the Venezuelan people into dire economic straits underlie the map of its population, lying deep, deep within the ground beneath their feet. The ties of this underground offshore sovereignty, lying deep in oil deposits located in sandy regions or in sandstone basins, suggest the scale of redrawing sovereignty in an age of globalization–when the nature of what lies offshore can becomes a rational for globalized conflict.

The precarious claims of petrosovereignty are hard to map, but as the reserves in the Orinoco Basin and offshore on the continental shelf are leveraged against a global energy market, the real sovereignty of Venezuela–and the tensions manifested on Venezuela’s national boundaries–have become a touchstone and trigger point of global attention as the nation’s huge oil reserves held by Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PdVSA) have made the legitimacy of the nation’s Presidential election a topic of global divides.

The infographic that has gained such wide circulation in differing forms transposes the red/blue divide of the election of Venezuela’s President, as I noted in an earlier post, on a global map, in ways that barely skim the surface in suggesting the truly global consequences in which the election is understood as less by geopolitics–the ostensible reason for America’s increasing attention to its results, according to John Bolton, in a policy that extends back to the Monroe Doctrine, of preserving democracy’s expanse across our own hemisphere, but global energy markets.

The Venezuelan tragedy is local, but crises of immigration, economy, and public health seems undergirded by the corollaries of globalization–and how globalization both erases boundaries, and puts pressures on defining them, and invests huge significance on defining the “boundary” even if it has become something of an empty fetish in maps. If oil and gas were made central to Venezuelan sovereignty by Simon Bolivar, it is increasingly linked to global webs of oil exports and ties of international commerce–visible in the petroleum tankers marked by red dots in a visualization of global shipping routes–that have refracted and become a basis to interpret the question of Venezuela’s sovereignty, and in which the future of its economy and the future of its sovereignty are unavoidably entangled and enmeshed.

 Red dots are oil rigs in interactive map, courtesy UCL Energy Institute/Map: KILN

For the crisis that is unfolding against the economic backdrop of a precipitous drop of wages, goods, and basic human and health services suggests one tied to ripples in a global energy market. For as much as Venezuelan sovereignty was long based in the “bituminous belt” of the Orinoco Basin, whose expanse exceeds the oil in all of Saudi Arabia–

–located in the Eastern Venezuela Basin in the Orinoco Belt, surveyed as recently as 2010 by USGS as the Venezuelan government of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez took bids from Chevron and others to help finance exploration projects in the Orinoco Belt, seat of the world’s largest reserves, in a basin extending quite far offshore, in quite dense jungle.

USGS, 2010

Venezuela has long seen its petroleum sovereignty as the source of its regional independence, and of needed cash influx from multi-national corporations with whom its nationalized Petroleos de Venezuela SA–PdVSA–undertakes strategic partnerships, including Exxon and Gazprom (Russia), Sincor (China), and Belarusneft, as American multinationals were pushed out of the heavy oil-rich Orinoco Valley during the Chávez regime. The evolution of multiple “strategic alliances” in mining and oil and gas speculation with over a hundred and fifty companies from thirty-five nations led to an expansion of foreign involvement in oil extraction and gold and mineral mining that has created a lamination over the region–

–that provides a complex lens to examine the refraction of its sovereign status, and the global geostrategic importance of the region to the globalized world.

Venezuela’s sovereignty is viewed as so closely tied to global energy markets that invocation of hemispheric dominance and the American “Monroe doctrine” truly seem only so much lip service–if it weren’t for the huge access to oil reserves that the sovereignty of Venezuela will determine who has access to these reserves. And much as the earliest mapping of the same region of South America combined the rich natural hydrogeography of the curving river basin that snaked through the territory with missions who had colonized the land, to convert its inhabitants, in the region of Granada–note the jesuit presence above the equatorial line–

Libarary of Congress, Map of the Province and Missions of the Company of Jesus in the New Kingdom of Granada

–the new presence on the Orinoco Basin are transnational oil companies, and repossession of their extractive wealth has provided a basis for not only nationalism, but Although their stewardship of the delicate ecosystem of the Orinoco may be doubted, as charges of a crude oil spill in the region that would be so disastrous to its ecosystem has created a specter of ecological disaster for several years that PdVSA has steadfastly denied, despite the threats of accelerated deforestation, pollution, and extinction that mining and oil accidents portend in the Guyana highlands: Maduro has claimed mining and oil extraction are now “environmentally friendly,” but satellite images have shown the extent of deforestation into once-protected areas. Little of the protected regions are actually protected as the economy has fallen into free-fall and pressure to extract gold from the region brought increasing use of mercury in mineral mills, despite a Presidential ban, and the erosion of legal enforcement on workers in the region. Although PdVSA has asserted that leaking of over 100,000 barrels of oil from local pipelines did not enter the Orinoco, but was contained in the Anzoategui province in 2016, the extent of environmental devastation may only be understood in future years across the “Strategic Mining Belt” south of the Orinoco, where the Orinoco’s major watersheds lie, where gold, iron, copper, and bauxite feed the cash reserves of the government as well as oil.

Indeed, as we consider

Virginia Behm, ESRI Story Map: The Orinoco Mineral Arc and Mega-Mining in the Amazon

In an age when we increasingly form interactive maps in terms of the information we desire at the moment–and the needs that this information can provide–perhaps Trump is the sort of executive we deserve, framing information by infographics he can grasp on demand, rather than motivated by universal ideals. After the Venezuelan “economic miracle” grew by oil from 2004-2008, Maduro had declared his own state of emergency in Venezuela, back in 2016, when American intelligence predicted his time in office was only a matter of time, as inflation neared 180% and GDP fell to levels before 2004. But increasing exports to China and Russia sent a lifeline, despite shrinking foreign exchange reserves, of which Trump and Bolton are no doubt extremely attentive observers–even before PdVSA moved its European offices to Moscow in early March.

While cast to reach 100,000%, the peaking of vertiginous levels of hyperinflation near 41,838% led economic data to be closed to the public, as all revenue sources dwindle or vanish, and all foreign aid is refused by the Maduro government, as all question of a coup increasingly uncertain as most of the country is living in poverty, and a fifth of PdVSA is laid off–raising questions about the fate of extractive industries and the continued safety of existing oil reserves that are inseparable from state sovereignty.

Venezuela’s sovereign wealth extends globally, if it is located deep underground. But the long-cultivated dependence of the United States, where heavy crude flows to three refineries, which supply over 5,000 retail stations in twenty seven states, has created a question of linked economies which our ADD-afflicted President is now doubt attentive: CITGO plants along the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard run against according independence to sovereign state in a globalized economy–a tie that President Trump would want to keep alive, and indeed that the impact of a sudden shock an absence of oil flowing in its nine pipelines would create.

The flows of oil have blurred Venezuelan sovereignty, and allegedly led Donald Trump to ask advisors repeatedly why American couldn’t invade the nation in August, 2017, stunning former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Advisor Clapper, as American sanctions against the nation were discussed, and then again to float the question with Latin American leaders, including the President of Colombia, after addressing the U.N.’s General Assembly, to make sure none wanted to oust Maduro as President. Global energy supplies have created a lens by which the “legitimacy” of Venezuela’s government and Presidency is questioned that has overriden constitutional practices sanctioned by Venezuelan law.

The crisis of immigration on our southern border notwithstanding, the fear of a crisis in oil important have encouraged the United States to invoke the arrival of a “crisis situation” in Venezuelan internal politics, that allows action outside the rule of established Venezuelan law of due process Trump’s eagerness to recognize Guaidó as “interim President of Venezuela” on January 23, shortly after Maduro assume the and declaration, before any other nation, of readiness to use “the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy,” as he encouraged other governments to follow suit. As Bolton works to distill Presidential Daily Briefings on global intelligence into a form that is more amenable to his chief executive–“big points and, wherever possible, graphics,” as James Clapper put it–energy markets are the basic map on which he seems to be informing himself about global politics. Mike Pompeo noted that President Trump is said to “dig deeper” into his President’s Daily Briefing about Venezuela to assess the “real layout” of “what was really taking place” there–who had the money? where was the debt?  who stood to loose and gain?–led to open questioning of the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro.

