HEMISPHERIC SECURITYVenezuela Voters Back Territorial Claim on Region in Guyana

Published 4 December 2023

Venezuela’s government pressed ahead with the non-binding referendum despite the UN’s top court urging restraint in a territorial dispute with neighboring Guyana. Venezuelan voters also supported the formation of what Venezuela’s government describes as a new state whose inhabitants would be given Venezuelan citizenship.

Electoral authorities in Venezuela said voters had rejected the UN’s top court’s jurisdiction in a longstanding territorial dispute with Guyana over the oil-rich Essequibo area.

They also supported the formation of what Venezuela’s government describes as a new state whose inhabitants would be given Venezuelan citizenship. 

The president of the National Electoral Council, Elvis Amoroso, said the government-endorsed ‘Yes’ campaign won all five questions in Sunday’s referendum with 95% or more of the votes.

Amoroso called it an “an evident and overwhelming victory for the ‘Yes’ in this consultative referendum.” 

About 10.5 million votes were cast by Venezuela’s 20.7 million eligible voters, Amoroso said. 

It was not clear if he meant 10.5 million votes were cast on each question, or across all five. That’s the difference between turnout of more than 50% and turnout closer to 10%.

There was no organized “No” campaign and opponents were expected to stay home for a non-binding vote.

Maduro Claims Vote Heralds ‘New Era’ in Dispute
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is currently evaluating the dispute between Venezuela and Guyana but has said it could take several years to reach a ruling. 

It appealed to the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro days before the vote to “refrain” from any actions that could complicate the case, without mentioning the impending referendum by name. 

The vote is non-binding, also for Maduro’s government, and in any case the territory is currently internationally recognized as Guyanan.

Nevertheless, Maduro hailed the results on Sunday evening. 

Today, the people spoke firmly, loudly and clearly and we are going to begin a new powerful era, because we have the mandate of the people, we carry the voice of the people,” President Maduro said at an event celebrating the results.

What Is the Dispute Over Essequibo?
Essequibo is governed by Guyana and the region makes up more than two-thirds of the country’s territory.

The area, mostly impenetrable jungle around the Essequibo River, is home to 125,000 of Guyana’s 800,000 citizens.

During Spain’s colonial era, Madrid declared ownership of the region within Venezuela’s boundaries, but that move was not recognized by the other colonial powers, including Britain and the Netherlands.

In 1899, while Guyana was under British rule, a tribunal backed by the United States and Russia ruled that Britain should have control of the region.

Over the past few decades, Venezuela has continued to lay claim to the region and the dispute has intensified since US oil giant ExxonMobil discovered oil in Essequibo in 2015.

A major new oil discovery was made last month, meaning Guyana’s reserves are set to surpass Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates with at least 10 billion barrels.

Guyana currently has the world’s biggest reserves of crude per capita, while Venezuela sits on the largest proven reserves overall.

After years of fruitless mediation, Guyana went to the world court in 2018, asking judges to rule that the 1899 decision was still valid and binding.

Venezuela argues that a later agreement in 1966 to resolve the dispute effectively nullified the original arbitration.

What Were Voters Asked? 
The five questions pertain to various aspects of the dispute and ultimately amount to Venezuela’s desired outcome for the region. 

The first asked if they rejected “the line fraudulently interposed” in 1899, then the second whether they supported the 1966 agreement in Geneva. 

The third asked them if they rejected ICJ jurisdiction on the case, noting in the question that this was “Venezuela’s historical position” on the issue. 

The fourth asked if they rejected Guyana’s claims for the maritime border in the area, with offshore oil and gas reserves also present in the area. 

And the last asked if they supported the “creation of the Guayana Essequiba state,” whose residents would receive Venezuelan citizenship and which Venezuela would “consequently incorporate” into its own territory by legal and peaceful means.

Guyana’s president said on Sunday on Facebook that his government was working to protect the country and its territory, and sought to assure people there was “nothing to fear.” 

This article is published courtesy of Deutsche Welle (DW).