Guyana‘s Essequibo region, an expanse larger than Greece, is rich not just in biodiversity but also in energy and other treasures. Venezuela claims historical rights over this territory, and the recent turn of events has left the local community on edge. The cause of this unease is a controversial referendum planned by Venezuela, which will decide the fate of Essequibo, including the proposal to turn it into a Venezuelan state.
The referendum planned to take place on December 3, has been the main flashpoint in a longstanding dispute between the two South American nations. Venezuela‘s President Nicolás Maduro, using patriotic rhetoric, is rallying voters to answer five questions, including whether Essequibo should be turned into a Venezuelan state and whether current and future residents should be granted Venezuelan citizenship.
A Region Rich in Natural Resources
The heart of the matter lies in the territorial dispute over Guyana’s Essequibo region, coveted by Venezuela for its historical significance and rich oil and mineral reserves. The 61,600 sq. mile region accounts for a majority of Guyana’s territory, making the referendum a matter of existential importance for the country.
The roots of the dispute lay in the late 19th-century colonial era when diplomats from Britain, Russia, and the United States decided the boundary in 1899 without input from the locals. The U.S. represented Venezuela on the panel, and the boundary has been a point of contention ever since, with Venezuela considering Essequibo as its own due to historical boundaries during the Spanish colonial period.
The discovery of oil by ExxonMobil off the Essequibo coast in 2015 reignited Venezuela’s interest in the disputed territory, leading to the current stage of tensions. The upcoming referendum, viewed by many as an attempt by President Maduro to consolidate domestic support ahead of national elections, has left the indigenous people of Essequibo feeling neglected and uninformed.
Indigenous Peoples Inhabit the Land
Meanwhile, on the ground, the people of Essequibo grapple with uncertainty and fear of disruptions to their peaceful way of life. In the midst of this geopolitical chess match, they find themselves caught between the lines. The indigenous population, proud of their heritage, adamantly rejects the idea of becoming part of Venezuela. The disputed region is largely covered by impenetrable jungle and holds cultural importance for the locals, who have named landmarks in their native language and have a strong connection to the land.
Social media misinformation has compounded the issue, leaving the Guyanese residents confused and anxious. Information about the referendum has reached them primarily through inaccurate social media posts, leading to confusion and anxiety.
Michael Williams, an Indigenous leader from the Essequibo village of Annai, expressed the frustrations of many: “The government (…) only comes when they want our votes. Now, there’s this dispute. Nobody is here to tell us, ‘These are the issues. This may come. Let us prepare for it. We feel neglected as the people of this land. Nothing is really being done for us at the moment.’”
Guyana has Responded by Requesting ICJ Intervention
This announcement has triggered alarm bells in Guyana, which sees the referendum as an annexation attempt. Seeking recourse, Guyana approached the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on November 14, requesting a halt to parts of the vote. However, the legal complexities of the dispute are entangled in historical agreements and their interpretations.
Venezuela contends that a 1966 agreement effectively nullifies the original arbitration, a claim contested by Guyana, which maintains the initial accord is legal and binding. The proposed referendum includes questions about rejecting the 1899 boundary and supporting the 1966 agreement. The ICJ, expected to issue a decision on Guyana’s request to halt parts of the referendum, faces a challenging task in navigating the dispute and determining the validity of the 1899 border.
The court’s decision, when it comes, will be a crucial factor in deciding the fate of Essequibo. Despite the ICJ not yet issuing such a verdict, Venezuela remains resolute in its plan to proceed with the referendum on December 3. The people of Essequibo are performing prayers in the hope of a peaceful resolution to this dispute that has cast a shadow over their home.
The Maduro Government is Pulling Out the Stops
The situation worsens as the Venezuelan government has embarked on what President Maduro calls a “pedagogical electoral campaign.” He has taken on the role of a teacher-in-chief, giving nationally televised history lessons on Essequibo, attempting to sway public opinion in favour of the referendum. This has raised concerns about his manipulation of public sentiment to achieve political goals.
School teachers and parents in Venezuela have reported changes in curricula, with assignments now focused on highlighting the importance of Essequibo. The government’s effort to shape the narrative extended to creating a sense of high urgency, with Vice President Delcy Rodriguez accusing Guyana of making an “unprecedented, extraordinary, staggering, barbarous” request to halt the referendum.