Venezuela voted to seize two-thirds of the territory of neighboring Guyana
Although it is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, the Essequibo region is rich in ores, and in 2015 Exxon Mobil discovered oil reserves in coastal Atlantic waters in quantities that would justify an investment for exploitation.
Venezuelan forces are already building an airbase as "logistical support" for the annexation of the Essequibo region from neighboring Guyana, after an overwhelming majority of citizens voted in a referendum to extend sovereignty over the disputed oil- and ore-rich border territory.
At 160.000 square kilometers, Essequibo is six times the size of Macedonia and makes up two-thirds of the area of Guyana. The defense ministry of the country on the Atlantic coast ordered "intensified activities" and increased the military presence in the disputed territory.
- Essequibo is ours, to the last inch, and we will defend it - said Guyanese President Irwan Ali.
He told the 800 residents not to fear an invasion "not now or in the next hours, days or months."
- I advise Venezuela that this is an opportunity to show maturity and responsibility - Ali added.
Even before the polls opened, the International Court of Justice warned the authorities in Caracas not to take any action that would threaten Guyanese sovereignty over Essequibo.
The National Electoral Commission of Venezuela announced last night that over 10 million citizens, i.e. 95 percent of those who went to the referendum, declared for the expansion of sovereignty, for granting Venezuelan citizenship to the residents of Essequibo and for rejecting the competence of the United Nations in resolving the territorial dispute. integrity with the neighboring country.
- This was a great success for our country and for our democracy - said Maduro after the announcement of the initial results.
Oil and ores
Although it is one of the least populated territories in the world, Essequibo is rich in ores, and in 2015 Exxon Mobil discovered oil reserves in coastal Atlantic waters in quantities that would justify an investment for exploitation. In the past few years, residents from Brazil and Venezuela have left for Guyana because of the high wages offered in the illegal mines.
People living in Essequibo speak English, culturally identify as Guyanese and want to remain part of Guyana. Many say they enjoy the tranquility of nature, but also the fruits of the oil boom.
– This is our country. Guyanese will rise up and fight, because this country is soaked with our sweat - Bob Mahadeo, a photographer from Essequibo, told the New York Times.
Venezuela claims this territory as its own, in defiance of the demarcation decision by the British-American-Russian Arbitration Commission of 1899, which awarded Essequibo to the then British colony of Guyana. Venezuela at that time did not have diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom, so its interests were represented by the United States. After two arbitrators from Britain and the United States and one from Russia decided by outvoting that 94 percent of Essequibo should belong to British Guiana, and Venezuela received only the mouth of the Orinoco River.
Venezuela then appealed, but respected the decision until 1958, when Guyana divided Essequibo into smaller administrative regions. In 1962 Venezuela appealed the 1899 decision, encouraged by the testimony of an American arbitrator that the decision was actually a political agreement between Britain and Russia. The issue was "frozen" again in 1966, when Guyana declared independence. Then the governments of the United Kingdom, British Guiana and Venezuela signed the Geneva Convention, which stipulated that any dispute should be arbitrated by the United Nations.
It is not explained how Venezuela would act to implement the will of the majority of citizens expressed in the referendum. For weeks, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been heavily promoting the referendum as a "patriotic duty" and equating it to "expressing confidence in the current government." He engaged all government capacities – national television constantly showed "lessons from history", radios played patriotic songs, and mass gatherings were organized.
The newspaper "New York Times" writes that the purpose of the patriotic offensive was to divert public attention from the deep economic and social crisis in the country before it threatens Maduro's authority.
The results of the referendum have also been disputed. Associated Press reporters reported that there were no lines at all in front of the polling stations as in October when the opposition voted for a presidential candidate, and four times as many people reportedly voted the day before yesterday.
- Maduro needs to wrap himself in the national flag because of the upcoming elections. It goes without saying that a territorial dispute with a neighbor is a perfect excuse for such a thing - said Phil Gunson, an analyst from the International Crisis Group.
In the wake of the Falklands War
He believes that Maduro is disturbed by the massive turnout for the election of an opposition presidential candidate in October, so he is trying to mobilize his own voter base as well. The referendum turnout was disappointing for Maduro, even though public officials were instructed to vote and the results were inflated.
- With such a real turnout, there are little chances that the presidential elections this year will be even partially free and fair. Citizens need practical solutions to their daily problems, food, medicine, education, hospitals and roads. Waving flags will not serve food on the table - thinks Ganson.
It is feared that if Maduro feels that his position could be threatened in the election, he could go on a military adventure in Guyana, which the referendum gives him the basis for.
Many have compared Maduro's current situation to that of former Argentine leader Leopoldo Galtieri, who ordered a military invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 after falling in popularity. Argentina lost the war with Britain, causing Galtieri to be ousted from power.