At a time when 8.36 million barrels of heavy crude managed by PdVSA–the state-owned oil and gas conglomerate, Petroleos de Venezuela SA–which is worth half a billion American dollars lay off in tankers nation’s shoreline, in national waters, ready to ship to refineries to be processed by Chevron, Valero Energy Corp. and Rosneft, but with no place to ship the heavy oil, the local and global seem to intersect in globalized energy markets.

Tankers Holding Venezuelan Oil off Venezuela’s shoreline

As Clapper remembered Trump’s preference in Daily Briefings for charts and data visualizations quite early on, the distilling of the Presidential Daily Briefings by John Bolton into America’s bottom-line interests may compel re-examination of the place of the nation in a global energy market, and his sense of the value of the region’s geography to American national interests. Mike Pompeo, current secretary of state, has similarly described the need to reduce global conflict to the bottom-line of America’s economic interests for Trump, given his dislike for distilling the PDB to American interests, the Venezuelan crisis may more easily be understood by infographics or “mapped” as a global calculus of oil exports, rather than a defense of democratic principles. Trump has increasingly asked, Pompeo remembered, with interest for “more clarity” on financial issues–“Who had the money, where was the debt, what was the timing of that?”–aware, as the self-proclaimed “King of Debt,” of how debt, too, structures sovereignty, and deeply aware of the US$60 billion in foreign debt the nation carried–a massive amount that has grown almost six-fold in recent years, as oil exports from the nation increasingly grow, and Russia and China invested increasing sums in its oil exports as the debt grew.

Of public sector debt above $184.5 billion, $60 billion is foreign debt, though smaller numbers are claimed by the Venezuelan Central Bank 

–no doubt fascinated that the submerged collateral of such huge oil and gas deposits allowed the debt to grow to unprecedented height, as the exodus of refugees leaving Venezuela’s borders grew. Indeed, we focus on the fate of refugees, and cross-border flows, as a humanitarian crisis, but on which we focus more than the flow of extracted minerals, oil, and gas that have spread out to the world, and the arrival of capital from global sources as energy exports grow.

The sovereignty of the state was long tied to the concentration of oil and gas fields in sedimentary basins of northern Venezuela and South America–and which are the understory of the global attention to results of the election. As much as they are rooted in ideological debates of socialism and free market advocates, one needs to made sense of what “what was really taking place” in much of the Eastern Venezuela Basin and Columbus Basin to parse the deep interest in Venezuela’s sovereignty–and indeed to drill down, literally, into what Venezuelan sovereignty meant for the United States.

For the protection of those reserves led U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo-former director of the CIA–to try to entice Venezuela’s own armed forces to remove Maduro as President on January 28, 2019, as Trump helped assemble hemispheric powers to deny Maduro’s legitimacy. And it has led Donald Trump to advocate gunboat diplomacy by asking aides about benefits of a “military option” they openly called analogous to the 1989 Invasion of Panama when 9,000 troops toppled dictator Manuel Noriega, with 12,000 military already stationed in the nation, after Noriega had annulled a popular election, denying foreign sovereignty in the Panama Canal Zone with little military resistance of Panamanian Defense Forces. If America seeks to achieve a similar shift of sovereignty, hoping to echo the use of military force to topple Noriega–years after he was installed as leader of Panama to stop a feared spread of Communism in 1970—due to charges of Cuban collaboration, rather than money laundering and long involvement in the drug trade, such arrogant denial of sovereignty of other states in the hemisphere would not be so lopsided an engagement of force, or so smooth.

“Soberana” or “sovereign” is somewhat ironically the now-obsolete brand-name for a beer popular in Panama, now updated, which hung from the store-front of a Panama street American forces occupied back in 1989–

–the questions of the legitimacy of Venezuelan sovereignty are deeply intertwined with the offshore drilling rights that American oil companies are eager to acquire–or repossess–and underlie the denials of the legitimate sovereignty of elected leader Nicolás Maduro. The powerful evocation of the map

The American demonization of Mauro as military dictator erases the basis of Venezuelan sovereignty and a patrimony of petroleum, from Bolivarian models of sovereign economic independence; if oil is the source of 95% of the currency provided to the government, and was long seen as a gift from God to the Venezuelan independence at the heart of Socialist prosperity–

–the ties between the oil company and oil extraction and the nation grew hen Maduro declared personal leadership of PDVSA before the National Assembly in January, 2019, on the eve of his country’s assumption of OPEC presidency, as General Manuel Quevedo–a man without oil industry experience but a close Maduro military ally from the National Guard–assumes presidency of the global cartel OPEC, with ambitions of using OPEC to affirm Maduro’s swearing in as President, and his status as a defender of retro-sovereignty as counter-weight to the United States on a global stage–as the leader of sustaining the global prices of oil, offsetting the fall in prices with the increased production of shale-derived oil in the United States from 2014 that had caused a problem for Venezuela’s national wealth, and removing oil from the hegemony of dollar prices by cryptocurrencies as Venezuela’s own oil and mineral-backed Petro,

as well as by tying them to Chinese Yuan, in the face of growing US sanctions that Trump announced as Maduro heralded the digital currency as a way to affirm his nation’s “monetary sovereignty, to make [global] financial transactions, and overcome the financial blockade” imposed by the United States on investors, which led Trump to impose further sanctions on electronic transfers from by Americans in 2018, after the Petro netted $5 billion from American investors. The hope of decoupling from the US dollar was allowed by the transfer of the 30,000 million barrels of oil in the Orinoco Belt to the Venezuelan Central Bank as collateral for the hoped-for cryptocurrency–itself a proclamation of the national ownership of oil reserves that the current struggle for Presidential legitimacy would contest.

The map of national sovereignty onto the petroleum reserves was engraved in the public’s mind on oil and gas tanks that dot the coast and interior–

–even if may of the drilling projects are in fact joint ventures of PdVSA with other nations, from multinational based in Russia (Gazprom) to China (Sincor) to Belarus to Brazil (Petrobras) to Argentina (Repsol-YPF) to Uruguay (ANCAP & ENSARA)–and image of the deep-seated globalism of the Venezuelan oil economy, whose extraction of heavy underground oil is to be piped from the Orinoco Basin to ships waiting off the coast to be refined.

As Maduro tries to reaffirm the notion of petroleum sovereignty–the slogan of Bolivarian socialism is soberania petrolera–rooted in fashioning Venezuela as a global energy power, is there a logic of the staking of war for the offshore? The alleged fear Noriega collaborated with Cuba was voiced from 1986, and offered a rational for the “Christmas-time” invasion of December 20-24, 1989, as much as Noriega’s indictment for drug trafficking, although this was the reason for his eventual arrest by the DEA. The spectacularly lopsided and unrisky military deployment of 26,000 U.S. troops in “Operation Just Cause” against the Panamanian police force is a scenario, of course, quite unlike the threat of American invasion of Venezuela, a larger sovereign nation, not without its own armed forces–an invasion of which would provide far more expansive hemispheric consequences, as the scale of targeting Chávez’ appropriation of economic property. Yet Trump thirty years later in mid-February 2019 invoked the need to end Venezuela’s “humanitarian disaster” in Florida, beside Venezuelan refugees beside an American and Venezuelan flag, to inveigh against “Dictator Maduro” as being–hear the echo–a “Cuban puppet” for blocking the arrival of aid, and describing “our neighbor” Venezuela in ways that recall Panama.

