With a low turnout of voters, the non-binding consultation proposed by Nicolás Maduro on the Essequibo, a territory administered today by Guyana but in dispute since colonial times, dawned. "I ask God to bless us so that election day will be a battle of light and peace for our people," said the revolutionary leader, who has flirted for weeks with turning this dispute into his own Venezuelan battles. Chavismo maintains that Guyana is a "de facto" occupier of the Essequibo.
These are the keys to a referendum that has put on alert not only the two countries that claim the territory and its projection in the Atlantic Ocean, but also the Caribbean and its Latin American neighbors.
The Spaniards, led by Alonso de Ojeda, began to explore the territory in 1499, before the Dutch and the English. In fact, the river that gives its name to the Essequibo was named in honour of another explorer, the Sevillian Juan de Esquivel, a surname difficult to pronounce for the natives, who called it Essequibo.
Guyana was colonized by the Dutch in 1616, but the British also took a stand in 1796. Both attacked the Spanish positions for years until the Treaty of Munster (1648) placed the Essequibo River as the border between the two. The Captaincy General of Venezuela counted among its territories the Essequibo, a territory located west of the river.
It would be in 1814 when the British took the Dutch colonies and added the Essequibo, ratified a year later by the Treaty of Vienna. London took advantage of the war of independence led by Simón Bolívar to plant its flag in the territory now in dispute, mostly jungle, "mountain and snake" as they say on the border. All these historical vicissitudes are key to understanding why Venezuela considers the Essequibo a part of its country ("The sun of Venezuela rises through the Essequibo!" shout the military), something that all Venezuelans believe in because that's how they were taught it in schools.
2.- Gran Colombia.
In 1825, the independence of the liberator Simón Bolívar unified Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador in Gran Colombia. The Essequibo was part of that dream of integration, which dissolved six years later. London took advantage and by officially creating British Guiana, imposed a new map on which the Essequibo was annexed. For decades it was a source of discord until the end of the century when the United States mediated and international arbitration with the Paris Award, which ruled in favor of British Guiana and which Caracas does not recognize.
3.- Independent Guyana
In 1966, independent Guyana was born, recognized by Venezuela, although the dispute over the almost 160,000 square kilometers west of the Essequibo River remained. With the Geneva Agreement, Guyanese administration was prolonged, and both sides committed themselves to a peaceful settlement.
4.- The oblivion of Chávez
For two decades, Chavismo forgot about the claim to the Essequibo. First, because Fidel Castro, Guyana's historic ally, asked the "supreme commander" to do so. And second, because Chávez opted to get the votes of the fifteen countries that make up the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), fundamental in the Organization of American States (OAS) and the UN. On his visit to Guyana in 2004, Chávez blamed Washington for the historic disputes and authorized the Georgetown government to exploit minerals and search for oil. Since 2013, Maduro has continued the same policy as his political godfather.
The U.S.-based ExxonMobil has begun its exploration and finds oil in the Essequibo maritime area, which is also under discussion. But the discovery is historic, with reserves estimated at more than 11,000 million barrels. Guyana is currently witnessing the greatest economic miracle on the planet, with its GDP expected to grow by more than 20% over several years.
Saudi Guiana, which used to be the poorest country in the region, is a fact for experts, who calculate that the production of black gold in Guyana will exceed that of Venezuela in a few years, above one million barrels in a country that does not reach one million inhabitants. At the same time, the UN decided that its main court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, will settle the dispute. In its ruling in April of this year, it initially agrees with Guyana. The final ruling is expected next year.
6.- The Five Questions
Chavismo took advantage of the national situation to impose a non-binding consultation of five questions, among which is the disregard of the ICJ and, above all, the most worrying, the one that proposes the creation of a state (region) called Guyana Esequiba, which would be annexed by Caracas. In principle, Maduro seeks to increase his popular support ahead of next year's presidential elections and dynamite the opposition after the irruption of María Corina Machado.
7.- The campaign
Maduro has turned the million-dollar campaign on the Essequibo into a great act of patriotic fervor, in which warmongering threats have been mixed. Georgetown has responded by announcing that it will install military bases, presumably from the United States, in the territory in question. Chavismo plays with accusing all those who do not respond to its nationalist call of treason.
8.- The Opposition
The new leader of the democratic opposition, María Corina Machado, was one of the great defenders of the Venezuelan Essequibo during the government of Chávez and Maduro. Now he has opted for the suspension of the referendum, in which he does not intend to participate. On the other hand, other leaders have bowed to the president's demands. While the social democrats Acción Democrática (AD) and Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) are betting on participating, the centrist Primero Justicia (PJ) granted freedom to its voters and Voluntad Popular (VP), the party of Leopoldo López and Juan Guaidó, has been against going to the polls.
9.- International support
Chavismo is more alone than ever in international affairs, where it does not even count on Cuba and China. On the other hand, Guyana adds the support of the US, Caricom, the OAS, the Commonwealth and the United Kingdom and with the silence of Maduro's classic allies. Brazil, which shares borders with both countries, has expressed concern about the militaristic escalation.
10.- The consequences
Regardless of how Bolivarian propaganda translates participation at the polls, analysts predict that Maduro will prolong the conflict with Guyana to decree a state of emergency if necessary to suspend the presidential elections. There are also fears that the supposed patriotic fervor will be exploited to persecute the Democrats. Some do believe that the threat of invasion is imminent.