Will Venezuela annex oil-rich Guyana territory?

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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

Venezuela held a referendum on Sunday on whether to establish a new state in a disputed, oil-rich territory which is part of Guyana. Caracas considers Essequibo as its own because the region was within its boundaries when Venezuela was a Spanish colony. The December 3 referendum saw 95% of Venezuelan voters choosing a resounding “yes” to all five questions regarding annexing Essequibo.

Essequibo, larger than Greece and rich in minerals, provides access to an Atlantic area where ExxonMobil discovered oil in 2015, drawing the attention of Maduro’s government. Caracas claims Essequibo based on historical boundaries from Spanish colonial times, while Guyana insists on retaining the 1899 Paris arbitration panel-determined border, alleging Venezuela’s initial agreement until a reversal in 1962.

The Arguments

Venezuela has asserted significant public backing for its endeavour to assume control of the oil-abundant region situated across the border in Guyana. President Nicolas Maduro, addressing supporters in the capital on Monday morning, declared the referendum as a total success for the country, and for Venezuela’s democracy.

Maduro declared that the referendum witnessed a “very important level of participation.” Despite the National Electoral Council in Venezuela claiming to have counted over 10.5 million votes after the Sunday voting concluded, news reports noted a sparse presence of voters at polling sites throughout the process.

The referendum posed five questions to each voter, including agreement with the creation of a new state named Guayana Esequiba in the Essequibo region, the granting of Venezuelan citizenship and identity cards to its population, and the incorporation of that state into the Venezuelan territory map.

However, the electoral council did not clarify whether the vote count represented individual voters or the sum of all responses.

The implementation of the referendum results by Maduro remains unclear.

The Facts

The announcement of the referendum results on Monday followed a warning from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) cautioning Caracas against the “annexation” of the territory. The ICJ had prompted Venezuela to refrain from any actions altering the region’s status quo.

Meanwhile, Guyana, fearing the referendum as a pretext for land acquisition, referred to it as a “textbook example of annexation.” Guyana’s President Mohamed Irfaan Ali assured that his government is tirelessly working to safeguard the country’s borders and emphasized that people have no reason to fear the coming hours, days, and months.

Essequibo boasts the world’s largest reserves of crude oil per capita. In a recent announcement, Guyana revealed a significant oil discovery, contributing to estimated reserves of at least 10 billion barrels, surpassing those of Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates. With these substantial resources, Guyana is poised to exceed Venezuela in oil production. Projections indicate that by 2025, the country is on a trajectory to become the leading per-capita crude producer globally.

The international community is on Guyana’s side. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s administration was monitoring the situation with concern. John Kirby, a spokesperson for the USA’s National Security Council, urged for a peaceful resolution to the dispute. The leadership of the Caribbean Community voiced support for Guyana, stating that international law prohibits an individual nation’s unilateral seizure of another’s territory.

While Venezuela possesses significantly more military power than Guyana, it may not be able to withstand the collective strength of Guyana’s allies, which notably include the United States.


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