Venezuela’s Controversial Vote to Annex Guyana’s Territory

Posted by on Dec 14, 2023 in Stuff You Should Know, World

Venezuela’s President Nicolaus Maduro wants a large region of neighboring Guyana to come under his country’s control. He claims that the territory, known as Essequibo (EHS uh KIB oh), was stolen from Venezuela in 1899. His government held a referendum, or vote, on December 3, 2023. Maduro declared that Venezuelans voted overwhelmingly to annex, or take over, Essequibo.  

What Is Special About Essequibo? 

The region of Essequibo is about the size of the state of Florida. Venezuela borders it on the west. The region makes up about two-thirds of the country of Guyana—the only English-speaking country in South America. Most of the mineral-rich territory is covered with rain forests and is sparsely populated. In 2015, oil deposits were discovered in the waters off Essequibo’s coast. Since 2019, the petroleum sales from these deposits earn Guyana $1 billion a year. Guyana quickly became the world’s fourth-largest offshore oil producer. 

Venezuela’s Claim 

Full-length illustrated topographic map of South America with countries labeled.
Venezuela and Guyana share a border in the northern part of South America.

The reason that Venezuela is claiming control of Essequibo dates to its first years of independence. Venezuela became independent of the Spanish empire in 1824. The new country demanded the region west of the Essequibo River, which runs through central Guyana. Great Britain, however, declared that those lands were part of its colony of British Guiana. The border was disputed until 1899. That year, international mediators gave the region of Essequibo to Great Britain. After Guyana became an independent country in 1966, Venezuelan officials again argued that the territory was theirs. 

On December 3, 2023, President Maduro took the issue of Essequibo ownership to Venezuela’s citizens. The referendum asked voters to reject the 1899 boundary and to agree to make Essequibo a state of Venezuela. It also presented the idea of giving Venezuelan citizenship to the people of Guyana who lived in Essequibo. Maduro said that more than 10 million votes were cast, and the referendum was approved. Venezuela has already redrawn official maps of its country, which now include Essequibo.  

Response from Guyana and Its Allies 

The government of Guyana has no intention of giving up any of its land. It stated that Maduro promoted the border issue because Venezuela’s own oil industry and economy are very weak. Guyana officials believe that Maduro is using the Essequibo referendum to strengthen voter support before next year’s election. Guyana critics say President Maduro is distracting Venezuelans from the poverty and unrest they have experienced under his leadership. In addition, news sources who witnessed the election question the number of votes claimed by Maduro.  

President Mohamed Irfaan Ali of Guyana warned that his country will stop any Venezuelan movement into Essequibo or its offshore areas. President Ali asked the United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ) to uphold the current border between the two countries. Ali has also asked for help from Brazil, the United States, and other allies to stop any Venezuelan invasion into Guyana. Both countries have moved troops to the disputed boundary. Brazil, which shares borders with both Venezuela and Guyana, has also moved its troops to the region.  

The UN Security Council and Caribbean leaders held emergency meetings to discuss this serious situation. Most world leaders and international organizations, including the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS), support Guyana. They want Venezuela to remain within the established 1899 boundary. The OAS worries that Venezuela’s actions will destabilize the region. Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines has invited both Maduro and Ali to meet on his island nation on December 14 to diffuse the tension. Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will also attend the meeting as an observer.  

Dig Deeper Research the colonial history of both Venezuela and Guyana to learn more about why each country claims ownership of Essequibo.