- On December 3, 2023, according to the Chavista dictatorship, Venezuelans approved a sovereignty claim on about two-thirds of Guyana, a country abundant in natural resources such as oil, minerals, and natural gas. The dispute over the land dates back to the 1800s and stems from European colonization of South America.
- The referendum has alerted the international community of a possible Venezuelan forceful annexation of the territory in the future. Chavista officials say the dispute is not “yet” an armed conflict.
- In a November 29 statement, the Brazilian Defense Ministry claimed that it had been monitoring the conflict and increased the presence of military officials on their border along Guyana and Venezuela. Likewise, Venezuelan NGO Citizen Control warns that the escalation of the territorial dispute could lead to an armed conflict.
- While there is no official explanation for why the Chavista regime held a referendum on this long-standing dispute, Gricelda Sánchez and Pedro Urruchurtu believe it is a politically driven distraction from the 2024 presidential election. In the opposition primary election, leader María Corina Machado got 93 percent of the votes.
On December 3, 2023, Venezuela held a regime-controlled referendum regarding a sovereignty claim over 60 percent of Guyana’s territory: the Essequibo region. The referendum has sparked rebuke from Brazil and Guyana, local and regional NGOs that advocate for peace, and opposition Venezuelan politicians. They fear a possible escalation of a centuries-long territorial dispute, which is under review with the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ).
On November 23, Guyanese Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo claimed that US Defense Department officials would visit the country in the upcoming weeks. In a press conference about the referendum, Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino replied that the territorial dispute “is not an armed conflict yet.” Venezuelan NGO Citizen Control—which advocates for democracy and the rule of law—also warned that if the “dispute over the Essequibo continues to escalate, it could become an armed conflict.” In a November 29 statement, Brazilian Defense Ministry officials claimed the country has been “monitoring the conflict.” Brazil has also “increased military presence” on its border with Guyana and Venezuela.
The Essequibo—located west of the Essequibo River, which divides Guyana into two parts—has an area of 15 million hectares. The Essequibo portion is bigger than countries such as Cuba and about the size of the US state of South Dakota. It is home to 125,000 out of 815,000 Guyanese citizens, who speak English. Most Essequibo inhabitants simply consider themselves Guyanese. Venezuelans, however, believe that Essequibo belongs to Venezuela.
The Venezuelan education system teaches children that Essequibo is a “disputed zone” that belongs to Venezuela. “The Venezuelan sun rises over the Essequibo,” reads a local adage to claim that it is Venezuelan territory.
The territorial dispute dates back to the 1800s, after Venezuela’s independence from Spain and its territorial demarcation. In 1840, German explorer Robert Schomburgk sketched a map—under the authorization of the British Empire—of the Venezuela-Guayana border. The so-called Schomburgk’s line divided Guyana’s territory and expanded the colony’s territory over Venezuela’s.
This investigation explains the conflict between Venezuela and Guyana over the Essequibo region, its economic importance, and the regime-sponsored referendum. For this, the Impunity Observer interviewed:
- Josmar Fernández, Venezuelan professor and researcher based in Caracas;
- Alejandro Rodríguez, founder of geopolitical YouTube channel Power Hypothesis;
- Gricelda Sánchez, president of Venezuelan independent NGO Fordisi;
- Pedro Urruchurtu, coordinator of international affairs of the Vente opposition party.
The Case before the UN International Court of Justice
In April 2023, the ICJ accepted a Guyanese request to review the territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela. On two previous occasions, Venezuela challenged the case’s admissibility to the court. International media, such as AP News, predict that the court will take years before issuing a resolution.
On October 31, the Guyanese government asked the ICJ to block the regime-sponsored referendum. Georgetown believes that the Venezuelan dictatorship is seeking “to obtain responses that would support Venezuela’s decision to abandon [the current proceedings before the Court], and to resort instead to unilateral measures to ‘resolve’ the controversy with Guyana by formally annexing and integrating into Venezuela all of the territories at issue in these proceedings, which comprises more than two-thirds of Guyana.”
The ICJ issued a statement about the Venezuela-Guyana conflict on December 1. Although the court failed to mention the referendum, it ordered Venezuela to refrain from committing any actions that could alter the status quo in Essequibo, which is under Guyanese control.
The Regime’s Referendum
According to Venezuela’s regime-controlled electoral authority, 10.5 million people voted in the referendum. Whether that is true or not, the publicized number is still one-third less than participated in the last election—15.1 million—prior to Hugo Chávez’s death. Regardless, civilians and ballot-station coordinators reported few voters in the capital city of Caracas. In addition, the electoral authority contends that all questions got over 95 percent of “yes” votes. The referendum consisted of five questions:
- Do you agree with rejecting by any means, according to the law, the fraudulent border imposed by the 1899 Paris Arbitration Tribunal, which pretends to strip away our Essequibo region?
- Do you support the 1966 Geneva Agreement as the only legal instrument for reaching a pragmatic solution for Venezuela and Guyana regarding the territorial dispute involving the Essequibo region?
- Do you agree with Venezuela’s stance of not recognizing the ICJ’s jurisdiction to issue rulings on the Essequibo?
- Do you agree with opposing, by all means, Guyana’s illegal aspiration to obtain sea borders that violate international law?