In Florida, Trump threateningly observed that “we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away [and] Venezuela is not that far away,” while privately asking advisors if invasion wouldn’t resolve threat of Venezuela’s economic collapse. As FOXTV states that the refugee crisis in Venezuela–a political, humanitarian, and economic crisis, to be sure–could “match the scale of Syria’s catastrophe,” and as sanctions imposed on Venezuela have helped precipitate an exodus that unfolded over the previous years, he was quite eager to suggest military options, in ways that give his declarations of geographical proximity particularly disquieting.

The impromptu geography lesson had huge implications: “The people of Venezuela are standing for freedom and democracy and America is right by their side,” announced the American President in Miami, before flags of Venezuela and the United States and nationalist chants of “USA! USA!”

Maduro rightly feared coup, as Trump invited Venezuelan citizens in the “Maduro regime” to “end this nightmare of poverty, hunger and death” by a peaceful transition of power as Senator Marco Rubio tweeted images of Noriega on social media–as a specter of the bombast of Quadaffi and the criminality of Noriega, that “thug of a different era,” brought down by American troops.

Rubio’s tweet of head-shots of two thugs helped recall his creation of a niche of helping to design American foreign policy toward Venezuela: the echoes of the offshore in both Venezuela and Panama were perhaps the only element that might link them, for all the similarity of a Cuban connection Trump–who seems to have little familiarity with the region–supplied. The fear that “war for the offshore” may underlie Trump’s eagerness to entertain military options. Gen. Manuel Noriega had not only been on CIA rolls, but preserved access to a notion of the offshore-banking system about which we have learned in the Panama papers; the preservation of the offshore oil derricks that Exxon and Conoco had left in Venezuela in 2007, as well as in the Orinoco Belt, which PdVSA has presumably used new international partners to maintain since to pump viscous heavy oil for international use. Trump’s familiarity with Panama and its President may mostly be through hotels–the Trump International Panama was planned from 2005 opened in 2011, and is the tallest building in Latin America–but the invasion must have provided a point of entry for inaugurating the “fantastic building in a fantastic location” on beachfront property with then-president Ricardo Martinelli, who later fled to Miami, Florida to escape charges of embezzling public funds, and has only recently returned.

The local political dynamics are vastly different, despite some similarity in American eagerness to secure offshore sites: Maduro had won his Presidential election, whereas Noriega had annulled one, but the suggestion of toppling his regime undercut all sense of sovereign boundaries, was a clear parallel assertion of hemispheric dominance, to protect offshore assets. For all the lip service to Democracy and the Will of th People–Guadió was not really elected, although as head of the “Voluntad Popular” (Popular Will) party, and has declared himself as leader of opposition to Maduro in the National Assembly, with American blessings: after trying to direct the arrival of humanitarian aid into Venezuela, he met with Mike Pence in Bogota and President Lenin Moreno in Ecuador, but his success would open the offshore waters to American interests, and has been anointed President in one theater of public opinion–but in ways that break the world in ways that reflect continued accessibility to Venezuelan oil.


But the offshore benefits of a Guaidó Presidency to the United States may be as great as any benefits that he might be able to bring, at this point, to the Venezuelan people: they transcend surely ideology, economic prosperity–save in US aid–btu would be a viable way to reopen offshore Venezuelan oil reserves, and secure assets of ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips that had been nationalized in the Chávez Socialist regime. With the Orinoco Belt resources, which transformed a marginal area of oil extraction into a particularly lucrative one in a short time, complemented the drive of Houston-based Conoco to retrieve $2B of assets of lost Venezuelan oil projects, only partly reimbursed as Conoco seized some offshore PdVSA rigs in the Dutch island of Curacoa, in May 2018; ExxonMobil and Hess were poised in 2017 to start drilling projects offshore of Guyana–including several regions Maduro has claimed as Venezuela’s sovereignty, if ones identified, in public maps show, to ExxonMobil’s and Shell’s ambitions for offshore drilling and exploration.

Oil Rig Reclaimed by Conoco in Curacao
6.6 Million Acres offshore Guyana being Explored by ExxonMobil/Hess Guyana/CNOOC in 2017/ ExxonMobil

Claims of Shell, Canadian Oil Company CGX and ExxonMobil Claims off Venezuelan Coast (April, 2017)

CGX Energy INterative Map

If there is a connection between Panama and Venezuela, is it in the prospect of invasion to protect role of the offshore assets so dominant in an age of globalization? If the comparison of invading Panama was widely entertained by military, U.S. bases not only lay in Panama, unlike Venezuela, but Venezuelan troops are loyal to the Maduro government, and any asymmetrical invasion with support from neighbors is unlikely. The attempts to delegitimize the election of Maduro, and his sovereign claims to offshore oil, with such finality have been an increasing goal of ensuring global claims to its petroleum sovereignty. Yet in an American administration that encouraged the expansion of offshore drilling, the arrogance of regarding sovereignty over offshore and inland black dots denoting oil and gas wells in the below map reveals the slipperiness of Venezuelan sovereignty, no doubt tied to the readiness of regarding them as an extension of our own energy security.

Based on A. Escalona and P Mann, Marine and Sedimentary Geology, v 28, 1 (2011)

And despite the heralding of waters offshore of Guyana as “the next big beast of global oil”–medium-light crude that is closer to major Middle East grades than United States shale-based oils, hoped to be rich in diesel when refined, the championing of Guyana as a next new site for oil extraction in late 2018, lies in a region that Venezuela has proclaimed as it sown, in a proclamation of uncertain enforcement, from 2015: ExxonMobil announced Stabroek blocks in 2015 and 2016 as a “world-class discovery” of up to a billion barrels of oil, as the Venezuelan government asserted it sovereignty over some of the exploration block, and has demanded that all exploration and development work be ceased until the international resolution of territorial boundaries.

ExxonMobil Oil Platform offshore of Guayana/Reuters

The continued dispute of the “offshore” and the state of Venezuelan sovereignty only increase the importance and significance of dismissing the legitimacy of the Maduro government in Trump’s America. The confusion of sovereign claims over the reserves sadly may underly full-throated blaming of other nations for “protecting” Maduro, as much as concerns for the Venezuelan people. Maduro in November, 2017, appointed his own National Guard major general—Manuel Quevedo, who lacked expertise in the oil industry—to run the national Oil Ministry and PdVSA, gathered with oil ministers in the Caracas headquarters to pray “for the recovery of the production of the industry,” the beleaguered company come under American attention, as the petroleum-technologies that remain in the region. Quevedo’s almost surreal level of inexperience in the oil industry has decreased oil production; and the decline of an established oil industry became seen as a question of American National Security, as army officials without familiarity with oil production meant that military managers have purged the industry of former executives, arresting former leaders, and appointed former military aides to supervisory positions.

National oil production plummeted by over half a million barrels from 2016-18, as maritime units entered critical mismanagement, more practiced executives and engineers left, many fleeing the country among three million displaced refugees, and oil production fell daily, as the National Guard assumed leadership positions–and foreigners invited to fill needed roles as infrastructure went unprepared, creating a time bomb dramatically reducing oil production by a million barrels per day from previous years–


–and reducing exports even far more severely, as far as an be gleaned from available PDVSA and OPEC records–

–but has created steepening anxiety about the futures of its oil exports.

How to map their decline against the increasingly slipperiness of sovereignty in Venezuela–undermined by economic catastrophe and lack of goods, as well as mismanagement–and on a global stage?

Deep confusion of sovereign claims over the reserves may underly full-throated blaming other nations for “protecting” Maduro–as much as concerns for the Venezuelan people. Although such calls for the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó’s self-declared Presidency present themselves as rooted in international consensus, Guaidó’s “Presidency” would pave the road for an increased access of American multinational companies to refine and extract oil from Venezuelan. The nationalization of oil has marginalized joint ventures with American companies and stands to diminish investment and servicing of rigs. Exxon has been barred from extraction by Maduro and its assets nationalized, and its exploratory ships confronted by Venezuela’s navy off Guyana’s coast; Shell has been trying to unload its stake in joint ventures on oil and gas with PdVSA; CITGO will cease to ship oil to America as American sanctions have struck the Venezuelan economy–the massive decline of venezuelan oil production stands to impact American gas prices.

