Venezuelans approve a referendum to claim sovereignty over a swathe of neighboring Guyana

by Sophia Chen
Venezuelan Essequibo Referendum

On Sunday, Venezuelan citizens cast their votes in a referendum initiated by President Nicolás Maduro’s government, asserting a claim over a resource-rich region of neighboring Guyana, known as Essequibo. This move comes over a century after the delineation of the border, which Venezuela contends was unjust. The referendum’s outcome, however, raises questions about enforcement, with Guyana perceiving it as a step towards annexation, causing unease among its populace.

Despite claims by the National Electoral Council of over 10.5 million votes, the turnout at polling stations appeared sparse. The referendum comprised five questions, including the establishment of a state in Essequibo, citizenship for its inhabitants, and the rejection of the United Nations’ top court’s jurisdiction in the matter.

Maduro, addressing supporters in Caracas, hailed the referendum as a triumph of democracy with significant participation, despite the absence of the usual long queues at polling centers. If the reported participation figure represents individual voters, it surpasses the voter turnout in Hugo Chávez’s 2012 re-election. Conversely, if it counts each answer separately, the voter count may be as low as 2.1 million.

Venezuelan voter sentiment, as expressed by 37-year-old merchant Juan Carlos Rodríguez, reflects a nationalistic view towards Essequibo. On the final day of the campaign, supporters in Caracas displayed the Venezuelan map including Essequibo, underscoring the country’s claim to the territory, which dates back to the Spanish colonial era.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) recently instructed Venezuela not to alter Guyana’s control over Essequibo but did not specifically prohibit the referendum. Guyana’s government had requested the ICJ to intervene in parts of the vote. Despite the court’s recent ruling, Venezuela’s government and military have indicated intentions to assert control over the disputed area.

Essequibo, spanning over 61,600 square miles and abundant in minerals, is strategically significant, particularly after ExxonMobil’s discovery of oil in the adjacent Atlantic region in 2015. The Venezuelan government has vigorously campaigned for the referendum, intertwining national pride with support for Maduro.

The boundary dispute dates back to an 1899 arbitration involving the U.S., Britain, and Russia. Venezuela alleges a conspiracy that deprived it of the territory and considers a 1966 agreement, which nullified the original arbitration, as the basis for resolving the dispute. Guyana, however, upholds the legitimacy of the 1899 boundary and has sought the ICJ’s affirmation.

In Sunday’s referendum, voters were also asked about their stance on rejecting the 1899 boundary and supporting the 1966 agreement as the sole legal framework for resolution. Maduro’s government leveraged various channels, including music and social media, to promote the referendum and divert attention from other national issues, such as U.S. pressure for political reforms.

Turnout at Caracas polling stations, as observed by The Big Big News, varied, contrasting with other electoral events in Venezuela. The government asserted the efficiency of electronic voting as the reason for minimal wait times.

Following the announcement of results, Maduro celebrated the rapid voting process. However, grassroots organizer Ángela Albornoz reported lower than expected turnout at her polling station, suggesting a less unified national front.

Guyana’s President Mohamed Irfaan Ali reassured his citizens of the government’s commitment to maintaining national borders and urged Venezuela to demonstrate maturity and responsibility by respecting the rule of law in resolving the dispute.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Venezuelan Essequibo Referendum

What was the purpose of the Venezuelan referendum?

The Venezuelan referendum was held to assert a claim over the Essequibo territory, a resource-rich area currently controlled by Guyana but claimed by Venezuela. The referendum aimed to establish a Venezuelan state in Essequibo, grant citizenship to its residents, and reject the jurisdiction of the United Nations’ top court in this territorial dispute.

How did the Venezuelan government and its citizens view the referendum?

The Venezuelan government, led by President Nicolás Maduro, viewed the referendum as a demonstration of national pride and sovereignty. Many Venezuelan citizens, as reflected in their voting, saw the referendum as an assertion of their historical claim to the Essequibo region, dating back to the colonial era.

What was the turnout for the referendum, and how was it reported?

The National Electoral Council of Venezuela reported over 10.5 million votes in the referendum. However, observations at polling stations suggested a much lower turnout. The discrepancy raises questions about the accuracy of the reported figures and the actual voter participation.

How did Guyana react to the Venezuelan referendum?

Guyana perceived the referendum as a step towards annexation of the Essequibo territory by Venezuela. Guyanese President Mohamed Irfaan Ali emphasized his government’s commitment to maintaining national borders and urged Venezuela to respect the rule of law in resolving the dispute.

What was the International Court of Justice’s stance on the referendum?

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Venezuela not to alter Guyana’s control over the Essequibo territory but did not specifically prohibit the referendum. The ICJ’s ruling came in response to a request from Guyana, which sought to halt parts of the Venezuelan vote.

What is the historical background of the Essequibo territory dispute?

The dispute over Essequibo dates back to an arbitration in 1899 involving the U.S., Britain, and Russia, which set the boundary between Venezuela and then-British Guiana. Venezuela contends that it was unfairly deprived of the territory due to a conspiracy and argues that a 1966 agreement nullified the original arbitration. Guyana maintains that the 1899 boundary is legal and binding.

More about Venezuelan Essequibo Referendum

  • Venezuela-Guyana territorial dispute
  • Essequibo referendum details
  • International Court of Justice ruling on Essequibo
  • Venezuelan electoral process and turnout
  • Guyana’s response to Venezuelan referendum
  • Historical context of the Essequibo territory dispute

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Mike J December 4, 2023 - 1:34 pm

I heard about the oil in Essequibo, that’s probably why Maduro’s so keen on getting it, it’s always about resources, isn’t it?

Jerry M December 4, 2023 - 10:44 pm

Wow, this whole situation with Venezuela claiming part of Guyana? sounds pretty intense, Maduro’s really pushing it with this referendum.

Samantha L December 4, 2023 - 10:59 pm

isn’t it kind of strange how the turnout was so low but they still said over 10 million voted? something doesn’t add up here.

Carlos R December 5, 2023 - 2:18 am

Guyana’s got a right to be worried, annexation is no joke, and with the ICJ not banning the referendum, things could get messy.

Emma P December 5, 2023 - 4:51 am

This dispute goes way back, doesn’t it? The whole 1899 arbitration thing is super complicated, wonder if they’ll ever really solve it.


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