Venezuelans Head to the Polls in Referendum on Esequibo Territory Dispute with Guyana

CARACAS/GEORGETOWN – December 4, 2023

Venezuelans are set to cast their votes on Sunday in a referendum sanctioned by President Nicolas Maduro’s government, focusing on a potentially oil-rich region that lies at the center of a prolonged border disagreement with Guyana.

The referendum, featuring five questions, notably includes a rejection of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction in determining the ownership of the territory surrounding the Esequibo River. Political and security analysts perceive this referendum as a display of Maduro’s influence and a trial of public support ahead of the scheduled 2024 presidential election.

The ICJ asserted its jurisdiction in April, though a conclusive decision on the matter may take several years. Venezuela contends that the matter should be settled through bilateral negotiations between the two nations.

On Friday, the ICJ responded to Guyana’s request to halt the referendum, instructing Venezuela to abstain from actions altering the status quo while not explicitly prohibiting the vote. Both countries interpreted the ruling as a validation of their respective stances.

Maduro has actively encouraged voters to endorse the referendum, with Central University of Venezuela politics professor Ricardo Sucre suggesting that the government aims to convey a message of strength to Guyana.

The focal point of the dispute is a 160,000 square km (61,776 square miles) region, predominantly dense jungle. Venezuela revived its claim to the territory in recent years, spurred by the discovery of offshore oil and gas reserves.

Maduro’s preference is for Guyana to adhere to a 1966 agreement for a bilateral resolution, considering potential developments in oil and gas. Additionally, the maritime border between the two nations is a subject of contention.

Political analysts anticipate widespread approval of the proposal, citing the absence of an opposing campaign within Venezuela and the likelihood that dissenting voters may abstain. The referendum is deemed “consultative,” with no specified minimum vote threshold for approval.

“Benigno Alarcon,” director of the “Center for Political Studies at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas,” remarked that the government is conducting the referendum for internal reasons, testing its electoral machinery. Security analyst Rocio San Miguel raised concerns that Maduro might be orchestrating a conflict scenario to potentially suspend the 2024 election if the opposition unites and Venezuelans express a willingness to participate.

The impending vote has stirred anxiety in Guyana, prompting the government to urge citizens to remain calm. After the ICJ ruling on Friday, some residents in Georgetown expressed relief, with vegetable seller Kim Rampersaud stating, “I feel the court made a right decision. … I can breathe a bit easy now.”

Against the backdrop of the territorial dispute, Brazil announced on Wednesday that it had heightened “defensive actions” along its northern border.

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