The result is a scarily liquid sense of Venezuelan sovereignty. America entertained possibilities of a military coup openly from early 2018, and since the summer of 2017, seems to have led him to assemble pressure from Brazil, Peru, Guatemala and Honduras–leaders themselves not elected democratically–to endorse and call for regime change in Venezuela. The pressures created on Maduro’s claims to presidential sovereignty, and a national vision rooting sovereignty in mineral deposits and wealth have grown, as the nationalized oil and gas company has seemed close to collapsing.

Such a dated geopolitical spatial imaginary runs, however, directly against the longstanding centrality of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) to national sovereignty of the state in exporting, manufacturing, and transporting crude oil and other hydrocarbons, and its central place in the sustainable and indeed “organic” development of Venezuela’s economy–and the longstanding celebration of the three hundred billion barrels of confirmed oil reserves verified in 2015 by Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, whose location is currently trumpeted on all holding tanks in maps of a natural resource fundamental to plans for the nation’s economic growth–and indeed a proclamation of their national ownership.

Map of Orinoco Belt Owned by PdVSA and Venezuelan Central Bank

Although the laminations of sovereignty reveal the problems of Venezuelan sovereignty or its legitimacy that are so evident in maps of border conflicts, cross-border migrations, or humanitarian crises across borders, the problems of sovereignty in a globalized oil market, whose prices are upset by Venezuela’s shrinking exports, but which have long focussed global attention on Venezuela’s sovereignty on a global scale, at the risk of eliding and omitting the crises of regional displacement, economic disruption, and human suffering that “humanitarian aid” can’t resolve.

A crisis of global proportions rooted in the circulation of underground and offshore goods of oil and gas offshore has created a crisis that has spilled over the nation’s borders, and undermined Venezuelan sovereignty and borders–and even created a state of exception that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of its political government. The sustained undermining of Maduro’s claims to authority as illegitimate, and as allowing the very “state of exception” that would allow the leader of the elected National Assembly to oversee the transition to a new government, and constitutional order, by calling for new elections, the need for a new sovereign power to control the rich oil deposits offshore and underground with speed and expedience by the hemispheric global energy conglomerates that have contracts with PdVSA–Shell; ExxonMobil; CITGO–to resolves cascading economic troubles in Venezuela by ending Maduro’s presidency as expediently as possible. The stakes of doing so would, as Tony Wood argued, run against Venezuelan law and overturn long-established procedures of political process.

As one is struggling by attempts to imagine the crises faced on the ground by refugees and displaced on Venezuela’s boundaries–many of who provide a quite different image of refugees than we have seen from the ravages of globalization–crossing bridges and fleeing frontier with down jackets and backpacks and water bottles, if without jobs, livelihoods, or residence–

Indeed, it may be that problems of the gears of global capital, less clearly visualized, despite a mastery of multiple scales of global mapping, has pushed the nation of Venezuela to such international prominence. Despite ever-increasing facility with switching between local, regional, and global scales of mapping, we however are less able to register the increased impact of shifts of global economic changes that manifest in the fetishization of the border, and its closure. It is as if despite the omniscient promises of Google Earth to take us to any site in a globalized world, we lack an ability to map global shifts that provoke displacement onto local crises. And as much as globalization creates renewed tensions around borders that are defended and redefined against global pressures, in which the question of Venezuelan sovereignty over offshore areas where many derricks are located, and where Venezuelan oil fields are located with easier access for global markets–

Continental Shelf of Venezuela (in blue-green cyan hue)

–the sovereignty of Venezuela stands to be upset for emergency reasons–in a “state of exception” or of emergency that is able to invest legitimacy in the very young leader of a very small minority political party, Juan Guaidó, who was trained in the United States in Washington, D.C., after opposition parties have subtracted themselves from the democratic process and boycotted recent elections, and the oil reserves in Venezuelan waters and the pipelines able to move heavy crude reserves lying under the Orinoco River into global energy markets or to refineries in the United States. Even as Venezuela has failed to create functioning cross-border pipelines to Colombia, or to Aruba, or even to meet its citizens’ needs in gas, the national oil and gas company, PdVSA, to place hopes on exporting gas for needed capital to an imagined market for exports from that same offshore region that sadly reflects the flow of displaced persons from its borders.

Gas Exports Planned by PdVSA, 2018

–that would link Venezuela through both gas pipelines (shown in red) and oil pipelines to Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil or to port towns, but are now inactive. Guaidó was quick to congratulate Bolsonaro on his victory in Brazil,

Synthesis of varied sources on pipless connecting Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago and Brazil, planned oil pipelines in dotted green and gas pipelines in dotted red

The failure to use petroleum products to provide needed agrofertilizers that the nation once provided and exported with plastics and other mineral fuels that made up a substantial share of its GDP and national wealth, and the problems of integrating such offshore or inland projects of extraction to the “resto del mondo” in an efficient manner have created a deep cyclical crisis of economic hardships that we register now on its borders,–tied to the increased migration from Venezuela’s frontiers. But might these pressure be more accurately mapped as lying in the deep attachments of the nation’s sovereignty to reserves both offshore and underground? Even if support accorded either Maduro or Guaidó are described in most news markets and by the American President Donald J. Trump in ideological terms of socialism and populism, the underlying pressures of controlling Venezuela’s large oil reserves–and returning its productivity of oil and exports–created huge permeability of its borders, as oil output suddenly drastically declined.

The recent attempt to view the crisis as at the border where refugees and displaced have fled Venezuela at such a staggering rate–over three million Venezuelans have left its borders for other Latin American nations, leaving a million Venezuelans now residing in Colombia, among that nation’s eight displaced, as 5,000 left the nation daily during 2018—a boggling scale seen only as the result of war or huge natural disasters. The cascading numbers of displaced Venezuelans mirror the collapse of oil prices and oil industry–both of which have transformed the state’s boundaries, and transformed national borders into regions overcrowded with displaced refugees–

April 2018

–in ways that recent discussions of the “sovereignty” of Venezula have difficulty including in any discussion of the nation’s economic crisis or current future political uncertainty.

In response to these crises of migration, displacement, and economic decline, many frontiers have been closed to Venezuelans, and anger at Venezuelans has grown in many host countries, creating a humanitarian crisis far beyond Venezuela’s own frontiers. The promise of energy nationalization to provide a vision of “La Gran Venezuela” since 2007 rooted in an image of national autonomy has paradoxically led its national bounds to become more porous than ever, and threatened the national economy in ways that have destabilized its national borders, opening them to humanitarian crises and economic collapse, creating odd out-migrations, quite distinctive from most images of other global refugees or displaced.

Despite invocations of the sovereign desires of the Venezuelan people, symbolized by banner-like display of territorial maps, the struggles for sovereignty in Venezuela are more removed from ideology than one might believe, following most news media. For rather than the crisis being about cross-border flows, or the barriers to needed humanitarian aid poised to cross the border into Venezuela, the global attention to the crisis of sovereignty responds less to any on the ground situation, but rather about what is mapped offshore, under the ocean, and underneath the Orinoco Petroleum Belt and Basin. For in sites of potential extraction where most of Venezuela’s nearly three hundred billion barrels of heavy oil reserves lie sequestered deep underground in sandstone, in the largest in the world, and levels of petroleum extraction–long the basis for Venezuelan national wealth–which have currently fallen to levels not heard of since the 1940s, with disastrous results of paralyzing the national economy and affecting the global oil market.

