In a controversial move, Venezuelans voted overwhelmingly in favor of annexing a substantial part of neighboring Guyana, specifically the Esequiba region, in a non-binding referendum held on December 5, 2023. The Central Electoral Commission reported that out of the 10.5 million participants, nearly 96% supported the annexation. However, the legitimacy of these numbers has been called into question by Venezuelan opposition leaders, who reported low interest in the referendum and empty polling stations across numerous regions.
The Historical Dispute Over Esequiba
The territorial dispute over the Esequiba region dates back to the colonial era, involving former European powers, Spain and Britain. A 19th-century agreement in Paris awarded the Esequiba region to Guyana, then under British control. The conflict reignited with Guyana's independence from Britain in 1966, leading to a military response from Venezuela. In recent years, the dispute has extended to maritime areas, with Venezuela contesting Guyana's decision to grant Exxon an oil exploration license in waters that Venezuela claims.
The Referendum and Its Implications
President Nicolás Maduro championed the referendum's result as a victory for Venezuelan democracy. The referendum was seen as a measure of Maduro's government's support ahead of the 2024 presidential election. However, critics argue that the lackluster turnout suggests his government is losing influence and failing to address the needs of the people. The referendum result also raised regional concerns, with the Association of Caribbean States condemning the move, Brazil strengthening its northern military presence, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) urging Venezuela to maintain the status quo.
The Role of the International Court of Justice
Five years ago, Guyana appealed to the ICJ to resolve the dispute. Yet, the ICJ has not yet made a ruling, only affirming its jurisdiction over the matter. The ICJ also warned Caracas against annexing the Esequiba region, which is larger than the Czech Republic and home to about a quarter-million residents.
The Venezuelan referendum has amplified the tensions over the potentially oil-rich Esequiba region, revealing the complexities of this long-standing dispute. The world now watches as these developments unfold, awaiting the ICJ's ruling and its potential implications for the geopolitical landscape of South America.