The U.S. on Thursday announced joint military drills with Guyana as tensions mount with its South American neighbor to the west, Venezuela. That nation's authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro has threatened to annex a large portion of Guyana in the latest flareup of a long-simmering border dispute. You can read our recent explainer on the brewing crisis here.
The exercise, billed as U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom) flight operations within Guyana, “builds upon routine engagement and operations to enhance security partnership between the United States and Guyana, and to strengthen regional cooperation,” the U.S. Embassy in Guyana said in a statement. “In addition to this exercise, USSOUTHCOM will continue its collaboration with the [Guyana Defense Forces] GDF in the areas of disaster preparedness, aerial and maritime security, and countering transnational criminal organizations.”
It is unclear whether the flight operations have concluded, what aviation assets were involved or whether this was pre-planned. The U.S. routinely conducts training missions with Guyana.
However, it is notable that the announcement by the State Department comes as Maduro has threatened to take over the oil-rich Guyana territory of Essequibo. The fact that U.S. is operating assets over the country that Venezuela may soon invade is clearly a complicating factor and could be viewed as a reminder of U.S. support for Guyana.
On Sunday, the Venezuelan government claims its citizens overwhelmingly voted in favor of a referendum pushed by Maduro calling for the invasion and seizure of that region.
As we noted in our previous story about the referendum:
“Venezuela has long argued that this land was stolen when the border was drawn up between the two countries at the end of the 19th century…As well as valuable minerals — primarily gold and copper — the territory provides access to significant oil reserves in the Atlantic, the extent of which only became clear in 2015.”
“Now, the claims over Essequibo have become a rallying point for Venezuela’s Maduro, a president who has been regularly accused of authoritarianism and even dictatorship. In recent years, the legitimacy of his rule has been actively questioned, including extending to a short-lived U.S.-supported attempt to oust him.”
Ahead of the referendum, officials in Guyana, which has long denied Venezuela's claim to Essequibo, voiced their alarm. Foreign Minister Hugh Todd said: “People in the border region are very concerned... Maduro is a despotic leader, and despotic leaders are very hard to predict.”
While supporting a "peaceful resolution" to this crisis, the White House on Thursday threw its weight behind Guyana.
“We absolutely stand by our unwavering support for Guyana’s sovereignty,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters, while Britain’s foreign office said Venezuela’s recent actions were “unjustified and should cease.”
That follows a phone call Wednesday U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had with Guyanese President Irfaan Ali, reaffirming the Biden administration’s "unwavering support for Guyana's sovereignty." Bliken also called for a peaceful resolution.
It is also notable that neither the Pentagon nor SouthCom have yet addressed today’s joint exercise with the GDF. We have reached out to both, as well as the GDF, for additional information and will update this story with any details provided.
In addition to the joint flight operations, the GDF is also dealing with the deadly crash of one of its Bell 412 helicopters on Wednesday.
GDF officials on Thursday reported that there were only two survivors found out of seven on board that aircraft.
The GDF helicopter had vanished Wednesday about 30 miles east of the Venezuelan border during bad weather while transporting officers carrying out a routine inspection of troops in the forested area, according to ABC News.
Prime Minister Mark Phillips said authorities are still trying to determine what caused the helicopter to crash, with officials stressing during a news conference Wednesday that there was no indication to suggest any hostile fire.
This is a developing story. We will update it with any additional news about the joint flight operations.
Update: 6:46 PM Eastern -
In a statement issued Friday, SouthCom offered no new details about what kind of aircraft was involved in the operation, how long the flight lasted or where specifically it took place over Guyana. They declined once again to answer those questions but did offer one new bit of information when pressed by The War Zone.
"Yes, it was pre-planned," SouthCom told us.
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