Venezuelans OK referendum to claim sovereignty over Guyana territory

President Nicolas Maduro speaks to pro-government supporters after a referendum regarding Venezuela's claim to the Essequibo, a region administered and controlled by Guyana, in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. Voters answered five questions about the future of the disputed land, including whether they support turning it into a Venezuelan state.
President Nicolas Maduro speaks to pro-government supporters after a referendum regarding Venezuela's claim to the Essequibo, a region administered and controlled by Guyana, in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. Voters answered five questions about the future of the disputed land, including whether they support turning it into a Venezuelan state. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans on Sunday approved a referendum called by the government of President Nicolás Maduro to claim sovereignty over an oil- and mineral-rich piece of neighboring Guyana, the country’s electoral authority announced.

Few voters could be seen at voting centers throughout the voting period, but the National Electoral Council claimed more than 10.5 million voters cast ballots.

Venezuela has long argued the territory was stolen when the border was drawn more than a century ago. But Guyana considers the referendum a step toward annexation, and the vote has its residents on edge.

Venezuelan voters were asked 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 South American countries.

“It has been a total success for our country, for our democracy,” Maduro told supporters gathered in Caracas, the capital, after results were announced before highlighting the “very important level of participation of the people” in the referendum.

Throughout Sunday, long lines typical of electoral events did not form outside voting centers in Caracas. Still, before the 12-hour voting session was scheduled to end, the country’s top electoral authority, Elvis Amoroso, announced polls would remain open for two additional hours because of what he described as “massive participation.”

Participation of over 10.5 million voters means that more people voted in the referendum than they did for Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, when he was re-elected in the 2012 presidential contest. But activity at voting centers Sunday in Caracas paled in comparison with the hours-long lines that formed outside polls during the presidential primary held by a faction of the opposition in October without assistance from the National Electoral Council.

More than 2.4 million people participated in the primary, a number that government officials declared mathematically impossible given the number of available voting centers and the time it takes a person to cast a paper ballot. State media attributed the lack of wait times Sunday to the fast speed at which people were casting their electronic ballots.

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.”

The 159,500-square-kilometer 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.

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