National Electoral Council (CNE) President Elvis Amoroso reported that all five referendum questions, related to different aspects of Venezuela’s argument over the controversial border with Guyana, had between 95-98 percent of “Yes” votes.
Venezuela has disputed the 160,000 square kilometer territory since the 19th century, originally with the United Kingdom and later with independent Guyana.
On Sunday, voters were asked whether they rejected the 1899 arbitration ruling that awarded the territory to the UK and instead supported the 1966 Geneva Agreement that saw all parties commit to an amicable solution, if they opposed the International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction on the matter as well as Guyanese efforts to extract resources in the Essequibo’s waters.
A final question proposed the creation of a new state, Guayana Esequiba, in the disputed territory, granting Venezuelan citizenship to its inhabitants and implementing social programs for the local population.
“We can report to the Venezuelan people an overwhelming ‘Yes’ victory with a participation at this moment of 10.5 million votes,” Amoroso said in a press conference on Friday evening.
The CNE president did not clarify the turnout, whether 10.5 million people had voted or whether there had been 10.5 million “yes votes.” Electoral authorities are expected to publish detailed results by voting center in the coming hours.
For his part, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said the people had spoken “loud and clear” in defense of the country.
“We have taken the first steps of a new historical era in the fight to recover what was bequeathed to us by our independence heroes: the Guayana Esequiba,” Maduro told supporters in a celebration in Caracas’ Plaza Bolívar.
The Venezuelan leader went on to praise the “total success” of the referendum with an “important level” of participation.
A number of officials throughout the day spoke of the referendum as “sending a message” to the international community and showing support for the Geneva Agreement.
The Venezuela-Guyana border question flared up in recent years following massive oil discoveries and drilling contracts granted to ExxonMobil starting in 2015. The Guyanese government’s awarding of further exploration licenses in September led Venezuelan authorities to call a non-binding referendum to get popular support for the centuries-old sovereignty claim.
Guyana filed a motion before the ICJ requesting that some of the questions be removed from the ballot. In a Friday ruling, the Hague-based court made no reference to the referendum but stressed that Venezuela should “refrain from taking any action” that would alter the present scenario of Guyanese control over the territory.
Guyanese authorities, including President Irfaan Ali, have accused Venezuela of wanting to “annex” the Essequibo, with the Maduro government refuting the allegations. In a message on Saturday, Ali urged Venezuelans not to take part in the referendum.
The ICJ is presently weighing a motion introduced by Guyana in 2018 to uphold the validity of the 1899 Paris Arbitration Tribunal’s decision.
Venezuela rejects that ruling as fraudulent, arguing that there is evidence of collusion among the judges and that no Venezuelan negotiators were present. Instead, Caracas refers to the 1966 Geneva Agreement, where the two countries commit to finding a mutually satisfactory solution, as the only binding instrument to solve the border issue.
The Maduro administration has rejected the ICJ’s jurisdiction over the case, calling instead for direct talks with its eastern neighbor, but the judges rejected the arguments. Venezuelan authorities will now have to decide whether to defend its case in court or to abandon the process altogether.
The Essequibo dispute has raised fears of US intervention in the region, with the US Southern Command performing joint military drills with the Guyanese armed forces earlier this year. Washington has publicly backed Georgetown’s position and a Department of Defense delegation visited the Guyanese capital last week.