Venezuelans vote in a referendum to claim sovereignty over a swatch of neighboring Guyana

Dec 2, 2023, 9:01 PM

Members of the Presidential Guard line up to vote in a referendum about the future of a disputed te...

Members of the Presidential Guard line up to vote in a referendum about the future of a disputed territory with Guyana, at a polling station in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans voted Sunday in a referendum called by the government of President Nicolás Maduro to claim sovereignty over a swath of neighboring Guyana, arguing the oil- and mineral-rich territory was stolen when the border was drawn more than a century ago. Few voters appeared interested in participating, but Maduro loyalists labeled the vote a success even before results were known.

Guyana considers the referendum a step toward annexation, and the vote has its residents on edge. It asks Venezuelans whether they support establishing a state in the disputed territory, known as Essequibo, granting citizenship to current and future area residents and rejecting the jurisdiction of the United Nations’ top court in settling the disagreement between the South American countries.

“We are solving through constitutional, peaceful and democratic means an imperial dispossession of 150 years,” Maduro said after voting in a military complex in Caracas, the capital. He and other government officials have not explained the exact steps they will take to enforce the referendum’s results.

Throughout Sunday, long lines typical of electoral events did not form outside voting centers in Caracas. Still, before the 12-hour voting session was scheduled to end, the country’s top electoral authority, Elvis Amoroso, announced polls would remain open for two additional hours, and he claimed, without giving numbers, “massive participation” in the referendum.

The turnout and voter enthusiasm in the capital paled in comparison with the hours-long lines that formed outside voting centers during the presidential primary held by a faction of the opposition in October without assistance from the National Electoral Council.

More than 2.4 million people participated in the primary, a number that government officials declared mathematically impossible given the number of available voting centers and the time it takes a person to cast a paper ballot. State media attributed the lack of wait times Sunday to the fast speed at which people were casting their electronic ballots.

Results had not been released Sunday night.

The International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Venezuela not to take any action that would alter Guyana’s control over Essequibo, but the judges did not specifically ban officials from carrying out Sunday’s five-question referendum. Guyana had asked the court to order Venezuela to halt parts of the vote.

Although the practical and legal implications of the referendum remain unclear, in comments explaining Friday’s verdict, international court president Joan E. Donoghue said statements from Venezuela’s government suggest it “is taking steps with a view toward acquiring control over and administering the territory in dispute.”

“Furthermore, Venezuelan military officials announced that Venezuela is taking concrete measures to build an airstrip to serve as a ‘logistical support point for the integral development of the Essequibo,’” she said.

The 61,600-square-mile (159,500-square-kilometer) territory accounts for two-thirds of Guyana and also borders Brazil, whose Defense Ministry earlier this week in a statement said it has “intensified its defense actions” and boosted its military presence in the region as a result of the dispute.

Essequibo is larger than Greece and rich in minerals. It also gives access to an area of the Atlantic where energy giant ExxonMobil discovered oil in commercial quantities in 2015, drawing the attention of Maduro’s government.

Venezuela’s government promoted the referendum for weeks, framing participation as an act of patriotism and often conflating it with a show of support for Maduro.

Venezuela has always considered Essequibo as its own because the region was within its boundaries during the Spanish colonial period, and it has long disputed the border decided by international arbitrators in 1899 when Guyana was still a British colony.

That boundary was decided by arbitrators from Britain, Russia and the United States. The U.S. represented Venezuela on the panel in part because the Venezuelan government had broken off diplomatic relations with Britain.

Venezuelan officials contend that Americans and Europeans conspired to cheat their country out of the land and argue that a 1966 agreement to resolve the dispute effectively nullified the original arbitration.

Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America, maintains the initial accord is legal and binding and asked the International Court of Justice in 2018 to rule it as such, but a decision is years away.

Voters on Sunday had to answer whether they “agree to reject by all means, in accordance with the law,” the 1899 boundary and whether they support the 1966 agreement “as the only valid legal instrument” to reach a solution.

