New stage in the conflict between Caracas and Georgetown. Voters in Venezuela on Sunday voted for the integration of the oil-rich Essequibo region into their country, during a consultative referendum organized by Caracas to legitimize its claims to this territory that it disputes with Guyana. The vote concluded with a yes victory, with more than 95% of votes in favor of the five questions asked, indicated the National Electoral Council (CNE), which did not provide participation figures.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro welcomed a “crushing” victory. “We have taken the first steps of a new historic stage in the fight for what belongs to us, to recover what the liberators left us,” he said. During the day, AFP journalists in Caracas, Ciudad Guayana, capital of the Venezuelan region bordering Essequibo, or in San Cristobal (southwest), noted only moderate crowds in the polling stations.
A controversy over voting
The CNE indicated that the vote collected nearly 10.5 million “votes”. Some 20.7 million Venezuelans were called to the polls. This figure for the number of votes, without an official announcement of participation, generated controversy, with the opposition accusing the government of trying to hide a high rate of abstention and emphasizing that 10.5 million “votes” do not mean 10 .5 million voters.
Henrique Capriles, twice opposition presidential candidate, relayed on X a figure of “2,110,864” voters, each entitled to up to five votes, a “resounding failure” according to him. “It is very difficult to understand such results,” said Luis Vicente León, director of the Datanalisis polling institute. Contacted by AFP, the CNE did not immediately provide the number of voters.
The referendum, in five questions, asked Venezuelans in particular if they agree not to recognize the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), seized by Guyana, and to integrate the territory into Venezuela. However, this result will not have concrete consequences in the short term: the territory is in Guyana and it is not a vote for self-determination. The vote has sparked concern in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, and on the international stage.
The opposition, which as a whole claims Essequibo, was reserved, torn between its convictions and its desire not to support the government before the 2024 presidential election. The main opponent Maria Corina Machado described the referendum as ” distraction” in a crisis context.
“Nothing to fear”
Caracas assured that it was not looking for a reason to invade the area, as Guyana fears in the long term, where thousands of people have formed human chains to show their attachment to the territory. Guyanese President Irfaan Ali assured his countrymen on Sunday that “there is nothing to fear in the hours, days and months to come.”
“Our first line of defense is diplomacy and we are in a very, very strong position,” he added, stressing that the country has broad international support and calling on Caracas for “maturity and responsibility” . After Guyanese oil tenders and a new discovery of black gold in October, tension has risen in recent months.
Venezuela has claimed for decades this territory (sometimes called Guayana Esequiba) of 160,000 km2 representing more than two thirds of Guyana and where 125,000 people live, or a fifth of its population. Caracas maintains that the Essequibo River should be the natural boundary, as in 1777 during the time of the Spanish Empire.
Guyana, which has some of the largest per capita oil reserves in the world, believes that the border dates from the English colonial era and that it was ratified in 1899 by a Court of Arbitration. The country has seized the ICJ, the highest judicial body of the UN, to have it validated. Georgetown had also unsuccessfully appealed to the ICJ to try to stop the referendum.
Since COP28 in Dubai, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil, a neighbor of the two countries, has “hoped that common sense will prevail”. “If there is one thing that the world does not need, that South America does not need, it is unrest,” he stressed before the results.
On the sidelines of the vote, figures of Venezuelan power broadcast a video showing Native Americans of the territory replacing a Guyanese flag with a Venezuelan one. Video described as “fake” and “war propaganda” by Georgetown.