A man rides a motorcycle in front of a mural that reads "The sun of Venezuela is born by the Essequibo", in Caracas, Venezuela, 2 November 2023. EFE/ Rayner Peña R.

Venezuela’s referendum on centuries-old territorial dispute

Caracas, Nov 3 (EFE).- Venezuela will hold a consultative referendum next month hoping to gain a popular mandate to annexe Essequibo Guiana, a territory of almost 160,000 square kilometers that it has disputed with neighboring Guyana since both nations were under European colonial rule.

The move by Nicolás Maduro’s government has sparked diplomatic tensions, with daily statements from Georgetown and other international bodies rejecting the referendum, which is non-binding and does not in itself imply any real change on the ground.

Chavismo fiercely defends that the hydrocarbon-rich land west of the Essequibo River, which makes up about 75% of Guyana’s territory, “belongs” to Venezuela.

The colonial-era dispute has escalated to unprecedented levels after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declared itself competent to resolve it and Guyana authorized oil exploration in the area, two aspects that have exhausted Venezuela’s patience, changing its attitude from calm to defiant.

Expected result

Maps of Venezuela show the Essequibo Guiana as a “disputed territory,” so Venezuelan children learn about the dispute from a young age.

Now, Chavismo is asking Venezuelans to commit themselves to “oppose by all means” Guyana’s control over “a sea to be delimited,” according to one of the five questions of the referendum.

This question, as well as the other four, will, very predictably, be answered in the affirmative by those who will participate in the elections, in which 21 million voters will be called to vote, and which will be valid even if only 10 citizens go to the polls.

With all the institutions involved in the promotion of the “five times yes” vote, as well as the political apparatus of the ruling party, the result is a foregone conclusion. The only question is how President Nicolás Maduro intends to use the “popular mandate” that supports the annexation of the disputed zone.

Undisputed support

The consultation will distance Venezuela from its historical argument: the Geneva Agreement, signed in 1966, which commits the parties to seeking a negotiated and mutually beneficial solution.

In any case, Venezuelans, who have not had any real control over this territory since 1899, feel entitled to claim it, including the most radical opponents of the government, who for years have criticised the so-called Bolivarian revolution’s inaction in this matter.

This does not mean that the majority of the opposition is promoting or supporting the referendum, but in the midst of daily pronouncements on the issue, anti-Chavismo has made it clear that it agrees with the executive.

Military support

The leadership of the Venezuelan Armed Forces has joined the political campaign in favor of the referendum, a cause that the military also promotes with its own actions, such as the recent construction of an airstrip in an area close to the disputed territory, with which it claims to intend to contribute to the “integral development” of Guayana Esequiba.

The military institution declared itself “alert” to the international “aggressions” against Venezuela, alluding to the rejection of the Dec. 3 consultation by entities such as the Caribbean Community (Caricom) and the Organization of American States (OAS), both of which support Guyana.

Meanwhile, the armed forces have joined the government representatives in going from house to house in search of votes, maintaining the vaunted “civil-military union” with which Chavismo has been in power since 1999.

At the same time, the verbal confrontation between Caracas and Georgetown is intensifying, with words such as “warmongering,” “provocations,” “military threats,” “security risk,” or “escalation of violence” being used.

The discord is maintained at the diplomatic level, with the Guyanese President, Irfaan Ali, refusing to negotiate and declaring his determination not to cede “an inch” of territory, something for which Maduro calls him a “warmonger” and accuses him of being financed by Exxon Mobile, which is interested in extracting wealth from the disputed zone. EFE