Venezuelans voted on Sunday in a non-binding referendum that the government hopes will strengthen its century-long claim to the oil-rich Essequibo region controlled by neighboring Guyana.
Turnout appeared weak in areas visited by AFP journalists in Caracas and elsewhere, but election officials kept polling stations open for an additional two hours, until 8 p.m. (0000 GMT), to allow people already in the centers to cast their votes.
Results are expected early Monday in the referendum, which has raised concerns in Guyana and across the region about Venezuela’s ultimate intentions over the disputed region.
“Essequibo is ours!” Posters pasted on walls in the streets of Caracas say this, as part of an intense campaign by the government of President Nicolas Maduro, a leftist who is seeking re-election next year.
“We are convinced that Essequibo is ours. It has always been ours,” said Mariela Camero, 68, who voted in a working-class area of Caracas.
But in Guyana, thousands of people, some wearing T-shirts reading “Essequibo belongs to Guyana,” formed human chains in solidarity with their government, and their president offered assurances that the country’s borders were secure.
“Participation is a little slow,” a local election official said in the early afternoon in a suburb of Caracas, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’ve seen about a 30 percent turnout so far.”
Maduro’s government has said it is not seeking a justification to invade or annex vast territories, as some in Guyana, a former British colony, fear.
Regardless of the outcome of the vote by some 20 million eligible Venezuelans, little will change in the short term: the people of Essequibo will not vote, and the referendum is non-binding.
But tensions have escalated since Guyana bid last September for several offshore oil exploration blocks, and after a major new discovery was announced in October. Its oil reserves are similar to those of Kuwait, which has the highest per capita reserves in the world.
At the same time, Maduro’s government has escalated its rhetoric and conducted military exercises in the region.
Guyanese President Irfaan Ali said on Sunday that the government was working to protect the country’s borders and keep people safe.
“I want to assure Guyanese that there is nothing to be afraid of,” Ali said in a letter posted on Facebook.
Venezuela has claimed the vast Essequibo province for decades — even though its 160,000 square kilometers (62,000 square miles) are more than two-thirds the size of Guyana, and its population of 125,000 makes up a fifth of Guyana’s total.
Caracas asserts that the Essequibo River to the east of the region is the natural border between the two countries, as it was declared in 1777 under Spanish rule, and that Britain wrongly seized Venezuelan lands in the nineteenth century.
However, Guyana maintains that the border was demarcated in the British colonial era and was confirmed in 1899 by an arbitration court. It says that the International Court of Justice, the highest judicial body in the United Nations, has ratified this finding.
Guyana asked the International Court of Justice to prevent the referendum. But while the court on Friday urged Caracas not to take any action that might affect the disputed area, it did not mention such action.
The referendum covers five questions, including proposals to create a Venezuelan province called “Guiana Essequibo,” granting its residents Venezuelan citizenship, as well as a call to reject the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.
Maduro’s government expects an overwhelming “yes” vote.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said from Dubai, where he is attending the COP28 environment conference, that the referendum “will likely lead to the result that Maduro desires.” But “I hope common sense will prevail.”
In Venezuela, Maria Corina Machado, an opposition politician who hopes to run against Maduro in next year’s elections, called the referendum a “distraction.”
In Guyana, some locals downplayed the importance of voting.
“Maybe the referendum is important for them, for Venezuela, but not for us,” said Dilip Singh, a businessman who lives in the disputed region.
“I grew up in Essequibo,” he said, adding: “It was never occupied by the Spanish – not at any time in our history… Now it is independent, and it always will be.”
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