Venezuelan Government Calls Referendum Over Essequibo Dispute

The non-binding vote will measure popular support for Caracas’ longstanding territorial claim.
The Maduro government is rallying public support for the Essequibo claim. (AFP)

Caracas, October 25 ( – Venezuelans will head to the polls on December 3 to weigh in on the country’s sovereignty struggle over the Essequibo Strip.

On Monday, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) announced the date and the questions comprising the non-binding referendum.

The Caribbean nation’s maximum electoral authority accepted the petition brought forward by the National Assembly following the most recent public flare-up of the longstanding territorial dispute with eastern neighbor Guyana.

Caracas protested after Georgetown opened up a bidding process for oil exploration in the Essequibo Strip’s territorial waters. An exchange of diplomatic communiques saw the Nicolás Maduro government accuse its Guyanese counterpart of acting as “an employee of ExxonMobil,” in reference to the oil giant’s major involvement in drilling projects in the area.

Venezuela has repeatedly accused Guyana of violating the 1966 Geneva Agreements that saw the two nations commit to finding an amicable solution to the controversy dating back to the late 19th century.

In contrast, the Guyanese government led by Irfaan Ali has affirmed the country’s sovereignty over the resource-rich, sparsely populated 160,000 square kilometer territory. The country invokes an 1899 ruling by a Paris Arbitration Tribunal that awarded the Essequibo to Guyana’s former colonizer, the United Kingdom. 

The border issue was largely dormant for decades until the discovery of massive offshore oil reserves in 2015.

Georgetown has further requested that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) uphold the treaty. For its part, Caracas declares the 1899 decision as illegitimate due to the absence of Venezuelan negotiators, points to the 1966 accords as superseding the earlier ones, and has rejected the ICJ’s jurisdiction over the matter. However, the Hague-based court struck down Venezuela’s objections and the Maduro government will have to present its “Counter-Memorial” to sustain its position.

The upcoming referendum will ask Venezuelans whether they reject the 1899 arbitration, approve of the 1966 agreement as the only binding mechanism to resolve the issue, agree with not recognizing the ICJ’s jurisdiction and oppose Guyana’s unilateral appropriation of the Essequibo’s territorial waters.

A final question asks voters if they agree with establishing a new state, called Guayana Esequiba, in the disputed strip, while granting Venezuelan citizenship to its inhabitants and implementing “accelerated” social programs.

The 160,000 square-kilometer Essequibo Strip is the subject of a diplomatic dispute between Venezuela and Guyana (Archive).

During his weekly broadcast, Maduro called on the Venezuelan people to vote massively in the upcoming consultation.

“This is a referendum where we all fit, regardless of whether we are Chavistas or anti-Chavistas,” he said on Monday evening. “This is about our love for our country and the outrage at the pretenses by empires, multinational corporations and Guyana to take away what is ours.”

While the Venezuelan Constitution already establishes the obligation to defend Venezuela’s “territorial integrity,” the Maduro government is looking to weigh popular support for a potential key campaign topic ahead of next year’s presidential elections.

The Irfaan Ali administration reacted to the referendum announcement on Monday afternoon, stating that the vote intends to further Caracas’ “unlawful and unfounded” claim and could threaten “peace and security” in the Caribbean.

“The Government of Guyana categorically rejects any attempt to undermine the [country’s] territorial integrity,” the statement read. Georgetown took special issue with the final question, arguing that it amounted to an “annexation” that violated international law.

The Essequibo Strip controversy has also involved other countries, with Canada and the United States expressing their backing for Guyana.

Venezuela has rejected foreign interference and criticized joint military exercises between the Guyanese army and the US Southern Command (SouthCom) as a threat to the region. Caracas has likewise warned of plans to install a US military base in Guyana.