The Essequibo Region: Renewed Tensions In a Centuries-Old Territorial Dispute

On December 3rd, President Nicolás Maduro held a referendum in Venezuela. Voters were asked five questions regarding the centuries-old territorial dispute with Guyana over the oil-rich Essequibo region. The government-controlled electoral authority claimed that all five questions received 95% of yes votes. Moreover, while the referendum is only consultative in nature – that is, it does not have any legal bearing outside of Venezuela – Guyana has condemned it as an aggressive attempt at annexation.

Currently, the region known as Essequibo makes up two thirds of the land currently controlled by Guyana. Through the 1966 Geneva Agreement between Venezuela and Britain (the former colonial power in Guyana), a Commission was set up to revisit the territorial dispute between Venezuela and a newly independent Guyana. However, no solution to the dispute has been found so far. Furthermore, tensions mounted in 2015 when US giant ExxonMobil discovered oil in Essequibo’s offshore waters, with Maduro’s rhetoric over the region becoming more bellicose thereafter. In 2018, Guyana brought the case before the International Court of Justice, which was called to review the validity of an international arbitration tribunal’s ruling in 1899, which awarded the Essequibo to Britain. Yet, Venezuela has not recognised the ICJ jurisdiction on the matter. Tension rose further in September 2023, when the government of Guyana held an auction for oil companies to grant exploration licenses in Essequibo waters.

After the referendum was held, President Ali of Guyana said that “Essequibo is ours, every square inch of it,” and has pledged to defend it, as the New York Times reports. “Maduro needs to wrap himself in the flag for electoral reasons, and obviously a territorial dispute with a neighbour is the perfect excuse,” said Phil Gunson, an analyst with the International Crisis Group who lives in Caracas. Regarding the vote on the referendum, the New York Times reports that Benigno Alarcón, the director of a research centre at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas, said that the vote was a huge failure for the government, and the government’s electoral council probably inflated voter turnout figures. While the Guardian reports that Maduro was quick to hail the vote as a victory, praising the “very important level of participation”, national and international media highlighted that voting stations across the country were largely empty. Moreover, Guyanese officials would not comment directly on the results of the referendum, but sources close to the government told the Guardian they were “relieved” by the surprisingly poor turnout.

Moreover, Maduro hoped to leverage his country’s claim to the Essequibo region to mobilise public support. Opposition candidate María Corina Machado is widely predicted to defeat Maduro if the 2024 elections will be free and fair, and this obviously worries the current government. Essequibo is the only issue that unites Venezuelans across the political spectrum, and yet Maduro did not get the expected results (even if he would not admit it). Voter turnout suggests that people care more about bread-and-butter issues, such as the economic collapse which has driven more than 7 million people to flee the country, as the Guardian reports. “Nothing is more potent to divert attention than to bring up a powerful, attractive issue that appeals to patriotic sentiment,” human rights activist Rocìo San Miguel said – and yet, Maduro’s political move doesn’t seem to have gained more popular support than he had before.

To conclude, President Maduro is posing a serious threat to the sovereignty of Guyana, while seeking legitimacy for his actions by staging a supposedly “popular” referendum based on dubious results. While the USA has proactively commented on the need for free and fair elections in 2024, a message at least as clear as that should be directed to Maduro’s plans in Essequibo. Furthermore, on Friday 1st, the ICJ ordered Venezuela to refrain from any action that may alter the status quo – this must be respected at any cost, and the international community must take all necessary actions to ensure that the sovereignty of the territory and of the people of the Essequibo remains untouched.