Venezuelans voted in a nonbinding referendum on Sunday that the government hopes will strengthen its century-old claim to the oil-rich Essequibo territory controlled by neighboring Guyana.
Voter turnout was low in districts visited by AFP journalists in Caracas and elsewhere, but election officials kept polling stations open for an additional two hours until 8:00 pm (0000 GMT).
The results of the vote, which has raised fears in Guyana and around the region about Venezuela’s ultimate intentions, are expected as early as Monday.
“Essequibo is ours!” The posters are plastered on walls in the streets of Caracas as part of an intense campaign by the government of leftist President Nicolás Maduro, who is running for re-election next year.
“We firmly believe that Essequibo is ours. It’s always been ours,” said 68-year-old Mariela Camero.
But in Guyana, thousands of people, some of them wearing T-shirts saying “Essequibo is from Guyana,” formed human chains in solidarity with their government and their president’s assurances that the country’s borders were secure.
“Participation is a bit slow,” a local election official said in the afternoon in a Caracas suburb, speaking on condition of anonymity. “So far we’ve seen about 30 percent of the vote.”
Maduro’s government has said it does not want to justify the occupation or annexation of large swaths of territory, as some fear in the former British colony of Guyana.
Regardless of the outcome of the referendum of some 20 million eligible Venezuelans, little will change in the short term: the Essequibo people did not vote, and the referendum is lopsided.
But tensions have been rising since Guyana bid for several offshore oil exploration blocks in September, and after a major new discovery was announced in October. Its petroleum reserves are similar to those of Kuwait, which has the highest per capita reserves in the world.
Meanwhile, Maduro’s government has sharpened its rhetoric and conducted military exercises in the region.
Guyana’s President Irfan Ali on Sunday said the government is working to secure the country’s borders and keep people safe.
“I want to assure Guyanese that there is nothing to fear,” Ali said in an address on Facebook.
Venezuela has claimed much of Essequibo’s territory for decades — although its 160,000 square kilometers (62,000 square miles) represent more than two-thirds of Guyana’s, its population of 125,000 is a fifth of Guyana’s total.
Caracas argues that the Essequibo River to the east of the region, as declared in 1777 under Spanish rule, is the natural border between the two countries and that Britain wrongfully acquired Venezuelan lands in the 19th century.
However, Guyana maintains that the boundary was established during the British colonial period and confirmed by the Court of Arbitration in 1899. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s highest judicial body, has upheld this finding.
Guyana asked the ICJ to ban the referendum. But while the court urged Caracas on Friday not to take any action that could affect the disputed territory, it did not specify the move.
– Five Questions –
The referendum included five questions, including proposals to create the Venezuelan province of “Guyana Essequibo,” granting citizens Venezuelan citizenship, and a call to reject the jurisdiction of the ICJ.
Maduro’s government is hoping for an overwhelming “yes” vote.
The referendum will “probably produce the result that Maduro wanted,” Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said from Dubai, where he was attending the COP28 environmental conference. But “hope good sense prevails.”
In Venezuela, opposition politician María Corina Machado, who hopes to run against Maduro in next year’s election, called the vote a “distraction”.
And in Guyana, some locals don’t vote.
Dilip Singh, a businessman who lives in the disputed region, said: “For Venezuela, the referendum may be important to them – not to us.
“I grew up in Essequibo,” he said, “and the Spanish have never occupied it—never at any time in our history… Now it is free, and it always will be.”