Essequibo: Venezuelans vote to approve sovereignty claim over disputed Guyana territory

A woman holds a sign of the Venezuelan map with the Essequibo territory included during a rally in Caracas.
A woman holds a sign of the Venezuelan map with the Essequibo territory included during a rally in Caracas. Credit: AP

Venezuelans have voted to approve a territorial claim tabled by the country's president over an oil and mineral rich area of neighbouring Guyana.

The South American nation's National Electoral Council claimed that more than 10.5 million people voted in Sunday's referendum, which was called by President Nicolás Maduro.

Currently, it remains unclear how President Maduro could enforce the referendum results in the disputed territory, known as Essequibo.

Guyana, which acquired the territory when the two countries' borders were drawn more than a century ago, considers the referendum a step towards annexation.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks to his supporters after Sunday's referendum. Credit: AP

Guyanese President Mohamed Irfaan Ali has said his government is working continuously to ensure his country's borders "remain intact".

President Maduro, speaking shortly after the results were announced, said the vote had been a "total success".

He added that the referendum had a "very important level of participation", but the true number of voters has been disputed.

Few people were seen at polling sites by the Associated Press throughout the voting period for the five question referendum.

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The National Electoral Council also failed to reveal whether the number of votes was equivalent to each voter or if it was the sum of each individual answer.

People were asked whether they support establishing a state in Essequibo, granting citizenship to current and future area residents and rejecting the jurisdiction of the United Nations' (UN) top court in settling the territorial dispute.

Last Friday, the International Court of Justice ordered Venezuela not to take any action that would alter Guyana's control over Essequibo.

But the judges did not specifically ban officials from carrying out the five-question referendum.

A man votes during Sunday's referendum at a polling station in Caracas. Credit: AP

What is Essequibo?

Essequibo is a 61,600-square-mile territory which accounts for two-thirds of Guyana.

The land also borders Brazil, which, as a result of the Venezuela-Guyana dispute, has "intensified its defence actions" and boosted its military presence in the region, according to the Brazilian Defence Ministry.

Essequibo is rich in minerals and gives access to an area of the Atlantic Ocean, where energy giant ExxonMobil discovered oil in commercial quantities eight years ago - drawing the attention of President Maduro's government.

Venezuela has always considered Essequibo as its own because the region was within its boundaries during the Spanish colonial period.

The Essequibo territory accounts for two-thirds of Guyana. Credit: AP

Essequibo fell under Guyana rule in 1899 when international arbitrators from the UK - which counted the country as part of the British Empire - Russia and the United States originally drew up today's existing borders.

Venezuela was represented by the United States in the discussions as, at the time, the former's government had broken off diplomatic ties with the UK.

Venezuelan officials contend that Americans and Europeans conspired to cheat their country out of the land, arguing that a 1966 agreement to resolve the dispute effectively nullified the original arbitration.

Guyana, however, maintains the initial accord is legal and binding, and asked the International Court of Justice, in 2018, to rule it as such, but a final decision remains years away.