Venezuela is preparing to hold a referendum on Sunday to decide whether to establish a new state in a disputed, oil-rich territory that has long been ruled by Guyana. This vote comes after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) urged Venezuela to refrain from taking any action that could alter the status quo in the region. However, it did not specifically ban Caracas from holding the referendum as Guyana had requested. The ICJ said in April that it had jurisdiction over the case, but a final ruling could be years away.
The referendum in Venezuela will ask Venezuelans five questions, including if they agree 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. Guyana fears that the referendum could be a pretext for a land grab. The Venezuelan government has not explained how it would create the state should voters approve it. The referendum is also described as consultative.
Caracas considers Essequibo as its own because the region was within its boundaries during the Spanish colony. 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. Friction between the countries has increased since 2015 as a result of oil exploration operations by ExxonMobil and other companies in offshore areas intersecting the disputed territory.
The territory known as “The Essequibo” amounts to more than two-thirds of the territory of Guyana and is home to 125,000 of its 800,000 citizens. The area is located in the heart of the Guiana Shield, a geographical region in the northeast of South America and one of the four last pristine tropical forests in the world mined with natural and mineral resources, including large reserves of gold, copper, diamond, iron, and aluminum among others. The region also has the world’s biggest reserves of crude oil per capita.
With these resources, the country is set to surpass the oil production of Venezuela and by 2025, according to projections, the country is on track to become the world’s largest per-capita crude producer. Exxon and its partners – the US-based Hess Corp and China’s CNOOC – are the only active oil producers in Guyana. Their projects are expected to reach 1.2m barrels per day of output by 2027, turning Guyana into one of Latin America’s most prominent producers, only surpassed by Brazil and Mexico.
Brazil’s top diplomat for Latin American affairs, Gisela Maria Figueiredo, said on Thursday that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s administration was following the situation with concern. In the US, which has close relations with Guyana, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby appealed for a peaceful resolution to the dispute. Analyst Rocio San Miguel of the Citizen Watchdog on Security, Defense and the Armed Forces said that while Venezuela has significantly more military power than Guyana, it would not be able to stand up to Guyana’s allies, which include the US.
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