Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro seems to be in something of a political pickle. On Sunday, he held a referendum on whether or not Venezuela should annex Essequibo, a dense jungle region which makes up two-thirds of neighbouring Guyana. In the end, 95 per cent voted to support Venezuela’s claim to the land (Maduro hailed this as an ‘overwhelming victory’) but turnout was at best, lacklustre.
‘The people have spoken loud and clear,’ Maduro bellowed after the result in a televised statement, in front of a map which placed Essequibo inside Venezuela. But it’s the people who decided not to speak on Sunday that have placed him in difficulty.
It’s not exactly a surprise that Venezuelans voted to lay claim to Essequibo. It is perhaps the only topic – along with football – that truly unites the country and cuts across its political divides. Venezuelans have believed the territory belongs to them since they achieved independence in 1811 (in 1899, an international tribunal awarded the territory to Britain, which ruled British Guiana). In 2004, Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez said that he considered the issue to be settled. But that was before vast quantities of oil off Guyana’s coastline were discovered – and Venezuela’s own oil industry collapsed.
Still, this referendum was less about expansionist policies and more of a political litmus test for Maduro ahead of next year’s presidential vote. The socialist leader’s support has, unsurprisingly, been faltering in recent years. He’s overseen what was once the richest country in South America – due to its abundant oil reserves – plunge into economic and humanitarian oblivion, with sky high inflation, grim poverty rates and one of the largest migration crises in the world.
So for Maduro, this was a chance to see the strength of his base – and gauge how rocky the road towards the 2024 presidency would be.