Even as Venezuela finds itself increasingly subject to global pressures even as it assumes the presidency of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. As current President Nicolás Maduro threatens to defend his nation’s place on a globalized international energy market, threatening to “substitute the United States with other countries,” to undermine the American economy and the stability of Donald Trump’s presidency, and American energy markets, the sovereignty of Venezuela is again threatened by an increasingly protectionist American government, eager to take action to keep energy prices down–keeping Venezuelan oil, long shipped to and refined in the United States by its North American subsidiary CITGO, providing tens of billions of gallons of crude oil flowing into American national energy pipelines and refineries.

As the infrastructure of oil production have either collapsed or vailed to be invested in and maintained in the nation, they have become an object of eager attention in the petroleum industry as reserves once easily able to be shipped to a global energy market have been remapped for nations that offering to provide new extractive technologies: since oil prices collapsed in 2014, the state-run oil company PdVSA without a plan or ability to invest in necessary infrastructure,–tragically echoing, perhaps, how Chavista policies hurt agrarian and agrochemical industries by short-sighted collectivization and appropriation without an effective working plan. As the rural regions often returned to something similar to subsistence farming, and uncertain future, the lack of maintaining many PdVSA rigs and derricks have created a crisis of sovereignty and capital in the nation, that demands to be better visualized and mapped.

Yet in this context, the longstanding tie of oil reserves to Venezuelan sovereignty has been ignored or not addressed in the attempt to delegitimize Nicolás Maduro, the elected president, albeit in a vote boycotted by the opposition parties. For the long-standing presentation of oil reserves in the once-catholic nation as a divine creation and gift to the nation from unidentified hands naturalized it as a national bounty–the cpromise of the productive capacity echoed the rhetoric of the nationalization of the oil industry in “Plena Soberanía Petrolera,” in the Orinoco Oil Belt, in 2007, and the casting of “full sovereignty” of the Orinoco Oil Belt the conclusion of the energy independence long ago proclaimed by Simon Bolivar, whose name is still included in the nation’s official name. These hopes of Chávez to set a six-year goal in 2012 to produce 3.5 million barrels of oil/day led such “sovereignty” to be based on profit-sharing agreements with international corporations, who shared risk in exploration agreements but provided capital for investment, and little expected production to fall year ago to a meager 1.7 million bpd, and drag the nation into unseen territory of economic decline with no end to its decline–a fifth of the oil rigs of the national petroleum company are now active, while eight million barrels float offshore in sixteen tankers off Venezuela’s coast.

The oil is unable to be sold. Languishing offshore in tankers is a strong symbolic contrast beneficent image of unbridled plenty where derricks are figured as divine gifts outside PdVSA headquarters in Caracas, a vision of plenty, bestowed by a “hand of God”–in a new sort of socialist realism–

Ws La Tu, Public Statue of Oil Derrick in Open Hand, PdVSA Headquarters in Caracas/photograph Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg
Auguste Rodin, “The Hand of God,” Metropolitan Museum of Art

The infrastructure of oil production has collapsed, sending tremors across borders. The result transformed a nation once with high GDP to cycles of economic decline, its government unwilling to be humbled to accepting humiliating humanitarian aid from capitalists. The most recent staging of forcing  desperately needed humanitarian aid across the border in hopes to provoke a broadly chaotic civilian response to the nation’s authoritarian regime only led to a terrifying prospect and fear of American invasion–as the convoy was not only rebuffed but incinerated before crossing national frontiers,– even as the leader of a minority party in the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, staged a theatrical call for national unity, hoped to inaugurate the arrival of trucks bearing aid into a devastated nation, in an image of optimism contrasting with the isolation of Venezuela from global markets.

As Puerto Rican mega-star Luis Fonsi turned the microphone on an audience waving a sea of Venezuelan flags, inviting call and response before a gold map of the nation, the complexity of its sovereignty, was increasingly complex on the global stage: its borders were not only increasingly breached by refugees–flowing for the first time in memory from Venezuela to Colombia and Brazil, rather than in reverse fashion–but the very oil reserves of Venezuela, long the basis for its sovereign strength, were more tied to international energy markets and multinational energy industry than safely situated within the frontiers of the Venezuelan state, but often in the waters–here aptly colored in gold–that lie off its coast, and in its coastal waters, in the backdrop of this concert of global Latin pop.

AP/Fernando Vergera

The image recalls the attempts to hold off the arrival of oil in previous gluts of the energy of the shore of Indonesia–

or Galveston–

–although now the tankers are not being forced from arriving at refineries onshore, but face an absence of destinations where they can arrive, threatening a tightening of global oil supplies that stands to shape much of the future of Venezuela’s sovereignty, at a huge remove from its peoples’ desire.

Meanwhile, the mega-concert staged to acclaim the popular legitimacy of parliamentary leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s president was held on its border, to mark the planned departure of the trucks bearing aid, its stage jingoistically promoting a promise of restoring liberty in Venezuela, even as unruly currents of globalization have eroded the nation’s future economy.

Fernando Vergara/AP

Yet the different scales of economic collapse in Venezuela and concerned global responses of oil markets and investment are rarely mapped against the crisis of the border. The crisis of the gears of global investment in the national oil economy, which is on the brink of accepting huge foreign loans, have rebuffed both American humanitarian aid and American industries’ aid in improvement of its oil production infrastructure, but poor governance of a nation that long depended on high oil prices led to elections that are openly rigged, and an economic freefall that has encouraged increased attention to the fate of Venezuela’s massive suspected reserves of thick oil that may be–due to lack of maintenance and modernization of extraction industries–tied to foreign industries largely not based in the western hemisphere–among them, Gazprom, Sincor, CNPC, Bitor, and Belarusneft. The mosaic of co-sponsored claims sustaining Maduro’s legitimacy as sovereign, are a basis of the slippery nature of his claims to sovereignty. For the same region is seen as the heart of the future of PdVSA, suggesting the deeply fragile and fraught globalized nature of the nation’s claims to sovereignty, and precarious state of its national economy.

Yet the vision of national “sovereignty” has long been linked to the administration of oil and gas reserves–a vision that has increased support for Maduro among many Venezuelans, even as the country’s wealth has collapsed, making a nation that once accepted refugees and displaced persons into a nation from which over 5,000 have fled daily in 2018.

The pressures of the gears of global economy–and fears of infiltration by foreign governments–have led the current government to retrench behind its boundaries, and to assert its rights to sovereign status–even closing diplomatic relations with nearby Colombia–although it seems without clear visions of its future administration of its patrimony of petroleum, even as it has assumed the Presidency of OPEC. The attempt may be a desperate hope to remap the course of the nation, and to preserve a vision of independence cherished by Venezuela and long cultivated by the Venezuelan government. Although Nicolás Maduro gained attention by closing all ports of entry to the nation, as he has cut ties with neighboring Colombia in the midst of heightening border conflicts, closing the border to medical supplies or food that was promised by Brazil and the United States in ways that threaten to isolate the nation, the maps that focus on the territorial border mislead–

Oil and Gas Reserves in Venezuela against Population per Square Mile

–much as map regularly depicted in oil industry trade publications erase the border entirely, focussing only on the areas of oil reserves, and their proximity to water, minimizing any sense of national boundary lines. The region known as the Faja de Orinoco, was developed by American companies ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, and ConocoPhilips in the 1990s, in joint venture deals replaced by China National Offshore Oil, China Petroleum or Sinopec, underlies maps of the region’s territorial sovereignty. The heart of the Venezuelan oil industry, inland from Caracas, but providing the world with its largest oil reserves, is the economic heart of its place in a global economy.

