The polls are open in Venezuela for a controversial referendum that could have significant implications for neighboring Guyana. The referendum will allow citizens to decide whether they want to annex the oil-rich territory of Guyana Esequiba, a move that has been strongly denounced by Guyana as a step towards annexation.
The territory in question, the Essequibo forest region, represents approximately two-thirds of Guyana’s national territory. Venezuela has long claimed the area and rejects the 1899 decision by international arbitrators that set the current boundaries.
Voting began at 6 am this Sunday and is scheduled to be open until 6 pm (local time). The referendum will consist of five questions and a total of 20,694,124 people are eligible to vote, according to the National Electoral Council (CNE) of Venezuela.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has expressed anti-imperialist sentiment regarding the referendum at campaign rallies and through patriotic messages on social media. He has argued that Venezuela’s historic rights to the region have been unfairly rejected. In response, Guyana has called the threat of annexation “existential.”
“Our vote is to show respect for Venezuela,” said Maduro this Sunday in Caracas. “Let us feel that national spirit, the spirit of national unity that has made us meet again, and let us achieve a powerful consensus in a feeling of defense of what is ours.”
The vote is expected to result in favor of the government’s position, although its practical implications are likely to be minimal, analysts say, with the creation of a Venezuelan state within the Essequibo a remote possibility.
Nevertheless, the escalation of rhetoric has sparked troop movements in the region and saber-rattling in both countries, drawing comparisons by Guyana’s leaders to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The situation remains tense as the referendum continues.