CARACAS/GEORGETOWN (Reuters) : Voters in Venezuela rejected the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) jurisdiction over the country’s territorial dispute with Guyana and backed the creation of a new state in the potential oil-rich Esequibo region in a Sunday referendum.
The court this week barred Venezuela from taking any action which would change the status quo in the area, which is the subject of an active case before the ICJ, but President Nicolas Maduro’s government went ahead with a five-question “consultative” referendum.
All questions passed with more than 95% approval, according to electoral authority president Elvis Amoroso, who said at least 10.5 million votes were cast for ‘yes’ but did not confirm the number of voters.
Some political and security analysts have called the referendum a show of strength by Maduro and a test of support for his government ahead of a planned 2024 presidential election.
The court said in April it had jurisdiction, though a final ruling on the matter could be years away. Venezuela has said the issue should be resolved by the two countries.
Maduro cheered the “total success” of the vote late on Sunday.
“The Venezuelan people have spoken loudly and clearly,” he told a cheering crowd.
At issue is a 160,000 square km (61,776 square mile) region that is mostly thick jungle. Venezuela reactivated its claim over the territory in recent years after the discovery of offshore oil and gas.
“The purpose of (Maduro’s) government is to send a message of strength to Guyana,” Central University of Venezuela politics professor Ricardo Sucre said, adding Maduro is also thinking of potential oil and gas developments.
The maritime border between the two countries is also in dispute.
There was no organized campaign against the referendum and analysts expected voters who opposed it to stay home.
There are more than 20 million eligible voters in Venezuela.
Reuters witnesses visited voting centers across the country – many had few or no people waiting in line.
In Maracaibo, in the oil-rich state of Zulia, poll workers told Reuters that turnout was low.
“We have to vote for the defense of our nation because the Esequibo belongs to us and we can’t leave it to the gringos (Americans)” said 80-year-old retiree Carmen Pereira at a voting center in Caracas.
Authorities extended voting by two hours.
“The government is holding the referendum for internal reasons,” said Benigno Alarcon, director of the Center for Political Studies at Caracas’ Andres Bello Catholic University. “It needs to test its electoral machinery.”
“If the opposition joins together and there is a willingness to participate (in the 2024 election) by Venezuelans, Maduro is out,” added security analyst Rocio San Miguel. “He is activating a scenario of conflict” to perhaps suspend the election.
The Sunday vote has caused anxiety in Guyana, with the government urging citizens to keep calm.
Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali participated in a patriotic rally on Sunday, joining hundreds of flag-waving supporters. He has said the ICJ ruling on Friday prohibits Venezuela from “annexing or trespassing upon Guyanese territory”.
Some in Georgetown voiced relief after the ICJ decision.
“I feel the court made a right decision. … I can breathe a bit easy now,” said vegetable seller Kim Rampersaud, 41.
Brazil said on Wednesday it had intensified “defensive actions” along its northern border amid the territorial dispute.