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Venezuelans approve referendum to claim sovereignty over much of neighboring Guyana, officials say

Members of Venezuela's Presidential Guard, in green uniforms with red berets, line up to vote in Caracas.
Members of Venezuela’s Presidential Guard line up at a polling station in Caracas on Sunday to vote in a referendum about the future of a disputed territory with Guyana.
(Matias Delacroix / Associated Press)
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Venezuelans approved a referendum called by President Nicolás Maduro‘s government to claim sovereignty over a large oil- and mineral-rich swath of neighboring Guyana, the country’s electoral authority announced.

Few voters could be seen at voting centers Sunday throughout the voting period, but the National Electoral Council claimed more than 10.5 million voters cast ballots.

Venezuela has long argued the territory was stolen when the border was drawn more than a century ago. But Guyana considers the referendum a step toward annexation, and the vote has its residents on edge.

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Venezuelan voters were asked whether they support establishing a state in the disputed territory, known as Essequibo, granting citizenship to current and future area residents and rejecting the jurisdiction of the United Nations’ top court in settling the disagreement between the South American countries.

“We are solving through constitutional, peaceful and democratic means an imperial dispossession of 150 years,” Maduro said after voting in a military complex in Caracas, the capital. He and other government officials have not explained the exact steps they will take to enforce the referendum’s results.

On Sunday, there had been none of the long lines typical of electoral events outside voting centers in Caracas. Still, before the 12-hour voting session was scheduled to end, the country’s top electoral authority, Elvis Amoroso, announced polls would remain open for two additional hours, and he claimed, without giving numbers, “massive participation” in the referendum.

Members of an Anglican church in a sparsely populated rainforest village in Guyana are asking for peace for their community amid territorial dispute.

Nov. 29, 2023

The turnout and voter enthusiasm in the capital paled in comparison with the hours-long lines that formed outside voting centers during the presidential primary held by a faction of the opposition in October without assistance from the National Electoral Council.

More than 2.4 million people participated in that primary, a number that government officials declared mathematically impossible given the number of available voting centers and the time it takes a person to cast a paper ballot. State media attributed the lack of wait times Sunday to the fast speed at which people were casting their electronic ballots.

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The U.N. top court, however, did not specifically prevent Venezuela from holding its planned referendum Sunday on the Essequibo region.

Dec. 1, 2023

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

Although the practical and legal implications of the referendum remain unclear, in comments explaining Friday’s verdict, 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.”

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

The 61,600-square-mile territory accounts for two-thirds of Guyana and also borders Brazil, whose Defense Ministry said in a statement last week that it had “intensified its defense actions” and boosted its military presence in the region as a result of the dispute.

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.

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Venezuela’s government promoted the referendum for weeks, framing participation as an act of patriotism and often conflating it with a show of support for Maduro.

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

That boundary was decided by arbitrators from Britain, Russia and the United States. The U.S. represented Venezuela on the panel in part because the Venezuelan government had broken off diplomatic relations with Britain.

The U.N.-backed panel says human rights violations to curtail democratic freedoms in Venezuela have intensified ahead of the 2024 election.

Sept. 20, 2023

Venezuelan officials contend that Americans and Europeans conspired to cheat their country out of the land and argue that a 1966 agreement to resolve the dispute effectively nullified the original arbitration.

Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America, maintains the initial accord is legal and binding and asked the International Court of Justice in 2018 to rule it as such, but a decision is years away.

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

“I came to vote because Essequibo is ours, and I hope that whatever they are going to do, they think about it thoroughly and remember to never put peace at risk,” merchant Juan Carlos Rodríguez, 37, said after voting at a center in Caracas where only a handful of people were in line.

Maduro threw the full weight of his government into the effort, turning the referendum into the dominant topic across all state-owned media.

Essequibo-themed music, nationally televised history lessons, murals, rallies and social media content have helped the government to divert people’s attention from pressing matters, including increasing pressure from the U.S. government on Maduro to release political prisoners and wrongfully detained Americans as well as to guarantee free and fair conditions in next year’s presidential election.

In a tour of Caracas voting centers by the Associated Press, lines of about 30 people could be seen at some of them, while at others, voters did not have to wait at all to cast their ballots. That contrasts with other electoral processes when hundreds of people gathered outside voting centers from the start.

Venezuelans hold as self-evident truth that their homeland’s eastern end includes the Essequibo region. They learn about the territorial dispute from a young age, with textbooks including the historical background and maps marking the territory with diagonal lines.

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Administrative assistant Henghel Niño, 45, remembers those lessons. Outside a voting center in Caracas, she said she participated in the referendum because Venezuelans “must defend our Essequibo.” But like many other voters, she was not clear about the actions that could result from the referendum’s results.

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

Guyana President Mohamed Irfaan Ali on Sunday sought to reassure Guyanese anxious over the referendum, telling them they have “nothing to fear over the next number of hours, days, months ahead.” He said Guyana is using diplomacy as its “first line of defense” and is working continuously to ensure its borders “remain intact.”

“I want to advise Venezuela that this is an opportunity for them to show maturity, an opportunity for them to show responsibility, and we call upon them once more join us in ... allowing the rule of law to work and to determine the outcome of this controversy,” Ali said.

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