Venezuela's government wins vote on claiming part of Guyana, but turnout seems lackluster

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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during the notification ceremony for the referendum about the future of a disputed territory with Guyana, in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Dec. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

CARACAS – Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro got the victory he sought in a weekend referendum on whether to claim sovereignty over an oil-rich area of neighboring Guyana. But lackluster turnout suggested his government is losing influence and is tone deaf to people’s needs.

Maduro’s government had promoted the referendum for weeks as a unifying act of patriotism, including with theater performances and reggaeton music.

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Venezuela's National Electoral Council on Monday reported participation in the referendum of about 10.5 million voters, which would have been just over half of the 20.6 million eligible people. But those figures defied what people witnessed at voting centers, where long lines typical of Venezuelan elections never formed.

The vote centered around a vast territory known as Essequibo, which Venezuelans have long argued was stolen from them when the border with present-day Guyana was drawn more than a century ago. Maduro’s government still had not explained as of Monday what actions it might take to enforce results of the vote.

Guyana denounced the referendum as pretext to annex the land. It had appealed to the International Court of Justice, the United Nations' top court, which on Friday ordered Venezuela not to take any action to change the status quo until the panel can rule on the two countries' competing claims, which could take years.

José Luis Cova, 45, who lives near two voting centers in Caracas, the capital, said polling stations were empty.

“Everything they said is a lie because I passed by several centers and everything was always empty. I don’t know where they got that number of people who supposedly voted for the Essequibo," Cova said.

Venezuelan voters were asked whether to support establishing a state in Essequibo, grant citizenship to its residents and reject the U.N. court's jurisdiction in the dispute.

Maduro described the vote as a success during a 50-minute speech Monday.

In a tour of Caracas voting centers by The Associated Press, lines of about 30 people could be seen at some of them, while at others there were no lines — even in areas long considered strongholds of Chavismo, the political movement started by Maduro’s mentor and predecessor Hugo Chávez. That contrasted with previous elections when hundreds of people gathered outside voting centers.

Geoff Ramsey, senior analyst on Venezuela at the Atlantic Council think tank, said the less-than-robust turnout was a bad sign for the government.

“This is shaping up to be a historic defeat for the government’s ability to get out the vote, which will have huge ramifications for next year’s presidential elections,” Ramsey said. “This is a political earthquake inside the governing coalition. For years, Chavismo has prided itself on its ability to mobilize its voters, even as the movement’s popularity faded.”

Looking at the presidential election that Maduro and a faction of the opposition have agreed to hold in 2024, Ramsey said the president must now be asking himself: “Why risk a free election when even the ruling party faithful can’t be bothered to come out and vote?”

Maduro threw the full weight of his government into the effort. Essequibo-themed music, nationally televised history lessons, murals, rallies and social media content helped the government to divert people’s attention from other matters, such as the U.S. government's increasing pressure on Maduro to release political prisoners and guarantee a fair election next year.

Essequibo is larger than Greece and rich in minerals. The 61,600-square-mile (159,500-square-kilometer) territory accounts for two-thirds of Guyana and gives access to an area of the Atlantic where energy giant ExxonMobil discovered oil in commercial quantities in 2015.

Essequibo was within Venezuela's boundaries during the Spanish colonial period, and Caracas has long disputed the border decided by international arbitrators in 1899 when Guyana was still a British colony.

Venezuelan officials say the arbitrators conspired to cheat their country out of the land and argue that a 1966 agreement to resolve the dispute effectively nullified the original arbitration. Guyana maintains the initial accord is legal and binding.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose country borders a portion of Essequibo, said Monday that he hopes that “common sense prevails, on the side of Venezuela and Guyana.”

“What South America doesn’t need is confusion,” Lula said, adding that countries in the region should "not think about fighting, not think about making up stories.”

The referendum took place less than two months after a faction of Venezuela's opposition held a presidential primary without the government's assistance that surpassed participation expectations, including in pro-Chavismo neighborhoods.

Primary organizers reported that more than 2.4 million voters participated, a number that government officials declared mathematically impossible given the number of available voting centers and the time it would take a person cast a paper ballot in the opposition election.

State media minimized the lack of lines at voting centers Sunday, saying that the government's electronic voting system worked efficiently and the people cast ballots at a rapid rate. Maduro told supporters it took him only 15 seconds to vote.

Chris Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at the London-based Chatham House, said the government's use of the referendum to shift voters' attention away from the country's poverty and corrosive emigration was “a failure on all fronts” in part because the vote ended up underscoring Venezuelans' lack of faith in their electoral authorities.

“They clearly overplayed their hand,” Sabatini. “If part of their effort was to try to demonstrate the vibrancy of their electoral system, they are entering a whole new debate now because it doesn't look good to them. No one trusted it.”


Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.

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