“I came to vote because Essequibo is ours, and I hope that whatever they are going to do, they think about it thoroughly and remember to never put peace at risk,” merchant Juan Carlos Rodríguez, 37, said after voting at a center in Caracas where only a handful of people were in line.

Maduro has thrown the full weight of his government into the effort, turning the referendum into the dominant topic across all state-owned media.

Essequibo-themed music, nationally televised history lessons, murals, rallies and social media content have helped the government to divert people’s attention from pressing matters, including increasing pressure from the U.S. government on Maduro to release political prisoners and wrongfully detained Americans as well as to guarantee free and fair conditions in next year’s presidential election.

In a tour of Caracas voting centers by The Associated Press, lines of about 30 people could be seen at some of them, while at others, voters did not have to wait at all to cast their ballots. That contrasts with other electoral processes when hundreds of people gathered outside voting centers from the start.

Venezuelans hold as self-evident truth that their homeland’s eastern end includes the Essequibo region. They learn about the territorial dispute from a young age, with textbooks including the historical background and maps marking the territory with diagonal lines.

Administrative assistant Henghel Niño, 45, remembers those lessons. Outside a voting center in Caracas, she said she participated in the referendum because Venezuelans “must defend our Essequibo.” But like many other voters, she was not clear about the actions that could result from the referendum’s results.

“I imagine that the use of weapons would be the last alternative,” she said.

Guyana President Mohamed Irfaan Ali on Sunday sought to reassure Guyanese anxious over the referendum, telling them they have “nothing to fear over the next number of hours, days, months ahead.” He said Guyana is using diplomacy as its “first line of defense” and is working continuously to ensure its borders “remain intact.”

“… I want to advise Venezuela that this is an opportunity for them to show maturity, an opportunity for them to show responsibility, and we call upon them once more join us in … allowing the rule of law to work and to determine the outcome of this controversy,” Ali said.


Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City. Associated Press photographer Matias Delacroix contributed to this report.


Associated Press

Detroit could be without Black representation in Congress again with top candidate off the ballot

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A Detroit Democrat will not appear on the ballot after building significant support within the party in his attempt to unseat U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar in Michigan’s August primary, after election officials determined that he had not submitted enough valid signatures. Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett’s ruling on Tuesday to keep […]

4 hours ago

Associated Press

Delaware lawmakers OK bill enabling board of political appointees to oversee hospital budgets

DOVER, Del. (AP) — The state House on Tuesday gave final approval to a bill aimed at curtailing the increase in health care costs in Delaware by establishing a state board with authority to impose budgets on the state’s largest hospitals. The legislation passed the House on a 24-16 vote with two Democrats joining Republicans […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Judge dismisses felony convictions of 5 retired military officers in US Navy bribery case

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed the felony convictions of five retired military officers who had admitted to accepting bribes from a Malaysian contractor nicknamed “Fat Leonard” in one of the Navy’s biggest corruption cases. The dismissals came at the request of the government — not the defense — citing prosecutorial […]

6 hours ago

Associated Press

DOJ sues Oklahoma over new law setting state penalties for those living in the US illegally

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice sued Oklahoma on Tuesday over a state law that seeks to impose criminal penalties on those living in the state illegally. The lawsuit in federal court in Oklahoma City challenges an Oklahoma law that makes it a state crime — punishable by up to two years […]

7 hours ago

Associated Press

Gene Pratter, federal judge overseeing Ozempic and Mounjaro lawsuits, dies at 75

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Gene E. K. Pratter, a federal judge who oversaw numerous high-profile cases during her lengthy career and was currently overseeing lawsuits involving the diabetes and weight loss drugs Ozempic and Mounjaro, has died. She was 75. Pratter’s death was announced Friday by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of […]

13 hours ago

Associated Press

Police break up pro-Palestinian camp at the University of Michigan

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Police broke up a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Michigan before dawn Tuesday, citing a threat to public safety and coming less than a week after demonstrators stepped up pressure by placing fake body bags on the lawn of a school official. Officers wearing helmets with face shields cleared […]

17 hours ago

Venezuelans vote in a referendum to claim sovereignty over a swatch of neighboring Guyana