Why is Venezuela organising a referendum?

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FILE PHOTO: A government supporter holds a sign that reads: “The Essequibo is ours, vote YES 5 times” while participating in an event to collect signatures in support of a referendum over Venezuela's rights to the potentially oil-rich region of Esequiba in Guyana, in Caracas, Venezuela November 15, 2023. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/File Photo

On Sunday, Venezuelans will participate in a crucial vote to determine whether a new state should be established in the contested and oil-rich Essequibo territory, historically a part of Guyana. This move is viewed by some as an escalation of the century-long dispute over the region.

The International Court of Justice is currently reviewing a 2018 request by Guyana to validate a 1899 decision that granted the country control over Essequibo. Guyana has additionally sought an injunction to halt the upcoming referendum, arguing that it violates international law and poses an existential threat to the nation. The court is expected to rule on Guyana’s injunction request while continuing to assess the broader matter.

The context of the referendum includes Guyana announcing new bids for oil drilling in Essequibo, including from ExxonMobil, prompting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to call for the referendum. Maduro’s government is facing internal tensions due to a prolonged crisis involving shortages of food and medicine, prompting mass emigration. Additionally, Venezuela’s oil industry, a major revenue source, is struggling from years of mismanagement. The rise of opposition leader María Corina Machado, gaining significant voter support ahead of the 2024 presidential election, adds to the political complexities.

Guyana’s vice president, Bharrat Jagdeo, accused Maduro’s government of orchestrating the vote to divert attention from local politics and demonstrate its ability to mobilize voters amidst strong opposition turnout. In response, Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez defends Venezuela’s claims over Essequibo and accuses Jagdeo of being an ExxonMobil employee.

The background of the dispute involves the approximately 125,000 people living in Essequibo, encompassing about two-thirds of Guyana’s territory. The region, larger than England or Greece, holds significant oil reserves. Venezuela contends that Essequibo was within its boundaries when it declared independence from Spain in 1811, while a series of historical events and agreements have fuelled the ongoing disagreement.

As the referendum approaches, Venezuelan officials assert that the vote will proceed December 3, regardless of any court injunction, and some even question the court’s jurisdiction over the matter.

The heightened tensions have left local residents, mostly Indigenous people, feeling neglected by the Guyanese government. Misinformation spread through social media has further contributed to confusion and frustration among the population. In the midst of these uncertainties, Essequibo residents remain proud of their Guyanese heritage, and are asking themselves why Venezuela would seek to claim something that, in their view, does not belong to them.


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