- Do you agree with the creation of a new province called the Guyana Essequibo, with a plan to assist its current and future population by granting them Venezuelan citizenship, and including the territory in the map of Venezuela?
The first three regime-promoted questions are about international law. The first one asked citizens to reject the ruling of the 1899 Paris Arbitration Tribunal, which granted the Essequibo region to the United Kingdom, the colonizer of Guyana at that time. The second question asked Venezuelans to accept the US-sponsored Geneva Agreement of 1966 as the only legal instrument to reach an agreement between the parties. The Geneva Agreement, an active treaty that declared the resolution of the 1899 Paris Tribunal of Arbitration void, established that Venezuela and Guyana should resolve the territorial dispute in an “amicable manner acceptable to both parties.” The third question asked citizens about Venezuela’s decision to reject the ICJ’s jurisdiction over the dispute, and therefore, any resolution that stems from the current case before the court.
The fourth question asked citizens whether to limit Guyanese access to the Atlantic Ocean through the Essequibo and “illegal oil extraction” in the zone, as the Maduro regime characterizes it. The fifth question, which concerns the international community, asked citizens for approval to create a new province called Guyana Essequibo and give its inhabitants Venezuelan citizenship.
Urruchurtu and Rodríguez explain to the Impunity Observer that the regime-sponsored referendum is nonbinding. Maduro, however, contends that the referendum is binding. In addition, Urruchurtu contends that local courts do not have any jurisdiction on the topic since Venezuela recognizes the Geneva Agreement, which states that the parties involved should resolve the dispute.
The Essequibo Treasure
“The importance of the Essequibo is a matter of territorial integrity for Venezuela,” contends Fernández. However, it also happens to be abundant in oil, gas, and minerals, such as diamonds, gold, bauxite, manganese, coltan, cobalt, uranium, and silicon. According to the Chavista regime, the Essequibo region has “the enormous potential of producing hydraulic energy” due to the rivers and waterfalls located in the area. Furthermore, the regime acknowledges that the region has important tourist potential thanks to its virgin forests.
The US oil company ExxonMobil—an “imperialist corporation,” as the Chavista dictatorship describes it—discovered in 2015 oil deposits in the ocean, belonging to the territory in dispute. According to Sánchez, the territory has significant potential for mining, which would ultimately provide the dictatorship with more economic resources for itself: “Everything in the hands of the Chavista regime is for their benefit.”
Urruchurtu explains that the Essequibo is important because it also provides access to the Atlantic Ocean, which is also rich in oil and gas. He contends that, apart from the resources, it is “geopolitically important” for Venezuela. Without the Essequibo region, Venezuela’s access to the ocean would be mostly limited to the Caribbean Sea, he adds.
Although there are few studies on Guyana’s biodiversity, a Bloomberg 2023 report asserts that the Essequibo is a zone with a “great variety of flora and fauna species.” According to local environmentalist NGO Vitalis, the ecosystems in the Essequibo are “fragile” and susceptible to damage from extractivist projects.
Why a Referendum Now?
The Chavista regime announced the referendum after Guyana granted concessions to oil companies in Essequibo in 2015 and after the opposition’s primary election in October 2023. Meanwhile, the dictatorship is in the middle of negotiations with the Joe Biden administration to eliminate sanctions on Venezuela’s oil and mining sectors.
On October 19, the Biden administration eased sanctions on Venezuelan oil, gas, and mineral exports after the dictatorship and the opposition agreed to hold general elections in 2024. Since the US announcement of sanctions relief, the Maduro regime has been negotiating with at least six foreign oil companies to restore their operations in Venezuela: Repsol, Eni, Maurel and Prom, China Petroleum, Indian Oil, and Shell. On November 29, Maduro demanded the US government eliminate all sanctions on Venezuela to start a new era of diplomatic relations.
Both Urruchurtu and Sánchez agree that the dictatorship is acting in response to the October 2023 opposition primary election. More than two million Venezuelans voted and opposition leader María Corina Machado got 93 percent of the votes.
For Urruchurtu, the regime, by holding this referendum, has two objectives: (1) evoking a nationalist, patriotic sentiment among Venezuelans and (2) putting up a smokescreen to hide the results of the opposition primary election and potential of the 2024 presidential election. In the same vein, Sánchez contends that the referendum could be the regime’s “barometer” to measure voter turnout and support for the regime ahead of the 2024 election. However, there is no official explanation for the regime’s timing for the referendum.
Despite being a longstanding conflict, in which valuable resources such as oil, gas, and minerals are on the line, the result of the territorial dispute over the Essequibo region remains pending. While an ICJ resolution is in the works, there appears to be little optimism that both parties will accept any ruling. Venezuela already does not recognize ICJ jurisdiction over the case; even if the ICJ ruled in Venezuela’s favor, Chavista officials could hardly lean on that. Meanwhile, the experts interviewed by the Impunity Observer agree that the regime-sponsored referendum is politically driven to distract from the upcoming presidential election in 2024. Further, the international community fears the Chavista regime could use the referendum’s results as an excuse to forcefully annex the region, which would lead to an armed conflict, perhaps with major powers interjecting.
Mauro Echeverría is Econ Americas’ deputy editor. He holds a BA in international relations with minors in political science and anthropology from the San Francisco University of Quito. Mauro leads the research on local economic development at the Ecuadorian think tank Libre Razón.