In a referendum held by the government of President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday, Venezuelans voted in favor of creating a new state of Guayana-Esequiba — Essequibo in neighboring Guyana — which was allegedly «stolen» from Venezuela when the border was demarcated more than a century ago.
«We have taken the first steps of a new historical era in the struggle to regain what was bequeathed to us by our heroes of independence: the Guayana-Esequiba», Maduro told supporters at Bolivar Square in Caracas.
On the same day in Georgetown, thousands of Guyanese formed a human chain in solidarity with their government. Guyana’s President Muhammad Irfaan Ali, visiting troops in Essequibo last week and theatrically hoisting the national flag on a mountain overlooking the border with Venezuela, called the Venezuelan referendum «a pretext for annexation» and said his government was working to protect the country’s borders and keep people safe.
The day before, on Friday, Dec. 1, the UN International Court of Justice ordered Venezuela to «refrain from taking any action that could alter the situation currently prevailing in the disputed territory» and that could change Guyana’s control over Essequibo. And the judges did not specifically prohibit the Bolivarian authorities from holding a referendum on five questions, three of which Guyana protested and asked the court to order Venezuela to remove them from the ballot. After years of consideration and decades of failed negotiations, a new trial on the issue is scheduled for spring 2024.
It didn’t take long for Maduro to respond. Venezuela held a national referendum with a controversial agenda. In a basically symbolic referendum, whose decisions have no legal or practical force, citizens were asked to answer five questions:
1. Do you agree to reject by all means, in accordance with the law, the line fraudulently imposed by the Paris Arbitral Award of 1899, which seeks to deprive us of our Guayana Esequiba?
2. Do you support the 1966 Geneva Agreement as the only legally valid instrument to reach a practical and satisfactory solution for Venezuela and Guyana around the Guayana Esequiba territory dispute?
3. Do you agree with Venezuela’s historical position of not recognizing the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in resolving the territorial dispute over Guayana-Esequiba?
4. Do you agree to oppose by all possible means, in accordance with the law, Guyana’s claim to unilaterally dispose unlawfully and in violation of international law of a sea that has yet to be delimited?
5. Do you agree to the creation of the State of Guayana-Esequiba and that an accelerated plan of comprehensive assistance be developed for the present and future population of that territory, which includes, among other things, the granting of Venezuelan citizenship and identity cards in accordance with the Geneva Agreement and international law, and the inclusion of said state on the map of Venezuelan territory?
«Essequibo is ours», Venezuelans from Maduro’s supporters to his overt and covert opponents believe. «Essequibo belongs to Guyana», assert Guyanese, residents of South America’s only English-speaking country.
«We can inform the Venezuelan people of the overwhelming victory of the Yes side with 10.5 million votes to date», said Elvis Amoroso, chairman of the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE). All questions were approved by between 95 and 98 percent of voters, he summarized. Moreover, Amoroso did not specify whether 10.5 million people voted or whether 10.5 million votes in favor were cast. Recall that Venezuela has more than 20.7 million eligible voters.
As a result, Venezuelan voters rejected the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice over the country’s territorial dispute with Guyana and supported the creation of a new state of Guayana-Esequiba in the potentially oil-rich Guyanese region of Essequibo.
Venezuela has always considered Essequibo to be its territory, once part of Gran Colombia, the historiographical name given to a short-lived state in South and Central America from 1819 to 1831 that included the territories of present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and parts of northern Peru, northwestern Brazil, and Guyana. Greater Colombia never controlled much of the territory it claimed and was largely unrecognized by the then international community.
After the colonization of the present territory of Guyana by London and the formation of British Guiana, the decision was made to establish a border with Venezuela to avoid conflict situations. In 1899, arbitrators from Great Britain, the Russian Empire and the United States (Washington represented the interests of Venezuela, as it had by then severed diplomatic relations with Great Britain) drew the boundary line that exists to this day and that still gives no Venezuelan government any peace.
Venezuelan officials claim that the Americans and Europeans conspired to fraudulently force their country out of the land. On February 17, 1966, representatives of Great Britain, British Guiana, and Venezuela signed an agreement in Geneva under which a commission consisting of two Guyanese and two Venezuelans was to draw a new border between the two countries. The commission was unable to reach an agreement, but the two countries agreed to settle their dispute peacefully. Three months later, Guiana gained independence and became Guyana. But the «bad taste» remained.
