CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans are voting in a referendum Sunday called by the government of President Nicolás Maduro to claim sovereignty over a large swath of neighboring Guyana, arguing that the oil- and mineral-rich territory was stolen when the border was drawn more than a century ago.
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 two South American countries.
“We are solving through constitutional, peaceful and democratic means an imperial dispossession of 150 years,” President Nicolás 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.
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 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. His government held a mock referendum last month, but it did not release participation figures or results.
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 that the initial accord is legal and binding and asked the International Court of Justice in 2018 to rule it as such, but a ruling is years away.
Voters on Sunday will have 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.
Maduro and his allies are urging voters to answer “yes” to all five questions in the referendum. The referendum was proposed by the country’s National Assembly, approved by the National Electoral Council and cleared by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, all controlled by Maduro loyalists.
Maduro has thrown the full weight of his government into the effort, using patriotic rhetoric to try to summon voters to the polls and 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 have 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 Guyanese) must be worried about the consequences that this situation may bring, but hey, we have to try to recover our lands because there are many minerals there,” Niño said, adding that she believed Venezuela’s government organized the referendum “to try to recover (Essequibo) legally” in a negotiation with Guyana.
“I imagine that the use of weapons would be the last alternative,” she said.
Guyana President Mohamed Irfaan Ali on Sunday acknowledged the apprehension many Guyanese have over the referendum and sought to reassure them, 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 am not going to get into the internal politics of Venezuela and into their policy making, but 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.