On Sunday, voters in Venezuela will participate in a referendum about Essequibo, a territory that comprises roughly 60% of the total territory of Guyana (the portions of Guyana to the West of the Essequibo river). This territorial dispute is older than either of the States involved in it today. When Spain created the Captaincy General of Venezuela in 1777, they claimed all territory West of the river, which was not recognized by the Dutch, the then-colonizers of modern-Day Guyana. The Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1814 transferred all Dutch colonies in the region, including modern day Guyana, to the British. The modern territorial dispute began five years later with the formation of Gran Colombia (of which Venezuela is a successor state), which maintained the Spanish claims of the previous century. The territorial dispute in the largely impenetrable and densely forested region continued mostly uneventfully throughout the 19th century, heating up again in the 1870’s after the discovery of gold, and the competing and contradictory territorial claims led to a severing of diplomatic relations between Venezuela and Britain in 1887. In 1895, Venezuela employed the Nashville-born American diplomat William Lindsay Scruggs to press the United States to intervene in the dispute on Venezuela’s behalf, citing the Monroe doctrine. Scruggs pressed Venezuela’s case in both Congress and the Cleveland administration, promoting Venezuela’s cause with a widely circulated pamphlet entitled “British Aggressions in Venezuela: The Monroe Doctrine on Trial.”
Scruggs was successful in placing his patron’s complaint on the political agenda in the United States, but not in obtaining the desired final result. By 1895, Cleveland was openly championing Venezuela’s cause, warning Congress that war with the British was a real possibility. This rather absurd outcome was, of course, avoided, as the US and British agreed to an arbitration proceeding, to take place in Paris in 1899. The arbitration panel, comprised of 2 British and 2 American appointees, and one presumptively neutral Russian appointee, ruled largely in favor of the British, granting on a tiny piece of disputed territory to the Venezuelans. Venezuela was outraged, claiming the Czar’s appointee had been unduly influenced by the British, but the dispute went cold again until 1962. (Venezuelan dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez had been plotting an invasion in 1958, but was pre-empted by an untimely coup d’état.) Now in possession of a document authored by recently deceased diplomat they believed provided evidence of shenanigans that rendered the arbitration invalid, Venezuela pressed their case at the United Nations, leading to the Geneva agreement of 1966, officially an “agreement to resolve the controversy” between the British and the Venezuelans, subsequently joined by the Republic of Guyana, which obtained its independence from the UK later that year. The commission created by this treaty did not produce a mutually satisfactory result; in 1970 it was renewed for 12 years, with predictable inaction. It was not extended in 1983, leading to yet another impasse. To Venezuela’s frustration, the 1899 border, with the momentum of the status quo behind it, persisted.
We’re now almost up to Sunday’s vote. On Sunday, Venezuelan voters will, ostensibly, vote on the future of the Essequibo claim–whether to make it Venezuela’s 24th state one way or another. Why is Maduro pressing this issue now? The answer may not surprise you:
Venezuela’s commitment to pursue the territorial claim has fluctuated over the years. Its interest piqued again in 2015 when ExxonMobil announced it had found oil in commercial quantities off the Essequibo coast.
The referendum is, of course, utterly lawless, and the International Court of Justice has issued a declaration to that effect, asserting that “The court observes that the situation that currently prevails in the territory in dispute is that Guyana administers and exercises control over that area.” This article discusses the vote from the perspective of the actual residents of the sparsely populated territory: largely indigenous peoples who have little affinity for or connection to Guyana or Venezuela, but have fought for their autonomy within the democratic Republic of Guyana, and are rightly troubled by the prospect of non-voluntary incorporation into different and decidedly less democratic political entity:
The latest chapter on the dispute has sowed anger among area residents, the majority of whom are Indigenous people, against Guyana’s government. Information on the referendum has reached them mostly through inaccurate social media posts that have only created confusion among the Guyanese.
“We feel neglected as the people of this land. Nothing is being done for us at the moment,” said Michael Williams, an Indigenous leader for the Essequibo village of Annai. “The government (…) only comes when they want our votes. Now, there’s this dispute. Nobody is here to tell us, ‘These are the issues. This may come. Let us prepare for it. We are negotiating. We hope for the best.’ Nobody is coming to tell us that.”
Meanwhile, another ruling party lawmaker (in Venezuela), William Fariñas, has claimed “Essequibans” already “feel Venezuelan.” That, however, could not be further from the truth. People in Essequibo are proud of their Indigenous heritage. They point to the names of landmarks, given in their native language, as an example of why they believe the region never belonged to Venezuela. And they insist they do not want their lives disrupted by the referendum.
Essequibo resident Jacqueline Allicock has one question for Venezuelan voters: “Why would you want to take away something that doesn’t belong to you?”
As I imagine is obvious to most readers, the concern about this election should probably be less about the outcome–presumably Maduro wouldn’t be moving forward if he weren’t confident he’ll get the result he wants–than what Venezuela might use the election to justify doing. Should Maduro view his patron in Moscow as a role model, this could get ugly in the near future.