Venezuelans approve a referendum to claim sovereignty over a swathe of neighboring Guyana

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans on Sunday approved a referendum called by the government of President Nicolás Maduro to claim sovereignty over an oil- and mineral-rich area of neighboring Guyana it argues was stolen when the border was drawn more than a century ago.

It remains unclear how Maduro will enforce the results of the vote. But Guyana considers the referendum a step toward annexation, and the vote has its residents on edge.

The National Electoral Council claimed to have counted more than 10.5 million votes even though few voters could be seen at polling sites throughout the voting period for the five-question referendum. The council, however, did not explain whether the number of votes was equivalent to each voter or if it was the sum of each individual answer.

Venezuelan voters were asked whether they support establishing a state in the disputed territory, known as Essequibo, granting citizenship to current and future area residents and rejecting the jurisdiction of the United Nations’ top court in settling the disagreement between the South American countries.

“It has been a total success for our country, for our democracy,” Maduro told supporters gathered in Caracas, the capital, after results were announced. He claimed the referendum had “very important level of participation."

Yet long lines typical of electoral events did not form outside voting centers in Caracas throughout Sunday, even after the country’s top electoral authority, Elvis Amoroso, announced the 12-hour voting period would be extended by two hours.

If the participation figure offered by Amoroso refers to voters, it would mean more people voted in the referendum than they did for Hugo Chávez, Maduro's mentor and predecessor, when he was re-elected in the 2012 presidential contest. But if it is equivalent to each individual answer marked by voters, turnout could drop to as low as 2.1 million voters.

“I came to vote because Essequibo is ours, and I hope that whatever they are going to do, they think about it thoroughly and remember to never put peace at risk,” merchant Juan Carlos Rodríguez, 37, said after voting at a center in Caracas where only a handful of people were in line.

The International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Venezuela not to take any action that would alter Guyana’s control over Essequibo, but the judges did not specifically ban officials from carrying out Sunday's five-question referendum. Guyana had asked the court to order Venezuela to halt parts of the vote.

Although the practical and legal implications of the referendum remain unclear, in comments explaining Friday's verdict, international court president Joan E. Donoghue said statements from Venezuela's government suggest it “is taking steps with a view toward acquiring control over and administering the territory in dispute.”

“Furthermore, Venezuelan military officials announced that Venezuela is taking concrete measures to build an airstrip to 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 accounts for two-thirds of Guyana and also borders Brazil, whose Defense Ministry earlier this week in a statement said it has “intensified its defense actions" and boosted its military presence in the region as a result of the dispute.

Essequibo is larger than Greece and rich in minerals. It also gives access to an area of the Atlantic where energy giant ExxonMobil discovered oil in commercial quantities in 2015, drawing the attention of Maduro's government.

Venezuela's government promoted the referendum for weeks, framing participation as an act of patriotism and often conflating it with a show of support for Maduro. The country has always considered Essequibo as its own because the region was within its boundaries during the Spanish colonial period, and it has long disputed the border decided by international arbitrators in 1899 when Guyana was still a British colony.

That boundary was decided by arbitrators from Britain, Russia and the United States. The U.S. represented Venezuela on the panel in part because the Venezuelan government had broken off diplomatic relations with Britain.

Venezuelan officials contend that Americans and Europeans conspired to cheat their country out of the land and argue that a 1966 agreement to resolve the dispute effectively nullified the original arbitration.

Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America, maintains the initial accord is legal and binding and asked the International Court of Justice in 2018 to rule it as such, but a decision is years away.

Voters on Sunday had to answer whether they “agree to reject by all means, in accordance with the law,” the 1899 boundary and whether they support the 1966 agreement “as the only valid legal instrument” to reach a solution.

Maduro threw the full weight of his government into the effort. Essequibo-themed music, nationally televised history lessons, murals, rallies and social media content helped the government to divert people’s attention from pressing matters, including increasing pressure from the U.S. government on Maduro to release political prisoners and wrongfully detained Americans as well as to guarantee free and fair conditions in next year’s presidential election.

In a tour of Caracas voting centers by The Associated Press, lines of about 30 people could be seen at some of them, while at others, voters did not have to wait at all to cast their ballots. That contrasts with other electoral processes when hundreds of people gathered outside voting centers from the start.

The activity also paled in comparison with the hours-long lines that formed outside polls during the presidential primary held by a faction of the opposition in October without assistance from the National Electoral Council.

More than 2.4 million people participated in the primary, a number that government officials declared mathematically impossible given the number of available voting centers and the time it takes a person to cast a paper ballot. State media attributed the lack of wait times Sunday to the fast speed at which people were casting their electronic ballots.

Maduro told supporters celebrating the results that it only took him 15 seconds to vote early Sunday.

Ángela Albornoz, a grassroots organizer for the ruling party, told the AP she estimated that between 23% and 24% of the voters assigned to her voting center cast ballots Sunday. Albornoz, 62, said that figure was below her expectations for an event meant to bring together all Venezuelans “regardless of politics.”

Guyana President Mohamed Irfaan Ali on Sunday told Guyanese his government is working continuously to ensure the country's borders “remain intact” and said people have “nothing to fear over the next number of hours, days, months ahead.”

“I want to advise Venezuela that this is an opportunity for them to show maturity, an opportunity for them to show responsibility, and we call upon them once more join us in ... allowing the rule of law to work and to determine the outcome of this controversy,” Ali said.

___

Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City. Associated Press photographer Matias Delacroix contributed to this report.

 

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