The ‘badlands’ of Guyana have long been some of the mining areas, particularly those close to the frontier and far from government centres of control. Aside from the matter of Guyana’s permeable borders allowing the penetration of drugs and other undesirable items such as guns, and the appearance of unauthorized airstrips and mystery planes in the hinterland, there are now reports of other kinds of visitations.
Towards the end of last month, we reported that mining camps had been robbed in the area of Kartuni, Cuyuni, and that the staff at the camps had been beaten and, among other things, had their firearms stolen. The miner who spoke to this newspaper related that the gang involved spoke fluent Spanish and Portuguese, except for one member who was silent and whom he thought may have been Guyanese giving the others directions as to where to go. In addition to his camp, six others had been attacked, he said.
Given the chaos across the river in neighbouring Venezuela, where supplies of all kinds are hard to come by, it is not too difficult to imagine the formation of gangs which will target isolated and vulnerable mining operations on both sides of the border. The fact that some of the gang spoke Portuguese, suggesting they were of Brazilian nationality, is not of great significance. Brazilian miners can be found legally and illegally in all territories in this region, not the least of which is Venezuela. It will be remembered that when three Guyanese miners were killed in Venezuela’s Imataka last month, they were working for a Brazilian.
For most of the common boundary’s length, Guyana faces Venezuela’s Bolívar state, although in the North-West, it is the state of Delta-Amacuro. Some of the urban areas of the first-named were hotbeds of opposition resistance, and experienced considerable violence. The mining areas near the border have always attempted to evade government regulation from Caracas, and one suspects that in the current political confusion with a food crisis to boot, they may now be veering somewhat to the uncontrolled end of the spectrum.
In earlier times, the Venezuelan National Guard (which is separate from the army) had been put to police the borders, but following various revelations about their corruption, particularly in relation to the illegal sale of cheap oil to foreigners in neighbouring countries, they were withdrawn and the regular military were substituted for them instead. It is the National Guard and the police which have been confronting the opposition protestors on Venezuela’s streets, while the military proper have been kept in barracks.
The late Hugo Chávez had created a kind of civilian-military alliance, the precise theoretical basis of which was vague, but which in practice meant buying off the senior officer class by giving them confiscated businesses and factories to run, and turning a very blind eye to the corruption which developed out of this, including drug trafficking. The conventional wisdom so far has been that the army’s benefits from investment in the economy are such that they will not challenge President Nicolás Maduro, and will accord him tacit support, at least.
Not everyone in Venezuela is absolutely convinced of this, however, particularly where the lower ranks of the military are concerned, and a little story from Guyana’s North-West about incidents which occurred two weeks ago might, it is thought, have given their argument a little additional support. Information contained in an international report, as well as one in our state paper, found its way into the Venezuelan press.
The story was that members of the Guyanese joint services from Mabaruma encountered a few Venezuelan soldiers who were both armed and in uniform near the Amacuro River, who said they had come to beg for food. The Miami Herald reported a police officer as telling the daily that they had crossed the Amacuro into Guyana on a wooden raft, and that to all appearances they were genuinely hungry. The newspaper quoted him as saying, “They were here for some time and they showed me a can of sardines and the place where they had cooked it over a fire.” The Guyana Chronicle also included the detail that the soldiers said they had not received food for 45 days.
The police and GDF had gone there because, according to the state newspaper, the villagers of White Water had been robbed by Venezuelan soldiers earlier, in addition to which the Toshao said that he had also received reports of Guyanese Indigenous people being harassed by them. Along with that there was another report of two armed men being seen at a shop in the village, and that nervous residents were asking for a police outpost to be established there. White Water, it must be said, is less than two miles from the Amacuro.
Some elements in the Venezuelan media have carried uncorroborated reports of soldiers searching for food in garbage dumps, just as the civilians are doing, while the Miami Herald made reference to a growing number of unconfirmed reports that soldiers were going hungry, “particularly at far-flung border outposts.”
For the time being – with President Trump’s help – Mr Maduro has some grip on the political situation. He has his Constituent Assembly, which usurped the legislative powers of the National Assembly on Friday. In addition, the opposition is in disarray, not so much because after 120 deaths and many injuries and arrests they have lost the confrontation with Miraflores, but because Henry Ramos Allup, the leader of Acción Democrática has announced that his party will fight the gubernatorial elections, designated for October by the Constituent Assembly.
This was made public without any prior discussions with the other parties which go to make up the opposition alliance ‒ MUD, as it is known by its acronym ‒ and it has caused major strains, in circumstances where some were leaning towards a boycott.
The political situation notwithstanding (and even that cannot continue for too long), the shortages in Venezuela remain, and it is difficult to see how President Maduro can address these without changing course dramatically. And he shows absolutely no sign of doing that. But if the ordinary rank and file of the army come under increasing pressure in relation to rations, the Head of State might find his position more uncertain than it is at present. Even before that happens, the areas adjacent to our border potentially could become more disorderly, with possible implications for us.