On December 3, 2023, Venezuela’s government plans to hold a national referendum to establish a new Venezuelan state to incorporate the entire Essequibo region of Guyana into its territory. The announcement sparked a legal reaction from Guyana, which called for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to intervene. Besides the ongoing legal proceedings in the Hague, the referendum is likely to go ahead. Given Venezuela’s ongoing domestic political difficulties and commitment to elections in 2024, the referendum could create new instabilities in the region and extend Maduro’s hold on power.
The Essequibo Dispute
The legal dispute between Guyana and Venezuela goes back to 1899. The Essequibo territory, which roughly contains two-thirds of current Guyana, was awarded to British Guyana by the Arbitral Award. Since then, Venezuela declared the award illegitimate because of the absence of Venezuelan negotiators. In 1966, just months before the independence of Guyana from the United Kingdom, Venezuela and the UK negotiated the Geneva Agreement, which established a regulatory framework that should be followed by both parties in order to find a solution for the Essequibo border dispute.
There are growing disagreements between Venezuela and Guyana over the oil exploration operations by large oil companies in offshore areas in the disputed territory. In 2015, the situation deteriorated since ExxonMobil, one of the world's largest oil companies, announced the discovery of a new oil deposit in Essequibo, signing a beneficial agreement for the foreign company with the Guyanese government. The discovery of new oil deposits has revived Venezuelan claims over Essequibo resources and land, calling the concession to the U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil a “new form of imperialism.” In response, in 2018, Guyana asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague to review the border dispute and confirm the validity of the current borders drawn by the 1899 arbitration. However, Venezuela openly rejects the jurisdiction of ICJ over the dispute.
In October 2023, Guyana announced the discovery of a significant oil and gas reserve in an ExxonMobil well situated in disputed waters. A few days later, Venezuela responded by scheduling the December 3 referendum on the Essequibo dispute. This triggered Guyana to, once again, seek the ICJ intervention to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity and prevent the referendum from being held. Although Venezuela rejects the ICJ's jurisdiction, the court called on the Maduro government to counter arguments on the dispute to support its stance. Venezuela was represented by Vice President Delcy Rodriguez. Hearings of Guyana and Venezuela delegations were held at ICJ on November 14 and 15, respectively.
Political reforms in Venezuela?
The reopening of the dispute over Essequibo sovereignty comes with "questionable" timing from Venezuela. Indeed, while the dispute appears to be justified by new significant oil discoveries and disagreements over concessions, it is also a strategy employed by Maduro to divert domestic and international attention from recent developments in Venezuelan politics.
On October 17, 2023, after resuming long-suspended negotiations, the Venezuelan government and the opposition reached an agreement that guaranteed opposition participation and the competitiveness of the next presidential election, scheduled for mid-2024. The negotiations, facilitated by Norway, were held in Barbados, in which Venezuela also agreed to release more than 250 political prisoners and lift the bans on opposition candidates for the 2024 elections.
While the United States was neither a mediator nor a party included in the deal, its influence is undeniable. On October 18, 2023, only one day after the conclusion of the negotiations, the United States announced the temporary easing of some of the sanctions imposed on the Venezuelan oil, gas, and gold sectors in exchange for competitive elections in 2024. The easing of diplomatic and economic tensions with the U.S. represents a chance for Venezuela to relieve itself of the "maximum pressure" imposed by the U.S. in 2019. Lifting U.S. sanctions, however, is tied to fulfilling the electoral commitments Venezuela pledged in the Barbados agreement. However, the leading opposition candidate in the elections, María Corina Machado, is still excluded from the electoral race. Moreover, Maduro's government has not recognized the primary election as legitimate. The US has announced that it will withdraw the suspension of sanctions if Maduro’s regime does not have fair elections.
While the prospect of competitive elections sounds promising, during Barbados' negotiation Venezuelan government and opposition signed a second accord, which binds both sides to support Venezuela's current stance in the territorial dispute with Guyana. This second deal could prove particularly relevant in the current circumstances, as it prevents any form of internal political opposition to Maduro's eventual plan to annex Essequibo.
While the referendum is going ahead, the campaign for the referendum is heavily influenced by the Venezuelan government’s control of social media outlets. President Maduro, under pressure to hold an election, is attempting to divert attention away from the upcoming elections by drumming up nationalist sentiment. On December 3, Venezuelans will be asked if they reject the 1899 arbitration and the ICJ's jurisdiction and if they oppose Guyana's unilateral appropriation of Essequibo's territorial waters. Venezuelans will vote on the creation of the new state of Guayana Esequiba in the disputed area, whose residents will be granted full Venezuelan citizenship status.
However, it is unlikely to be a transparent vote. In preparation for the referendum, a massive propaganda campaign for the Essequibo dispute is spinning on Venezuelan social media. To the tune of propaganda slogans such as "el Esequibo es nuestro" or “El sol de Venezuela nace en el Esequibo,” the Venezuelan government is seeking popular support for the December referendum, urging the population to "decide sovereignly and democratically their future." The Venezuelan government has also accused the US of provocation. On November 8, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Yván Gil issued a statement accusing Guyana of conducting joint military operations with the United States in the Essequibo Strip to protect foreign, largely U.S.-based energy companies wrongfully exploiting resources in disputed territorial waters. However, Guyana's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hugh Todd, denied any allegations of military expansion in the Essequibo Strip, blaming his Venezuelan counterpart for spreading disinformation and false accusations to sway domestic and international public opinion in favor of Venezuelan claims.
It is very likely that the December 3 referendum will take place. The validity of the outcome of the referendum is hard to prove due to the lack of transparency of the Maduro regime. The referendum on Guyana Essequibo comes at a very delicate time for Venezuelan domestic politics. Maduro would seem compelled to grant the opposition to the promised electoral improvements, especially to maintain the advantages of U.S. sanctions lifted. Yet, the deadline for implementing electoral and democratic concessions, set for late November, is approaching, and no electoral reforms or improvements have been put in place.