Venezuela claims “overwhelming victory” in its referendum on territorial dispute with Guyana

Venezuelan authorities have announced (🇻🇪) overnight that >95% of votes cast in a referendum yesterday (Sunday) backed the government’s claims to the remote region of Essequibo, which has long been ruled by neighbouring Guyana.

At 160,000 sq-km, the disputed territory is bigger than North Korea, and makes up around two-thirds of what is now Guyana’s broadly-recognised territory.

The dispute around Essequibo has been around for centuries, involving various colonial powers like the UK, Spain, the Netherlands, and France. And tracing its history gets real tricky, real fast:

  • A Paris-based tribunal backed UK claims to Essequibo in an 1899 ruling
  • But Venezuela didn’t directly join that process and, after six decades, objected to the ruling
  • So, the UK and Venezuela then went on to sign a 1966 deal, committing to establish a process (which has gone nowhere) to revisit the dispute.

And there’s the rub: Venezuela says this later pact voided the original ruling, while Guyana (which gained independence from the UK in 1966) insists the original ruling still holds.

Things heated up in 2015 when Exxon discovered vast oil and gas fields off Essequibo, meaning Guyana now sits on bigger estimated reserves than the UAE, and is now the world’s fastest-growing economy (with 62% growth last year).

So Venezuela responded with yesterday’s referendum date, encouraging the Venezuelan people to answer ‘yes’ to these five questions:

  1. Do you reject the border “fraudulently imposed” in 1899?
  2. Do you support the 1966 pact as the only relevant text instead?
  3. Do you agree the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has no role here?
  4. Do you oppose Guyana’s “illegal” sale of oil & gas licences off Essequibo?
  5. Do you agree with granting Essequibo residents Venezuelan citizenship and incorporating the territory into Venezuela’s map as a new state?

That little ICJ reference above comes after Guyana asked the world’s court to intervene in 2018. A ruling is still years off (and Venezuela hasn’t accepted its role), but on Friday the court ordered Venezuela not to alter the status quo.


What comes next is still unclear. Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces elections in 2024, but after presiding over an economic collapse and the fleeing of 8 million citizens, his approval rating is plumbing new depths. So in that context, he’s probably using this issue to:

  • Warm up his party machine
  • Fire up the country’s nationalist sentiment
  • Wedge the traditionally fractious opposition, and
  • Distract from the opposition’s successful October primaries.

But really, Maduro has no good options here. The US has granted sanctions relief in return for free and fair elections next year, but polls (🇻🇪) suggest any fair elections will realistically see him booted from power.

So in that context, there’s speculation Maduro could be laying the groundwork for a state of emergency over the border dispute, using that as a pretext to suspend the electoral process and cling to power. So… add Venezuela to the long list of elections well worth your attention next year.

Also worth noting: 

  • Brazil (which borders both Venezuela and Guyana) announced last week it was intensifying “defensive actions” in the area. President Lula said (🇧🇷) yesterday he hopes “common sense” prevails.
  • Guyana’s president visited Essequibo last month to reassure the 125,000 locals, saying he’s committed to resolving the dispute peacefully. In parallel, Guyana’s VP has said Venezuela’s “aggressive acts” will “not go unpunished“.
  • Exxon is laying low, saying “border issues are for governments and appropriate international organisations to address”.
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