Venezuela approved a referendum on taking over the neighboring region of Essequibo controlled by the sovereign nation of Guyana after a vote on Sunday, election officials said.
President Nicolas Maduro’s government has proposed a referendum to claim sovereignty over the oil- and mineral-rich territory of neighboring Guyana, which it claims was stolen when the border was drawn more than a century ago. It remains unclear how Maduro will enforce the results of the vote.
Guyana sees the referendum as a step towards 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 were visible at polling stations throughout voting 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 response.
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Venezuelan voters were asked whether they support establishing a state in the territory of Essequibo, granting citizenship to current and future residents of the region and rejecting the jurisdiction of the United Nations’ highest court to resolve the dispute between the South American countries.
Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America, maintains that an original agreement arbitrated by Britain, Russia and the United States – decided in 1899 when Guyana was still a British colony – establishing Essequibo’s border with Venezuela remains in effect.
An area of 61,600 square miles, Essequibo accounts for two-thirds of the land controlled by Guyana and about one-sixth of its population. It also shares a border with Brazil, whose Defense Ministry recently said in a statement that it had “strengthened its defense actions” and increased its military presence in the region as a result of the dispute.
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, drawing the attention of the Maduro government.
“It was an absolute success for our country, for our democracy,” Maduro told supporters gathered in Caracas, the capital, after the referendum results were announced.
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He claimed the referendum had a “very significant level of participation”.
However, long lines typical of election rallies did not form outside polling stations in Caracas throughout Sunday, even after the country’s top electoral authority, Elvis Amorozó, announced that the 12-hour voting period would be extended by two hours, according to the Associated Press.
If the turnout rate offered by Amoroso refers to voters, it would mean that more people voted in the referendum than for Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, when he was re-elected in the 2012 presidential contest. But if it is equivalent to each individual response noted by voters, turnout could drop by as much as 2.1 million voters.
The International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Venezuela not to take any action that would change Guyana’s control of Essequibo, but the judges did not specifically bar officials from holding Sunday’s five-question referendum. Guyana had asked the court to order Venezuela to stop part of the vote.
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While the practical and legal implications of the referendum remain unclear, in comments explaining Friday’s verdict, the president of the international court, Joan E. Donoghue, said the Venezuelan government’s statements suggest it is “taking steps to gain control and management of disputed area”. “Additionally, Venezuelan military officials announced that Venezuela is taking concrete steps to build an airstrip that will serve as a ‘logistics point for the integrated development of Essequibo,'” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.