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Venezuelans approve taking Guyana territory — but is it a nationalist stunt?

Ariana Cubillos
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas in 2019.

Venezuelans on Sunday approved a national referendum claiming that most of neighboring Guyana’s territory actually belongs to Venezuela — but critics of Venezuela's authoritarian socialist regime call the plebiscite a desperate political diversion.

Venezuelan officials claim more than 95% of voters said yes to a proposal to annex two-thirds of Guyana as a Venezuelan state. The 61,000-square-mile territory in dispute is known as the Essequibo, and it’s rich in oil.

Venezuela lost the Essequibo to what was then the colony of British Guiana in an international arbitration back in 1899. But Venezuela has claimed ever since that the arbitration was rigged.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro called the referendum "a total success for our country." But Guyanese President Mohamed Irfaan Ali insisted that "every inch" of the Essequibo will continue to belong to his country.

READ MORE: Venezuelans says most of Guyana is theirs. Guyanese call that a 'jumbie' story.

Maduro's critics say he ginned up the referendum as a nationalist stunt to deflect attention from his country’s economic collapse and his authoritarian rule.

He's under domestic and international pressure to hold a fair presidential election next year — unlike the one he held in 2018, widely regarded as fraudulent, to secure-re-election.

Polls indicate Maduro would lose a transparent vote to opposition candidate María Corina Machado, who recently won an opposition coalition primary — but is currently being banned from running by Maduro's regime.

"He invents distractions like these, distractions of all kinds," Machado said before the vote.

"Some are irrelevant and ridiculous, but others are serious," she added, insisting that Maduro suspend the Essequibo referendum.

A map of Venezuela showing its purported "zone in reclamation" — three-quarters of neighboring Guyana's territory.
Gobierno de Venezuela
A map of Venezuela showing its purported "zone in reclamation" — three-quarters of neighboring Guyana's territory.

Over the past decade, Maduro has been rattling sabers — even once ordering his navy to board oil ships in the disputed waters off the Essequibo — to trumpet Venezuela's annexation claim.

As a result, the U.N.’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague ordered Venezuela last Friday not to take any action to reclaim the Essequibo if the referendum passed.

In 2018, in response to Maduro's provocations, Guayana asked the ICJ, also known as the World Court, to render a definitive ruling on the Essequibo claims. Venezuela tried to block the process, but earlier this year the court agreed to let the case proceed. A ruling isn't expected for a couple years or more.

Most Venezuelan expats here in South Florida oppose Maduro — but many of them also believe that Guyana’s Essequibo region belongs to Venezuela. Even before the socialist Bolivarian Revolution Maduro leads today took power in 1999, maps of Venezuela made then designated the Essequibo as "territory in reclamation."

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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