Unusual and Extraordinary: Venezuelan Sovereignty and the Essequibo Referendum

The national vote held on December 3 upheld sovereignty in two ways: exercising control over the territory and emphasizing the weight of the popular vote.
Clodovaldo Hernández is a Venezuelanalysis columnist. (Venezuelanalysis)

Sovereignty, a concept that neoliberal modernity has sought to dilute and pasteurize, has come doubly to the forefront as a result of the referendum held in Venezuela on December 3 regarding the country’s dispute with Guyana over the 159,500 square kilometer territory west of the Essequibo River.

Caracas’ move was an unusual turn in this type of border dispute. Previous cases involved consultations with the concerned peoples but had been preceded by diplomatic agreements between the parties. In this case, the action was pursued to demonstrate national unity and determination at a time when the dispute has been brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) unilaterally by Guyana party against Venezuela’s will.

Sovereignty takes center stage in two of its dimensions here. On the one hand, the territorial rights of a nation-state that has claimed them for over a century, and on the other, the right of the people to self-determination, which is one of the fullest expressions of suffrage.

The powerful forces that have stood against Venezuela for almost a quarter of a century have rallied – unsurprisingly – behind Guyana. They see in the boiling controversy a new opportunity to achieve the oft-failed objective: removing Chavismo from power and thus eliminating a regional and global reference that is highly detrimental to their interests.

The referendum, along with the reported participation of 10.5 million voters, amplifies the contradiction between the modest and very battered Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela on one side and on the other the declining but still hegemonic power of the United States, the European Union, their military arm NATO, and the intricate network of corporations and interests these nations represent. The heightened tension in this already longstanding antinomy revolves precisely around sovereignty.

On December 3, the government of Nicolás Maduro strengthened, in an unusual way, its claim for the vast expanse of rich lands in the Amazon forest. In other words, it invoked sovereignty in its sense of dominion over the territory while appealing to popular power through a referendum. In so doing, it awakened the other aspect of that same principle: the right of a people to decide its future through majority will.

Territorial sovereignty as an obstacle

In these two areas, the confrontation with the global status quo is absolute. The once-omnipotent power of what is now known as the “Collective West” is against the aspirations of territorial sovereignty of nation-states in the periphery. They argue that these struggles for the national territory are anachronistic. However, those very countries are not willing to yield an inch of their territory, which, incidentally, grew through expansionist plunder perpetrated against their neighbors or outright colonialism in faraway lands.

Imperial forces oppose the exercise of territorial sovereignty because it is an obstacle to the expansion of their corporations, which are, in fact, their first occupation armies.

In disputes over territory, hegemonic capitalism will always opt for the country whose government guarantees greater possibilities of plundering the disputed space, looting its natural and human resources, or gaining geostrategic advantages.

In the case at hand, that country is Guyana, which became an object of desire for oil giants since important reserves of light crude were discovered in the undelimited waters off the Atlantic facade of Venezuela and the Essequibo continental territory, which the former British colony exercises in possession by way of the void 1899 Paris Arbitration Tribunal verdict.

Since 2015, the US-based ExxonMobil has conducted illegal exploration in those marine areas. It did so through “concessions” granted by Georgetown in flagrant violation of the content of the 1966 Geneva Agreement, which ordered both parties not to dispose of resources from the disputed areas until the controversy was settled.

The connection between ExxonMobil and Guyana is not just a Venezuelan propaganda stunt, as some might think. In a comprehensive report from The Intercept, Amy Westervelt explains “How Exxon Conquered a Country Without Firing a Shot” – a suggestive title for a journalistic work! – and asserts unequivocally that “Guyana is about to become Exxon’s top oil producer. It is increasingly unclear where the company ends and the government begins.”

Washington’s swift criticism of the referendum is hardly surprising. It presented it as a provocation, an aggression, almost like a bombing, and proceeded to flex its muscles with “joint” military maneuvers with the feeble Guyanese army in areas of the disputed territory. It is no secret that the very powerful US military apparatus would not embark on such risky maneuvers for the sake of defending Guyana’s sovereignty, but it would do so to safeguard ExxonMobil’s “sovereignty,” which is part of the “deep state” that de facto governs the US.

The government of Guyana, showing how subservient it is to northern vassalage, has used its “friendship” with the United States to threaten Venezuela with hypothetical actions by the Southern Command, the most visible meddling spearhead in the entire Latin American region.

Against the popular vote

The criminalization of the referendum exposes another aspect of the northern powers’ stance on the issue of sovereignty. The very countries that have been labeling Venezuela as a dictatorship for decades and demanding that elections be held according to their rules, characterize our referendum as an act of war.

Their constant attempt to stigmatize everything done by the Bolivarian Revolution and label it as authoritarian is not enough for them. Why? Because they fear that participatory and protagonic practices will spread to other nations of the Global South and even to their national jurisdictions.

It should not be forgotten that since Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela in 1999, a total of seven national referendums have been held. Several of them concerned the 1999 Constitution and proposed amendments, while a landmark one was the opposition’s effort to recall the presidential mandate in 2004 that saw Chávez reaffirmed in office.

The existing model of domination does not want these democratic practices to prevail. It requires that major decisions be made by the political, economic, and social elites of dependent nations, without appealing to assembly democracy. Such consults could become a significant obstacle to the plans of the corporatocracy. That is why it is necessary to demonize and disqualify such efforts without hesitation.

The weight of the narrative

Imperial power has a very important weapon, the mainstream media and the social media machinery, which is capable of imposing its narratives on important sectors of the public. This invaluable resource allows US leaders to portray Maduro, always described as an autocrat, as having decreed the “annexation” of territory belonging to Guyana.

This narrative is far from reality: the decisions of the president are endorsed by the results of a popular consultation, which is something that very few leaders can claim to have done. There is no proposed annexation here because the December 3 referendum pertains to a territory long claimed by Venezuela, and Venezuela possesses all the historical rights to assert sovereignty.

In the prevailing narrative, the triggering event of the current binational crisis is erased or downplayed: the oil concessions granted in undelimited waters, which is the sole responsibility of the Guyanese government and ExxonMobil. Meanwhile, the referendum, the subsequent approval of an Essequibo law, and the distribution of a new map are portrayed as acts of war that warrant a military response.

The communication apparatus, oiled by contributions from the involved company, highlights the statements of officials from the United States and the United Kingdom, the two countries that orchestrated the fraudulent 1899 Paris Arbitration Tribunal verdict. They audaciously reproach Venezuela’s claim and accuse the country of wanting to attack Guyana.

Sadly, within Venezuela, important media outlets and social media figures reproduce the corrosive work of the corporate press. Nothing new, indeed, as the media war against Venezuela has shown no truce over the past 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.