Oil Sands Magazine

While we read of border showdowns on the crossings into Venezuela from Brazil and Colombia, which have early been breached in recent weeks, despite the attempts at arrival of humanitarian aid from Brazil and the United States, and of troops massing blockades on bridges to Venezuela’s territorial borders to prevent their arrival, the border closures assume quite concrete qualities. Most recently, the destruction of convoys bearing humanitarian aid, after Venezuela’s Maduro government had blocked their arrival by an array of container trucks, police units, and military units, give prominence to the border, as do the refugee tent camps dot the eastern borders of Venezuela with Colombia and both Ecuador and Brazil.

While we try to judge the complicated terrain on which conflicts have broken out of the arrival of trucks that were posed to carry “humanitarian aid” from warehouses across border bridges into Venezuela, and to fight for “open borders” over the Tachira River, the cards seem stacked against refugees and displaced who bear the brunt of pressure from the pegging of the Venezuelan economy to an international globalized oil market, as the fall of oil production for a global market to a thirteen-year low from 2016 has sent as the falling production of heavy crude from the Orinoco belt and a falling investments in light crude–blamed on the decision of poor investment practices of PdVSA failing to maintain oil wells when oil prices were high, is far from the cross-border conflicts on which the American media has focusses evidence of the state’s legitimacy.


Washington Post/HERE

But in attending to the territorial borders of the state, and the crises that are created on border towns that are the sites of many famished or dehydrated arriving without prospects of work, money community ties, or residence, we neglect a remove of sovereignty from territoriality in Venezuela, which has transformed Venezuela such a hotspot in a global energy trade: it is not a secret that catapulted Venezuela’s sovereignty onto the global stage was not only a geopolitics of hemispheric dominance, but sovereign title to its massive reserves of crude–recently mapped as being the largest in the world. The economic pressures that force Venezuelans to Colombia and Brazil–Colombia has become the destination of most displaced Venezuelan migrants, but Brazil is a growing destination–suggest that the forces behind forced migration are less internal, than due to a crisis that is global in scope. Fears that Venezuelan oil production, already in 2018 declined to levels some 40% below those of three years earlier, as unemployment and hyperinflation created a crisis in global oil markets, and a further drop in oil production is forecast of 300,000-500,000 barrels/day as global financial giants pull out of Venezuela, oil companies leave Venezuelan assets, and poor investment in oil extraction leaves the Venezuelan government without sources of needed revenue.

Falling levels of production of oil in Venezuela that are increasingly unstable have led to potential panic in world markets. Fear of decreased oil extraction have already sent shock waves worldwide-as the economic instability that made Venezuela an epicenter of a global energy market. With economic crises that were already acute, lack of investment has made it impossible for Venezuela to increase its production levels as oil prices fell, even as promises for access to oil was sold for needed influxes of cash.

As the notion of “regime change” in Venezuela was rumored to be pushed by President Trump from early January 2019, in hopes to stabilize this energy market and return U.S. companies to oil extraction projects, ideology played a far lesser role than

Global Barrels at Risk, 2018/Energy Fuse

While receiving less attention for several years than the world’s largest migrations unassociated with conflict, uncertain access to Venezuela’s oil reserves and maintaining oil productivity levels have accelerated the local economic crisis that has displaced large numbers of formerly employed in an already unstable region. Large populations of homeless who have fed local underground economies along the Venezuelan border, over seven million Colombians are internally displaced, without jobs or houses, with whom those fleeing Venezuela compete for shelter, aid, and makeshift open-air camps, in a border region of increased criminality, which were already unstable. Most migrants are difficult to count and cross on informal border crossings, removed from state control, creating a continuous flow of people across borders that seems more typical of global pressures of displacement into territories which have their own huge numbers of displaced, and compete with local displaced on informal markets, most of whom also live solo con la ropa puesta–or only with what clothes they are wearing, or only by the cloths on their backs.

The border zone has become populated by over three million who have joined globally displaced since 2014–when Venezuela first entered a deep recession after Nicolás Maduro assumed office as its Presidency, as well as stateless indigenous people, subsistence farmers long in struggle with Colombia and in need of humanitarian assistance. Shocking levels of poverty stand in sharp contrast with the corporate carving up of the areas for extracting heavy oil in the Orinoco Belt, where energy prospecting has attracted global markets to meet the nation’s need for capital, but their investments have not reached

The disorder at the borders has became a manifestation of a global crisis in integrating the nation into international investments that seem bids to link it to global oil markets in an attempt to preserve its financial independence.

We focus on borders to parse information, but the border has become a reality for the experience of Venezuelans, caught between global oil markets and local economic collapse, and pressed out of access to food, medical needs, and work. But the border with Colombia is, while a point of transit of over 34,000 a day leaving the nation based on 2018 UNHCR reports, due to escalating economic crisis, less than ever a clear line. A transit site for displaced persons, it is less a defining basis for the state’s sovereignty, but the surface manifestation of deep currents that have refigured the place of Venezuela in the world, as the mapping of hidden oil reserves waiting to be open to extraction, and as funds for investment into its oil reserves have started to dry up.

The crossing of the border would become a literal, terrifying flash point, with the destruction of the massive trucks announced to carry humanitarian aid, shortly after five trucks bearing humanitarian aid crossed the frontier where Guaidó had just heralded the departure of the trucks across the borer, beside presidents of Paraguay, Colombia, and Chile, with the declaration that “humanitarian aid is definitely on its way to Venezuela, in a peaceful way, to save lives now.” Just after crowds eagerly chanted “Freedom! Freedom!” to send trucks on their way bearing needed aid toward Venezuela, violent border clashes erupted with Venezuelan security forces, trucks carrying aid stalled as they tried to cross the blocked bridge burst into flames, and of five trucks that were traversing the Santander bridge to reach Venezuelan communities across the divide, two burnt to a cinder, two appear to have been stolen by troops, and one returned as tear gas canisters were shot by Venezuelan security forces, gun shots were heard, and tear gas was also fired on the nearby Bolivar International Bridge. The border, a site of defections of some members of the National Guard who guarded the Bolivar Bridge, gave up their arms, as other Venezuelans hung national flags from the nearby Tienditas Bridge, became the focus of global media attention.

Despite rumors National Guardsmen had torched the convoy and its boxes intentionally before they could cross the border, it appears that tear gas canisters set the fires on trucks of humanitarian aid; the boxes were taken off the flaming trucks as black flames rose from them, and tear gas was thrown onto the border bridge, as the entry of aid was tried to be repulsed and other Venezuelan military defected on the four border bridges that link Colombia and Venezuela near the small town of Cucúta–long an epicenter of refugee communities, where tons of humanitarian supplies brought by airlift on U.S. C-17 military planes to warehouses, where Parliamentary leader and self-declared President Juan Guaidó has met with Presidents of outer nearby countries, and Venezuelan troops have blocked entry of all humanitarian supplies.

But the border crisis cannot be understood by the clarity of frontiers, apart from the contestatory claims for mapping mineral wealth that underlies the importance of Venezuela’s sovereignty–which only partly reflect ideology. The deposits roots the global relevance of Venezuela’s sovereign status in laminations of sovereignty flowing around territorial divides, hardly revealed the fearsome border clashes with armed forces, and the interest in creating entry sites for any needed humanitarian assistance and supplies–or the huge rebuff of the assistance that were destroyed by national troops.

Harley Monseguileman
Harley Monseguileman
Unloading Supplies from Trucks Set Afire on Francisco de Paula Santander bridge on the border between Colombia and Venezuela February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Second Truck of Humanitarian Aid Exploding/‏World Centeral Kitchen

The transformation of the border city of Cúcuta into a site of intense struggles over the foreign aid, as convoys of humanitarian aid across the border into the economically devastated nation, has tragically been animated by contested access to Venezuelan oil reserves. The border has become something of a hot-spot, the site of the arrival of the presidents of Colombia, Chile, and Paraguay, as well as the near-perpetual U.S. special envoy Elliott Abrams, and the site of confrontation between military and the prospects of what is described as “humanitarian” aid into the economically devastated regions of Venezuela, now intensely suffering at the results of a unilateral American embargo on Venezuelan goods.

