Nov 30, 2023 - World

Venezuelans will vote on taking over oil-rich, Guyana-ruled territory

A mural calling for Venezuelans to vote to annex Essequibo. Photo: Federico Parra/AFP via Getty Images

Venezuelans on Sunday will vote on whether to establish a new state in a disputed, oil-rich territory long ruled by Guyana.

State of play: Some observers see Venezuela's referendum as an escalation of the century-long dispute over the Essequibo territory.

  • The International Court of Justice is considering a 2018 request by Guyana to validate a 1899 decision that gave the country control over Essequibo.
  • Guyana has also asked the court to put a stop to this weekend's referendum, arguing it violates international law and presents an existential threat to it as a country. Experts and groups like the Organization of American States have agreed.
  • The court says it'll rule tomorrow on Guyana's request for an injunction while it continues to review the overall matter, although it's unclear what that ruling could be.
  • U.S. Department of Defense officials visited Guyana this week to discuss the countries' military partnership.

Context: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro called for the referendum shortly after Guyana announced it was taking new bids for oil drilling in Essequibo, including from ExxonMobil.

  • Maduro's government faces tensions at home as a yearslong food and medicine shortage crisis keeps driving millions of Venezuelans out of the country and as the nation's oil industry, long the government's biggest cash cow, is struggling after years of mismanagement.
  • Plus, the new opposition leader, María Corina Machado, has drawn major voter support ahead of the 2024 presidential election, which Maduro is expected to run in.
  • Guyana's vice president, Bharrat Jagdeo, this week accused Maduro's government of calling for Sunday's vote as an attempt to distract from local politics and to try to prove it can mobilize voters in the face of the opposition's high primaries turnout.
  • In response, Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez said Jagdeo is an ExxonMobil "plant" and that Venezuela's claims over Essequibo are legitimate.

Background: About 125,000 people live in Essequibo, which encompasses about two-thirds of Guyana. Essequibo stretches for almost 62,000 square miles — larger than England or Greece — and was found to have massive oil reserves in 2015.

  • Venezuela has long argued that Essequibo was within its boundaries when it declared independence from Spain in 1811.
  • Around that time, British colonists purchased Guyana from the Dutch.
  • In 1899, after the U.S. intervened, a panel fully awarded Essequibo to British rule; Venezuela said it was a fraudulent decision and the debate stretched on.
  • A few months before Guyana became independent in 1966, Britain and Venezuela signed an agreement that essentially punted the issue, saying Essequibo would remain under Guyana rule until a permanent solution was found.

What to watch: Venezuelan officials say the vote will be held Sunday even if the court issues an injunction.

  • Some Venezuelan officials have also said they don't believe the court has jurisdiction at all.

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