The government of Venezuela is making moves to seize and occupy two-thirds of Guyana, known as the Essequibo Region, in a referendum which is scheduled for December 3, 2023. The referendum on the matter, seeking Venezuela’s “defense” of the region, was approved by the Venezuelan National Assembly and was reported by Reuters on September 23.
On Monday this week, the National Electoral Council (CNE) of Venezuela unanimously approved five questions for the referendum, one of them asking the Venezuelan people whether they agree to make the Essequibo Region a state of Venezuela and to grant current and future residents Venezuelan citizenship and identification cards.
However, this is not going down well with the government of Guyana, which said such a move would be a violation of international law since the Essequibo Region belongs to Guyana.
“This amounts to nothing less than the annexation of Guyana’s territory, in blatant violation of the most fundamental rules of the UN Charter, the OAS Charter, and general international law. Such a seizure of Guyana’s territory would constitute the international crime of aggression,” the Guyana government said in a statement on Monday evening.
“The Government of Guyana categorically rejects any attempt to undermine the territorial integrity of the sovereign State of Guyana. The Government finds abhorrent that the Essequibo region which forms part of the territory of Guyana in accordance with the 1899 Arbitral Award that demarcated the boundaries of the States of Venezuela and then British Guiana, should be ‘created’ into a State within Venezuela.”
Venezuela has been laying claims to Guyana’s Essequibo region for decades saying that an international boundary treaty dating back to 1899 had robbed it of its rightful land.
The matter has a long and complicated history – a direct legacy of colonial powers that ruled over the two nations, Spain in Venezuela and the United Kingdom in Guyana.
The dispute goes back all the way to 1814 when the British bought what is now Guyana (known as British Guiana in colonial times) from the Dutch. At that time there was no defined boundary with Venezuela until 1835 when the British Government commissioned Robert Schomburgk to survey the border region and draw a boundary. He drew what is called the Schomburgk Line which claimed some 30,000 square miles for Guyana.
In 1841 Venezuela disputed the British border, claiming territories established at the time of their independence from Spain. The South American country said its borders extended as far east as the Essequibo River, effectively claiming two-thirds of British Guiana’s territory.
The dispute was further complicated when gold was discovered in the region and the British, seeking to extend their reach, claimed an additional 33,000 square miles west of the Schomburgk Line. Venezuela protested and called on the United States for assistance saying under the Monroe Doctrine, there is justification for US intervention. The United States expressed concerns but did not offer a resolution.
On October 3, 1899, an Arbitral Award was given in favor of British Guiana following the Schomburgk Line. The Venezuelan government expressed its disapproval of the results and maintained its claim on Essequibo saying the award was null and void.
The matter has never been fully resolved. For example, in the 1960s Venezuela went to the United Nations in an attempt to prevent Britain from granting independence to Guyana. In 1966, the Geneva Agreement was signed which gave a mixed commission to arbitrate the dispute but the commission never produced a lasting solution. In 2018, the UN referred the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) but the government of Venezuela refused to recognize the ICJ’s jurisdiction over the matter.
Although the December 3 referendum is non-binding, it will measure popular support among Venezuelans over the sparsely populated region. During his weekly broadcast, President Nicolas Maduro called on the Venezuelan people to vote massively in the referendum.
“This is a referendum where we all fit, regardless of whether we are Chavistas or anti-Chavistas,” he said on Monday evening. “This is about our love for our country and the outrage at the pretenses by empires, multinational corporations, and Guyana to take away what is ours.”
However, Guyana has the support of CARICOM (to which it is a member state) with the regional body releasing a statement on the planned referendum saying it “opens the door to the possible violation of this fundamental tenet of international law.”
“It is to be emphasized that the land and water in question — the Essequibo Region of Guyana — comprises more than two-thirds of the whole of Guyana itself,” the statement said. “CARICOM notes that the language of two questions approved to be posed in the Referendum seeks an affirmation and implementation of Venezuela’s stance on the issue “by all means, according to/with the Law.” It is open to reasonable persons to conclude that “by all means”, includes means of force or war.”
The statement said CARICOM hopes Venezuela isn’t raising the prospect of war in the matter since there has been a long-standing position that the region must remain a “zone of peace.”
CARICOM’s position was supported by the Organization of American States (OAS).
“We condemn any attempts that [constitute] a breach of peace and an attempt to encroach on a country’s sovereign borders,” OAS secretary general Luis Amalgro said on Wednesday. “This is an irrefutable violation of Guyana’s territorial rights and we support CARICOM’s statement.”
But observers think the matter might put CARICOM in a very difficult position.
Many CARICOM countries, including Dominica, have cozy relationships with Caracas. Additionally, Venezuela supplies some CARICOM countries with oil through the PetroCaribe oil program.
An article by the Counter Terrorism Group said CARICOM countries might push for a diplomatic solution rather than a more aggressive confrontation.
“Therefore, it seems to be the case that these countries will continue to emphasize the importance of peace and stability as the foundation for strengthening the growth of, and cooperation between, the two countries,” it said.
In the meantime, many Guyanese are talking about ‘war’ on social media, while government supporters in Venezuela have held demonstrations this week holding signs that said the Essequibo Region belongs to them.
Now it’s just a matter of waiting to see what will happen after Venezuela’s referendum.