Venezuela’s planned vote over territory dispute leaves Guyana residents on edge

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By Marco Echevarria

In a recent community event held in Surama, a village located in Guyana’s Essequibo region, villagers gathered in an Anglican church to participate in a harvest festival. This event, typically marked by the auctioning of local produce and singing hymns, took on a more somber tone this year. The residents of Surama, along with others in the Essequibo area, are facing uncertainty due to a referendum planned by Venezuela to decide the fate of this resource-rich territory, which it claims as its own.

The referendum, spearheaded by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, has raised concerns among the Guyanese, particularly in Essequibo, which constitutes two-thirds of Guyana’s landmass. Maduro’s government is pushing for the region to become a Venezuelan state and is offering citizenship to its residents. However, the move is seen as an act of annexation by Guyana, which has appealed to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to intervene.

Essequibo’s history dates back to the Spanish colonial era when it was within Venezuela’s boundaries. However, a 1899 international arbitration, which Venezuela claims was biased, awarded the territory to Guyana. Venezuela’s interest in Essequibo resurged in 2015 following the discovery of oil by ExxonMobil off its coast.

The indigenous population of Essequibo, forming the majority in the area, has expressed frustration towards the Guyanese government, feeling neglected and poorly informed about the implications of the referendum. Michael Williams, an indigenous leader from the village of Annai, voiced his community’s concerns about being left in the dark by their government.

The disputed boundary’s history involves arbitrators from Britain, Russia, and the United States, with the latter representing Venezuela. Venezuelan officials allege that the 1899 arbitration was a conspiracy against them and consider a 1966 agreement as the basis for resolving the dispute. Guyana, on the other hand, insists on the legality of the 1899 decision.

In the referendum, Venezuelan citizens will vote on rejecting the 1899 boundary and supporting the 1966 agreement as the legal solution. Maduro’s government has even conducted a mock referendum to familiarize voters with the issue, though the details of participation and results were not disclosed.

Juan Romero, a lawmaker from Venezuela’s ruling party, has suggested that constitutional reforms, including adopting English as an official language, might be necessary if the referendum passes. Another lawmaker, William Fariñas, claims that residents of Essequibo already identify with Venezuela, a sentiment starkly contradicted by the people of Essequibo, who are proud of their indigenous roots and fear the disruption that the referendum might bring to their lives.

As the situation unfolds, the ICJ is expected to make a decision on Guyana’s request to halt parts of the referendum, while a final ruling on the broader issue of the 1899 border decision remains pending.