Venezuelan voters were asked in a referendum whether they support establishing a state in Essequibo, a region that Venezuela has claimed to have large public support to take over. The referendum result was announced after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) warned Caracas against “annexation” of the territory. President Nicolas Maduro called the referendum a “total success for our country, for our democracy,” while Guyana President Mohamed Irfaan Ali said his government is working to ensure the country’s borders “remain intact.”
Maduro claimed that the referendum had a “very important level of participation.” The National Electoral Council in Venezuela claimed to have counted more than 10.5 million votes after the voting ended, but only a few voters could be seen at polling sites throughout the voting period. Each voter was asked five questions, including if they agreed with creating a new state called Guayana Esequiba in the Essequibo region, granting its population Venezuelan citizenship, as well as identity cards, and incorporating that state into the map of Venezuelan territory.
The referendum in Venezuela was held after the ICJ urged the country to refrain from “taking any action” that could alter the status quo in the region. The international court president Joan E Donoghue said statements from Venezuela’s government suggest it “is taking steps with a view toward acquiring control over and administering the territory in dispute.” Guyana has always feared that the referendum could be a pretext for a land grab.
Essequibo is larger than Greece and rich in minerals. It also gives access to an area of the Atlantic where energy giant ExxonMobil discovered oil in commercial quantities in 2015, drawing the attention of Maduro’s government. Caracas considers Essequibo as its own because the region was within its boundaries during Spanish colonial times. The Guyanese government insists on retaining the border determined in Paris in 1899 by an arbitration panel while claiming that Venezuela had agreed with the ruling until it changed its mind in 1962.
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