Ballots, Claims and Oil

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Venezuelans voted Sunday in a referendum that will decide whether a large swath of territory of neighboring Guyana should become part of Venezuela, a vote that has raised fears of annexation among Guyanese and a regional conflict in Latin America, the Associated Press reported.

The referendum is centered over the disputed territory of Essequibo, a 61,600-square-mile area – about two-thirds of Guyana – that Venezuela alleges was stolen when a north-south border was drawn more than a century ago.

Voters will be asked to decide whether they support establishing a state in the disputed territory, granting citizenship to current and future area residents, and rejecting the jurisdiction of the United Nations’ top court in settling the disagreement between the two South American countries.

Caracas claims Essequibo as its own due to its historical inclusion in its boundaries during the Spanish colonial period. The border dispute originates from the 1899 arbitration, involving the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States – with the latter representing Venezuela due to broken diplomatic ties with Britain.

Venezuelan officials have accused the US and Europe of conspiring to unjustly take the land, and asserted that a 1966 agreement effectively annulled the original arbitration.

But Guyana supports the initial agreement’s legality and binding nature. In 2018, it appealed to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for a ruling on this matter, although the decision is expected to take several years.

The Venezuelan government promoted participation in the plebiscite as a patriotic duty and held a mock referendum last month, although it did not release the participation figures or results.

On Friday, the ICJ ordered Venezuela to refrain from altering Guyana’s control over Essequibo. However, the world court did not specifically ban Caracas from carrying out Sunday’s referendum.

Meanwhile, Brazil – which borders both countries – announced earlier this week it has “intensified its defense actions” and boosted its military presence in the region as a result of the dispute.

Observers noted that the legal and practical implications of the referendum are still to be determined.

Essequibo is a resource-rich region and has under its aegis areas in the Atlantic Ocean where oil in commercial quantities was discovered in 2015.

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