Venezuelans will vote Sunday in a referendum to decide whether the country should create its own state within a large swath of its oil-rich neighbor Guyana – a move that has been denounced by Guyana as a step towards annexation and raised concerns of a possible military conflict between the two South American nations.
The area in question, the densely forested Essequibo region, amounts to about two-thirds of Guyana’s national territory and is roughly the size of Florida. Venezuela has long claimed the land, which it argues was within its borders during the Spanish colonial period. It dismisses an 1899 ruling by international arbitrators that set the current boundaries when Guyana was still a British colony. The recent discovery of vast offshore oil fields in the region has heightened the stakes of the dispute.
In campaign rallies and a stream of patriotic social media posts, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has cast the referendum in anti-imperialist sentiment, arguing that Venezuela’s historic rights to the region have been unfairly rejected.
Guyana has said the threat of annexation is “existential.”
Among the questions posed to voters on Sunday: do you agree with creating a new state in the Essequibo region, providing its population with Venezuelan citizenship, and “incorporating that state into the map of Venezuelan territory?”
The practical implications of the vote – widely expected to go in favor of the government’s position – however, are minimal, analysts say, with the creation of a Venezuelan state within the Essequibo a remote possibility. It’s unclear what steps the Venezuelan government would take to follow through on the result, and any attempt to assert a claim would certainly be met with international resistance.
Venezuelans in Caracas take part in a rally during the closing of the campaign for the Essequibo referendum, on December 1.
Still, the escalating rhetoric has prompted troop movements in the region and saber-rattling in both countries, drawing comparisons from Guyanese leaders to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many residents in the predominantly indigenous region are reportedly on edge.
“The longstanding row over the border between Guyana and Venezuela has risen to a level of unprecedented tension in the relations between our countries,” Guyanese Foreign Minister Robert Persaud wrote Wednesday in Americas Quarterly.
The International Court of Justice, based in The Hague, ruled on Friday that “Venezuela shall refrain from taking any action which would modify the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute” after a request to halt the vote from Guyana, which argued annexation would be unlawful. But officials in Venezuela have said the referendum will take place regardless of the court’s decision.
The international court has been reviewing the territorial dispute since 2018 and will hold a trial in the spring, following decades of failed negotiations between the two countries through the UN. Guyana says the court is the correct venue for resolving the dispute, while Venezuela doesn’t recognize the court’s jurisdiction on the issue.
The Essequibo River, pictured on April 10, flows through Guyana’s Kurupukari crossing.
The standing borders of the Essequibo date to an 1899 ruling by an international tribune in Paris, which granted what was then known as British Guiana most of the land between the Orinoco and Essequibo rivers.
Venezuela respected the ruling until 1962, as the British colony moved toward independence, alleging fraud within the tribunal. A 1966 agreement, signed shortly before Guyana’s independence, paved the way for country-to-country talks on the disputed zone and the eventual involvement of the International Court of Justice, which has been slow-moving.
Guyana, a sparsely populated country of about 800,000 with high rates of poverty, has seen rapid transformation since the 2015 discovery of oil off the coast of the Essequibo region by ExxonMobil, with over $1 billion in annual government oil revenue fueling massive infrastructure projects. The country is set to surpass the oil production of Venezuela, long dependent on its own oil reserves, and is on track to become the world’s highest per capita oil producer.
Shoppers at the Stabroek Market in Georgetown, Guyana, on April 13, 2023. More than 40% of the population lived on less than $5.50 a day when oil production began.
Venezuela says Guyana does not have the right to grant concessions for drilling in the offshore reserves and has called Guyana a tool of ExxonMobil. “ExxonMobil owns the government of Guyana. It owns the congress of Guyana,” Maduro told supporters last week.
Even without creating a state within the disputed territory, which would require further constitutional steps and the likely use of force, Maduro stands to gain politically from the referendum amid a challenging re-election campaign. In October, the Venezuelan opposition showed rare momentum after rallying around Maria Corina Machado, a center-right former legislator who has attacked Maduro for overseeing soaring inflation and food shortages, in the country’s first primary in 11 years.
“An authoritarian government facing a difficult political situation is always tempted to look around for a patriotic issue so it can wrap itself in the flag and rally support, and I think that’s a large part of what Maduro is doing,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.
Ahead of the vote, both Venezuela and Guyana have raised the specter of armed conflict over the region: last week, Guyanese President Irfaan Ali visited troops in the Essequibo region and dramatically hoisted a flag on a mountain overlooking the border with Venezuela. “This is not an armed war, for now,” the Venezuelan defense minister responded. The Venezuelan military has also said that the country is moving to build an airstrip to serve as a “logistical support point for the integral development of the Essequibo.”
A ship creates an artificial island by extracting offshore sand to create a coastal port for offshore oil production at the mouth of the Demerara River in Georgetown, Guyana, on April 11, 2023. Guyana is on track to become the world’s highest per capita oil producer.
On Wednesday, Brazil announced that it was increasing its military presence with “defensive actions” along its northern border with Venezuela and Guyana.
Writing for Foreign Policy last year, ahead of the announcement of the referendum, Paul J. Angelo of the Council on Foreign Relations and Wazim Mowla, the assistant director for the Caribbean Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, called the border dispute a “powder keg,” arguing that Russian President Vladmir Putin’s “defiance of international norms” with the invasion of Ukraine “could give new wings to Maduro’s territorial ambitions.”
Guyanese Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo echoed the comparison at a news conference last week.
“I don’t know if they are miscalculating based on what happened in Crimea and other places, but it would be a grave miscalculation on their part,” Jagdeo said.
“We can’t just think that this is internal politics (in Venezuela) without taking all possible measures to protect our country, including working with others,” he added, citing a visit last week by US military officials to discuss ongoing joint training exercises.
Gunson, of the International Crisis Group, said he believes that without the backing of any of its allies, Venezuela has no intention of invading the Essequibo. But as domestic pressure will likely increase on Maduro to act on the results of the referendum, especially in the lead-up to the presidential election next year, Maduro might be tempted to provoke skirmishes along the border, he said.
“The belligerence is on both sides of the border, and since neither of them can afford to back down, that’s where you get into the slightly dangerous territory of potential military clashes,” Gunson said.