CARACAS/GEORGETOWN, Dec 3 (Reuters) – Voters in Venezuela rejected International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction over the country’s territorial dispute with Guyana and backed the creation of a new state in the potentially oil-rich Essequibo region in a referendum on Sunday.
The court this week barred Venezuela from taking any action that would change the status quo in the area, which is the subject of an active case before the International Court of Justice, but President Nicolas Maduro’s government went ahead with a five-question “consultative” referendum.
All questions passed with more than 95 percent approval, according to Electoral Commission President Elvis Amoroso, who said at least 10.5 million yes votes were cast, but did not confirm the number of people who voted.
Some political and security analysts 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 that it had jurisdiction, although a final decision on the matter could be years away. Venezuela said the issue should be resolved by both sides.
Maduro hailed the “total success” of the vote late Sunday.
“The Venezuelan people have spoken loud and clear,” he told the jubilant crowd.
At issue is a region of 160,000 square kilometers (61,776 square miles) that is mostly dense jungle. Venezuela has renewed its claim to the territory in recent years following the discovery of oil and gas offshore.
“The goal of (Maduro’s) government is to send a message of strength to Guyana,” said Central University of Venezuela politics professor Ricardo Sucre, adding that Maduro is also thinking about potential oil and gas developments.
The maritime border between the two countries is also disputed.
There was no organized campaign against the referendum and analysts expected voters opposed to it to stay home.
There are more than 20 million eligible voters in Venezuela.
Reuters witnesses visited polling centers across the country – many with few or no people waiting in line.
In Maracaibo, in the oil-rich state of Sulia, polling officials told Reuters voter turnout was low.
“We must vote to defend our nation because Esequibo belongs to us and we cannot leave it to the gringos (Americans),” said 80-year-old pensioner Carmen Pereira at a voting center in Caracas.
The authorities extended the voting by two hours.
“The government is holding the referendum for internal reasons,” said Benigno Alarcon, director of the Center for Political Studies at the Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. “He needs to test his election machine.
“If the opposition unites and there is a desire to participate (in the 2024 elections) by Venezuelans, Maduro is out,” security analyst Rocio San Miguel added. “He activated a conflict scenario” to perhaps stop the election.
Sunday’s vote caused concern in Guyana, with the government urging citizens to remain calm.
Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali took part in a patriotic rally on Sunday, joining hundreds of flag-waving supporters. He said Friday’s ICJ ruling prohibits Venezuela from “annexing or entering the territory of Guyana.”
Some in Georgetown expressed relief at the ICJ’s decision.
“I feel the court made the right decision … I can breathe a little easier now,” said vegetable vendor Kim Rampersaud, 41.
Brazil said on Wednesday it had stepped up “defensive actions” along its northern border amid the territorial dispute.
Reporting by Daisy Buitrago, Vivian Sequera and Mayela Armas in Caracas; Mariela Nava in Maracaibo; Myrceli Guanipa in Maracay; Tibisay Rosemary in Valencia; and Kiana Wilberg at Georgetown; Writing by Julia Simmes Cobb; Editing by Diane Craft and Stephen Coates
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Daisy reports on oil and energy and general news from Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. She is also interested in political and environmental reporting. Daisy has worked with Reuters in Caracas since 2001, where she began covering violent anti-government protests, the death of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and problems at state oil company PDVSA, among other topics. She loves animals like dogs and cats! Contact: +584241334490