It is hard to describe the site where four bridges link Venezuela and Colombia as a clear frontier. The site was long rich with border zone illicit trafficking, including drugs and gasoline, guerilla groups, and paramilitary organizations. The current broad crisis of displaced and broad economic needs of Venezuelans who have crossed the bridges–often at a number of 30,000 a day–has displaced many who now reside in Colombia–outside the “boundaries” of Venezuela–suffering from similar needs of food, medicine, and work, as well as shelter to those remaining in Venezuela; settlements have created a broad regional human tragedy only partly reflecting ideology–those in Venezuela might list medicine and food as greater needs, but the need for humanitarian aid is hardly confined to within the border.

Reliefweb/UNHCR statistics, 2018

The border town of Cúcuta became an improvised center of power for opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whose presence at the capital city rallied support for humanitarian supplies to cross the Tienditas Bridge, and the prospect of tons of aid ferried by US C-17 military planes to Cúcuta. But the boundaries of Venezuela’s sovereignty are themselves not clear, and indeed the laminated nature of those boundaries far more removed from territorial sovereignty, and removed from the military confrontation on a territorial border. Only laminations of maps of Venezuela’s sovereignty–maps of offshore oil; maps of underground oil reserves–situate Venezuela as a globalized space, GIS layers and laminations absent from even the best territorial maps of areas of urban settlement and topographic variations.

Riley D. Champine, National Geographic/data from Global Roads, Columbia University/Tree Cover, University of Maryland

The lamination of these spaces over Venezuela, which holds one of the largest reserves of petroleum world wide, belies the clarity of borders that we see as sites of military conflict, and indeed the clear lines of division by February 15 between nations who elected not to recognize Maduro as President, but back the Parliamentary leader Juan Guaidó. If the rural city of Cúcuta seemed a stand-off commanding international attention, where Venezuelan military confronted Colombian leaders who enjoined them to be on “the right side of history, for the good of the people,” as Donald Trump, watching from Washington, pronounces the moment is “the twilight hour of socialism” in the western hemisphere, the focus ignored the many hidden cross-border routes the humanitarian supplies (including needed medical supplies and food) could be smuggled, and ignoring a history of humanitarian crises of those displaced indigenous, lacking a state, who crossed the border zone from Colombia into Venezuela as refugees, and cross-border smuggling. The foregrounding of the border as a divide–rather than a very permeable zone of exchange–seems a distinctly outsider’s perspective.


The spectacles staged on the Colombian-Venezuelan border have made the issue about Venezuela’s sovereignty, as Spanish and Latin American pop stars from Miguel Bose to Luis Fonsi played at a pop festival protest–Venezuela Aid Live, organized by Richard Branson–at a pop festival where artists and political leaders posed before a national map affirming Venezuela’s national boundaries on a good background that hinted at the nation’s mineral wealth.

Miguel Bose at Venezuela Live at/Fernando Vergara

To be sure, tens of millions of dollars of needed humanitarian aid from international donors (US, Canada, Brazil, Colombia) that were announced by Juan Guaidó to cross the bridge into Venezuela would serve respond to long-term shortages of food, medical supplies and antibiotics that stand to create a public health-crisis,


-but the sanctions that the United States has applied to Venezuela, just after Guaidó swore himself into office in late January, precipitating greater crises by subtracting billions for the economy, even as they offer humanitarian aid. (The aid is so politicized that the United Nations and Red Cross will not take part in distribution.)


But contested claims to access to Venezuelan oil reserves–offshore and in the Orinoco Basin–and their value on the global market provided a deeper rationale for the global divide. In many ways, the break occurred around access to these reserves, and the rights of access to the nationalized oil industry, as much as to the Socialist ideology of Nicolás Maduro–although the two are so inseparable from them that leaving Maduro in the role of President of OPEC, and the hope that he seeks from OPEC against American access to offshore and underground oil.

The complicated question of rights of multi-national companies to the offshore and inland oil–both the Houston-based CITGO branch of PdVSA, whose chief executive works in the Bahamas and does not have a U.S. visa, who have worked to remove the oil reserves from Maduro’s control, which sells $23b in oil to Americans makes up a substantial if small share of American fuel market, and has become an asset of Guaidó. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil, which retains oil rights offshore in Venezuela’s claimed waters, or Economic Exclusive Zone, battle with Chinese rights to oil leases in the Orinoco Belt over the petroleum possessions in what would be the world’s second largest producer of crude. While the division of the world into two camps has been mapped and remapped as if to accord legitimacy to Juan Guaidó–as if the world’s leaders could invest legitimacy in Guaidó as President of the nation–

John Bolton announces economic sanctions against Venezuela and the Venezuelan state owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PdVSA) at the White House in Washington, U.S.,
January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

–as if the nation’s legitimate ruler could be decided by a plurality of global nations, and that provided a constitutional means to invest legitimacy with a new leader–albeit one who was not popularly elected.

And yet while the world is shown as divided into blocks who “recognize” Maduro as the head of Venezuela’s nationalized oil reserves, as if they are able to create a “true” electoral map of the nation’s internal politics, the map reflects deeply interested ties of the world’s governments to Venezuelan oil. For as the American board of CITGO is purged of Maduro supporters, and socialist imagery is removed from CITGO headquarters and website, China has not only exchanged loans to for guaranteed oil supplies with Venezuela, and for expectations for privileged access to massive underground oil reserves in the Orinoco Belt for China’s nationalized oil corporation China National Petroleum Corporation, leading to the construction of a Guandong refinery for Venezuelan crude, and Russia’s Rosneft and Oil India and India Oil have also invested heavily in the Orinoco Belt, as has Italy, Belarus and South Africa–as the second largest Chinese national oil company, Sinepec, works with Venezuela on other Orinoco projects in which it invested $20b.

Such global fault lines unsurprisingly mirror divisions of recognition of Maduro’s sovereignty, and unmask the terrifying illegitimacy of substituting a true electoral map of a democratic vision of Venezuela’s future for the results of an internal election. While ostensibly a map of the reactions to results of an election, the world breaks down in its according of sovereign legitimacy around oil needs, it seems, with those calling for new elections–Ireland, Italy, Romania, the EU, the United Nations, although many Scandinavian nations were also unready to declare support for Guaidó in early February–seems to have split the globe so that it has fractured into opposed camps, with few states even holding out the option of new elections by mid-February, 2019.

BBC/February 5, 2019

The sense of the sovereignty of Venezuela seems up for global debate in these odd images, which suggest a deep fracturing of the globe. The question streamed globally, transposes sovereign elections between two parties to a global map, in disquieting ways. The divisions indicate the deep ties of the globalization of energy to Venezuela, but the two-color scheme echoing an electoral map is borne of deep arrogance. For as it innocently poses unanswerable interrogatives to viewers, it magnifies a tragic situation to a global scale. One had immediate intimations of the terrifying nature of such an external origin of sovereign future of the nation as Guaidó took to Twitter to thank nations “for supporting all Venezuelans in this struggle we undertake to rescue our nation’s democracy, freedom and justice,” and even more as it promoted Guaidó, leader of a terribly small opposition party, named Voluntad Popular, but holding but fourteen of the hundred and sixty seven seats in the National Assembly, sprung to the national stage after he declared his legitimacy as President, winning quick support from Canada, the United States, Brazil, and Colombia, in what seemed more than a sham of a democratic process–without articulating a clear vision of Venezuela’s future or plans to unite a divided opposition.

AFP, February 15, 2019

These global maps conceal, but also reveal, the degree to which sovereignty was less rooted in Venezuela’s boundaries, an other in global ties of untapped oil reserves both offshore and under the Orinoco Belt. Maduro seemed to undertake multiple money transfers to allies in Uruguay or gold shipments to Russia. But the eyes of most were focussed underground, provoking longstanding anger of the United States–and leading the United States to contemplate the benefits of changing the regime in Venezuela, long before Guaidó declared his claim as Venezuela’s President: the wealth of oil was assessed at 380-650 billion barrels by the United States back in 2009.

