Frederico Parra Agence France-Presse In Caracas, Tuesday, Venezuelans march in front of a mural promoting the annexation of the Essequibo region, seen to the southeast of the map depicted.
Venezuela confirmed Friday that it will hold a referendum on Sunday on Essequibo, an oil-rich region administered by Guyana, despite injunctions from the highest UN court to refrain from any change to the status quo on this disputed area.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ), which sits in The Hague, has ordered Caracas to “refrain from taking any action which would modify the situation prevailing in the territory in dispute”, without mentioning, however, in its urgent measure the referendum .
Shortly after, Caracas confirmed its holding on Sunday: “Nothing in international law allows the Court to interfere in the internal affairs of Venezuela, nor to claim to prohibit or modify a sovereign act,” said Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, assuring that Venezuela “will continue all preparations for holding the consultative referendum.”
President Nicolas Maduro spoke of “a historic beating” for Guyana during the closing of the referendum campaign in Caracas, in front of thousands of people gathered in the center of Caracas.
Venezuela has been making demands for decades this area of 160,000 km2 representing more than two thirds of Guyana's territory and where approximately one fifth of its population lives, or some 125,000 people.
The referendum in 5 questions, the result of which is beyond doubt, asks Venezuelans in particular if they agree not to recognize the jurisdiction of the ICJ, precisely, to refuse an 1899 agreement which would have been “imposed on them fraudulent manner” and to integrate the territory into Venezuela.
“You have to answer yes five times,” President Maduro insisted.
In hearings earlier this month before the court, Guyana found that the vote constituted an “existential threat.”
The country thus asked the court to force Venezuela to “urgently” stop the referendum “in its current form” and to refrain from any action aimed at taking control of the territory.
Guyanese President Irfaan Ali noted that for the ICJ “Venezuela has no right to annex or invade Guyanese territory or take other measures, regardless of the outcome of the referendum of December 3.”
Venezuela's claim has become even hotter since the discovery of oil in the Essequibo by ExxonMobil in 2015.
A major new discovery of black gold was made last month in the region, adding at least ten billion barrels to Guyana's reserves, more than those of Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates.
Guyana has the largest oil reserves per capita in the world. Venezuela, for its part, has the largest proven reserves on the planet.
“Country of peace”
The ICJ rules on disputes between states, but while its decisions are legally binding, it does not have the power to enforce them.
Guyana believes this referendum may prompt Venezuela to seize of the Essequibo and to annex it in a “unilateral and illegal” manner. He accuses it of having launched military preparations in this direction, which Caracas denies.
Asked what people in the region could expect after Sunday's vote, Ms. Rodriguez assured AFP: “They know that Venezuela is a country of peace.”
Brazil declared itself “concerned” by the “climate of tension between two neighboring and friendly countries” and announced “an increased military presence” on its northern border.
In the United States, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby appealed for a peaceful resolution to the dispute, calling for “respect” for the 1899 decision “unless the parties can reach a new agreement or the International Court of Justice decides otherwise.”