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International News: Venezuela approves referendum on sovereignty over Essequibo region of Guyana

Posted: Monday, December 4, 2023. 12:36 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Five questions asked of voters in Venezuela on Sunday concerning sovereignty over an oil- and mineral-rich area of neighboring Guyana were approved by majority, the Associated Press reports.

The Government of President Nicolas Maduro argues the land was “stolen” from Venezuela when the border was drawn more than a century ago; Guyana maintains the initial accord is legal and binding and asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2018 to rule it as such, but a decision is years away.

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. Voters on Sunday also 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.

On Sunday, Guyana President Mohamed Irfaan Ali told Guyanese his government is working continuously to ensure the country’s borders “remain intact” and said people have “nothing to fear over the next number of hours, days, months ahead.” Guyana considers the referendum a step toward annexation, and the vote has its residents on edge.

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.

Venezuela’s National Electoral Council claimed to have counted more than 10.5 million votes even though few voters could be seen at polling sites throughout the voting period for the five-question referendum. The council, however, did not explain whether the number of votes was equivalent to each voter or if it was the sum of each answer.

“It has been a total success for our country, for our democracy,” Maduro told supporters gathered in Caracas, the capital, after results were announced. He claimed the referendum had a “very important level of participation.” He added that it took him just 15 seconds to vote on Sunday.

The ICJ on Friday ordered Venezuela not to take any action that would alter Guyana’s control over Essequibo. Still, the judges did not specifically ban officials from carrying out Sunday’s 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 [intending to acquire] control over and [administer] the territory in dispute.”


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