Venezuelan voters back country’s claim to oil-rich swath of former British colony

President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela addresses supporters in Caracas
President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela addresses supporters in Caracas on Monday morning, following the referendum - Matias Delacroix / AP

Venezuelan voters have overwhelmingly backed the country’s claim to an oil-rich swath of Guyana in a move dubbed a “pretext for annexation” by its neighbour.

Electoral authorities said 95 per cent of voters approved establishing a new state in Essequibo in a non-binding referendum on Sunday.

Venezuela has become increasingly hawkish in pushing its claim over Essequibo – which makes up two-thirds of the English-speaking former British colony’s territory and is home to around a sixth of its population – since vast oil reserves were discovered off its coast eight years ago.

Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s authoritarian Left-wing president, hailed the “overwhelming victory for ‘Yes’ throughout Venezuela” following Sunday’s vote.

About 10.5 million of Venezuela’s 20.7 million eligible voters took part in the referendum.

“We have to give a standing ovation to the Venezuelan people,” Mr Maduro said, while not specifying what his socialist government would do in response to the outcome of the “consultative” referendum.

Venezuela is in the grip of a crippling economic crisis ahead of elections next year and analysts say Mr Maduro is attempting to use the Essequibo issue as a distraction.

“Nothing is more potent to divert attention than to bring up a powerful, attractive issue that appeals to patriotic sentiment,” said Rocio San Miguel, a Venezuelan security expert.

Irfaan Ali, Guyana’s president, insisted there was “nothing to fear” despite the referendum result, saying his government was working to protect the country’s borders and keep people safe.

Thousands of people, some of them wearing T-shirts reading “Essequibo belongs to Guyana,” formed human chains to protest against Venezuela’s claim as Sunday’s vote took place.

The Maduro government has said it is not seeking justification to invade or annex the huge territory, as some fear in English-speaking Guyana.

Oil reserves of at least 10 billion barrels

The dispute between the two countries over Essequibo has escalated since 2015, when ExxonMobil discovered oil off its coast.

Guyana is estimated to have crude oil reserves of at least 10 billion barrels – more than the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

The exploitation of those reserves means the country is set to surpass Venezuela’s own oil output and become the world’s largest producer of crude per capita.

Tensions have now reached fever pitch after Guyana took bids for new offshore oil exploration in September and announced a new find in October.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled on Friday that Venezuela should not take “any action” to change the status quo in the region.

It added that there is a “serious risk of Venezuela acquiring and exercising control and administration of the territory in dispute in the present case”.

But at Sunday’s referendum, which asked voters a series of questions, Venezuelan voters unilaterally rejected the ICJ’s jurisdiction.

A pedestrian walks past a mural that reads "All of Venezuela" alongside a map depicting the disputed Essequibo territory as part of Venezuela
A pedestrian walks past a mural that reads "All of Venezuela", alongside a map depicting the disputed Essequibo territory as part of Venezuela - Gaby Oraa / Bloomberg

The vote covered five questions in total, including proposals for the creation of a Venezuelan province to be called “Guyana Essequibo,” and giving the inhabitants Venezuelan citizenship.

Caracas contends that the Essequibo River to the region’s east is the natural border between the two countries, as declared in 1777 under Spanish rule, and that Britain wrongly appropriated Venezuelan lands in the 19th century.

Guyana argues that the current border was confirmed in 1899 by a court of arbitration and that Venezuela accepted these findings until 1962.

Venezuela’s position is that a 1966 agreement between Venezuela and then colonial ruler Britain nullified the 1899 ruling.