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Venezuelans Overwhelmingly Support Claim to Disputed ‘Guyana Territory’ in Referendum

Essequibo constitutes two-thirds of Guyana’s land and is home to about a sixth of its population.

The majority of Venezuelan voters have expressed strong support for asserting control over the disputed and oil-rich territory of Essequibo, a region historically under the administration of neighbouring Guyana. Officials report that over 95% of voters have endorsed the proposal to establish a new state in Essequibo.

The longstanding territorial dispute revolves around differing historical claims. Caracas asserts that Essequibo has been part of Venezuela since gaining independence from Spain two centuries ago. In contrast, Guyana maintains that the territory was awarded to what was then British Guiana in the late 19th century.

The issue resurfaced in 2015 following a significant offshore oil discovery in the disputed waters. President Nicolás Maduro celebrated the referendum result as an “overwhelming victory for ‘Yes’ throughout Venezuela.”

Essequibo, spanning 159,500 square kilometres (61,600 square miles), constitutes two-thirds of Guyana’s land and is home to about a sixth of its population. The region has been a persistent source of tension between the neighbouring nations.

An 1899 ruling by an international arbitral tribunal awarded the territory to Britain, the colonial power in Guyana at the time. However, successive Venezuelan governments have contested the fairness of the ruling in recent decades. In 1966, Britain and Venezuela agreed to establish a commission to revisit the dispute, but no resolution has been reached six decades later.

The discovery of oil off Essequibo’s coast by ExxonMobil in 2015 intensified the conflict. In 2018, Guyana filed a case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to determine the validity of the 1899 tribunal’s decision. The ICJ has yet to deliver a ruling, and Venezuela, although disputing the court’s jurisdiction, has participated in its hearings.

Tensions escalated in September when Guyana held an auction for oil exploration licenses in Essequibo waters, drawing criticism from Venezuela. The recent referendum posed questions to voters, including support for Venezuela’s claim over Essequibo and opposition to ICJ jurisdiction. All questions received over 95% approval.

Guyana denounced the vote as an aggressive annexation attempt, and the ICJ ordered Venezuela to refrain from actions altering the status quo in Essequibo. Critics also view the poll as a tactic by President Maduro to boost nationalist sentiment ahead of the 2024 elections. The Venezuelan government’s next steps remain unclear, but any attempt to take the territory by force could trigger a robust international backlash, potentially including the re-imposition of US sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports.

Kiki Garba