Venezuela Gears Up For Essequibo Referendum, ICJ Warns Against Changes to Status Quo

The Hague-based court’s ruling was welcomed by both Caracas and Georgetown as tensions remain high.
essequibo final rally referendum
President Maduro called for national unity in defense of the country's longstanding territorial claim. (Prensa Presidencial)

Caracas, December 2, 2023 ( – The Venezuelan government held a closing campaign rally ahead of a non-binding referendum that will measure popular support for a longstanding territorial claim over the Essequibo Strip.

“This Sunday, with our votes, we will defend the Guayana Esequiba,” Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro told crowds in Caracas, using Venezuela’s name for the disputed territory. “I call on everyone to take part in this popular initiative.”

On December 3, around 20 million Venezuelan voters are eligible to participate in a five-question referendum centered on the controversial border between Venezuela and neighboring Guyana.

The questions will weigh whether citizens reject an 1899 arbitration ruling that Venezuela deems illegitimate, support a 1966 agreement as the only binding instrument to solve the dispute, dismiss the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the matter and oppose Guyana’s resource exploration in the Essequibo Strip’s territorial waters.

A final question asks voters if they support creating a new state, called Guayana Esequiba, in the disputed strip, granting Venezuelan citizenship to its inhabitants and implementing social programs for the local population.

In his address, Maduro touted the referendum as a “unique opportunity” following an “unforgettable campaign.”

“This referendum is the moment for national unity,” the Venezuelan leader stated in his address. “We cannot run from the responsibility of recovering the lands bequeathed to us by our independence heroes.”

Overview of the Essequibo Strip. Click here to see the full infographic. (Venezuelanalysis)

Friday’s rally came hours after an ICJ ruling to address a motion filed by Guyana requesting that the court introduce provisional measures against the December 3 referendum. In particular, Georgetown wanted the judges to ensure that the first, third and fifth questions be removed from the ballot. It also demanded that there be no future referenda questioning the 1899 arbitration decision.

In its response, the ICJ made no reference to the consultative referendum. However, the Hague-based tribunal stated that Venezuela should “refrain from taking any action” that would modify the present circumstances whereby the Essequibo Strip is under Guyanese administration.

The ICJ further asserted that the validity of the 1899 arbitration ruling, where no Venezuelan negotiators were present, is to be weighed by the court in the coming months.

In 2018, Guyana introduced a motion requesting that the ICJ uphold the validity of the 1899 border. Venezuela protested that it did not recognize the court’s jurisdiction to settle the territorial controversy, but the judges dismissed the arguments.

Guyanese President Irfaan Ali welcomed the Friday ruling in a statement.

“As the court has made clear, Venezuela is prohibited from annexing or trespassing upon Guyanese territory or taking any other actions […] that would alter the status quo in which Guyana administers and controls the Esequibo region,” it read.

Georgetown has taken particular issue with the final question of the referendum which proposes the creation of a new Venezuelan state in the disputed area, claiming that it shows pretenses to “annex” the Essequibo region. However, the wording of the question goes on to affirm that the creation of this state would be “in accordance with international law.”

The 160,000 square kilometer, sparsely-populated and resource-rich territory has been administered by the United Kingdom and later the independent Cooperative Republic of Guyana since the 1899 judgment. Venezuela never recognized the arbitration results and the border controversy has flared up recurrently, most recently since 2015 following the discovery of massive offshore oil deposits.

For its part, Venezuelan officials hailed the fact that the ICJ effectively rejected Guyana’s request to interfere with Sunday’s referendum. In a statement, the government said it “took note” of the court’s decision and that international law would preclude any interference with Venezuela’s political system.

Caracas went on to reaffirm its conviction that the 1966 Geneva Agreement, which saw Venezuela, the United Kingdom and soon-to-be-independent British Guiana commit to finding an amicable and satisfactory solution to the border issue, remains the only binding instrument to solve the dispute.

Venezuelan authorities have spared no effort to boost participation in Sunday’s vote. This week, civil registry Saime organized special, fast-tracked procedures for citizens to obtain or renew ID cards so as to be able to participate in the referendum. A dry run held on November 19 had a participation of over three million, according to the Maduro government.

The consultative referendum has led to a war of words between Caracas and Georgetown as well as rampant speculation about its implications. Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV) Vice President Diosdado Cabello took aim at a “campaign that says this referendum is a prelude to war.”

“Does anyone believe we are going to declare war against anyone?” he asked during his weekly TV broadcast. “We are not going to declare war, we have never had an offensive armed forces and that is not about to change.”

The Maduro government has likewise warned against US meddling and raised warnings of a possible increased presence of the US Southern Command in the region. The Biden administration has backed Guyana on the dispute and pledged support, with a Department of Defense delegation visiting Georgetown last week to “strengthen a military partnership.”