In Venezuela polling stations are open for the referendum on Esequibo territory, rich in precious natural resources and disputed with Guyana. The Venezuelan National Electoral Council (Cne) has activated 15.857 voting centers and called 20.694.124 citizens registered in the electoral register to the polls. The president of the electoral body, Elvis Amoroso, specified that 139.227 people are involved in the management of the referendum. Since Wednesday, 356.513 members of the National Armed Forces have been deployed across the country to man polling stations. The security plan also includes 51.778 police officers. Furthermore, a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages, the carrying of weapons and public gatherings was imposed from 4 to 1.200 December. There are also XNUMX prosecutors monitoring the operations and the attorney general, Tarek William Saab, has activated a telephone line for any complaints.
The polls opened at 6 am and will close at 18 pm (local time). Voters are asked to answer five questions. Voters are asked whether they agree to reject the line imposed by the Paris arbitration award of 1899; if they support the Geneva Agreement of 1966 as the only valid legal instrument; if they agree not to recognize the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice; if they oppose Guyana's claim to unilaterally dispose of a sea awaiting delimitation and, finally, if they favor the creation of a territory called Guayana Esequiba.
The territory at the center of the dispute is an area of 159.500 square kilometers that Guyana has incorporated within its borders but whose sovereignty is claimed by Venezuela. Georgetown defends a territorial boundary established in 1899 by an arbitral tribunal in Paris, when Guyana was still a British colony. Caracas claims the Geneva Agreement, signed in 1966 with the United Kingdom before Guyana's independence, which laid the foundations for a negotiated solution and annulled the 1899 treaty. The issue of sovereignty returned to the fore in 2015, when the US giant Exxon Mobil announced the discovery of oil deposits in the maritime area. Guyana's subsequent announcement of a series of oil auctions – which Venezuela sees as evidence of US interference – sparked controversy. Caracas has launched a political and media offensive, as well as a judicial one, with an investigation opened by the Attorney General into a criminal complaint against the president of Guyana, Mohamed Irfaan Ali.
Despite Venezuela's opposition, which initially only admitted the possibility of bilateral arbitration, the case has been in the hands of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) since 2018. Rejecting a series of objections from Caracas, the UN tribunal confirmed that it has the qualifications to decide on the dispute. The International Court of Justice has ordered Venezuela's government to refrain from taking actions that could increase tension over the Esequibo territory case. The Court, which will then have to decide on the merits of the matter, was specifically called upon to rule on Bridgetown's request to suspend the calling of the consultative referendum called by Caracas.
The IGC unanimously approved a motion that Venezuela should “refrain from any action that modifies the situation currently prevailing in the territory, according to which the Cooperative Republic of Guyana administers and exercises control over the area,” as stated in the ruling. At the same time, faced with escalating tensions, both sides "should avoid any action that could aggravate or extend the dispute before the Court, or make it more difficult to resolve." No explicit invitation to suspend the referendum but a clear warning to Caracas. There is "a serious risk that Venezuela will acquire and exercise control and administration of the disputed territory", is written in the ruling. The Court fears that any moves by Venezuela could "irreparably prejudice the rights of Guyana".
As regards the reactions of other countries in the region, the Brazilian Ministry of Defense in recent days made it known that it would strengthen the presence on the northern border, in strategic locations for access to the Esequibo territory, denouncing the intensification of military activities of Venezuela. Today Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva hoped for a reasonable solution: “What South America doesn't need is confusion. We can't keep thinking about fighting. I hope common sense prevails, both on the part of Venezuela and Guyana,” he said. The Caribbean Community in a statement published after the International Court of Justice ruling wrote that it expects Venezuela to respect it and not take actions in violation of international law. Furthermore, he appealed for the Caribbean to be respected as a "zone of peace" and the tranquility of the region not to be disturbed. The Venezuelan government "categorically" rejected the statement and accused the organization of having become "a dysfunctional and ideological structure, with destructive objectives and subservient to imperial interests".