Venezuelans voted in a referendum on Sunday (3/12), organized by President Nicolas Maduro’s government, to claim sovereignty over the vast territory controlled by neighboring Guyana. The Venezuelan government argues that the region, which is rich in oil and mining, was stolen when the border lines between the two countries were drawn more than a century ago.
Guyana called the referendum a step forward towards annexing the territory, and caused unease among the country’s citizens.
The referendum itself asked Venezuelan citizens whether they supported establishing a state in the disputed region, known as the Essequibo, granting citizenship status to citizens living in the region currently and in the future and rejecting the jurisdiction of the UN’s top court in resolve the dispute between the two countries in South America.
“We are seeking a constitutional, peaceful and democratic solution to 150 years of territorial dispossession,” President Maduro said after voting at a military compound in Caracas, the country’s capital. He and a number of other government officials did not provide an explanation as to what firm steps they would take to implement the referendum results later.
The International Court of Justice on Friday asked Venezuela not to take any action that would change Guyana’s control of the Essequibo, but it did not specifically bar Venezuelan officials from holding a five-question referendum on Sunday. Guyana has asked the court to require Venezuela to partially halt the vote.
Although the practical and legal implications of the referendum itself remain unclear, in an explanatory statement regarding last Friday’s decision, the president of the international tribunal, Joan E Donoghue, said that statements from the government showed that Venezuela was taking steps with a view to taking control and manage disputed territories.
“Subsequently, Venezuelan military officials announced that the country is taking concrete efforts to construct an airstrip to serve as logistical support for the integral development of the Essequibo,” he continued.
The 61,600 square mile or 159,500 square kilometer territory covers 2/3 of Guyana’s territory and also shares a border with Brazil, where the country’s Ministry of Defense said earlier this week in a statement that Brazil had intensified defense efforts and increased its military strength in the region, as a reaction to this dispute.
Essequibo has an area larger than Greece and is rich in minerals. The region also provides access to the Atlantic region where giant Exxonmobil discovered oil in commercial quantities in 2015, drawing the attention of Maduro’s government. (ns/lt)