Venezuela will hold a referendum on December 3rd concerning its historic territorial claims in the Guayana Esequiba, a territory under dispute with its neighboring country Guyana, and which is currently part of the latter.
Last Sunday, Venezuela announced the “successful” completion of a non-binding referendum simulation on the territory, rich in oil, over which it has had a longstanding dispute with Guyana. The vote will consist of 5 questions: the Venezuelan government will ask its citizens if they support granting Venezuelan nationality to the 125,000 inhabitants of this 160,000 km2 area and creating a state called “Guayana Esequiba,” following its territorial claims that span over a century.
Guyana, which administers the territory, has denounced the Venezuelan maneuver, describing it as a “threat.”
Guayana Esequiba, a historical dispute
Guayana Esequiba is the name Venezuela gives to this territory, comprising the area between the west of the Esequibo River up to the border between both countries, Venezuela and Guyana, by Mount Roraima. During the Spanish colonial period, it was part of the Captaincy General of Venezuela. However, since Venezuelan independence, it has been a disputed territory, first with the United Kingdom, which administered present-day Guyana until its independence in 1966.
In 1899, Venezuela disputed sovereignty over this area with European powers and appealed to the United States to act as an arbitrator. The dispute was resolved in Paris in what was known as the Paris Arbitration Award, which ruled in favor of the United Kingdom. Venezuela did not recognize the ruling as legitimate because the country did not have direct representation in Paris and was only represented by delegates appointed by the US.
Since then, Venezuela considers the area a “zone under claim” and typically portrays it on its maps as shaded space, clearly indicating that, despite the time elapsed, it has not renounced exercising sovereignty. Subsequently, Venezuela and the United Kingdom, with the presence of the local colonial government of British Guyana (soon to gain independence), signed the Geneva Agreement on February 17, 1966, stipulating the creation of a joint commission to seek a mechanism to end the conflict.
On May 26 of that same year, British Guyana gained independence, being renamed the Cooperative Republic of Guyana. From then on, the UK transferred the territorial dispute over Guayana Esequiba to the new country, also subject to the Geneva Agreement. Venezuela recognized the new country, expressly reserving its rights of sovereignty over Guayana Esequiba, to the west of the Esequibo River.
Behind the Venezuelan referendum
Although the December 3rd vote is not valid or binding, the government of Nicolas Maduro is using territorial claims, as other countries have done in the past, to gather support within its own country. Venezuela is aware of the impossibility of immediately gaining territorial control or shared sovereignty.
For now, Venezuela has already held a simulation that, according to the country’s authorities, was a “success due to high participation and the absence of technical problems,” said Carlos Quintero, vice president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), urging people to “vote in defense of national interest.” All Venezuelan citizens over 18 years old were called to participate in this referendum test, but authorities have not disclosed participation figures or the results of the consultation.
Guyana sees the referendum as “a threat”
Meanwhile, the Republic of Guyana has labeled the referendum as “a threat.” The former British colony appeals to the 1899 arbitration award that established the current borders. Venezuela claims the Geneva Agreement, signed in 1966 with the UK before Guyana’s independence, which annulled the award, considered “fraudulent,” and established the basis for a negotiated solution. The controversy is under the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), a jurisdiction rejected by Caracas.
The conflict intensified with the discovery of oil fields in the region and negotiations between Guyana and the US energy giant ExxonMobil for their exploitation. Irfaan Ali, President of Guyana, expressed hopes for “common sense” to prevail but also announced that his country is prepared for any scenario. The Guyanese leader warned that his administration has discussed the matter with “strategic partners,” including “members of the United Nations Security Council,” referring to the United States.
Meanwhile, Nicolás Maduro has shown a willingness to meet with Ali but warns that the dispute must be clarified in the ICJ.