“Orinoco Belt Assessment of Recoverable Heavy Oil resources,” USGS/2009

 –and the basis for its extraction mapped more recently, in 2016, with little mention of the huge environmental devastation that would be the result of the widespread exploration of the region.

 The current estimates of 1,200 barrels of crude oil in the heavy oil deposits that lie in Venezuela have radically redimensioned foreign interest in its sovereignty. Even as CITGO has effectively seceded with the reserves of oil in its tanks and refineries from the Venezuelan nation, its expansive network of refineries, pipelines, and terminals are effectively made the oil in Venezuela’s sandstone reserves relevant to America’s domestic economy.


The boundaries of Venezuela have nonetheless been all too important and relevant for its displaced refugees. The flows of refugees from Venezuela across borders is not clearly mapped, by any means, but as the problems of displacement suggest the massive flow of humans out of the nation, in the greatest crisis of displacement across South America, creating a crisis of immigration with which Colombia demands international help in Bogata the slippery nature of the “borders” by which Venezuela has increasingly defended its Exclusive Economic Zone are increasingly slippery, making the nation’s “mapping” far more complex than simple lines of sovereignty would show, in an age where mapping underground reserves and controlling access to territorial claims transcend simple images of national territoriality.

Venezuela’s sovereign leaders have sharp awareness of the ties of their sovereignty to mapped oil deposits that lie underground. Back in 2015, before Trump was elected President, the Maduro government convinced the global map server Google Maps to shift the English-language place names on its platform to Spanish off the Essequibo Coast–in order to stake claims to sovereignty through the mapping engine. Guyana’s president was sufficiently enraged to contest the renaming on the map server at the world court. The stakes were indeed quite high. For shifting the street-name from English to Spanish not only slapped the former British colony of Guyana in the face, but used the server to bully the nation in an alter-world court, and rebut th hopes that offshore deposits ExxonMobil discovered that May would revitalize Guyana’s economy.

Venezuela had immediately contested the entry of ExxonMobil ships to these waters. The fight spilled over to Google Map servers, by remapping the coast as if within Venezuela’s maritime boundary–an almost hidden alteration of the coastline in Guyana Esequibo, consisting not only of shifting the street-names to Spanish to suggest the coastal region lay in Venezuelan territory as it was inhabited by Spanish language populations, but shifting the name of a street to the founder of the nation, Bolivar. The shift in names sought to expand the conceit that Venezuela’s right to oil found in its maritime defense zone–and not legally even part of Guyana. This sort of cartographic surgery on the map served to stake sovereign claims to petroleum deposits lying beyond the nation’s “territorial” map, and suggest the hidden ties of “sovereignty,” national defense, and “oil” in Venezuela’s self-image.

Before the current crisis of government, Venezuela’s canny use of GoogleMaps to concretize these claims led letters of protest to be sent to Google directly by Guyana’s ambassador to the United States and Guyana’s National Assembly, contesting the undue hegemony of the mapping server in a cartographical run around naturalizing Venezuelan claims to the offshore oil. While it’s unclear how the Maduro government cleverly convinced Google to remap a major road-name as Spanish in the English-speaking nation of Guyana to bolster claims that the region lay in the maritime defense zone of his nation, Maduro had belittled Guyana president as “hostage to ExxonMobil,” as if it was undeserving of the Essequibo region Venezuela long mapped as its own, claiming the region as part of a “reclamation zone” of Venezuela–even if it consists of some two thirds of Guyana. Maduro’s government seems to have worked behind the scenes with Google to perpetuate the validity of its claims, taking advantage of a lack of agreement to the borders between the nations that had ostensibly already been concluded in negotiations competed in 1890.

Venezuela had special interest in the region as it was operating an offshore oil operation–discovered by ExxonMobil but including a Chinese oil company whose claims would have been supported by the translation into Spanish of its coastal streets. The ExxonMobil ship that was intercepted by the Venezuelan Navy as it allegedly entered Venezuela’s EEZ, performing preparatory seismic work by a ship flying the colors of the Bahamas that the Venezuelan government took as a provocation of attacks on its sovereignty, was argued by Guyana’s Attorney General to have been in Guyana’s waters, off its continental shelf, and in a region not disputed since the Geneva Conventions of 1966 that resolved the dispute over the Essequiba region, administered by Guyana but long claimed by Venezuela as its own property.  The longstanding Venezuelan assertions of rights to these waters seem to have attracted suspicions of Venezuela’s navy that the ship had wandered into its offshore waters in early 2019, entering the Exclusive Economic Zone of the beleaguered nation.


United States of Venezuela (1864-1953) (Paper Map of 1890; Wikimedia)

–and resulted in the renaming of the region in the world according to Google, to lend global currency to the idea of Venezuelan sovereignty to the region by adding a “Bolivar Avenue” curving along the coast beside ExxonMobil’s claim–the founder of Venezuela, Simon Bolivar, after whom the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is name, and whose notion of energy sovereignty has been long crucial to the state, recurs in Venezuela, and was given to Bolivar State, bordering Guyana, whose capital is Bolivar City–consistent with the unilateral claim Maduro had made for much of the region as lying in Venezuelan sovereingty as of June 2015.


The jungle region on the Essequibo Coast was lightly populated, but the offshore oil deposits ExxonMobil sought to stoke claim were the critical target of dispute, as much as the terrestrial jurisdiction of the territory in question. The territory was really the map of regions of possible new drilling activity some 190 km offshore and over 1,500 meters underwater–and whereas the 2015 discovery was limited to the Liza drill centering the Stabroek Block, the expansion of drilling projects offshore of Guyana in later years–which were themselves run not only by ExxonMobil but the offshore company CNOOC Next Petroleum Guyana Ltd., a Hong Kong based energy firm that is itself based in Barbados, for tax reasons. If colonization of the offshore by offshore oil companies is only possible in a globalized world, the territorial contest between nations about the offshore region, if deriving symbolic power from a nineteenth-century map, depend on notions of territoriality that have only been adopted within a newly expanded power of maps.

–created a sense of untapped wealth removed from the possibility of territorial sovereignty, but which the promise a floating oil production center extracting some 120,000 barrels per day from the ocean floor which have grown dramatically since in the region understood as “offshore Guyana”–and led to speculation that Guyana would soon be the “next oil superpower” in industry magazines, —

–but which Maduro wanted to solidify as lying in Venezuelan jurisdiction, if they were far removed from shore, rather than Guyana’s Exclusive Economic Zone, creating a quasi- military confrontation that expanded in the near offshore region.

For Maduro had claimed sovereignty over the Essequibo region from June 2015, and a “defensive zone” lying offshore, where ExxonMobil had made its claims, both in hopes to expand the “petroleum sovereignty” of his nation, and reconfigure not only the nation of Guyana, and its offshore lands, but to quell disruptiveness and discontent in Venezuela by asserting control over the recent discovery of mineral deposits in the local seabed.

Increased bidding over the following years from Guyana’s government for “prospective acreage” in the Stabroek block and undersea basin, believed to contain 3.2 billion recoverable barrels of oil–far greater than five hundred and eighty deepwater blocks in the Gulf of Mexico. The “real map” of access to these offshore regions, as Stabroek block, or others extending beyond the EEZ of Venezuela if not deep under its territory, map the true territories the United States, offshore oil companies, and energy executives want to secure access, and to prevent, at the same time, to prevent CNOOC or CNPC, Sinopec and Rosneft to enjoy exclusive access. And the Venezuelan people are often caught in the real roller coaster ride of unstable local economies that result.


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Filed under borders, energy independence, energy markets, national borders, Venezuela

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