Venezuelans on Sunday approved a referendum organized by President Nicolas Maduro’s government to claim sovereignty over an oil and mineral-rich part of neighboring Guyana, the country’s electoral authority said.
Few voters could be seen at polling centers throughout the voting period for the five-question referendum, but the National Electoral Council claimed to have counted more than 10.5 million votes. The council did not, however, explain whether the number of votes was equivalent to that of a voter or whether it was the sum of each individual response.
Venezuela has long claimed the territory was stolen when the border was drawn more than a century ago. But Guyana views the referendum as a step toward annexation, and the vote has its residents on edge.
Venezuelan voters were asked whether they favor establishing a state in the disputed territory, known as Essequibo, by granting citizenship to current and future residents of the region and rejecting jurisdiction of the highest court of the United Nations to settle the disagreement between the countries of South America.
“This has been a total success for our country, for our democracy,” Maduro told his supporters gathered in Caracas, the capital, after the announcement of the results, before emphasizing the “very important level of participation of the people” in the referendum.
Throughout the day on Sunday, no long queues typical of electoral events formed in front of the voting centers in Caracas. Yet before the 12-hour voting session was scheduled to end, the country’s top election authority, Elvis Amoroso, announced that polling stations would remain open for an additional two hours due to what he described as a “massive participation”.
If the turnout figure proposed by Amoroso refers to voters, it would mean that more people voted in the referendum than for Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, during his 2012 presidential re-election. with each individual response marked by voters, turnout could drop to as many as 2.1 million voters.
Activity in voting centers Sunday in Caracas pales in comparison to the hours-long queues that formed in front of polling stations during the presidential primary organized by an opposition faction in October without l help from the National Electoral Council.
More than 2.4 million people participated in the primary, a figure government officials said was mathematically impossible given the number of voting centers available and the time it takes for a person to cast a paper vote. State media attributed the lack of wait times Sunday to the speed with which people voted electronically.
Maduro told supporters celebrating the results that it took him just 15 seconds to vote early on Sunday.
The International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Venezuela not to take any action that would change Guyana’s control over Essequibo, but the judges did not specifically bar officials from holding Sunday’s five-issue referendum. Guyana had asked the court to order Venezuela to stop part of the vote.
Although the practical and legal implications of the referendum remain unclear, in comments explaining Friday’s verdict, the international tribunal’s president, Joan E. Donoghue, said the Venezuelan government’s statements suggest it is “taking steps toward to acquire control and administration of the territory in dispute. »
“In addition, Venezuelan military officials announced that Venezuela was taking concrete steps to build an airstrip that would serve as a ‘logistical support point for the integral development of the Essequibo,'” she said.
The 61,600 square mile (159,500 square kilometer) territory makes up two-thirds of Guyana and also borders Brazil, which the Defense Ministry said earlier this week in a statement had “intensified its actions of defense” and strengthened its military presence in the country. the region following the conflict.
Essequibo is larger than Greece and rich in minerals. It also provides access to an area of the Atlantic where energy giant ExxonMobil discovered oil in commercial quantities in 2015, attracting the attention of Maduro’s government.
The Venezuelan government promoted the referendum for weeks, presenting participation as an act of patriotism and often confusing it with a show of support for Maduro.
Venezuela has always considered Essequibo its own because the region was within its borders during the Spanish colonial period, and it has long contested the boundary decided by international arbiters in 1899, when Guyana was still a British colony.
This boundary was decided by British, Russian and American arbiters. The United States represented Venezuela on the panel in part because the Venezuelan government had severed diplomatic relations with Britain.
Venezuelan officials say Americans and Europeans conspired to defraud their country and say a 1966 agreement to resolve the dispute effectively overturned the original arbitration.
Guyana, South America’s only English-speaking country, maintains the original deal is legal and binding and asked the International Court of Justice in 2018 to rule it as such, but a decision will be years away.
Voters had to answer on Sunday whether they “agreed to reject by all means, in accordance with the law”, the 1899 border and whether they supported the 1966 agreement “as the only valid legal instrument” to reach a solution .
“I came to vote because Essequibo is ours, and I hope that whatever they do, they will think carefully about it and remember to never put peace in danger,” said Juan Carlos Rodríguez, a trader from 37 years old, after voting in a center in Caracas where only a handful of people were waiting in line.
Maduro has thrown the full weight of his government into this effort. Essequibo-themed music, nationally televised history lessons, murals, rallies and social media content have helped the government distract the people’s attention from pressing issues, including the increasing pressure from the US government on Maduro to release political prisoners and unjustly detained Americans as well as to ensure free and fair conditions in next year’s presidential election.
During a tour of voting centers in Caracas by the Associated Press, lines of around 30 people could be seen in some of them, while in others voters did not have a chance. to wait at all to vote. This contrasts with other electoral processes where hundreds of people gathered from the start in front of voting centers.
Angela Albornoz, an organizer for the ruling party, told the AP that she estimated that between 23 and 24 percent of voters assigned to her voting center had cast ballots on Sunday. Albornoz, 62, said that figure was lower than his expectations for an event meant to bring together all Venezuelans “regardless of politics.”
Guyanese President Mohamed Irfaan Ali sought on Sunday to reassure Guyanese worried about the referendum, telling them that they had “nothing to fear in the next hours, days, months to come”. He said Guyana uses diplomacy as its “first line of defense” and continually works to ensure its borders “remain intact.”
“I want to inform Venezuela that this is an opportunity for them to demonstrate maturity, an opportunity for them to demonstrate responsibility, and we call on them once again to join us in allowing the State to right to operate and determine the outcome of this case. controversy,” Ali said.
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