A century and a quarter on, Venezuela claims the vast territory of Essequibo, whose 160,000 square kilometers make up more than two-thirds of Guyana’s territory, and whose population of 125,000 is one-fifth of Guyana’s total population.
The geographic region in northeastern South America is one of the planet’s four last intact rainforests with large reserves of gold, copper, diamonds, iron and aluminum, as well as other minerals. The first flare-up of tensions between Venezuela and Guyana was the «gold rush» of the late 19th century. A century later, the two countries were strained by the «black gold rush».
In 2015, the world’s largest crude oil reserves were discovered in the region. According to Venezuelan news outlet El Pitazo, Guyana announced a «significant» new black gold discovery in Essequibo in November 2023, adding at least 10 billion barrels to its reserves — more than Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates.
Exxon and its partners — U.S.-based Hess Corp and China’s CNOOC — are the only active oil producers in Guyana. Their projects are expected to reach 1.2 million barrels a day by 2027.
The oil fields in the Stabroek Block have transformed Guyana from an economic backwater to a major global oil producer and propelled the poor South American country into the economic stratosphere. Guyana now has one of the fastest growing economies in the world: according to the IMF, GDP grew by a staggering 57.8% in 2022 and is expected to grow by another 25% in 2023. According to Guyana’s central bank, the former British colony earned $1.4 billion from license fees and oil sales in 2022. Industry analysts expect those revenues to exceed $1.6 billion during 2023 and reach at least $7.5 billion by the end of the decade.
As a result, it is easy to understand Maduro’s interest in Essequibo from an economic perspective. Politically, in the run-up to the looming «free and fair» elections under U.S. pressure, the border issue, as already mentioned, unites all Venezuelans without exception, and speaking out against it is seen as a betrayal of national interests. It is not by chance that the main opponents of the Chavista government, Freddy Superlano and Henrique Capriles, were in favor of holding the referendum, while the main opposition candidate, Maria Corina Machado, preferred to keep silent in this case.
Analysts in North and Latin America consider it unlikely that the current Venezuela-Guyana conflict will move to a military stage. If Venezuela launches a military offensive to annex Essequibo, Guyana can do little to repel the invasion. The Venezuelan Armed Forces have 123 thousand soldiers, while the Guyana Defense Force has about 3.5 thousand. Moreover, the Venezuelan Armed Forces have modern fighter jets, armored vehicles and navy and are considered one of the strongest on the South American continent.
The general consensus is that Georgetown will not survive without U.S. support. And American «do-gooders» are already sharpening informational «hatchets of war» on the field of media and diplomatic «operation» against the regime of Nicolas Maduro. Videos of «military clashes in Essequibo territory» are appearing in the US media. These are actually old reports of clashes between the Colombian military and leftist guerrillas. But who can tell the Colombian jungle from the Guyanese jungle. It’s easy to fool the average gringo.
In any case, the status quo is already broken. Venezuela is building a military airfield on the border with Essequibo, Guyana is pulling troops to the border with Venezuela and conducting naval maneuvers with the U.S. Southern Command. Washington has publicly backed Georgetown’s position, and a U.S. Defense Department delegation visited Guyana’s capital last week. Brazil, meanwhile, is increasing its military contingent on its northern border with both Venezuela and Guyana.
Currently, with any border dispute, there is a risk of small clashes escalating into conflict, which must be taken into account. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that the parties would not want to start a war. They need stability even in this volatile environment, with foreign investments from China, the US and Europe at stake.
On his social media page, Brazilian President Lula da Silva wrote in reference to the Venezuela-Guayana conflict that «spending a few hours at the negotiating table is better than opening fire on innocents».
In 1982, Argentina’s dictator, General Leopoldo Galtieri, decided to play on the national pride of the «great Argentines» — to organize a «small victorious war» and try to regain the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands under Argentine control. The war, which lasted several months, ended with the victory of Great Britain: the islands remained under its control. The conflict not only did not add to the dictator’s popularity, but cost him his «throne» and dealt a tangible blow to Argentine national pride.
The result of the vote in Venezuela will not change much in the short term in the position of Nicolas Maduro. The referendum has no force, at least because the residents of Essequibo were not asked whether, in connection with a possible transition to Caracas, they wanted to forget English and start learning Spanish.