Venezuelans vote to determine the future of disputed territories with Guyana

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans are voting in a referendum Sunday to decide the future of a large swath of neighboring Guyana’s territory that their government claims, arguing that the area was stolen when the north-south border was drawn more than a century ago. since.

Guyana considers the referendum a step towards annexation, and the vote puts its residents on the brink of the abyss. It asks Venezuelans whether they support creating a state in the disputed region, known as Essequibo, granting citizenship to current and future residents of the region and rejecting the jurisdiction of the UN Supreme Court in settling the dispute between the two South American countries.

“We are resolving through constitutional, peaceful and democratic means a 150-year imperial dispossession,” President Nicolas Maduro said after casting his vote at the military complex in the capital, Caracas.

The International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Venezuela not to take any action that would change Guyana’s control over Essequibo, but the judges did not specifically bar officials from holding the five-question referendum on Sunday. Guyana asked the court to order Venezuela to stop parts of the vote.

The legal and practical implications of the referendum remain unclear. But in comments explaining Friday’s ruling, ICC President Joan Donoghue said statements from the Venezuelan government indicated it was “taking steps with the aim of controlling and administering the disputed area.”

“Furthermore, Venezuelan military officials announced that Venezuela is taking concrete measures to build an airstrip to serve as a ‘logistical support point for the integrated development of Essequibo,’” she added.

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The 61,600-square-mile (159,500-square-kilometer) territory represents two-thirds of Guyana’s size and also borders Brazil, whose Defense Ministry said earlier this week in a statement that it had “intensified its defense measures” and beefed up its military presence in the country. The area as a result of the conflict.

Essequibo is larger than Greece and rich in minerals. It also provides access to an area of ​​the Atlantic Ocean where oil was discovered in commercial quantities in 2015, drawing the attention of Maduro’s government.

A woman holds a Venezuelan map marker with Essequibo Territory included during the closing campaign for Venezuela’s referendum on a disputed territory with Guyana in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, December 1, 2023. Venezuelans will try to decide the future of Essequibo Territory, a large swath of territory administered and controlled by Guyana but claimed by Venezuela. , through a referendum put forward by the Venezuelan government in its latest attempt to claim its ownership, saying it was stolen when the border between north and south was drawn more than a century ago. (AP Photo/Mathias Delacroix)

Venezuela’s government has promoted the referendum for weeks, portraying participation as an act of patriotism and often confusing it with a show of support for Maduro. His government held a mock referendum last month, but did not announce participation numbers or results.

Venezuela has long considered Essequibo its own because the region was within its borders during the Spanish colonial period, and has long disputed the borders decided by international arbitrators in 1899 when Guyana was still a British colony.

These limits were determined by arbitrators from Britain, Russia and the United States. The United States represented Venezuela on the committee in part because the Venezuelan government had severed diplomatic relations with Britain.

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Venezuelan officials assert that the Americans and Europeans conspired to trick their country out of the land, and argue that the 1966 agreement to resolve the dispute effectively invalidated the original arbitration.

GuyanaThe only English-speaking country in South America insists that the initial agreement is legal and binding and asked the International Court of Justice in 2018 to rule it as such, but the ruling is still years away.

Voters will have to answer on Sunday whether they “agree to reject by all means, in accordance with the law” the 1899 borders and whether they support the 1966 agreement “as the only valid legal instrument” to reach a solution.

Maduro and his allies are urging voters to answer yes to the five questions in the referendum.

Venezuelans cling to the truism that the eastern tip of their homeland includes the Essequibo region. They learn about the territorial dispute from an early age, through textbooks that include historical background and maps that delineate the region with diagonal lines.

Administrative assistant Hengel Nino, 45, remembers those lessons. She said outside a voting center in Caracas that she participated in the referendum because Venezuelans “must defend Essequibo.” But, like many other voters, she was unclear about what actions would result from the referendum results.

“I imagine they (Guyanese) should be worried about the consequences this situation might bring, but we have to try to reclaim our territory because there is a lot of minerals there,” Nino said, adding that she believes the Venezuelan government organized the cleanup. A referendum to “try to legally reclaim Essequibo” in negotiations with Guyana.

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“I imagine that using weapons would be the last alternative,” she said.

Guyana’s President Muhammad Irfaan Ali on Sunday acknowledged the concerns of many Guyanese about the referendum and sought to reassure them, telling them they “have nothing to fear in the coming hours, days or months.” He said Guyana uses diplomacy as the “first line of defence” and works continuously to ensure “its borders remain intact.”

He added: “I will not go into Venezuela’s internal politics and their policy-making, but I want to advise Venezuela that this is an opportunity for them to show maturity, and an opportunity for them to show responsibility, and we invite them at once.” “More are joining us… allowing the rule of law to operate and determine the outcome of this debate.”


Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City. Associated Press photographer Mathias Delacroix contributed to this report.

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