Hoping that good sense will prevail in Venezuela today
It was obvious, from the voting rehearsals held last week in Venezuela, that the Nicolás Maduro Administration will today embark on its referendum that has sparked great concern in neighbouring Guyana, the wider Caribbean and across the Commonwealth.
How the Venezuelan people will vote is left to be seen, but we have no doubt that Mr Maduro is using this plebiscite to measure his Government’s strength ahead of elections next year and to encourage the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to give Venezuela full rights over the oil-rich Essequibo region which has been the source of a border dispute between Caracas and Georgetown for more than a century.
The disputed territory makes up more than two-thirds of Guyana and, according to a decade-old census, is home to 125,000 of that country’s 800,000 residents.
Guyana has argued that its border with Venezuela was fixed by an arbitration tribunal in 1899. But Venezuela insists that the Essequibo River to the east of the region forms a natural frontier recognised at the time of independence from Spain.
The dispute intensified after ExxonMobil’s first oil discovery there eight years ago. It escalated in October after Guyana announced a “significant” new oil discovery in the Essequibo region and that it has awarded bids to eight companies to drill for crude.
In response, Mr Maduro and his Government arranged a referendum for today in which Venezuelans are being asked to approve the creation of a new Venezuelan State in the Essequibo region to include “the granting of citizenship and Venezuelan identity cards in accordance with the Geneva Agreement and international law”.
The referendum also asks Venezuelans to say whether the Government should continue to recognise the ICJ, even though the Venezuelan Government has said it does not recognise the court’s jurisdiction over the dispute.
The hypocrisy of that position was made bare on Friday by the response of Venezuela’s Vice-President Ms Delcy Rodríguez after the ICJ — ruling on Guyana’s application to “urgently” order a halt to parts of the vote — told Venezuela not to take any action that would alter Guyana’s control over the disputed territory.
According to Ms Rodríguez, the ruling was a “victory for Venezuela”, as the court did not specifically ban Venezuela from holding the referendum. A most laughable statement coming from a regime that has no regard for the court and, it appears, no respect for international law.
The court’s president, Ms Joan Donoghue, has said that Friday’s order was necessary because “Venezuela’s expressed readiness to take action” on the disputed territory “at any moment following the referendum” showed that there is “a real and imminent risk of irreparable prejudice to Guyana’s plausible right before the court gives its final decision”.
That decision, we are told, could take years. So Mr Maduro, true to his history of autocratic behaviour, seems set on using force to settle this matter.
Although Ms Rodríguez has said that a recent military mobilisation along the Venezuela/Guyana border was to prepare for the referendum, the international community cannot ignore the Maduro Government’s sabre-rattling rhetoric in recent weeks. We are also unable to accept Ms Rodríguez’s claim as true as her Government has said that Venezuelan soldiers were deployed to the border region to combat illegal mining.
Hopefully, good sense will prevail today in Venezuela as Mr Maduro appears determined to make that beautiful country an outcast.