Days apart, Guyana and Venezuela registered wins in their age-old land dispute over the Essequibo — the 159,500 square kilometre (61,600 square mile) area west of the Essequibo River to which both countries lay claim, but which has been part of Guyana since the 1899 Paris Arbitral Award.
On December 1, Guyana — which went the route of taking the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2020 — received the court's ruling that neither party should aggravate any conditions surrounding the ongoing Arbitral Award case. Guyana has interpreted the court's provisional order that Venezuela should not act to modify Guyana’s control over the Essequibo as a victory, hoping it would deter any acts of aggression in this regard.
Venezuela, meanwhile, put the issue of reclamation of the disputed Essequibo region to a public referendum on December 3. Despite the claim of ownership being generally supported by Venezuelans — and the government’s deployment of propaganda, concert-type events, and institutional support toward the referendum — most voters avoided the polls on Sunday, leaving voting booths across the country mostly empty.
Yet, the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE), Venezuela’s National Electoral Center, insisted that more than 10 million voters participated in the referendum, with between 95 and 98 percent approval for the five questions regarding the annexation of the Essequibo. The number of voters, which equals almost the entirety of the voting population in Venezuela, has been questioned by analysts and human rights advocates, who have accused President Nicolás Maduro's government of manipulating the results. Some political analysts also speculate that the results given by the CNE will further boost distrust in Venezuela's electoral institutions in the face of the 2024 presidential election.
After the referendum, SEBIN, Venezuela’s Intelligence Police, arrested Roberto Abdul-Hadi, leader of Súmate, an NGO focused on electoral transparency, accusing him of taking bribes from American oil giant ExxonMobil in exchange for conspiring against the referendum. There are also arrest warrants against 12 other people, including journalist Claudia Macero, Pedro Urruchurtu and Henry Alviárez, all members of opposition leader Maria Corina Machado‘s team.
Whereas prior to the referendum Venezuela's language had only alluded to its intention to annexe the Essequibo, by December 5 Maduro's social media channels posted a video of him holding up a new “official” map of Venezuela. His government has since appointed a governor to the region, announced that oil and mining companies operating in the area have three months to vacate, and declared that it had directed state companies to explore the area's oil, gas and mineral resources with immediate effect — all actions in contravention of the ICJ's order to refrain from action that would impose further complications on the existing border controversy.
In an interview with CBS News, President Irfaan Ali challenged Venezuela's narrative of non-participation in the ICJ legal process, saying that the country had “already participated,” having gone to the international court on two occasions regarding the issue of jurisdiction. When the court ruled against them, confirming that it did have jurisdiction in the border dispute matter, Venezuela, according to Ali, changed its tune:
Guyana President Mohamed Irfaan Ali told CBS News his country does not intend to surrender any territory to Venezuelan control, and called on the countries [Is something missing here? Which countries?]to encourage Venezuela not to “act in a reckless or adventurous manner that can disrupt the peace within the zone.” pic.twitter.com/HjemlB5Dih
— CBS News (@CBSNews) December 5, 2023
Ali went on to state that Guyana has the full support of organisations like the OAS, The Commonwealth, CARICOM, and the United States, which has defence resources to rival Venezuela's military might, but has expressed concern over how far Maduro might be willing to go:
Today @SecBlinken spoke with President @DrMohamedIrfaa1 about our support for Guyana's sovereignty and our robust security and economic cooperation. We look forward to continuing our strong partnership once Guyana joins the @UN Security Council in 2024.
— Matthew Miller (@StateDeptSpox) December 7, 2023
While Guyana's first line of defence is diplomacy, the president also said they are “preparing for the worst case scenario […] to defend what is ours”:
— Uncut Version International (@uncutversion123) December 7, 2023
Maduro's administration has promised to get Venezuela's National Assembly to approve the Organic Law for the defense of what it refers to as “Guayana Esequiba.” The current National Assembly was elected without the participation of the country's opposition, which means that it fully supports Maduro's political agenda. Meanwhile, various Caribbean allies have declared their unequivocal support for Guyana, even as regional business chambers expressed concern over developments, and advocate for a peaceful resolution. Brazil, which borders the southern end of both countries, has been appealing to Venezuela to avoid any aggressive action against Guyana.
On December 8, the United Nations (UN) Security Council met to discuss the situation, but reportedly took no immediate action, though the view of the 15 council members is that international law must be respected.
Regional netizens have been monitoring the situation closely. At the northern end of the archipelago, in Jamaica, Wayne Chen mused:
— Wayne Chen (@wcchen) December 7, 2023
Other X users, meanwhile, noted:
Ppl don't grasp how whatever happens to our sister will most definitely affect us here. Island relations is like a line of dominoes, whatever sets the precedent, the consequences are going to tumble on all of us
— Ny (@Nynyalliyah) December 6, 2023
From Trinidad and Tobago, which sits just about 11 km (7 miles) off the coast of Venezuela, Maria Rivas-McMillan had the last word:
As #Maduro seeks to pull a #Putin greedy land grab in this part of the world, are we preparing for a worst case scenario where refugees from Guyana join those from Venezuela already here? Let’s not wait till something happens to figure it out. Please.
— Maria Rivas-McMillan (@Panyol) December 7, 2023